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Thank you, Allegra Goodman

Posted Oct 21 2008 12:51am
I just finished a great novel by Allegra Goodman called Intuition [Dial Press, 2006] , which my wife recommended to me. I didn't know the topic when I picked it up, but it turns out to be about medical research. I don't want to give away the story, but I do want to give you a few excerpts. She has a deep understanding of the psychology of research and researchers, and her language is beautiful.

Here is one of the most lyrical descriptions I have seen of the nature of scientific research:

Science was all about failure, and bench work consisted primarily of setbacks. Conducting biological research was like climbing up a downward-moving escalator that then multiplied and divided and unzipped itself into a thousand new mutating walkways. The challenge was not to move upward or forward, but often only to stay upright. How satisfying, then, and how amusing when objects stayed in the same place, and forms and colors suddenly behaved predictably. These were the unexpected rewards of scientific life, the odd consistencies.

And the following marvelous insight about a researcher who falsifies data and who is unable to admit it to a colleague:

He didn't see. His guard was up again. Once more he maintained he had done nothing wrong. She wanted a confession, but he had nothing to confess. After all, he could not confess to [her] what he would not confess to himself. What he told himself about his work was not exactly what he had done. What he had done, not exactly what it should have been. Still, [his] own perceptions of his actions were coherent, internally consistent. He clung to his defense for safety.

Perhaps his work ... had been more about ideas than concrete facts; perhaps his findings had been intuitive rather than entirely empirical. He had not followed every rule.... He had not chosen to discuss every piece of data, but had run ahead with the smaller set of startling results he'd found. Still, aspects of his data were so compelling that in his mind they outweighed everything else. He had sifted out what was significant, and the rest had floated off like chaff.

And, finally, the dilemma of running a lab:

The postdocs answered to [the principal investigator], but she depended on them for the truth of their answers. She could not monitor them every minute of the day.

I have had the privilege of meeting many science researchers here and throughout the Boston area. Their dedication is inspiring, and their patience and fortitude is exemplary. This book presents a great story about the self-imposed and external pressures on scientists and their good and bad all-to-human response to those pressures. I recommend it highly.
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