July 24, 2009

My process of scientific inquiry - Part 1

I find very interesting how my own personal scientific discovery process plays out. It is an exciting process, but often leads to an overwhelming or overload of thoughts racing through my mind. Often, when faced with a research problem, my main and primary concern is how to understand what my experiences, judgments and data tells me. What is the deeper story and meaning of the things I observe and experience? Is there broader principles and patterns that I can detect?

Sometimes it starts simply as an intuition. Reading few interviews, or trying to answer a simple question could trigger this intuition. The feeling that something is there, and somehow I am missing the point, is a powerful motivator. It is not unusual to find myself not been able to sleep or do anything else important without having those taunting questions tantalizing my brain. Some might think this sounds like torture, but for me, this is all about being a scientists. This often "tingling" feeling about such thoughts, serves as something of a premonition, an sign that excites scientific curiosity and can lead to discovery.

Over the course of time, I learned to be patient and embrace this process, as I know it often takes a while. Sometimes it comes and goes and if it is important, I know it will come back at a later stage, when least expected, triggered again by something seemingly irrelevant. Not always we grasp the significance of such signs (as Thomas Kuhn argues), but I also believe that if something is significant, it will be eventually emerge and be picked-up. This fuzziness or uncertainty about the value of our thought processes, when managed could serve well on allowing the time to critically reflect and bounce back and forth some ideas and thoughts.

The process, when successful, resembles pieces of a puzzle coming together. We pick up one piece, look at it, put it back in a pile, then we pick up another, go through the same process again and again, until, at some point, we pick a piece, and then we remember other pieces of the puzzle that fit together. We reach back to the pile, pick the ones that remained in our memory, and... Oh! What a magic! The pieces fit together forming a part of the picture. When this happens, try to imagine how it feels.

Scientific discovery, on the other hand, is not simply a mental competency exercise. It requires painstaking thought, experimentation, hypothesizing and testing. It also requires skills and knowledge. Not so much on the type of knowledge that is simply accumulates or serves definitional narratives, but the one that allows the scientist to deeply understand the meaning and depth of the context to which such knowledge is applicable or functional. In interdisciplinary settings, the ability to generate viable and strong connections between different knowledge domains and combine successfully skills and experience is essential.

Personally, I find that an essential scientific quality and attitude towards scientific discovery is being able to be a harsh critic of oneself. Only when we can challenge ourselves first we can have the strength and power to challenge assumptions and widely held conventions in scientific knowledge. I challenge what I know, what I see and what I understand all the time. To knowing that you simply don't know enough is a powerful tool that can aid scientific discovery. Going through mental exercises in your mind, convincing oneself that often what you see is not what you get, challenging one's assumptions, dispositions and attitudes, and recognizing and embracing the proposition that in most cases it is more likely to get it wrong that getting it right are some of my intrinsic tools that drive my scientific process and the way I function in science.

The role of maturation of such processes into one's intellectuality is critical too. As time goes by a very slow process of maturation is progressing in my mind. A scientist is not simply a professional that acquired knowledge and skills throughout his or her career. A scientist is primarily an intellectual that philosophizes about his or her scientific expertise and what his or her expertise has to contribute in transforming information into knowledge that benefits society as a whole. In another article I will expose my views regarding the distorted current practice that treats the process of acquiring a PhD as a sterile educational and skill-related professional accreditation rather than a true transformative ability that turns an inquisitive individual into a scholar and philosophy of science within an area of expertise.