Faith of a scientist

This post isn’t about religion. I’d love to put the science-religion war to rest, and Francis Collins is one of my heroes for doing just that. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to have religious faith AND be a scientist. But that is not my topic today.

This is about the amazing faith that researchers have in trying the experiments over and over, always having hope that it WILL work one day. Trouble shooting “maybe it’s the antibody”, testing the antibody, finding out that yeah, the antibody is bad, ordering a new antibody and trying again. “This time it will work, the problem all along was the antibody had gone bad.” And then it doesn’t work, and yet instead of giving up in despair, you now think, “Ok, so the antibody was bad, but that wasn’t the only problem.” A common complaint is “I wasted months on a bad antibody.” Yes, they complain, but–they were willing to spend months on this experiment. And they haven’t given up yet.

The computer game, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, features Leonard Nimoy reading quotes each time a new technology is discovered. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri continued this, but used “futuristic”, or fictional, quotes. The following quote is from the futuristic leader Academician Prokhor Zakharov at University Commencement.

The popular stereotype of the researcher is that of a skeptic and a pessimist. Nothing could be further from the truth! Scientists must be optimists at heart, in order to block out the incessant chorus of those who say “It cannot be done.” Sound file: fac10

The fictional leader has it right except for his opinion of WHY scientists are optimists at heart. It is not to block the chorus of naysayers. It is to block our own good sense that tells us it is time to give it a rest.

In the Postdoc Forums’ post “Successful Scientist Qualities“, interviewees “shared the belief that tenacity, perseverance, resiliency or remaining motivated in the face of experimental failures is at the top of the list.” These are the same qualities that drive us nuts in the creationists.

What’s a bit ironic to me is that many consider me a pessimist. I consider myself a realist.

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