by MERLIN CROSSLEY
I’ve never really liked gambling.
I figured that organised gambling only exists because the odds are stacked against the punter and I’ve never been attracted to race courses, casinos, or to those unfortunately named ‘VIP’ lounges in local pubs. But suddenly I realised that I gamble every day in the lab – I’ve gambled very carefully with my own career and with the futures of my students and postdocs.
As I’ll explain at the end, careful gambling in research is OK, because in research “the odds are always in our favour.” In fact, it would be risky to stop supporting researchers in risk taking.
Accordingly, I’ve made leaps of faith to test important hypotheses.
I’ve sat on the edge of my seat nervously waiting for results.
When the results have come in – and have supported my hypothesis – I have not said “eureka! I’ve found it” but rather I have whispered a quiet and satisfying, very personal “hooray.” Partly out of relief, partly out of the smug joy of knowing I was right, but also perhaps in response to that strange and slightly dark pleasure of saying “I told you so”, though hopefully never the childishly triumphant “nah, nah, neh, nah, nah.”
I wonder, do gamblers experience these emotions?
I’m not sure what motivates scientists most and I’m sure different scientists are different. Some are driven by curiosity. Some by the desire to cure a particular disease or solve a puzzle. A few want glory and fame. Perhaps a very few hope to make money. Most, I think, just want to continue to belong and to be respected within a close and supportive peer group, to keep being scientists and not be voted off the island as a failure, having been left unfunded, with their labs closing down.
In all of the above cases, it certainly does help if your bets are right.
Of course, this isn’t really how science is perceived or meant to be.
It’s meant to be curiosity driven, or these days, mission driven, and scientists are sometimes expected to be dispassionate and logical, systematically stepping through the various hypotheses as the data unfolds and provides the answers. It is not supposed to matter whether a scientist’s hypotheses are mostly right or mostly wrong, provided that they keep producing reliable data. Provided they are competent and productive.
Sometimes it is like that and one can design experiments that are exploratory or observational, so that whatever you observe will be new and reportable. You just have to do the experiments properly and write up the results.
But the big experiments that make or break careers are different. Some experiments are only a success when the data supports the hypothesis. These experiments may seem like the search for the Loch Ness monster. A lot is invested in them and if the hypothesis is right there will be triumph.
One problem is that if the experiment fails, that doesn’t actually disprove the hypothesis. Instead the hypothesis sort of hangs on because it is not actually possible to prove that Nessie isn’t there.
Could these experiments be dangerous? If there is pressure to see that monster, and if that pressure never ends.
Admitting you are wrong can be very hard for scientists. Scientists are meant to be smart and they are meant to be right. Is it sometimes difficult for scientists to publicly admit that they are wrong?
Is it too hard to give up? Scientific training, and in fact a large part of many educational programs, and certainly motivational courses, relate to following your dreams and never giving up. I actually think we should make greater efforts to teach people about the importance of cutting your losses and giving up.
On top of this it takes many years to develop expertise. If you are the world leader in hunting Loch Ness monsters it may be extremely unpleasant to come to appreciate that they don’t exist and it’s time to re-invent your career.
So do scientists ever become problem gamblers, who can’t give up because they have become so invested in their hypotheses?
Fortunately, several features of science come to the rescue and keep scientists on track, so most of the risks taken are not crazy.
Firstly, the much-criticised short-term funding system tends to ruthlessly terminate fruitless searches for Loch Ness monsters. Most research is funded by short term grants and they are seldom renewed if there are not at least a few decent snapshots that might be Nessie.
On top of this, even though one can’t actually prove that Nessie doesn’t exist, the highly competitive nature of science, which indeed is also often lamented, will quickly ensure that rival researchers will minutely criticise all your data, question your hypotheses, and provide alternative interpretations. In the face of constant criticism and scrutiny wild goose chases or extended gambling streaks seldom last for too long.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the breadth of things we know in science is tiny compared to the things we don’t know. Even though one might be on a wild goose chase – and you can never really tell – there is a very good chance that even if geese don’t exist, a good researcher will soon find ducks, chickens or even peacocks. In other words, Loch Ness is vast, and it is likely that any properly trained and skilled scientist will end up finding something interesting in the murky depths. Thus gambling on a scientific hypothesis is nearly always a two way bet and the odds are actually stacked in the scientist’s and society’s favour.
So, in general, obsessed and passionate gamblers can actually thrive in science, forever seeking and searching and moving or being pushed by the critics from one hunt to another. The good news is that they don’t leave a trail of debt behind them, nor broken dreams. Instead, they tend to discover the unexpected by serendipity and bring to light – not always what they were expecting – but things much more important than that, things that were never expected, and possibly never even imagined. And every time something new is brought to light new applications become possible, as knowledge is recombined in every increasing innovative combinations.
The deeply personal drive tends to make researchers highly productive. If you combine this with the high probability that something good will be discovered and this will fuel new inventions, funding science really does become an investment rather than a cost. If one looks over the last three hundred years it is very clear that the odds truly are “always in our favour.”
So, even now, it is right to invest in people interested in exploration, discovery, and invention, even if, and perhaps especially if, they seem obsessed.
Merlin Crossley Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academic