Thursday, August 02, 2012

I don't know why I'm blogging this

I gave a work presentation recently. It was well received and applauded. I was happy. A lot of work was shown investigating a stunning new finding. The finding is beautiful, the results I showed were consistent and the experiments were tight. But, a certain sadness and annoyance persists past the sprinkle of glory.
The annoyance comes from having been told exclude data that does not fit in the picture that is currently taking shape, because it is not fully interpretable. Significant, high resolution data that at the moment was put in the backup slides, because the error bars were too large. In addition, I was asked to remove details to show a simple trend: take away data points to make a graph look linear, almost like adding a trendline. Further, I was told to remove data in which no obvious pattern emerges... because there was too much detail.
It has to be made crystal clear that no unethical manipulation of data occurred. It was an attempt to make the findings easier to follow as I discuss in a bit.
I'm told it is ok to do these things "to tell a good story". Telling a good story... I can see that is important. In a scientific presentation one is trying to convey newly generated information and nascent concepts to an unprimed audience. However informed one is about a system, new information needs to flow logically for it to be absorbed and assimilated by any audience. In essence, it has to make a nice story. I will say not everyone is equipped with all conceptual tools, information and sadly sometimes accumen to grasp new findings and their implications (This presentation was meant for peers studying fruitflies and worms at the University). However, I feel facts that represent the system in its entirety should not be sanitized to fit a story, or one picks the ending and plot to a story that can "flow logically for it to be absorbed and assimilated". The idea not to dumb things down, but to make it more approachable. And that is a remarkable balancing act. That's good story telling. But, we don't write the story. Nature has it scripted out. Science is an attempt at reading it. Nature is cluttered and we need to deal with that fact. It should be our job to make sense of 
Having said this, I am a little conflicted after sleeping over these thoughts. It is true: "Subtle is the lord but not malicious". We are only human and subtleties can be distracting. The distraction can lead an audience away from the findings that corroborate other data. Or, heaven forbid, raise questions that no one knows the answers to, and yet, specifically make the presenter look not in control of their experimental design and data.
Putting away experiments that weakly support your findings  but leave other avenues open, is good showmanship but also being pretentious. We have to pretend as though we know everything about everything, and we knew what the data would be. That is how a lot of papers and grant proposals read anyway. The other facet is, that cocky self assurance (along with an interesting finding and coherent presentation) puts a speaker on higher ground. We are human and desire appreciation from our peers and of course, funding :). 
And this is where sadness comes in. Some researchers stoop to sales pitches. Because if people buy your product, oops.. idea, that translates to more citations, more reccomendation letters/ students, more funding and personal aggrandizement. A lot of us are not above that. But should this attitude extend to extended labmeetings?
It comes down to how honest researchers are to themselves. If you are looking for the truth about nature, it might not fit the current definition of beauty and intellectual elegance. It is what it is. Its splendid and shabby confusion deserves to be shown.
Then again, I haven't resolved this for myself yet.