We're a little crazy, about science!

People are squishy and other science explanations

A recent blog comment reminded me of something I said the other day to surgeon-PI. Keep in mind that surgeon-PI and I have only known each other since he started at the hospital, which isn’t long. While we were doing an experiment in the OR, so under his watch, we discussed some of the challenges with the experiments we were doing and when we tried to change things on the fly he said it was bad science, to which I replied people are squishy. I said what I said damn it!

Sometimes in science you have to “fuck around and find out,” which is to say that if you don’t try something, you’ll never know what will happen. The good news is we (mostly) know what will happen for a lot of the stuff we do. Unfortunately one of the major questions we’re answering in the OR is not the typical science question, or maybe it is, but people don’t talk about it like this very often.

The short version is we know exactly what the thing we’re looking for looks like. The catch is we need to figure out how to get that thing from the people we’re working with. There are a lot of confounding factors, or things that can interfere with what we are trying to do. Everything from age to weight is a factor (fancy science speak for thing) we cannot control for.

Thus the throw stuff at a wall and see what sticks approach. That isn’t “good” science in the typical sense, but we know where we want to be, we’re just not sure how to get there so there isn’t a whole lot of good ways to standardize what we’re doing until we can get the thing we want from at least a single person. We’re stuck blindly groping around in the dark hoping we find the magical combination of things that does the thing we need. That would typically be called “bad science.”

When I said people are squishy, I had to go on to explain that there are a lot of differences in people and what works for one may not work for all. It felt like the right way to explain it at the time and I still stand by the way I phrased it, even if that is how I would explain it when I’m doing outreach and not exactly the best way to explain it to a neurosurgeon.

At the heart of what he was saying is that in history science meant we make a hypothesis, design an experiment, and see if our hypothesis holds. A good hypothesis is based on something we can easily test for and has a firm foundation in science. Experiments are done rigidly and don’t get changed, data is collected, and the answer is found. That’s the standard way of doing things anyway, but sometimes that isn’t the best way to do science.

In our case we have either one very distinct path to our goal or we have many different paths that could lead there. Right now it feels more of the former than the latter, because we haven’t found the thing yet! That doesn’t mean we won’t (or maybe we won’t, who knows?) it just means we haven’t found the right path. So how do we find the right path?

Well first we know how to do the thing we’re looking for using a totally different method, so that provides us with at least a solid starting point on our hunt. We’ve had over half a dozen successful experiments now with no luck finding the thing we’re looking for so we need to switch things up a bit and use the tool we’re using closer to the way we would normally use it and find a middle ground so we can hopefully find the thing (the thing!!). It’s a struggle.

This wouldn’t be the first time I used non-scientific language to describe stuff in a clinical/ hospital/ research setting though. For example, there was the time I called the withdrawal reflex the ouch response, again accurate. With reference to movement, I called conscious thought background noise, but that’s because it is! Lastly and somewhat famously, I made our very stoic school-PI finally crack when I described the spinal cord as a sausage brain and tell me I’m wrong! I had spent the entire pandemic trying to get him to laugh via funny zoom backgrounds and that was what finally did it.

I think what this comes down to, and why I am having two seemingly very different topics in this post is that, while I what I do very seriously, I don’t take my job seriously. I don’t mind not being a “traditional” professional because using fancy language to describe the things I do just makes me sound smart, it doesn’t make me better at my job. It also means I’m alienating a whole bunch of people by using terms they may not come across. And let’s be honest, you’re more likely to remember sausage brain than if I said the spinal cord was made up of white and grey matter like the brain.

Science doesn’t need to be unyielding, sometimes we can just look around and describe what we see. And sometimes what we see is a sausage brain (I just really like calling it that).


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