When I go to a museum on my own, something that happens fairly often when I'm traveling to meetings or seminars, I often set myself a ‘mission’ of something in particular I want to see. I go hunting. Along the way I see lots of interesting things, but if my mission is a success, I get a kick out of it. And generally reward myself at the nearest, um, establishment, with some ‘tea’.
So when I found myself in London, I decided to head to the British Museum to see Hokusai's famous Ukiyo-e woodblock print, ‘The Wave.’ But it wasn't on display. I asked at the print department, and they informed me that if I would like to see it, I would have to put all my belongings in a locker and they would bring it to me, which they did. And there we were, The Wave and me, just me, face to face for as long as I'd like to sit there. Stay with me, there will be a point, but hey, it's an iconic image. The Wave, I mean, not me sitting there.
The copy I sat with was printed in six colors, plus the white background: three shades of gray, three shades of blue. There was Mt Fuji in the background, and the monstrous wave descending on a small boat with two hapless crew barely visible in the bow, and eight more huddled in the aft. Another boat was visible in the distance. There were flecks of foam in the gray wash background, which was almost as detailed as the foreground. Breathtaking. I looked at it for what seemed like hours, and when finally I motioned to the curator that I was finished, he said, ‘already?’ Very English.
But that isn't what I wanted to talk about, really. Like a fishing boat in a storm, survival in science is a group effort. We are pummeled by the reality we are struggling to explore, and if we try to go it completely alone, we might survive, but our chances are not good. Some lead, some follow, but as a group, we keep going, and hopefully learn something along the way.
But there is a fundamental problem with this situation. When a problem is relatively new, we work as quickly as we can to get a consensus view of where the answers probably lie, and we all set off in that direction. We support each other's efforts, often giving favorable reviews to papers and grants that will continue the enterprise we've agreed on, and hope that others will do the same for us. But if someone goes off in another direction, we either ignore them, or worse, strike them down. And as the field solidifies around the direction we've taken, the punishment for digression only gets worse. This even happens when the progress doesn't hold up to the promise; anything in the ‘right’ direction is right, and ‘wrong’ is punished.
Fred Hoyle, in his essay ‘Home is where the wind blows,’ suggests that this state of affairs has an evolutionary basis. When primitive hunting parties set out to obtain food, a direction had to be chosen; someone searching in another direction alone would be ineffectual (and therefore punished). Even if there was no prey in that direction, it was necessary to keep on, the alternative being disagreement and the potential to disastrously dismantle the endeavor if the group split. The same situation occurs in science, he suggests, and proposes that the solution is to support the dissenting view as strongly as one would the consensus. Otherwise, the hunt goes on in what could be the wrong direction.
I'm not so sure. I know what he's saying (but if you know your Hoyle, it shouldn't be a surprise, nor is it a surprise that he likens consensus scientists to cave men), but the fact is, we do not have the resources to encourage everyone to try anything that comes into their heads. At some point, each of us has to show that we're making progress. But I do think there is another way – hey, I'm the Mole after all. I've got an idea.
Before we talk about what I'm proposing, it might be good to give a real-world example. Our genes are important, by some accounts they are our ‘blueprints,’ and since they describe how we are ‘built’ then anything that's wrong with us might lie in defects in these instructions. So if we want to understand a disease, like cancer or Alzheimer's disease, or risky behavior, let's look at all the genes of everyone we can find with the problem, and see how the ‘blueprints’ line up. We'll need a really, really big boat to go fishing on this sea.
And yes, we do get a lot of information, so we're making progress. And we learn stuff, so ditto. We keep going. And going. There's no looking back. A thousand genomes. Ten thousand. If we're not learning enough, more genomes! Or wait, we can look at epigenomes, and proteomes, and ohmygoshherecomemore-omes! And suddenly, there is no more money-ome.
What I'm saying doesn't only apply to omics; we do this with most of our fields. There are large endeavors that focus on what we have decided, as a field, must be important, and even if the effort doesn't involve large data sets, we have codified the exploration as a set of ‘do's’ and ‘don'ts’ that direct which papers and grants are deemed ‘worthy.’
So here's what I suggest. Let's have a conversation about when to stop and turn around. It would be nice to do this before we set out on our boat, but even when we're at sea, we can discuss the conditions under which we set a new course, or when we sail on into the storm. If we are having such conversations, I think I've missed them. We don't have to stop, really, but we need to decide, in advance, when a new direction might be worth exploring.
Dr Hoyle suggests that primitive hunters could not allow disagreement that might fracture the group, lest hunting parties disintegrate into chaos. But the evolutionary distance from cave man to philosopher was in the blink of an eye. Yes, the history of philosophy contained periods of unyielding ‘group think,’ but we managed to change course pretty often. There are many such examples in science as well. I suggest we just put some effort into discussing the directions we've chosen, and when it might be time for a change of plan. I'll be back with more thoughts on this, but I'm about to go hunting to have a look at Hopper's Night Hawks.
- © 2016. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd