I had an interesting conversation with Kyle today. Although, all my conversations with Kyle are interesting. [And I've decided to do what people once did before English was settled and set down in stone: make my own judgment calls as I go along, and use punctuation in any way I see fit.]
My conversations with Kyle are not just interesting, but comfortable. He's taken all the courses and he's learned all the standard things. Some people who do that puff up as a result and you catch the vibe that they are very pleased with what a repository of knowledge they have become. If you don't know all the things they know, you somehow feel a little less. Instead, while Kyle knows what he knows, you get the feeling that's not really the point when you talk with him. The point is that not all of this "standard" knowledge makes much sense. In fact, if you do a little digging, it all starts to unravel.
He's working on his PhD in nutrition, so of course he spends a lot of time thinking about that. But he's not one of those blind mechanical people.
By blind mechanical people, I mean that the most common mentality I see among people doing research is: I just want to get published, get a nice grant, work my way up the academia hierarchy and end up with a comfy office. To that end, they avoid making waves. They aim to investigate something just well accepted enough that nobody will question them, but new enough to be a current fad / buzzword / hot topic that's getting fresh money.
I think this once had its roots in people waiting to see if someone's breakthrough results were successfully replicated by others, before wasting their own precious time on something that might be a hoax. That's my best rationalization, but it still doesn't make sense to me - because if there are exciting new results that need to be confirmed, why not you? Why not see for yourself if the concept holds promise? I personally don't know how I'd be able to resist.
I'm guessing money is the root problem. Who wants to shell out cash on something unproven? But again - in the spirit of discovery, we have to go down every road. That doesn't mean blindly. But it does mean humbly. "There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," yes?
Sometimes we are going to stumble across observations we didn't expect and can't explain. Of course, we should subject it to every test of reason we can muster, and question and question and even conjecture. But rather than running for safer ground because this is too new and "unestablished," we should take heart in the strength of our own reasoning, and use our conjectures as the basis of investigations. This is the testing of a falsifiable hypothesis, and that is what science is all about. (Also, to me, the most thrilling adventure I can imagine.)
People seem to have forgotten this. It's not "attempt to prove a popular hypothesis (and discredit all challengers, simply because they are challengers) because it will make you more popular." Except, of course, if your entire career depends on your findings being profitable to other people... Then the name of the game is just feed them what they want to hear, because it is a safer bet than taking a chance and getting it wrong.
And that's the problem. Many people fully vested in academic research seem to have lost a little part of themselves. They're curious, but only within a very limited range. It's like a dog that's been trained not to go in the kitchen, and to stay off the furniture.
I have a sort of litmus test for these kinds of people. I see what they talk about when they're not working. Some people are naturally curious, and it's a part of their character. It's a way they see the world. They're still thinking, still wondering, even when they're free. And it's not only about their specialty.
These are the people who, when they're in science, do it because they're explorers, and they're motivated by truth. They may for practical reasons be forced to hedge, but those concerns are always secondary.
I do know a bunch of people who do have integrity, who don't base their research on sycophancy, and who, if asked an interesting question, will be intrigued rather than dismissive. However, that's as far as most go. For myself, I carry my questions with me everywhere. While I'm brushing my teeth, when I'm sitting in traffic, while I'm falling sleep - it's my main event. And I rarely have someone to share this with.
It's really encouraging to have someone both listen to your ideas and offer their own, in general. But it becomes even more so when those ideas aren't the kind that you're required to come up with in any way. So few people think for fun.
That is why I'm pretty damn grateful that I get to talk with Kyle. He exemplifies that attitude, but he's also been doing it for a lot longer than I have. I have the best of intentions but I'm still trying to shake off the shackles - those ingrained tendencies to blindly accept what you're taught, the knee jerk skepticism of anyone else. There's a certain ideal I guess I don't know how to explain yet, a whole sort of worldview, attitude and demeanor. I'm going to call it "right thinking" for now. Well, Kyle is a very good role model of that.
Talking with Kyle encourages me to be more open minded and critical at the same time. Listen to every idea, wherever it comes from - and then examine it based on its own merits. Don't tune something out because it comes from an unorthodox source. If something is clearly rubbish, you should be able to discern that by examining the idea, without having to judge it by its source.
Even if a disreputable source presents you with nonsense, it's still getting you to think outside the box. It's gotten you to investigate, and you may now have more knowledge than you had before.
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with being completely wrong. The important part is that you looked at all the evidence available to you, and you found a genuine possibility to test. If it fails, get more information, ask more questions, try new things. The ultimate goal is assembling the big picture, taking the little things we know and connecting them all to each other. You don't necessarily need the fanciest equipment to do so, either. That can be more of a distraction than anything else.
I don't know if there's any way to take that, my personal belief system, and impose it on the world. I feel like I have a perspective which needs a signal boost these days, sure. I think it has a lot to offer. But, though you can make your perspective available, you can't make others interested. Oh well.