How real science labs work

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

I was reading The Antidote – an excellent book on negative thinking, stoicism and the bankruptcy of self-help; via this post on the New Yorker – and I stumbled onto a paper by the psychologist Kevin Dunbar on how science is made.

It’s an illuminating read. Dunbar followed 4 molecular biology lab for a year, reading paper drafts, sitting in on lab meetings, and generally tracking the progress of the science and the morale of the troops.

Of course, the quality of the work being done in a lab is partially determined by the quality of the scientists involved and the amount of work being put in. In addition, however, there are human dynamics that affect the quality of science being made.

What I found particularly interesting is the idea that perseverance at the individual level needs to be counteracted by collaborative work – lab meetings, presentations, meetings with the advisor. Of course, you need to work hard and persevere in other to get things done; but this grit can be counterproductive when the hypothesis you’re working with is wrong. As Dunbar states:

Less experienced scientists were more willing to maintain a hypothesis than more experienced scientists.

That is, of course, supremely dangerous. Dunbar considers the role of communication in causing scientists to shift perspectives, abandoning bad hypotheses and follow through on more promising leads:

Analyses of the data reveal that question answering is a potent mechanism of inducing conceptual change in scientists. […] ask[ing] a question  forced the scientist to change from thinking about the research at one level to thinking about the research at another level. When (i) surprising findings occur, (ii) the researcher believes that these findings are not due to error, and (iii) other members of the group challenge the researcher’s interpretation of the findings, significant conceptual change will occur.

Importantly, for this process to work, the people in the lab must have different perspectives. He noted that in labs with people with more homogeneous backgrounds:

the scientists used a different strategy when they encountered problems in their research; they manipulated experimental variables such as raising the temperature, varying chemical concentrations, and so forth, to make things work. […] When all the members of the laboratory have the same knowledge at their disposal, then when a problem arises, a group of similar minded individuals will not provide more information to make analogies than a single individual. […] These findings indicate the groups of individuals must have different pools of knowledge to draw from to make fruitful analogies.

Dunbar comes up with 5 prescriptions for making a lab work:

  1. Members of a research group should have different, but overlapping research backgrounds. This will foster group problem solving and analogical reasoning.
  2. Analogical reasoning should be engaged in when problems arise in the research. In particular, the scientists should engage in making both local and regional analogies.
  3. Researchers should be encouraged to engage in combinations of high and low risk projects. This increases the probability that each scientist will have achieved a tangible result.
  4. Take note of surprising results. Use the surprising results to generate new hypotheses and research programs.
  5. Provide opportunities for the members of the research group to interact and discuss the research by having overlapping research projects and breaking the lab up into smaller groups working on similar problems.

I enjoin you to read the original paper; there’s some real gold in there.

ResearchBlogging.orgKevin Dunbar (1995). How scientists really reason: Scientific reasoning in real-world laboratories. The nature of insight, Sternberg, Robert J. (Ed); Davidson, Janet E. (Ed), 365-395.

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