Science is hard

contractThis is part of a series of posts describing science in terms of a new social contract with clauses and expectations of both scientists and society. The links for all of the posts so far can be found on the ‘highlights’ page. So if you are interested, start there to get the complete contract.

 

In my original post about a new social contract for science and society, I didn’t go into too many practical details as to how to make these terms work for all of us. So let’s dig a little deeper into this one…

“but please have patience with us because this is difficult work, both the actual science part and the communication part.”

Science is hard. There’s just no other way to put it. As scientists, our curiosity drives us to pursue the next experiment and ponder over the minutiae of our physical world, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy road. In the sciences, getting to the PhD level is seen as a hurdle that must be overcome to acquire independence. It takes a lot of discipline and endurance to achieve these letters. There is a whole body of information about their research area that students must learn. Students of science must also learn to tame their curiosity somewhat so that it conforms to the scientific method. (Remember, experiments should always include controls.) Yet, after all of the effort to get to this point, scientists (yes, even PhDs) aren’t really standing on a mountaintop looking down on the world with a new vantage point. Instead, we find ourselves at the edge of an abyss. We have reached the end of human knowledge. There is no more solid ground of verified truth in front of us- only a great magnitude of darkness that is the unknown.

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” ― Albert Einstein

“Basic research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I am doing.” ― Wernher Von Braun

So, like any worthy explorers, we look back briefly at prior research and then we engineer our course forward. We step out over the abyss with our hypotheses as abutments and experimental methods as piers and piles. Before falling too far off into the darkness of the unknown, our results appear, catching us and forming girders. These support our final conclusions thereby solidifying the bridge segment we have constructed from the edge of human knowledge. The process only appears rigorous and solid, but we are actually working in a void where imagination is required to project substance beyond our current reality. In short, this is an elaborate way of saying we don’t always know how our bridges will manifest themselves and where they may take us. All the while, we as scientists are struggling against the downward gravitational pull of the unknown.

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ― Albert Einstein

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” ― Niels Bohr

“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” ― Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth

As the quotes imply above, this journey/engineering project is filled with mistakes. Some of them are useful in their results; others only in what they teach us to avoid in the future. No, really. Maybe you should check out some of the catastrophes, mishaps and more that scientists have been confessing on social media this week under #sciconfessions*. The bluntness of some of these confessions would lead one to believe a new gospel was afoot telling us all to repent on Twitter for the time is near. I guess the weight of these research sins has finally made us fear being held accountable for them. I doubt it is as spiritual as that, but confession is cleansing and the time has come for scientists to be seen as real humans again.

Maybe from the outside, scientists appear more perfect, more like those conquerors of mountaintops. Some of us would even like this to be the truth and put up elaborate facades of perfectionism in order to perpetuate this myth (or to get tenure).** The reality is that we are merely stumbling forward like newborn foals; it isn’t very pretty, but it is still an exhilarating accomplisment. So please, be patient with scientists because it is difficult work in and of itself to pursue this adventure, and even more so, to aptly narrate it for everyone else.***

Johnna

* My favorite sciconfession (From @JellyCat23): Be very careful with surgical super glue. It’s easier than you think to attach a mouse to yourself. #sciconfessions #CloseCall #HeWasFine

** For other perspectives on the illusion of perfectionism, its ugly step-sister ‘imposter syndrome’ and their potentially debilitating consequences, check out these posts by other bloggers:

http://postdocstreet.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/crack/

http://postdocstreet.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/switch/

http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university-venus/how-i-cured-my-imposter-syndrome

http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=47930

*** I’ve already mentioned that we scientists will still be working to get better with those narratives too.

References:

http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/9810.Albert_Einstein

http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/283265.Wernher_Von_Braun

http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/science

Bridge engineering terms: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/tnbhistory/lessons/terms.htm

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