Archives for the month of: August, 2012

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“Now I come to you full of future. And from habit we begin to live our past.” (Rilke, 1898)

Rainer Maria Rilke was a writer who dealt with the ineffable.  Trying to use words to describe the indescribable he left a body of work that, for many, is hauntingly beautiful.  These lines, however, were written not for the public, but for Rilke’s married lover.  We were never meant to share them.  They were for her eyes and were meant to stir her senses, not ours.  But, here they are before us and between us, hanging in the air and only barely revealing their meaning.  I begin with this quotation, because I do not know what these words mean, what they really mean, but somehow, as with much of Rilke’s work, I think I feel what is meant.

The expectation of tomorrow is filled with the future, while the past is something safer and surer and easier to live, and relive, than to move forward.  However, discovery lies ahead and it is only by moving forward, reaching into tomorrow, that we can grasp what is new.

In the world of scientific research our business is finding answers to new questions.  Where do these questions come from?  Many, who view science from the outside, believe that scientific questions are obvious and arise spontaneously in the minds of the researcher.  But, the questions a scientist must ask should have characteristics that ensure they are answerable.  The way that a scientist sets out to answer these questions and what is done with these answers make up what has become known as the scientific method.  This method may be thought of as a cycle composed of several steps.

Step one

Begin with wonder.  Why does the sun move? What makes a firefly glow? How does the brain work?

Step two

Learn more about the question.  Here we have to gather what information we can about the topic that has caught our attention.  This may be reading about the subject or making further preliminary observations.

Step three

Make an educated guess.  This is a statement, often of cause and effect that is referred to as the hypothesis. Hypotheses should be constructed in such a way that they can be tested. The Sun moves because it is falling, fireflies glow because of trapped moonbeams, the brain works by clockwork.  All these statements are hypotheses, not very convincing ones, but hypotheses nonetheless. An hypothesis is not formulated as a question, but as a statement that is thrown down as a gauntlet challenging the experimenter to prove it wrong.

Step four

Experiment.  The hypothesis must be tested by conducting experiments designed to answer the question.  Hypotheses can usually only be tested by a series of related experiments, where a single variable is altered each time and where the experiments are conducted multiple times to eliminate the confounding effects of variability.

Step five

Put it together.  By analysing the data you collect you may draw conclusions and confirm whether your hypothesis is true or false.  If you have conducted your experiments well, either way you will have an answer. If you find that your hypothesis is supported by your results you may have found the cause of your observed effect; if it is not you have found at least one thing that cannot be the cause of your effect.  The latter path leads you back to where you began, with revised wonder and the need for the development of a new hypothesis.

Step six

Spread the word.  The research process is only complete and the circle escaped when you have successfully communicated your findings to your peers and, if appropriate, the wider public. Only then is your job done, at least until the next question presents itself.

The scientific method, as described, exists in a number of related forms and has been with us for a long time ― some say from antiquity.  Its application has, however, been patchy often because of variable approaches to the rigours of experimentation.

Experimental design is important, but it is our questions that are the beginning of the scientific method and it is important to ponder these further.  May we conclude that only those who question the world may be effective researchers?  Without questions there can be no research, but many researchers spend their professional lives in the pursuit of answers to questions that they did not formulate themselves.  Such second-hand questions are just as valid to work on, and some of the greatest discoveries have been made in this way.  Watson and Crick, for example, did not invent the notion of DNA and nor were they the first to ask the question: what is its structure?  They were, however, the ones to provide the startling answer of the double helix, a model that immediately allowed for self-replication, and opened up a new science of molecular genetics.

Some questions are age-old, but require refinement and readjustment so that they may be amenable to scientific enquiry.  They may need to be broken down into smaller questions or ones that are numerical, or quantitative, rather than qualitative. This business of asking the “right question” is at the very heart of science.  The right question is one that can be answered.  “How does the brain work?” may represent a moment of profound wonder, but it does not come close to being a viable scientific question.  In scale, it is simply too big, too vague, with no way in. Beginning with this as an aim, however, we may, through study and observation, begin to refine our questions, resulting in not one but many smaller, more accessible lines of enquiry.

Thus, finding the right question is the most important first step in scientific research, and one that takes time and energy.

A few year after his love letter, with which we began, Rilke wrote another letter, this time to an aspiring poet:

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

For poets, good advice; for scientists, it is hard to imagine how we may simply live our way into the answers, but we must, without doubt, as part of the scientific method, “Live the questions now.”

© Allan Gaw 2012

My books available on kindle:

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Grammar can be contentious.  The conventions by which we write have been honed over centuries and have become rules of practice. Some would argue, however, that language is in a constant state of development, evolving to meet the needs of each succeeding generation.  This is undoubtedly true of the spoken word, but what of written language, especially formal, written English?

I have recently been assessing the written work of fourth year medical students.  Despite being at the very top end of the educational pyramid these young men and women often struggle to write coherently and correctly.

Common grammatical errors abound and rather than concentrating on the ideas and opinions of the writers I found myself going through the text with a red pen in hand, much as my elementary school teacher did.  Some grammar is complex and controversial.  Some conventions vary on different sides of the Atlantic.  However, some aspects of grammar are not open to debate and failure to apply them is not just distracting, it forces the reader to the uncomfortable conclusion that the writer is a fool.

Let me illustrate this with one example of the kind of thing I mean.  “Should have”, “could have” and “would have” may be contracted in informal English to “should’ve”, “could’ve” and “would’ve”.  Now, when we use these contractions in speech, as we all do, they sound as if they have the word “of” after each, instead of the contraction “ve” standing in for the “have”.  The problem comes when a writer mistakenly transliterates this speech form back into writing.  Who would do this? Well, one of these students did it 23 times in the course of a 12 page assignment.  “The patient could of…” and, “these results would of…” jarred my reading to the point that I couldn’t see anything else.  There were probably good parts to the work, but I didn’t get that far.  All I could see were the grammar crimes being perpetrated before my eyes.  Perhaps, unfairly, I was affected by this trauma and I concluded before I had reached the end that the person who had written this was undeserving of anything close to a pass mark.

Like it or not, your readers will judge you not only by what you write, but how you write it.  The rules of grammar are flouted when we speak and that’s not only fine, it is appropriate.  If we had to craft every sentence before we spoke not much would be said. Similarly, in our informal writing we are relaxed when it comes to grammar (although in the spirit of full disclosure, I must declare I do use commas when I text).  We use contractions liberally in our emails and blogs, and split infinitives even find their way in without too much difficulty.  But, the line is drawn when it comes to our formal writing.  Our scientific papers, our dissertations and our university essays should, I would argue, be written as well and as accurately as possible.

I know what I want when I read the work of my students and my peers, but obviously, as the case above illustrates, I don’t always get it.  This raises the question: “why?” Why did this student think that it was acceptable and correct to write “should of” when he meant “should have”?  Had he never been taught the basics of grammar?  Had he never been corrected when making this mistake in the past?  How could he possibly have made it through 13 years of schooling and 4 years of university without being brought to book over such a basic grammatical infringement?

I have read of other academics who bemoan the fact that their students cannot write grammatical English.  Declining standards and educational liberalism are blamed.  However, I am not so sure it is as simple as that.  To say we live in a changing world, where standards of written language are in flux, is so obvious to be trite.  But, things do seem to have speeded up in recent years.  The majority of students’ written practice will, over the last few years, have been in the drafting of sound bites for facebook and twitter.  Grammar is not a high priority there, nor should it be.  These are quick, and dirty, forms of communication.  Few of these students are called upon to write longer pieces of coherent prose in the medical curriculum and probably do not write much beyond their studies.  When was the last letter of several pages you received from anyone, let alone a student?

Formal writing practice is clearly at a low ebb, but grammar is acquired not just by writing, but, possibly even more importantly, from reading.  Do our students read?  Well they can read and some claim in their personal statements to be avid readers.  Actually, all claim to be avid readers, for they believe that this will make them appear intellectually suitable material for entry into medical school.  Whether they do in fact continue with this self-professed literary zeal is moot.

For current students the reasons may be unimportant at this stage of the game.  The damage is already done and the solution is simple.  They need to learn, or at least re-learn, basic English grammar.  And, they have to have an incentive for doing so.  They have to know they will fail if their work is deemed to be poorly presented and poorly written, as well as poorly researched. Fourth year medical students who cannot write are unlikely to turn into Consultants and academics who can.

Lest I appear curmudgeonly, I do not wish to tar all students with this particular brush.  Some students’ written work is not only good but better that I could ever hope to write.  What troubles me though is the number who submit written work that is ungrammatical in such a way that it reveals them to be ignorant of their own state of ignorance.

Beverley Knight sang, “And I wonder, wonder, wonder what I’m gonna do. Shoulda woulda coulda are the last words of a fool.”  I’m with Bev.

© Allan Gaw 2012

My books available on kindle:

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.43Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.00BIS Cover copyScreen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.29Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.18.54Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.37Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.16Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.19.58Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.20.06

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