• Shivam Kalhan

A meme not about science that revealed a lot about it...

Updated: Dec 3, 2019

I came across this meme (left) a while ago and somehow the first thought that buzzed into my head was about how in science, we sometimes tend to make interpretations or conclusions based on an incomplete picture and from just one aspect of the data. I wonder if this ends up leading us much further from the truth like in the meme. It certainly would slow progress!

I have no idea why that was my first thought. But as a science student, still at my early stages, I have been quite susceptible to over-interpreting my data and trying to write the story that I think my data is telling or the story that I want my data to tell. That's always a big mistake as I'm learning with time and experience. It's in fact a lot more interesting when you go at the data with an open mind and leave all the those biases behind. This is obviously the harder option though. But as my mentors have inherently taught me...

"listen to the story that the data is telling".

All in all, science is a deep part of what makes us human. We are curious creatures and explorers from our very early days. Just observe any child and you'll see them running around and breaking apart different things and trying to piece them back together and feeling all sorts of different materials and textures. And as Neil Tyson quite famously put it -

"Scientists are kids who never grew up"

But I'm always faced with a paradox when it comes to this. I understand that science is a big part of us but 'being human' is also a big part of us. What I mean by this is that we are designed though millions of years of evolution to have short-cuts when it comes to interpretations and painting our reality. For example, we have a blind spot in both our eyes where we are not able to see a part of world in front of us. This is where the optic nerves passes through the retina and at this point of innervation, the retina's light sensitive cells don't exist, forming a blind spot in our visual field. We don't notice this blind spot because we have two eyes and the other can see in that field of vision.

However, if we close one eye, we are still able to 'see' this blind spot in our field of vision because the brain just predicts what it may look like based on things around it. For example, if one of our eyes are closed and there is a straight line running through our blind spot - we don't see a gap in the lines because our just brain predicts that there is a line going through. But this means that our brains can quite literally invent information in the absence of any. Crazy, but useful, at least from an evolutionary standpoint.

Check out this article out if you want to try this activity for yourself - Mind the Gap.

And don't forget the heuristics and biases we have so that we can paint our reality faster, even though it may not be true.

A great book to read all about this - Thinking fast and Slow.

Essentially, these are tools that has given us an evolutionary advantage in our primitive environments and even today. But because science is a human endeavour, it must also be vulnerable to 'being human' where we invent information in the absence of anything or have our biases that form a lens by which we incorrectly interpret the data.

This is very troubling and is certainly paradoxical. However, we can't just cherry pick the idea that science is a big part of us because of we are curious creatures. We also need to take into account the possibility that our flaws are stained in science. I think a big part to overcoming these stains is by acknowledging their existence. While this doesn't do much, we can't go much further without it.

In science, and particularly in neuroscience, we use methods that cannot give us a full picture of what we are seeing as technology is not there yet. So, we need to realise that data from one method and at one time point may not be the whole story and by interpreting it from one aspect means that we could not be any further from the truth. Even if it all makes sense like it does in the meme above. So, this really calls for science to be more collaborative and interdisciplinary if we are to paint a picture that is somewhat close to the truth. But at the same time, trying to go at it without bias. Every scientists knows this but they are also humans.

I want to end this with the radical notion that science is always wrong - but is it as wrong as it was before? Overall, it's not about capturing the ultimate truth but to be as close to the ultimate truth as possible.

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