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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Humdrum Hirelings and Dumb Followers


If you want to speak out against Cargo Cultism within science you should probably start by being someone like Richard Feynman, not a biotech laboratory worker. The leaders of biotech Cults may not fancy themselves as Cargo Cult leaders, rather real scientists like Feynman. Fools like me have a problem. Whereas the Cargo Cult leaders seem to lack that thing that makes science work, the common tribesman lacks that thing that influences others. Compare the following comments. The first comes from Douglas Fairbanks' book, "Laugh and Live":
Our natural aim is to make for ourselves a true personality that does not know defeat... How immeasurably inferior to such a spirit is the fellow who whines and moanes at every  evil twist of fortune. He has no confidence in himself an nothing else to do except confide his woes to all who will listen to his cowardly story of defeat. Such men are least useful in the important work of this world. They are the humdrum hirelings-the dumb followers. 
Next my friend from Allozyne:
Your posts are emblematic of someone who spends a lot of time complaining and little time actually working to try and make a positive impact a.k.a fighting the good fight. You couch yourself as a "leader" and yet your myopic POV is stark evidence that you have never sat at the "big boy" table nor been an influencer in any strategic decision... 

These two people, decades apart, separate vocations, never having met, would seem to put me and my philosophy in a nattering nabob category. A loser category. 

I was in fact a mere hireling. In my defence I am certain that I was hired to be a dumb follower. My attempts to alter that reality was met with great opposition. I turned to a simple blog to cleanse the mind. I've never thought of influencing anyone through this medium. To me this has been fun. Writing about the little things is enjoyable. Why does something like biotech, and scientific research in general, fail so often? It's fun to think that you might have a few thoughts on the subject. You are not just a humdrum hireling/dumb follower. In "Laugh and Live" Douglas Fairbanks offers up all kinds of advice on how to become the kind of fellow that was popular back in the early 1900's. In the Cargo Cult Scientist I offer up thoughts on a different kind of thinking. As Steve Jobs said, "Think differently". 

I came across an example of scientific/mathematic thinking that I think is important to this blog. Daniel Kahneman gives this simple puzzle to point out the battle between fast and slow thinking. "A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" The fast thinking mind comes up with the answer; ten cents. The correct answer is 5 cents. Think about it. I've come across this same mathematical error quite often among the tribesmen of biotech. For example, a one percent solution prepared by adding ten grams of solute to one a liter volume (not brought up to a 1 liter volume). It is a fast thinking error that is common. Does it matter? Is it complaining to suggest that fast (lazy) thinking is common in the life sciences.

In the above puzzle a common mistake is used to illustrate a bigger issue. An entire book from a Nobel prize winning scientist is dedicated to the subject. "Thinking Fast and Slow" should be required reading for anyone conducting research. You may think you don't make simple errors that arise from thinking too fast. Chances are you occasionally do. I'm not being a nattering nabob on this issue. I make simple errors and I don't think it is negative. The ambitious person may cover up their mistakes. Every time I catch errors I feel I get better at preventing them in the future. I even offer the scenarios up for others to contemplate, much like the common "ball and bat" math mistake described above. Not only do I point out my own mistakes, without guilt of having made them, I tend to point out the errors of others. I don't see the downside, perhaps because I have an un-diagnosed case of Asbergers. It is not the specific error or who made the error that attracts my attention, but the type of error that is made. If it is common we can train ourselves to be on the lookout. 

My response to Douglas Fairbanks and my Alloyzne friend would be that science requires a different kind of person. It requires people who prefer to think slowly and carefully. People who think slow are valuable people in the world of science. People who think fast are great in movie audiences or investor meetings. In science however we run the risk of promoting the "humdrum hirelings/dumb followers" because they are best at thinking fast and being a good follower. They don't know defeat... but they should. They may be too dumb to know they've failed. In science we know defeat. It is a small child dying of cancer or the grandmother/mother/sister/wife with Alzheimers. We have never tasted the success of a Douglas Fairbanks and his rise to Hollywood elite. We've never sat at the big boy table at Allozyne. We just don't care about those kinds of things. We want to succeed at something else.

My Allozyne detractor is someone I'd like to hear from again. I've taken his comments to heart. I've had the very same ideas leveled against me by a silent movie actor who died in 1939. I hear what they are saying. Am I a loser? That's rhetorical. In many ways the answer is yes. I am a bad fast thinker and a very slow thinker in general. It takes me a while to grasp the meaning of things.

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James Randi once created a fake guru to fool the people of Australia. He trained a young man to get on stage and talk to dead people and bend spoons and so on. At the end of the experiment they told the people that the young man was scamming them. The people didn't care. Many still believed in the young man. They wanted to believe the young man. Randi failed to demonstrate to his audience that they were easily fooled. He failed! I think of my failures in the same way. Perhaps I am right about this cargo cult thing. Maybe I am too harsh and there are degrees of CCS to this business. But this is not what people want to hear. The truth, even in the scientific community, is not as influential as more pleasant explanations.

Whether or not I could explain that the correct answer to the "Thinking Fast and Slow" example above to someone who doesn't think it matters, the fact remains that the answer is five cents. I may fail to convince others but I have a way of getting to the truth. That is what I consider success. 


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