The Power of Doubt

Petri Dish
Petri Dish. Photo by believekevin.

There’s an inter­est­ing story on the BBC News site about the woman who dis­covered AZT could help inhibit the devel­op­ment of AIDS. It’s inter­est­ing because it shows what is usu­ally the reac­tion to a dis­cov­ery. She was examin­ing petri dishes and found one sample where no cells had died after infec­tion.

I rang my super­visor, then I said: ‘I won­der if I for­got to put the virus in these 16?’” she recalls.

That tends to be my reac­tion. “That’s inter­est­ing!” fol­lowed by “I won­der what I did wrong?” In my exper­i­ence that ques­tion is cru­cial because often the reason I’ve found some­thing inter­est­ing is because there’s a gap in my know­ledge rather than find­ing some­thing new. It seems to be the reac­tion of people I work with. It’s com­mon to ask a friend to look over what you’ve done and bounce ideas off people because it is pos­sible that a simple mis­take has been made.

It’s import­ant because it’s the dif­fer­ence between scep­ti­cism and cyn­icism. Scepticism requires for­mu­lat­ing doubts and fol­low­ing the evid­ence and it’s an essen­tial step in the sci­entific pro­cess, but it’s not often seen. By the time a hypo­thesis is presen­ted to the pub­lic it has often had a num­ber of people ask­ing ques­tions to see what might have been over­looked. It’s the sci­entific equi­val­ent of ask­ing someone if they’ve looked under the magazines on the cof­fee table when someone loses their car keys. With prac­tice you start think­ing of the usual things that go wrong like “Did you set up the equip­ment correctly?’

Cynicism in con­trast tends to be more dog­matic. It starts from the pos­i­tion that some­thing is wrong, and if the evid­ence doesn’t show this then you throw out the evid­ence rather than the con­clu­sion. Distinguishing cyn­icism from scep­ti­cism can be dif­fi­cult some­times because scep­tical chal­lenges are use­ful for a polit­ic­ally minded cynic, if an idea fails the chal­lenge. AZT was built on the suc­cess of doubt, because the ques­tion was “Can I be sure this does work?”. If you start from the pos­i­tion “I can be sure this doesn’t work,” then you’re a cynic.

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