- Alex Cloherty
Finding the Truth
In this age of suspicion over science, I wanted to write a short explanation of how this massive collection of tiny individual findings, which we commonly refer to as science, comes about. Because at its core, that's all science is. Lifetimes, centuries, of infinitesimal individual observations that are painstakingly gathered together into bigger pictures by experts who have devoted their lives to understanding miniscule corners and crevices of life.
I want to use the manuscript that I have been working on as an example. I've been working primarily on this one project, the aim of which is to identify new drugs to improve current HIV treatments, since January 2018.
From January 2018 through to December 2019 - two full years - I was running many individual experiments in the lab and collecting data that, taken together, painted a bigger picture. It started to look like, indeed, I had found some drugs that could intervene in HIV infections. In 2020, I started writing a manuscript - i.e. a scientific paper-to-be (I hope) - detailing my observations. Alongside writing, I was still running more experiments to make sure that what I saw was real, and that my observations were not due to chance or to some other influence that I hadn't yet thought of. For instance, it looked to me like my data was indicating that the drugs helped stop HIV from replicating. But, I had to make sure that the drugs were really stopping HIV from replicating. The drugs could have just been killing the cells I was working with, and thereby I would of course detect less HIV - because there would be fewer live cells for the virus to take over. Or, the drugs could have been stopping HIV from entering the cells. That's different than stopping HIV from replicating - it would be like acting like a bouncer, keeping the virus out before it made any trouble, versus acting like the police, and extracting the virus after it has already started making trouble.
In May of 2020, I had written up my manuscript, and was ready to submit it to a scientific journal. I did, and it was rejected. They weren't interested in my data.
I spent the next month adding more data and improving the writing in my manuscript, and submitted it again in June 2020, to a different journal. This time, the journal was interested in the data, so they took a look through it to see if it passed their quality controls. The journal then sent me back some minor edits that I would need to make to pass the quality check, so I made the changes and returned the updated document.
Next, the manuscript was sent out to three different scientific experts, all with expertise on slightly different aspects of the paper. Each of these experts read my manuscript, and replied with a series of questions that I would need to answer for them to be convinced that my data was worthy of being published - i.e. accepted into the Halls of Science.
Upon receiving their questions, I spent the next six months running more experiments to answer every single one of their questions. I sent back the updated (for the 3rd time) manuscript again last Friday, in January 2021. It then went through the journal's quality control checks again, and I was asked to make some additional small edits to re-pass the quality control. Now, the manuscript will be sent back to the three experts again.
At this point, I've been working on this one project for three years - and truly pouring my soul into it - and the journal might still say, "Meh, not good enough". The expert reviewers might say, "Thanks for answering our questions! We understand and are convinced that your data approximates the truth. This can be published". Or, they could equally say, "Thanks for trying to answer our questions, but we're not convinced. You need to do way more experiments before this data can be accepted into the Halls of Science."
But this is no complaint. It is a strength of science that it moves slooowwwwwly. Every new tidbit of knowledge is examined from every angle before it can be accepted as, more or less, fact. Science is a process of gathering these tiny bits of knowledge that build on each other to create a picture that is as close to capital-T Truth as we mere mortals can approach. We are teasing out bits of Truth from the universe around us, and doing it at a snail's pace to make sure that we don’t cross i's and dot t's rather than vice versa.
What I'm trying to say, is science isn't something that you can possibly believe in. There isn't anything to believe. Science is a process that you may or may not be convinced by, not a collection of stories that you may or may not trust in. And to be convinced, or not, you must dive into the data, and assess it from an unemotional vantagepoint, for what it truly is. I can attest to the fact that we scientists are very much diving into the data, arguing it out, and, as slowly and carefully as a turtle crosses a continent, coming to a consensus that approximates the Truth to the highest possible degree. Of course, new data will come up, and then our idea of the Truth will shift accordingly. Because as scientists, we don't believe in any Truth. We just find it, over and over again.
Until next week,
Thank a scientist ;)