#12 I am always right

We were in the familiar, small room with the flow cytometers. We filtered the cell samples carefully, transferred them into the tubes that are compatible with the flow cytometry and carefully loaded each tube, one at a time, onto the machine. It always amazes me how the fluid in the tube that is sucked into the machine can somehow transform into dots on the graph on the monitor screen and how the positions of these dots on the graphs manage to determine my emotions for the rest of the day. I always felt rather emotionally vulnerable in the flow cytometry room as I watched the dots appear before me. When I went to run the samples on my own, I asked myself many questions in this very room. Sometimes I asked the bigger questions, such as what is the point of putting in so much effort to get results that may seem novel but are not going to change the world in any way? Most of the time, I asked the more mundane, insecure questions – did I accidentally contaminate the cells somewhere along the way? Did I have enough cells for all my samples? Did I label all my cell samples correctly? Sometimes D would join me to run the samples and I really appreciated his presence because he entertained many of my silly questions.

Me: It seems to be working right? I can see that there are more cells in this quadrant for the cells that were treated with this drug.

D: We cannot say for sure…we can only know after we process and analyze the data. But just by looking, the treated and untreated cells seem to give very similar results.

A respectful silence descended upon us as we tried to be as nonchalant as we could about yet another failed experiment.

D: What if our experiments were right? What if it’s our hypothesis that is wrong? Maybe this drug just doesn’t work this way and all these while, we were just wasting our time believing something that is wrong?

Me: How many (failed) experiments do we need to do to find out whether the theory is wrong or our method is wrong? When do we…restart?

D: No, we have put in too much effort to give up now. We have to keep believing in the theory and keep trying different ways to prove that the theory works…

 

In theory, science is not supposed to be done this way. The scientist is supposed to look at the obtained results, be it failure or success, and revise the hypothesis suitably. The scientist is not supposed to modify the parameters of the experimental method so as to get the results which support the hypothesis. However, the people doing science are only humans and it is difficult not to be emotionally attached to your work. More philosophically, it is difficult for people to gather evidence to refute a theory that they believe in. It is cognitively easier to find evidence to support the theory that you believe in even if the evidence is hard to find. It is not so much about how strongly you believe in the theory but how hard it is to consider that you may be wrong. Take for instance, you choose to believe that humans are all good and kind in nature. One day, you meet a group of bad crooks and it is easier cognitively to believe that 1) they are statistical outliers or 2) bad circumstances have masked their kindness than to consider the possibility that you are wrong. It seems “I” am always right. I think what you see in the world really depends on what you believe in. Henri Bergson put it rather succinctly, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

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