Now as a Regular—thanks to the Gee pellets—I would like to add to the idea of critical thinking from a different angle. It’s science-related, but because science is founded on logic, it relates to everyday life as well as science.
As scientists, (and physicians—not me, but from discussions, it’s prevalent in medicine as well), we are often guilty of doing one of two things:
1) Ignoring the elephant in the room
2) Seeing zebras instead of horses
For today’s blog, I will also ignore the elephant in the room, and focus on zebras and horses.
As a certified hypochondriac, I am highly accomplished at seeing zebras instead of horses. Every itch is a stitch, every pang is a bang, every nerve is something to observe.
Fortunately for me, my perspective is much better in dealing with science that is unrelated to my own body and its functions (or lack thereof), in which cases I often spot the horses masquerading as zebras. But sometimes I am too busy or preoccupied, and we have a safari emerging in the lab.
Some weeks ago, I began to hear rumors that ligations were not working in the lab—for those of you who are not molecular biologists—I don’t mean tubal ligations. We didn’t have a sudden spurt of pregnancies in the lab (Cath, do I get on your honor roll for that one? Sudden spurt of pregnancies.).
In fact, even simple transformations (no monsters) were not working and the plates of bacteria were not growing.
What to do? It must be the bacteria. They were stored for too long in the freezer. New competent bacteria were ordered and used—but no luck said de duck.
Okay, bacteria are not growing on the plates—it must be the bacterial agar on the plates that’s not right. Can you non-molecular biologists think of a control? Well done—scrounge a few plates from the lab next door and try again. Scrounging is always an essential component of controls.
No luck said de duck.
Hmmm. This is a tough one. Let’s consult Dr. C., when he gets back from wherever on earth he is. Did you try our neighbor’s bacterial incubator? Perhaps the temperature in our incubator is fluctuating and getting too high—or too low?
Good idea—hey, the bacterial plates are growing nicely next door. Should we unplug our own incubator and just use the one next door that’s really at 37 degrees?
No and yes—as I fly out somewhere else for a meeting or seminar. Use the one next door for now, to get the work done, but we need to figure out what’s wrong with our own incubator.
It turns out that our bacterial incubator doesn’t have an actual temperature setting—it’s a cheapie—it just has a scale from 1-10, and one has to find the number that corresponds with the desired temperature, leaving a thermometer inside for the calibration.
Responsibility. We’ve called a technician to come and fix the incubator. He’s ordered a part that should keep the temperature stable, say the people in the lab.
Part ordered, labor done, incubator fixed. Guess what? The scientists forgot about one of the key principles that make science conceivable—that makes it testable: to always look for the simplest solution wherever possible. To look for the horses rather than the zebras. This principle, as my colleagues here on OT are well familiar, has been named—well—Occam’s uhhh, Occam’s Thermometer.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, all the labor was for naught. The simple thermometer placed inside the incubator was faulty. Another science lesson for the masses. Occam’s Thermometer.