Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Is this post literally true?

Th'Gaussling had a wonderful post on the internal workings of a chemical company and ended with this gem of a paragraph:
Chemists love details and, like a pig in sh-t*, we love to roll around in the data. And for some, no detail is too small to bring the show to a complete halt while they wrestle with details. I’ve seen this many times. This makes it difficult for some chemists to make the transition to other job descriptions. It is a simple fact that we sometimes have to move forward with an incomplete picture.
It got me to wondering -- why is that? Why do we stop everything to deal with one tiny detail? Certainly, there's the joy of proving someone wrong, of showing off, but there's also the desire to Get Everything Right. It reminds me of this wonderful passage from (sorry, excimer) Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon; it's a conversation between two characters, Randy and Amy:
RW: "My point is that precision, and getting things right, in the mathematical sense, is the one thing we have going for us. Everyone has to have a way of getting ahead, right? Otherwise you end up working at McDonald’s your whole life, or worse. Some are born rich. Some are born into a big family like yours. We make our way in the world by knowing that two plus two equals four, and sticking to our guns in a way that is kind of nerdy and that maybe hurts people’s feelings sometimes. I’m sorry."
AS: "Hurts whose feelings? People who think that two plus two equals five?"

RW: "People who put a higher priority on social graces than on having every statement uttered in a conversation be literally true."
And I think that this is something to be striven for, in a conversation about new chemistry in a chemistry laboratory -- that as many statements as possible be literally true. It's important to know what has been demonstrated to be true, what is thought to be true and what is not known to be true. Otherwise, people get the idea that things that haven't been worked out have been worked out (and in the worst case, can be ignored until it's too late); in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are things that you know that you know and there are things that you know that you don't know.

In the end, though, Gaussling is right. Almost always, there are some details that cannot stop the show (and won't); it's just that you have to know which ones you can safely ignore.

*Bowdlerization CJ's.


  1. I distinctly remember a group meeting a few years back where we took apart every step of a catalytic cycle to see where the problem was in my coworkers' data. We eventually tracked it down to trace water in a co-catalyst that was promoting a different pathway. Took us about 3 hours.

    That said, I understand how a middle manager in pharma might not care, past the "when will it be done?" question!

  2. Not to get controversial, but do you know any stats on religious beliefs in chemists? Because such beliefs certainly require accepting that you can't know every detail.

  3. Love the quote from Cryptonomicon. Read it a while back- Great book.

  4. As a synthetic chemist you learn to resent wishful thinking and salesmanship. You are on lookout for discrepancies. Chemicals behave in ways that are self-consistent and explicable. Weird results are a sign that you do not control/do not understand some important factor.

  5. Sharon, I don't really know any stats on chemists and religion. I assume that they're going to be not too different than scientists overall. I suspect that chemists will be slightly less irreligious than biologists, but I dunno.

  6. I'm always amazed by descriptions of traders and soldiers who have to make extremely important decisions in a split second with imperfect information. Chemists are basically at the other end of the spectrum from that. The humbling thing is how often, even with near-perfect information, we still get things wrong. It gives one a healthy contempt for expressions of certainty.

    1. But James, you're cherry picking - think of all the times you also hear about traders and soldiers making truly terrible decisions with incomplete information. It's just a case of doing the best with what you have - sometimes less is more. Although some of us have the luxury of time to acquire more data, others don't - like you said, having all the information doesn't necessarily lead to better decisions