The Science of Deduction

I have recently become a huge fan of the BBC TV series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. What could be better than the classics of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a 21st-century twist? A man with an odd and yet endearing sense of humor who notices seemingly concealed details to solve impossible crimes with his more grounded sidekick – that is definitely my choice of distraction from working on the literature search I need to be doing on the quantum dynamics of photosynthetic reaction centers. (Or should I write “centres”?)

In the series, Sherlock maintains his own website called “The Science of Deduction” where he explains his method of analysis of various minutiae that have helped him deduce the important aspects of others’ life stories. I can imagine that would be a bit freaky in real life: someone who could read you like a book every time he or she saw you. And yet attention to detail does not seem to have a high value associated with it anymore.

In the first episode, “A Study in Pink,” Sherlock and John are on their way to a crime scene when John makes the comment: “The police don’t consult amateurs.” Sherlock then launches into an explanation of how he knew about John’s military service, his education, his family relationships, and his sister’s drinking problem. All of this had been deduced within a few minutes of their initial meeting. And who can forget Sherlock’s drop-the-mic response: “You were right. The police don’t consult amateurs.”

Today, we have information literally at our fingertips, which lately has been serving as a double-edged sword. Sir Francis Bacon was right; knowledge is power. But we still need to know how to wield this power in order to use it effectively. Being well-informed is essential, but, depending on the source of information and how much of it you fully comprehend, it does not make you an expert and certainly does not put you in the position to educate others.

In the age of blogs (which I LOVE), everyone can write about what she or he finds interesting. And it is an amazing outlet! I love to write, and having a medium for discussing what I love has put many of my values into perspective for me.

HOWEVER….

We need to be careful about what we read and how we allow it to affect our decision making. A paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society is a valid source of information. A blog run by a certified M.D. is a good place to start gaining some medical information; however, the author doesn’t know you or your medical history, and, therefore, whatever post she or he publishes may not be a valid treatment option for you. A blog run by a parent with little to no medical experience is a TERRIBLE place to go for information on whether or not to vaccinate your child.

Keep in mind: this is a blog. Even though I am a scientist with valid credentials, this website is not a source of information that would hold up under crossfire. This website is dedicated to my musings and my opinions. Yes, I present facts about science and famous scientists; but this is my outlet for my viewpoints and how I see the world around me.

I’m an expert on things like organic solar cell materials. I am training to become an expert in quantum dynamics and thermodynamics. I can answer questions about physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer programming. If I don’t know an answer to something, I can find the answer because that is part of my training – to find the facts from valid sources of information and analyze them. Even though I’m not an expert in things like medicine and cancer research, I can make some statements about those fields with certainty because I know experts in those fields.

Becoming an expert in something is an arduous process. A new scientist or engineer just completing a bachelor’s degree definitely has significantly more knowledge than the average lay person on mathematics and science. After a few years in industry, their expertise has been built, and after five to ten years, it has increased exponentially to the point where they can call themselves experts.

People with advanced degrees like a thesis-based master’s, a Ph.D., an M.D., or a J.D. are experts in their fields. Usually, when these people graduate with their degrees, they are already experts (you have to be in order to graduate); however, a fresh physics Ph.D. graduate is not as big of an expert as the physics professor who’s been doing research for 20+ years. The new doctor has a long road to walk in order to have the expertise of the cardiologist with a ten-year-old practice. However, even though there is still much for them to learn, they are still reliable sources of information. And here’s why.

Graduate school is an experience like no other. Just getting in is a laborious process. Your GPA, standardized test scores, past research experiences, research interests, volunteer experiences, and leadership positions are scrutinized in great detail. And once you arrive, it can feel like going to hell and back multiple times, each time shaking the hand of the devil himself. Which is kind of the point. We are required to go through a gauntlet of course work that is designed to stretch our mental capacities as far as possible. In order to graduate, we have to conduct research that no one else has done before and may not even work (in which case we have to go back to the drawing board).

We have to apply for fellowships, submit papers to journals, and present at conferences, all of which go through thorough, and sometimes vicious, reviews. Academia is a highly competitive environment, and if your goal is to become a professor, then you have to be at the absolute top of your field. And that is a feat only few can accomplish. In research, it doesn’t matter how hard you work. What matters is how well your data holds up during trials and reviews. If it doesn’t, then you start over.

Now I have never attended medical school, but from what many of my friends who are doctors have said, the process is similar: trying to survive in an ultra-competitive environment where you have to absorb as much information as possible in a limited time frame to test if you have the guts and stamina to finish. On top of that, when they finish, they have to go through a residency at a hospital, which can last around three years. If they choose to specialize, then they have to complete further residencies (which can last around five years) and become board-certified. They are still taking exams, and, even when they are licensed to practice medicine on their own, they still have to study to keep up with current drugs, therapies, and technologies.

Do experts make mistakes? Of course. Can they be costly? Yes. Can they be fixed? Definitely.

I once went out for coffee with a guy who knew I was an engineer and then went on to criticize engineers for not knowing as much as the technicians working on the line. Apparently, the engineer had designed something that the technicians knew wouldn’t work….and it didn’t.

I’m not saying the technicians aren’t valuable. Any engineer worth her or his salt, especially a newbie, will consult with them because they are the ones on the line actually implementing the new parts, technologies, and procedures. However, the engineer is trained to see beyond what happens on the line. They are responsible for designing something that fits into a multitude of constraints: cost, time, safety, and available resources.

Maybe that was the best design the engineer could create given the information available at the time. Plus, the heart and soul of engineering is an initial design subjected to testing; a new design subjected to the same testing; and a repeat of the process as necessary until a final design that meets all the requirements is created. These are things for which technicians are not responsible. With the constant barrage of failing and trying again, that engineer gains a deeper intuition, one that will serve her or him well on the next project.

Needless to say, I never went out with that guy again.

Lately, there has been a deep mistrust of science and medicine. Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers are working hard to discredit what scientists and doctors say. And I have to ask, “Where are they getting their information? What training have they undergone in these areas of study? What valid tests have they done to support their claims?”

I am not saying to follow an expert’s advice blindly. I think it’s important to be educated and form your own opinion. But as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Doctors and scientists are not omniscient; but considering the credentials they have to obtain and all the work they do and the sacrifices they make, I think it’s safe to believe that what they say will be accurate. They are trained to pay attention to detail, to use deduction on a regular basis. Consult the experts. Don’t consult the amateurs.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

 

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