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.