Thursday, June 23, 2011

Different ways to say the same thing?

Recently I was listening to the great biotech podcast Future in Biotech episode 77 when they were interviewing the great Susan Lindquist and her postdoc Daniel Jarosz about a paper just published. I will not go through the paper here (go to the link, great interview), but the gist is that they discovered another layer of subtle control on the expression of proteins by a cell, that can be tweaked depending on the environmental conditions. As I was listening to the interview, I was trying to construct a mental model of all the control mechanisms that a cell has, and it simply overwhelmed my imagination.
At that point, I suddenly remembered a post by PZ Myers in the very popular Pharyngula where he starts the article with one of the best phrases ever: "Most of you don't understand evolution". Then he proceeded to destroy the general bad assumptions that most of us (non evolutionary biologists) have about evolution. I am not talking about creationism stuff, just about the fact that the basic idea that we have about evolution is structurally wrong. PZ concentrated in the fact that most people think that evolution is for individual beings and simple genes while it is actually about population of beings and networks of genes, but I am sure that there are a bunch of other similar misconceptions that the general scientific public has (and let's not even mention the general non-scientific public as seen here).
Then I came back to something that I had been discussing recently in another forum (It's Science, you wouldn't understand ) where I discussed about how much intervention the general (non scientific) public should have in deciding the agenda for Scientific institutions. I don't think I did a great job explaining my position (yes to explain the general principles and yes to deciding the general directions, no to every other intervention), but I think both the FiB episode and PZ's article point towards the same direction.

People tend to confuse the map with the territory.

It is not because you have a basic understanding of a scientific theory that you actually know about it. There is a reason why there are so few postdocs in every specific topic, as it takes a long time to acquire the expertise to avoid confusing the map/metaphor with the territory/reality.  And just as you can't jump into a map and arrive to a destination, you can't use you basic understanding of a scientific issue to take decisions about that issue. You have to walk the pathway to arrive to the territory.

Science is hard. But it is so good.

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