Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"Pure" Science

A lab mate's review of a Learning Institute she attended last week opened with a discussion on ways of knowing. It is our field's equivalent of nature vs. nurture, now nature via nurture: the huge debate that has raged for a decade but is now succumbing to "well, it's really more complicated than that". For me, it started highlighting the difference between pure and applied science. Pure science says "But we can only understand why people are X if we have all the details!". Applied science says "It doesn't matter what precise interactions of these genes and this environment resulted in this behavior, here's something that can help". In case it isn't obvious, I am an applied science person.

Perhaps I'm still bitter from having a very prediction-based study dismissed as a fishing expedition on the grounds of investigating three possible causes at once. Perhaps I'm very, very bored with the never-ending reading and the completely stalled attempts to gather data. More likely, though, it's just the thing I always liked about research. I think of science not just as a means to understand why; I think of science as a means of testing ideas, and the ideas that are most interesting are the ones that could actualy make a difference.

I'm glad somone is out there looking for the Real Reason Why. Identifying exactly why some men are homosexual could have profound impacts on culture, for example. It's just not something I could spend my life doing. I'm happier to say "this didn't work" than to say "it didn't work because it actually only applies to half of the sample, and it works great IFF features X, Y, Z1, and Z2 are present". A job in industry sounds more and more appealing; as long as I stay out of marketing, I should be able to swing something where it comes down to "Does this work better than this?". Too many qualifiers just makes science seem meaningless.

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