(Originally written August 19, 2009, when I had shaved my beard in order to get a job.)
It’s strange writing up the beard stories while I currently don’t have a beard. I guess it works as a consolation-prize connection to beardedness, while I adjust to the unsettling feeling of walking through the world looking relatively normal.
The curious scientist in me wishes there was a way to rigorously compare people’s reactions to me bearded and unbearded, but of course my presence and behavior completely negates any neutral controls. So, as a biologist raised in the biology culture of looking down on social scientists, I’m now adjusting to the seductive appeal of reporting single, uncontrolled incidents as significant data. The idea that an incident counts because it happened and is therefore true and is therefore important and worth discussing is strange, unsettling and enticing to my well-trained biologist brain.
Actually, this is just one symptom of my larger crisis of confidence in science. Partially influenced by my recent life as an outlier, I’ve found myself receptive to arguments that scientific research and the statistics that support it are problematically reductionist. D loves to remind me of Kinsey’s assertion that those with atypical sexual practices should be viewed not as deviant, abnormal, or diseased, but as “rare,” with all its jeweled connotations of alluring value.
In introductory biology, I was taught to delete anomalous data, presumably because it was the result of poor lab technique or random errors. But, as a proud anomaly, I now wonder. I still believe in the utility of science when it is applied. I can accept that a medicine that cures 99 people might kill the outlier hundredth, but I’m willing to accept imperfect medicine in the interest of saving more lives. Same goes for applied conservation. But, for pure academic work, in the interest of increasing the world’s body of knowledge, I’m becoming less certain of the intrinsic value of research.
I was already frustrated that research concerns itself with the minutiae, and that only rarely does a discovery have implications outside of its community of a dozen specialists worldwide. And now, I’m starting to believe that the practice of research in general is flawed. It’s awfully inconvenient to be losing my faith in research right as I need to finish my masters thesis in biology.
This isn’t quite as bad as when I took a class in existentialism my first semester of college, but it feels familiar.