To Know…What, Exactly?

I was going to write about my recent adventures in food, but a blip in a magazine side-tracked me, and now I’m going to subject you to what I’ve been musing over. Don’t worry—there are cartoons.

Everybody loves to make fun of researchers, right? It’s been the case at least as far back as the Greeks, with the playwright Aristophanes contributing to the conviction of Socrates in his own humorous way. Research was a little different then, specialization being a less than common practice in the Academy of Athens, but the popular joke was still the same: scholars are lazy people who want to avoid a real job and put off contributing to society in some tangible way.

If you think the joke has changed, spend a few minutes perusing this comic about graduate school that I came across this week. There are essentially three major punchlines, reiterated in numerous ways: (1) grad students are masters of nothing but procrastination, (2) academia runs on horse manure and passing the buck, and (3) graduate students will cling desperately to their low-paying, soul-sucking positions on order to avoid joining the “real” world.

At HGSE, one of the PhD students laughingly confirmed something of this reality. There’s a title for the person who’s been working for their doctorate the longest: Mayor of Appian Way. From what he explained, the position is usually held by someone who’s been a grad student for seven to twelve years. There are good reasons for this, of course, which I won’t bore you with, but it does beg the question of what exactly researchers are doing that they get paid with grants and fellowships to do the apparent lack of work they do.

If you, as a lay person with respect to any given field, were to randomly pick up a journal and start perusing abstracts, I think you would be hard-pressed to answer that question. The problem is, of course, the way the construction of scientifically-valid knowledge works. You can never prove absolutely that something is true, only that it produces consistent results within a limited set of circumstances. It takes a heck of a lot of detailed, painstaking work to build a strong case for a theory, and as we all remember from our days of building block towers, significantly less effort to take the theory down. Most of scientific progress happens in “two steps forward, one step back” increments that require enormous amounts of funding, labor, and time to accomplish as much as they do.

For all of that, the actual mechanics of research—the day-to-day doings of grad students and research assistants—tend to get overlooked. This is a shame, because frankly, research can be downright hilarious. I was just reading an article in Scientific American about a new technique in electronic microscopy, which included the following paragraph about one of the early pioneers of imaging technology:

“Among other studies, Marey investigated how a falling cat rights itself so that it lands on its feet….The fall and the flurry of legs took less than a second—too fast for the unaided eye to see precisely what happened. Marey’s stop-motion snapshots provided the answer…” (Zewail, A. August 2010. Scientific American. “Filming the Invisible in 4-D,” pp. 75-81).

This study was important for both what it contributed to the physics of falling (not only for falling cats) and for the photography technique used to uncover what was happening. But what did Dr. Marey’s lab look like? No one ever mentions that sort of thing in research papers, and I suggest that if they did, science would be much more widely read. I mean, just imagine it…

Research is hilarious. It’s got to be. If you’re not a cat, anyway…

I had no particular point in mind when I set out to write this (which the jokes would suggest is also how most research begins), but I find (as the jokes would also suggest is common) that my data has presented me with two contradictory conclusions. On the one hand, research is valuable to the advance of knowledge and therefore civilization, and as such, we should respect it. On the other hand, however, research has the great potential to be ridiculous when you step back and look at the process and must therefore be mocked thoroughly.

As with all things, I suppose the truth lies in balancing the two sides. Laugh at the process all you want, but respect results.


P.S. If this topic is something you find to be worth pondering, go find a copy of To Know A Fly. You won’t regret it. Heck, even if you don’t find the oddities and values of research to be exciting, you probably wouldn’t regret it.

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