Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Mediocrity Codex: Volume I, Issue I
Section III: the ambiguity of scientific outcomes

My very first experiences with science as a discipline were not unlike many young children, I’m sure. In a classroom, in front of a teacher, from a book, with pencil and paper poised and ready.

You’re told that there’s a right answer. You’re told that it’s a simple step-by-step path from Point A to Point B. And then you’re off. A train is traveling from Chicago to Boston at 50 miles per hour. Another train leaves Boston 2 hours later traveling at 70 miles per hour. When will both trains crash in spectacular fashion and how many bodies will be ejected from their shattered husks? And what will their sons and daughters think?

Of course, the answer is simple. Point B, your mind shouts. Point B! But along the way I got lost somewhere. Somewhere between Point A and Point B, I got caught up looking for stinkbugs and goldfish. And all I found was a piece of dirty pocket lint stuck to the inside of my hooded sweater pocket. That was my Point B.

The marvelous thing about this whole experience of course is that even now, at this point in my life, I’ve correctly learned the method of science. The scientific method is an appendage of necessity. And to this day I continue to believe that science will lead me from Point A to Point B, with undeniable certainty. Who the hell was my science teacher? Somebody give that guy a medal.

But then, I realize that science is a messy business. I have worked now for over a year as a lab slave in one of the country’s most prestigious developmental biology research programs; conducting, analyzing, and recording experiments and data in the hopes of discovering something new about the process of wound healing and scar formation. From the wealth of information preceding me and my principal investigator, we attempt, based on our own and other’s hypotheses, to design and conduct experiments that will demonstrate a consistently replicable result hoping to be able to say, “Ah-ha! By a series of known events and measurable and modifiable interactions, we can conclusively claim that this path will lead from Point A to Point B!”

It hasn’t happened yet.

It isn’t as sad as it sounds, though. During my experience, my PI has shared her travels from Point A with me. They’ve led to what many might consider a Point B, or even a Point B-esque location. To her, well, they are more akin to Point A version 1.1, or perhaps a “beta” version of Point B. Some have been enlightening, others discouraging. Some have even been interesting enough to make her entertain the thought of changing her Point A. But these various conclusions and results often don’t amount to much more than noise;  the journey continues to be a neverending series of encounters with stinkbugs, goldfish, and pocket lint.

So does Point B actually exist? It’s hard to say. There’s a good chance it does, and also a good chance it doesn’t. But the best explanation of it may be that it’s already come and gone, or even sitting right in front of us, hiding in plain sight among the haystacks of analysis and results accumulated over 20 years of (re)search. And to that I say, long live stinkbugs.