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Pro-Am research collaboration shows gap between scientists and public

17 November 2011

This American Life has a great first act this week about a professional cancer researcher teaming up with an orchestra teacher to try to fight cancer using sound waves. Reporter Gabriel Rhodes is also working on a film about the unlikely collaboration, titled The Cure. Here’s a sample scene:

Reading the Cells from Gabriel Rhodes on Vimeo.

It’s the story of an outside-the-box idea; the story of a friendship being built and broken down again; and the story of the scientific method in action. But through it all, the overarching story is about the vast gulf that exists between how professional scientists understand what science is and how it works, and how the rest of us think of it.

As the pair repeats their experiments over and over, rejecting promising results on a technical mistake here, an improper control there, the difference between the professional and the amateur becomes more and more clear. For the trained scientist, failure and iteration is a normal, expected, even necessary part of the process. But for the amateur, it’s disappointing—and then exhausting—to keep seeing good results, only to be told again and again that it doesn’t constitute “proof.”

Rhodes does an excellent job of exploring the nuances in this tale. He captures the strained relationship of two men who genuinely like each other, are excited to work together, and yet whose attitudes and expectations about the project (and therefore, to a significant extent, their relationship) are fundamentally disjointed. He gives each of them a voice, doesn’t take sides, and between both perspectives leaves the impression that there’s no “winner” or “loser” in this story.

Just as important, Rhodes captures the sense of scientific inquiry as something tangibly, painfully slow, and demanding, and difficult. It’s a side of science that the public rarely gets to see, and one that conflicts with familiar images of sudden insights and instant lab results. But the truth is that real science doesn’t work the way it looks on TV, where same-day DNA tests are routine, or in Hollywood, where a tinkerer in his garage can invent a time machine. Real scientists spend years, even decades, on a single line of research before they can convince their peers that it has any merit—and even then, the most outside-the-box ideas are still the ones least likely to pan out in the long run.

You can find more about Rhodes’ film at This week’s episode of This American Life is called So Crazy It Just Might Work, and as usual, the whole thing is worth a listen.

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