I was supposed to be a concert violinist first.
Of course this meant many hours practicing daily; “commuting” 300 miles every other week for lessons; going to the Upstate NY summer music camp (almost uniformly called the “Concentration Camp”) that all the Juilliard kids went to… In music there are a couple “phenotypes” you often see: the kids that are “technicians”—perfect intonation, meticulous fingering and bowing technique, flashy brilliance with technical passages; and the “musicians”, technically excellent—not quite the same level—but who exhibit a real affinity for interpretation, phrasing, great dynamic range, great feel for the piece at hand. The superstars were the people that had both (perhaps only one or two a generation). And to me, the epitome of such a superstar is Jascha Heifetz. He had a distinct musical style that was fully enabled by a preternatural technique that brought his musicality to a different level. His tremendous elasticity with phrasing, tempi, and tone served the music and was only possible because he had the absolutely best technique of his generation—Roger Federer with zero unforced errors. Heifetz defined an entirely different phenotype because he was both a brilliant technician and musician.
So let’s get back to science.
In Mark Delong’s blog post in response to our the first post on this blog, “A scientific intervention”, he laments “Look for the smallest font size in a scientific journal and you find the ‘methods section’. There’s a reason for the small typeface, and it seems to me the literal diminishment of method is a clear problem for science.” And I think Mark’s making a key point here. How science is done takes a subsidiary role to what it produces, when they really should have equal status.
It’s easy to see how things get this way. The “results” of biomedical research hopefully produce diagnostics or medicines that transmogrify research into practice—hence our obsession with results.
But science is a process, and as scientists we ignore process at our own peril. Our “technique”, our methods really are part and parcel of our result. How we do something is commensurate with our results. We should treat them the same.
Our hope with clearScience, by exposing all the steps that arrive up to a “claim” or a “result”, really is to make the process part of the result.
When I listen to a Heifetz performance, the thing that raises the hair on the back of my neck is how he can do things musically that could only happen because his technique gives him the liberty to do that.
In the same fashion, scientific conclusions are an extension of how we arrived at them. And Mark’s point about the literal and figurative diminishment of method is an insight into why our field is struggling with reproducibility. We’re good at assertions rather than illustrations.