Science isn’t perfect, but it is self-correcting.

Saw this on IFLS a few weeks ago and it stuck with me.

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Science is a process whereby everyone uses the scientific method to learn about the world.

“science”Merriam-Webster Online DictionaryMerriam-Webster, Inc. Retrieved 2011-10-16. “3 a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena”

I often tell people that science is all about being okay with being wrong, failing, making mistakes, etc.  It’s a process of trial and error.  You come up with a model or a hypothesis, you test it, it fails, you come up with a new model, you test it, it fails, on and on.  You keep changing your model to rule out possibilities until you are left with one that works.  Often, it works for the time being.  New knowledge comes along and you modify or expand or change your model accordingly.

I think most people assume that science is full of “Eureka” moments, but those are VERY few and far between.  However the “not again” or “oh crap” or “what the _#$^&!” or “G-d d@mn it” moments happen on a near daily basis.  The business of doing science, is one of managing disappointment and failure.

For instance, I have several areas of experiments going on right now that are failing miserably.  My team and I either cannot get them to work reliably or at all.

In one case, an experiment that had been working reliably is now not working- our controls aren’t working.  Without those controls, we can’t test our variables.  There is always the random screw-up or bad mojo that causes an experiment to fail in a one-off sort of way.  So, the first two times this experiment’s controls failed, we just tried again thinking it was a fluke.  Now, this morning, the fourth try failed.  Now, it’s back to the drawing board- making new reagents, and basically starting from scratch to try and get it working again.  Considering this particular experiment takes about 20 days start to finish, it’s not exactly a speedy process.

In another case, we’re trying to immunostain for a protein we are studying.  We’ve tried all kinds of tissues/cells, methods of fixation, and numerous antibodies, and nothing is/was working.  Even antibodies that have been reported in the literature aren’t working.  It’s difficult to tell when you are beating a dead horse and should give up, versus when you need to persevere and keep going.  You are always asking yourself- is this particular antibody bad?  Does it just require a very detailed optimization to find the single ideal set of conditions under which it will work?  Are our samples bad?  Are they not expressing the protein, even though they are expressing the mRNA?  Are these really the right controls?  How long, how many times do you keep trying before you give up?

My team and I are getting disheartened.  As the scientist, I have to manage my own disappointment, make the calls on how to proceed, and try to keep my team from losing hope- reassuring them that their feelings are shared, but that their efforts are worthwhile and appreciated.  It’s hard to do when I just want to give up and go home.

During periods like this one, I need to remember the Carl Sagan quote above.  Science isn’t a perfect tool- it can be tedious and frustrating and slow, but it’s all we have and with it we can figure things out.

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