The most frustrating (and least publicized) thing about science

Photo by David A. LaSpina,

Photo by David A. LaSpina,

A close friend suggested I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In a book about a cross-country journey, mental illness and self-discovery, I was surprised to find an exquisite description of the most common zemblanity of science.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term ‘zemblanity’, consider this your word-of-the-day:

“So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design. Serendipity and zemblanity: the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.”

– Armadillo by William Boyd

The book Zen is a first-person narrative. The narrator begins describing the life of Phaedrus, a highly intelligent man who began college at the age of 15 studying biochemistry and molecular biology. We discover that Phaedrus is actually the narrator himself, before a severe mental break from reality and a subsequent electroconvulsive shock therapy treatment. This procedure so altered his personality and brain structure that Phaedrus is, in fact, an entirely separate person. Other than brief flashes of memory, the narrator discovers Phaedrus almost as you would discover any stranger – by what they leave behind. Thankfully for the narrator, Phaedrus was a prolific writer.

During his studies in college, Phaedrus began to think about the scientific method. This dogma instructs us to form a hypothesis, create experiment(s) to test said hypothesis, and then make an evaluation based on the experiments. If planned and executed correctly, the hypothesis should be proven true or false. In other words, you could say this series of steps is meant to scientifically determine truth.

But as Phaedrus continued his philosophical evaluation, focusing specifically on hypothesis generation, he realized something.

“As he was testing hypothesis number one by experimental method a flood of other hypotheses would come to mind, and as he was testing these, some more came to mind, and as he was testing these, still more came to mind until it became painfully evident that as he continued testing hypotheses and eliminating them or confirming them their number did not decrease. It actually increased as he went along.”

At first, this was an amusing thought. He coined the law: “The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite”. He even found it helpful during times of scientific frustration:

“Even when his experimental work seemed dead-end in every conceivable way, he knew that if he just sat down and muddled about it long enough, sure enough, another hypothesis would come along. And it always did.”

I think any scientist doing independent, discovery-based work can empathize with that situation. It’s the thing that keeps you going when you’ve hit your head against the same wall for weeks or months. It’s anti-boring. Science is discovery focused, and there’s always a new detail to uncover – no matter how small.

But if you think about this situation in another light – really think about it, as Phaedrus did – doesn’t this feel a bit… unproductive? You begin with a problem – a real, tangible problem that you are going to solve. After 6 months, or a year, or two years, you find yourself describing a particular nuance in so much detail that the original problem isn’t even mentioned.

You start with an elevator pitch that anyone could relate to, such as, “I’m going to determine why Cancer Type X responds to Therapeutic A, but Cancer Type Y does not.” But you end up describing something entirely different, like how the sensitivity setting of a particular instrument affects the determination of what’s-it in the whatchamacallit method.

Unfortunately, Phaedrus couldn’t reconcile his discovery with the purported purpose of science.

“If the purpose of the scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than the experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.”

And this wasn’t the only thing that shook him. He realized that not only was the method itself flawed, the result of the method was also flawed. Instead of determining an unshakeable truth, what is considered “truth” or “fact” is simply the most superior analysis of the time. This was similarly paraphrased by Einstein as:

“Evolution has shown that at any given moment out of all conceivable constructions a single one has always proved itself absolutely superior to the rest.”

So truth was in fact dependent upon time.

“Some scientific truths seem to last for centuries, others for less than a year. Scientific truth was not dogma, good for eternity, but a temporal quantitative entity that could be studied like anything else.”

This is a bit surprising at first, but in a split second you realize that of course this is true. Our understanding of a situation is constantly updated with the presence of new knowledge. Phaedrus eventually determined that “the predicted results of scientific inquiry and the actual results of scientific inquiry are diametrically opposed here, and no one seems to pay too much attention to the fact.” Hence, this is the biggest zemblanity of science.

I’ll stop us here, rather than continue down the rabbit hole of Phaedrus’ analysis. Poor Phaedrus did not take this well. Believing now his effort in the sciences to be entirely futile, and science to be the major producer of multiple, indeterminate, and relative truths in the world, he simply quit. At the age of 17, he was expelled from the University for failing grades. After a series of other events, we eventually find Phaedrus back in an academic setting, but instead of studying science, he studies philosophy.

I think Phaedrus’ realizations resonate with me – and perhaps it resonates with you as well – because I believe I have been where Phaedrus is. I have realized how futile science can feel. How you feel like you are digging an increasingly faceted hole rather than a path forward. Most scientists are naturally analytical people, and may get into science because they are seeking a world where they can determine black and white truths. But instead, they are (sometimes harshly) confronted with the grayscale reality.

For most, this is simply a process of maturation. You adapt. I can distinctly remember when my worldview shifted into the gray and how it deeply impacted my personality and outlook. It was a watershed moment for me. But some can’t reconcile this realization, and instead find something else to do, like Phaedrus.

This raises an interesting question: If I agree with Phaedrus’ statements, which I do (mostly), why am I still a scientist? Why is anyone?

Ultimately, I think it’s a distinction in what you believe science produces. I believe science produces knowledge, not truth. Phaedrus eventually sought truth elsewhere, in philosophy. Though I enjoy philosophical whimsy now and then, I personally do not find truth in philosophy either. I find a dizzying spectacle of thought dissection (similar to the hypothesis conundrum described earlier) that leaves me with more questions than answers. But unlike with science, I don’t get the same satisfaction at the end of the process.

I think that’s a difference too – we’re all seeking answers in our work. You may or may not find them. But you find a situation where that process still fulfills you. I went through a “Phaedrus” moment when my science produced results I did not find valuable. I think this is another common situation, one that is often mistaken for an existential crisis (“I am not meant to be a scientist”) and leads to many talented thinkers, like our semi-fictional Phaedrus, to quit. Instead of quitting, I instead found a value-matched environment.

Since coming to terms with Phaedrus’ conclusions seems (to me) to be a common philosophical process for scientists, but also seems to be one of the least-advertised elements of the field, I think we should be more open about the realities of scientific work. Zen was published in 1974, but I thought his dissection of the scientific process is just as relevant today. This means we should be better educating scientists and non-scientists about how science actually works and what it produces at the end. We should value the process of knowledge building instead of just chasing the next PR headline.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little philosophical foray. It certainly made me reflect on my evolution as a scientist. As a scientist, what other watershed moments have you experienced that aren’t advertised as part of the process?

2 thoughts on “The most frustrating (and least publicized) thing about science

  1. Linda Rogers says:

    I did enjoy it! I always learn something.

  2. Sulis says:

    I’m currently reading “Zen …” and Googled the Einstein quote, which fascinates me. It led me to your blog. As a non-scientist, I see Phaedrus’ predicament … as well as the Einstein quote … as akin to my difficulty in determining where one thing ends and another begins. If I tell you my life story, for example, where do I start? With birth? Some would say, “That’s too far back.” It could also be argued that it’s not back far enough. I was born into. I am simply the continuation of all that came before, with parents … and their parents … and so back, and so back, and so back. The same holds true with hypotheses. Each new idea is linked to others; and they to others. We can’t put things comfortably in boxes; they won’t stay put. And although I love the concept of “zemblanity” I don’t find this at all unhappy or unlucky. It’s delightful. Thanks for the introduction to serendipity’s opposite. And I quite enjoyed your blog.

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