I had an epiphany last weekend about human beings and how the world works (at least the world of academia and native humans inhabiting the grasslands). The epiphany is that the key to success is frontin’. It all started as I was watching this fantastic BBC documentary – Human Planet (something like a David Attenborough-type series but on the ultimate animals – human beings). An episode of humans living in the East African grasslands demonstrated how they usually got their meat by stealing it from lions! A very surreal scene showed 3 men armed with nothing but spears (and a heck of a lot of confidence) walking straight to a pride of 12 lions that were feasting on a fresh kill. The most surprising thing happened next. The lions caught sight of them and ran away to hide in nearby bushes, leaving the men free to take as much meat as they wanted and then head back home. Had those lions detected that it was all a bluff, those men would have ended being lion food.
A friend of mine recently told me about how she and her partner found themselves in a paddock full of bullocks in the outskirts of Sydney. These bullocks seemed to be high on testosterone and were eager to pounce on them, forming a circle around them! Remarkably, her partner got them out of that sticky mess by huffing and puffing and putting on some kind of macho stance. The bullocks totally bought into the bluff!
In academia, frontin’ makes use of what’s known as ‘symbolic capital’. Think first of financial capital, which will buy you things, property, a house etc. Now symbolic capital will buy you respect. Think of a decorated military general covered in medals, insignia, symbols of his rank and status. The trouble in science sometimes is that people can use their medals and rank to front in a major way. Einstein, for example, confidently shot down quantum theory in favour of his own theory of relativity. But he is literally wrong.
Before I got fully submerged into the research world, I thought science was black and white. That my lecturers/tutors/other scientists knew everything they did about their fields, after all they could answer all my questions! Now it’s becoming all too apparent that science has way more grey areas that anyone cares to count, or even knows how to. All we have is hunches (based on experimental findings and previous work done), but hunches all the same. And then we follow those hunches, putting on a front all the way. If no one can detect our bluff, we are free to test our hunches, go back to the drawing board, redesign experiments, and follow up on our hunches again until we come up with something proven, something substantial. If the bluff is not bought into, we’ll be stopped dead in our tracks!
It’s quite an art.
The truth is science doesn’t just proceed by the scientific method: it also proceeds by attitude. The rhetoric that it doesn’t proceed by anything but the scientific method… is cold frontin’.