Sunday, January 15, 2017

Seeking Integrity on the Shoulders of Giants

One of the books that has most shaped my view of the world is Mother Night by Kurt  Vonnegut. In it, the narrator describes his philosophy of how people’s minds are like clockwork, with every fact we know serving as a tooth in a cog. In many ways, though, we are missing teeth. Either we are unintentionally blinded to truth because of the environment in which we were raised, or we purposely deny truths because they do not fit nicely with our mental constructs. He says, “I… will say that I have never tampered with a single tooth in my thought machine, such as it is. There are teeth missing, God knows -- some I was born without, teeth that will never grow. And other teeth have been stripped by the clutchless shifts of history -- But never have I willfully destroyed a tooth on a gear of my thinking machine. Never have I said to myself, 'This fact I can do without.’” As a scientist, my greatest quest is to find truth and to try to fill the gaps in our understanding of the world. Yet, one of my greatest fears is that, knowingly or unknowingly, I am missing teeth in my gears.

Our first lecture with TJ Murphy struck home with me not only because it brought to light the “reproducibility crisis,” but it also reminded me of my part in it. I see that we today are standing upon the shoulders of giants. Everything that we know and believe to be truth is based upon the years of work of those before us. Though I am astounded by the brilliance, creativity, and passion of our predecessors, a part of me is also frightened. How much of what we take for granted is actually truth? In what ways do I contribute to the reproducibility crisis, and where does my own blindness come into light? How can I help promote an environment of scientific integrity? Christopher Pannucci and Edwin Wilkins cite the many different forms of biases that can distort an investigator’s ability to assess their findings, so I must confront and address my biases head-on before starting a project. As stated in The Economist, science is not necessarily self-correcting, so my fellow researchers and I must begin the movement to be more open about science as a powerful, yet fallible, tool for approaching our world’s many questions.

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