Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I don’t know why I picked Science. I remember in Yr.10 when we had to draw up a list of short-term and long-term goals, my goal was to get my name in the “British Medical Journal”. I don’t know why that particular journal – or why I was even aware of it! However, that is what I wanted.

I actually had a fork (trident?) in my long-term plan. “If UAI = 99.3 or higher, apply for Medicine. If UAI < 90, apply for Medical Science. If UAI < 70, apply for Teaching.” Teaching was ruled out pretty early on. I wanted to be a teacher – because I always thought I was good at it and it made me happy to teach. I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to do “good” – and thought that I would get over my aversion for blood and guts. I wanted to be a scientist because I wanted to make a difference. It was never going to be enough for me to just do a job that would pay.

I had a UAI< 90. I got into Medical Science. I fell in “love” with Science. I sometimes wonder if I am fooling myself by saying that. Did I actually fall in love with my subjects or did I feel like I would have to because I wouldn’t be able to do Medicine anyway and Teaching was never really an option?

For the moment, I will assume that I fell in love with the subject. I finished my degree and started an Honours degree. I don’t think I was thinking seriously of a PhD then. During my Honours year I was told that I was “good at research”. I no longer know what that means.

A PhD seemed like the next logical step and before I knew it, I was doing something. What I wanted to do for a PhD and what I ended up getting were two different things. I was interested in pure genetics and I got molecular biology. At the time, I probably couldn’t tell the difference. Besides, PhDs in pure genetics are hardly possible anymore anyway.

I told myself all those beautiful things about science – how science is the search for the ultimate truth. It is worth everything. Scientists are selfless – why else would they subject themselves to long hours of laborious tasks for something close to minimal wage? Blah blah blah.

I now know that scientists are people too. They aren’t searching for the “truth”. They are simply searching for a paper, a publication and a career. A career that is often gotten not by the quality of the research you carry out but often by what ideas you steal. Science isn’t about collaboration – it is about tripping your colleagues, stepping on them and getting ahead. Science is about making a living.

If you want to be a scientist who wants to “search for the truth”, you have to be willing to play the same ball-game. Sure it is “all that we have”, but really if this is it, then the world is a much dirtier place than I originally thought.

I think it was Harry Truman (a politician) who said something along the lines of, “it is amazing how much you can achieve if you don’t worry about who gets the credit”. If scientists were “selfless” and were simply devoting their life to the search for the “truth”, then I think we would have a cure for cancer by now. Unfortunately Scientists worry too much about “who gets the credit”. It is not enough to just make a discovery, but extremely important to hide that discovery till you can establish yourself as the world’s leading expert in that field. Scientists are hypocrites. There is constant talk of collaboration and “sharing of ideas”. They always talk about how it is so important to share your thoughts. However, when it comes down to it, scientists rarely do it – they worry about someone else “stealing” their idea.

I remember during my first year of my PhD, someone else published a paper that was pretty much a summary of what my PhD was supposed to be. I was upset for myself – however, I remember saying to anyone who was interested that the discovery had been made. If I had made the discovery, it would have taken another 3 or 4 years. It doesn’t matter who figures it out – all that matters is that someone did.

I was talking to someone late last year about Yoga and Cancer. He was saying how he knows of people who have spent a few weeks in the Himalayas and as a result their cancer has been cured. Science is not able to explain it. The scientist in me doubts very much that a change in altitude/geography will cure all your ills. People always make fun of things like religion, astrology, numerology etc., by saying that there is no scientific proof. It is scary to think that the heart medication you are taking probably has less proof than the premise than the time of your birth affects your personality.

However, if I was suffering from some disease and a spiritual attitude cured me (despite no scientific proof), does it really matter? If all I want is relief and I get it, then does it really matter whether there is any “scientific proof” for my methods?

However, it matters in Science. It matters whether I make a discovery or if my partner does. It matters who comes up with the idea first. Scientists give whole talks where they say “We have found X to be a possible cure for Y”; and yet never actually tell you what X is. They do it (and justify it) by saying that they don’t want to talk about something that hasn’t been proven completely - or they fool themselves by saying that further work is needed. In reality, they don’t want someone else to publish before them. They are selfish. If it was true that they did not want to talk about something that hasn’t been proven, then they shouldn’t talk about it at all – unless and until you are convinced about your result, you wouldn’t talk about it anyway.

To put half the story out there, is hindering progress – the complete opposite of the unspoken oath that a scientist takes at the beginning of their career. It deeply angers me that ideas are withheld for selfish reasons – and when a discovery or idea is not shared, there is absolutely nothing noble about it. Even if the discovery can have drastic consequences. Even when a scientist withholds a discovery that they think can destroy the earth – they don’t do it because it will – they do it at best because they can’t do the necessary experiments to prove it or at worst because they don’t want their name associated with it. Scientists have come up with things like, “All discoveries have possible good and bad consequences” and, “a scientist simply wants the truth – the consequences are of no importance”. Scientists are able to hide their selfishness by masking it as something truly noble and absolute.

I am writing this because I have come to the conclusion that I don’t know any “true” scientists. Scientists are not searching for the truth. That is the truth.

Perhaps these bitter realisations are simply my conclusions because of my understanding of science and scientists over the course of my PhD. Perhaps I will conclude this like a “scientist” – my arguments hold true for the science I have seen performed and for the scientists I have met. I will even put a disclaimer out and say, “This may not necessarily refer to all scientists – only to those that I have met.” Scientists like to cover al their bases – but at what cost?

“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth...not going all the way, and not starting.” – Buddha.