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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.