This I Believe

Jerome - Somersworth, New Hampshire
Entered on April 30, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: courage, science

I believe in the Scientific Method.

This method has four parts: first, observation and collecting data; then, generating a “best guess” about those facts (a hypothesis); third, designing an experiment to test that hypothesis; which generates more data; and the cycle is repeated. This method has worked well since the 1600’s to advance the sum of human knowledge.

There was a time when I did not believe in this method. I was a graduate student, and my research project concerned an enzyme that repaired DNA. It was based on results that another person in the lab had discovered. This researcher had been working in the lab for five years before me, and had published many papers. Some of the papers had quite sophisticated science, and this enzyme was considered to be “well-characterized.”

As I worked on my research, I had difficulty purifying the enzyme. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t make a preparation with any activity similar to what the other researcher got. She was working beside me, and she was a hard worker, in the lab at all hours, doing her experiments and generating more data for more publications. Every time I brought the results of an unsuccessful experiment to the director of the lab, I was told to “go back and try it again.” We just couldn’t understand where I was going wrong, while the other researcher continued to get good results.

After a while, the other researcher found another job at a more prestigious institution. Once she left, I was able to use some of the material she left behind, which was very pure, and highly active. I put a sample of this precious enzyme into my initial preparation, to try to figure out where I was going wrong. In short, I found out that it wasn’t what she said it was, and it didn’t do what she said it did. Eventually, after a difficult and rigorous process, we determined that the other researcher had been falsifying data. I left the lab, and went to work for another investigator. The other researcher was called back, and asked to reproduce her data. She was unable to produce an enzyme with the activity that she had previously alleged. A meeting was held, and a decision was made to print a retraction.

I waited for six months. I went back to my original lab, and asked why the retraction had not been published. I was told that “All of the people that need to know have been told,” and was asked, “What if the newspapers got this?” I resigned in protest, and the retraction was finally printed. My work was listed as “other experiments.” Because I resigned, I have nothing to show for four years except the retraction, and that should be enough. I have helped to expand the sum of human knowledge. The Scientific Method did work: observational data was used to change a hypothesis; and knowledge (from the Latin “_scientia_”) was advanced.