How do we become scientists? A tale on abduction

Maria Rosaria Galanti is Professor in Public Health Epidemiology at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. In this article, she provides an interesting opinion on the intellectual qualities of scientists. Are there good and bad scientists? Read on to find out Professor’s Galanti opinion.

When I was five years old, I declared the adult world (i.e. my mom, dad, and my grandmother) that I would become a medical doctor. Which I eventually did. But if anyone would have said at that stage (or even much, much later) that I would have become a respected researcher I would have twisted my mouth (“What is that”?). The thing is: I wasn’t born to be a scientist. I do not even know if anyone ever was. Ending in professional research is a process rarely starting at early age (thanks god!).

Another convincement of mines is that “researcher” (like MD, professor, or student) is a professional endeavour. In this sense, there may be good and less good doctors or researchers, professional standards and ethics will tell.

But scientists cannot be bad or good. A bad scientist is simply not one. Scientist is not a job-title, is rather a bunch of intellectual qualities conveying a perspective on the world. There are more scientists among non-researchers than there are among researchers….

So, how did I end up dealing with research and science?

Much of my education and environmental influences obviously contributed to this process. But then, in my late twenties I met the man that changed my life, however virtual (the man, not my life): Sherlock Holmes, featured by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A champion of that reasoning methodology that has been labelled as “abduction”1. At odds with “deduction”, that seeks confirmation in the facts of something we already know or believe is true (paradigm of philosophy); and with “induction”, where facts are gathered to reach new partial and provisional conclusions (paradigm of physical sciences and medicine); “abduction” is the process of drawing new explanatory models, acknowledging that any model “is generated in the eye” of the person looking at facts. For instance, abduction intervenes at the stage of inference where new and apparently unconnected facts are put into a frame, to be next tested against alternative explanations.

However, my fascination with Sherlock Holmes was much less prompted by his brilliant detective stories (thrilling, I confess but nothing for 2000-ies kids) than it was by his personality. And his personality was what I regarded as the prototype of a scientist. Let us begin.

1.     Curiosity

“To a great mind, nothing is little”  ― Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere…” ― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four

Look for questions before they become apparent! Some people will think you are a fool. But time will tell. And in the meantime, you will have a lot of fun creating new scenarios.

I remember a discussion many years ago – where I was arguing with a well-known professor in epidemiology (at the time when genetics was just a peripheric accident among epidemiologists). I remember posing the hypothetical question: “What if dependent smoking is partly genetically determined?”? He looked down at me with dismay and a dismissive attitude. A couple of decades later my question was no longer “surprising”.2

 

2.     Doubt, doubt, doubt!

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” ― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Boscombe Valley Mystery

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” ― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (This quote I actually had on my printed PhD thesis)

An inquisitive mind is what we need in the first place. Never resting on the obvious. The blood of the victim is on the knife – therefore this must be the lethal weapon.

High intake of fruit and vegetables is associated with a decreased risk of cancer. Therefore, we should increase our C vitamin intake.

Should we? Isn’t this all too obvious? Are there alternative explanations? What if C vitamin is not the reason why fruit and vegetable are protective? [In fact, experimental studies failed to confirm that C vitamin as such plays a role in preventing cancer.3]

3.     Recognize others’ quality and merits

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius.” 
― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear

Science is not a “one-man show”. Science builds on recognizing the potential of and cooperating with others. How many important scientific discoveries have been delayed because of unnatural competition between research groups?

What would Sherlock Holmes have been without Dr. Watson, the systematic defender of “good sense” in investigations? The sharp and patient listener of the hyperactive genius?

4.     “Excellent” or “good enough”?

Sherlock wouldn’t doubt. But I do. I heard so many different claims of excellence for not wondering what it is that we deem “excellent”. There can be very many different perspectives on excellence in research.

One of my dearest colleagues always recalls that the past professor Hans Rosling (an internationally recognized genius in communication of facts in global health) always surprised her in his judgment of her work as a student. When she was convinced that she did some excellent work he could freeze her with some harsh comment on how wrong she was. And demonstrated it. When she thought she did some trivial observation he could suddenly burst into a “This is very good! This is in fact genial!”

Excellence in publishing in high impact journals is not the same thing as excellence in writing, or in reasoning, or in determining the impact of a discovery on human lives. We may be happy with being “good enough” in many parts of our work, rather than being “excellent” in just one.

5. Life-long learning

“Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.” 
― Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, His Last Bow

Perhaps the most important thing – scientists are always still students. 

About the Author:

My name is Maria Rosaria Galanti and I am a Professor in Public Health Epidemiology at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. My research focuses on intervention evaluation, the epidemiology of tobacco use and the influence of school environments on mental health among adolescents. You can email me on: rosaria.galanti[at]ki.se

 

 

  1. “Carson, David. The abduction of Sherlock Holmes. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 2009; 11 (2). pp. 193-202” []
  2. “Liu M et al. Association studies of up to 1.2 million individuals yield new insights into the genetic etiology of tobacco and alcohol use. Nat Genet. 2019 Feb;51(2):237-244” []
  3. Lin J et al. Vitamins C and E and Beta Carotene Supplementation and Cancer Risk: A Randomized Controlled Trial J Natl Cancer Inst 2009;101: 14 – 23 []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.