Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Relative vs. Absolute

One of the analysis programs I use gives you choices. At one point when you're choosing how to display your data, the choices basically come down to the title of this post. It doesn't change the result, just the scale and portability of the results.


Yes, my therapist means to help me. Yes, my advisor may (or may not) have (at least some) good intentions, too. Yes, the same could be said about my parents, who could also be said to have screwed up any number of things about my personality and ability to function in adult life.

This week I've been thinking again about how, while intentions are nice, it doesn't really matter if the outcome is still fatally flawed.

Yes, it's nice to have someone on your side. But if that person is steering you wrong, and you're attaching to them only for the sake of having something to hold onto, that's not really going to help you make any progress.

If that person continually lets you down, whether through selfishness or a lack of appropriate expertise, would you keep on trying? If this is your partner, wouldn't you think hard about whether to continue the relationship? If it were your student, wouldn't you think hard about how many chances to give them? If this is your advisor, wouldn't you want to leave the lab?

At some point, good intentions are not enough.

And maybe not even relevant. Doesn't the bad guy usually think he's doing the right thing? Anybody see Watchmen?


I really believe that truth in research is relative. Because whatever we think is true now, it's probably only partly right, and years from now someone with better tools and more insight will realize that we were almost always at least partly wrong.

And yet, some things are absolute. Maybe only hindsight has this property: knowing what you know now, sometimes there was one answer better than the other. But you didn't know that then.

Somehow I find this concept easier to accept in research than in real life. Maybe because it's more clear to me how we couldn't have known. In research I read everything I can; I review my data as much as I can; I run all the analyses I can think of and that the software can manage.

In real life, I often find myself wondering if I could just have read the right books or talked to the right people, would I have known sooner what I know now? Because most of this is probably not new, not the way cutting-edge research is new. I'm sure most of my struggles in life and philosophy are old news. What I'm doing in life really is re-search.

So while intentions can only be relative, outcomes can be absolute.


At some point, you have to look at the data and say, is this working well enough to justify the time and cost?

I do this almost every day in research. I'm not sure everyone does- there must be a few labs with so much money, that it would be possible to get your PhD and sail through your postdoc never realizing how expensive it all is until you go to write your own R01.

But that isn't how my career has been. I'm always asking, usually before I even do a pilot run, can I afford this even if it does work? What will I do if it's working and I need to buy more and we can't afford that? How much information can I get if this is all I get to do?

It is all worth it?

It's really hard to work this way. It's like having a phobia of commitment. As a serial monogamist, I can tell you it's really a strain when your natural inclination is to throw yourself all in, but you know it's too risky because you'll just be heartbroken when it ends.

On the other hand, you have to start everything with a relatively open mind. There is no absolute intention, because we're all biased whether we mean to be or not.

So when we say "have an open mind' in science, we mean that you try to be objective, whether that means quenching your optimism or your pessimism, sometimes it depends on the person and the day of the experiment. Maybe you can't suppress your gut feeling, but you also know from (relative) experience, we're all wrong about 50% of the time. So you get used to acknowledging your fears and trying anyway. Some people call that brave.


Science has taught me a lot of things (so far?).

The length of diligence is always longer than you think.

Courage to try even when you think you'll fail again and again; even when you have failed.

Persistence doesn't even begin to cover how many times you have to pick yourself up and keep trying.

Patience with yourself can be harder than any other kind of patience. Patience with experiments can be easier than patience with other people or with circumstances.

Anger can be empowering.

Silence can raise your stock, but it isn't always powerful. Sometimes it's just passive.

Some people define truth from all angles.

Some people define truth like this:

if you just say it this way, it's technically true, and everyone will be happier.

Some people define truth as outcomes; some define it as implications.

Labels: , , , ,


At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So when we say "have an open mind' in science, we mean that you try to be objective...but you also know from (relative) experience, we're all wrong about 50% of the time."

You're right 50% of the time in science?!?!! Seriously? Like when setting up an experiment based on a hypothesis, the hypothesis turns out to be right 50% of the time?

Yikes, I'm more like 5%, and I think in my field that's unfortunately pretty normal...those 5% are awfully sweet, tho. :)

Seriously, if I read that 50% number correctly, pat yourself on the back and go have a beer. You rock!

At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Successful Researcher: How to Become One said...

Speaking of reading the right books: for any subject you are really interested in, it pays off to invest time into picking the book(s) you REALLY like rather than fighting your way through the book(s) on the subject that were just the easiest to find (and possibly losing interest in the subject altogether as a result).

I wonder whether someone here could come up with good advice about finding the right people to talk to and to get support from.

At 11:27 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

One of the hardest things? That there are no guarantees. You can do everything right, but all that does is improve your statistical probability of achieving whatever it is you want, a nice cluster of data or a GlamourMagz paper or a particular job or grant.

Nothing is 100%, and sometimes it just comes down to... probability.

That there is never ENOUGH of everything, and when everyone is good and hardworking, when the distinctions between objects are small, being a 'successful' or 'unsuccessful' object is not personal.

At 8:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are lessons that all people should acknowledge in this pathway called the PhD/postdoc. You are so right about the persistence... We live the myth of Sisyphus, but we don't know how we got into the myth. We are that person who somehow entered in:

"1 MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
2 I found myself within a forest dark,
3 For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

4 Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
5 What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
6 Which in the very thought renews the fear.

7 So bitter is it, death is little more;
8 But of the good to treat, which there I found,
9 Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

10 I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
11 So full was I of slumber at the moment
12 In which I had abandoned the true way."
(Longfellow trans.)

Yes, this is Canto I (Inferno) of Dante's Divine Comedy. There is no other way to explain the type of psychological changes we have undergone. We can no longer go back to the people we once were. The trick is to somehow ensure that we can help others to not find themselves inside the same 'forest dark.'

Be brave.

We love you for all that you post.

At 9:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Courage to try even when you think you'll fail again and again; even when you have failed.

Persistence doesn't even begin to cover how many times you have to pick yourself up and keep trying.

Isn't that the case. Not only does actually performing research (the daily tasks) require persistence and the willingness to keep trying again and again in the face of repeated failure, but even the career-aspects of science requires the same mindset. There aren't a whole lot of academic research jobs out there relative to the number of qualified and eager applicants, so even just trying to get a job let alone a sustainable career, also requires incredible persistence and the ability to keep trying despite constant and repeated failure. And of course, repeated failure to get a job means your career stalls or ends entirely.

I think the high frequency of failure - in doing research and in developing a career, both of which are completely separate issues - makes scientific research an incredibly difficult and draining profession to sustain psychologically and emotionally.

I don't know - what other professions and livelihoods are characterized by repeated failures both in the actual work as well as in the attempt to even get hired let alone advance in the career?? (And where the monetary compensation is not quite enough to offset the above psychologically strains)

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 11:24,

I'm right a lot. Or maybe I just choose to forget most of the wrong turns. I actually have never counted. I was just trying to make a point that even WITH a hypothesis, it's still a coin toss.


I totally agree re: books.

Advice about finding the right people... I don't know. I find lots of people via their journal articles. I just send them email and ask questions about the science. Sometimes they end up being useful for "mentoring". I also recommend professional societies, but I can't say I've found the "right" people yet, either. I'm always hearing about how it's so important to have A Mentor, and yet I don't feel that I've ever really found one (JaneB and FSP are about as close as it gets, for me).


That's an interesting way of looking at it. I guess my problem is that I am emotionally drained from being a hardworking object, so I do take it personally when that's not recognized and rewarded every once in a while.

Anon of Canto,

Thank you for that.

Anon 9:41,

What other professions, you ask? I'd say anything that requires repeated auditioning and trying-out. Professional sports where you have to make a qualifying time in a race. And of course all the performing arts. In all these cases, if you're really a rock star, you can make money at the top by various kinds of consulting/spokesperson work. But most people in those jobs don't make a lot of money doing what they do. Most of them also have day jobs, at least at the beginning.

I'm not sure what else comes close.

At 10:56 AM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

I think persistence in the face of repeated failure is pretty common in all professions. In the corporate world, it isn't necessarily that the pay is that much better, just that it takes a lower level of education to achieve that pay, and the work FOR the pay is much more structured which makes it a lot easier.

On the other hand, failure in corp-world happens all the time. We have the same projects that fail, though I suppose it's a little less personal so maybe that offsets some of the disappointment. I don't know, I thought the persistence thing was pretty appropriate and I'm in private industry, I still have to keep reminding myself to try, try again.

At 9:25 PM, Anonymous Big Failure said...

Anon 9:41, What other professions, you ask? I'd say anything that requires repeated auditioning and trying-out. Professional sports where you have to make a qualifying time in a race. And of course all the performing arts.

interesting analogies re professions where repeated failure after failure is the norm. I guess question is, are the consequences of failure equally dire in all these professions, or, how 'easy' is it to get second chances (or third, or fourth) and get back on the horse and try again? in other words, so what if repeated failure is the norm. Are you limited only by how much you can handle emotionally and as long as you keep trying you still have a chance? or, is there something else limiting your chances other than your own will to keep persisting? (I am, of course, assuming that you are just as qualified as those who did get jobs and therefore competence or ability is not an issue)

for example, athletes have a 'biological clock' - sooner or later they will pass their prime years and thus it will only get harder and its not limited to how much they are willing to keep trying. I don't know enough about the performing arts, but can an artist just keep trying and trying even if they keep failing, or is there something external that will even prevent them from continuing to try even if they wanted to?

In science, it seems that not only is repeated failure (to advance from postdoc to next level of 'real' job) the norm, but that the limiting factor is not whether you can handle it and continuing trying, but that other forces actually work together to "sink" you thereby continued trying can be futile. It seems that if you have the right political connections through your advisor or lab etc, then you have an easier time. If you don't have the right connections, then no matter how much you dust yourself off and get back on the horse, you are doomed to fail yet again because success (or rather, lack of failure) is not a function of your tenacity or ability.

I guess what I'm saying in a very roundabout way, is that in science it seems that those who are successful in career, can do almost anything (no matter how shoddy) and STILL remain successful. it seems there's something protecting them. They can be incompetent or unethical and yet not suffer the consequences, and will continue to be successful in their careers. But those who are not successful (the vast number of struggling postdocs), often will continue to not be successful no matter what they do or how many times they keep trying. failure to get a job, simply begets more failure. can you tell I'm just about ready to quit science? (I've spent 7+ years as a postdoc now, been productive, did everything right like write grants, win prestigous awards and so on, and still get passed over for jobs time and time again so that some newer and untested and less accomplished postdoc from the Old Boys Club's alma mater can get the job)

At 3:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MsPhD, I'm perfectly happy commenting my two cents away. We are still getting lobotomies together, right? hearts, jc

At 9:24 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Big Failure (love the handle, btw, I guess you don't believe in NLP?):

re: these other jobs, is there something else limiting your chances other than your own will to keep persisting?

I think there is. Yes, there is a biological clock for athletes; there is something similar for some performing arts. Musicians have to deal with chronic injuries, arthritis onset, etc. Actors are constantly judged on physical appearance, so your age in life dictates what kinds of parts you can get. And if your natural bone structure or height don't match the standard for the "look", yes you will be limited sometimes to a very narrow window where you "fit". People do reinvent themselves, but it requires talent and help.

But the main external thing for these professions is simply money. You can keep trying so long as you can keep a day job that lets you afford to do it.

I agree re: political connections can make it easier... but I'm not convinced you can't MAKE some even if you didn't have them to begin with. At least this is what I've been trying to do, with or without help from my advisors. It would be much easier if I had that thing they call "mentoring"- i.e., someone to introduce me around, recommend my work, etc. But I can also do that for myself when I have to.

I also agree that "successful" people in science tend to remain so, no matter what they do. Reputation is self-reinforcing. This shuts out a lot of deserving people who worked hard to make it as far as we have.

I agree that there are no consequences for being unethical, provided that you're tenured or otherwise supported by someone successful (read: their continued success depends on not having to retract your paper). I think this is a major problem for science, maybe the most important one facing us, yet again, as history continues to repeat itself.

Hang in there- you, me and jc can get lobotomies together. =p


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home