5 steps to building your scientific muscle

February 27, 2007

One of Monet's bridges

One of the basic variables of behavioral ecology is the GUT (Giving Up Time)–the amount of time an organism spends at one activity before quitting to do something else. The optimal solution to calculating an organism’s GUT is simple in principle: you quit one task when the opportunity costs–the costs of ignoring all the other stuff you could be doing–exceed the benefits of what you’re doing now.

That rodents are able to do these calculations with ease is a subject of much resentment among the scientists that study them.

But when do you stick with a project for the long haul? And what can you expect for all the effort? How do you avoid being an active participant in, gulp! an exercise in futility?

One answer is staked out in a recent article in the NYT summarizing the research of Andre Ericsson and colleagues. These are psychologists who study the correlates of expert performance. In other words, what does it take to get really, really, good at something? As their work is summarized in a 918 page tome, and I’m a wee bit behind in my reading the way it is, I will summarize the summary.

…the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice….Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.


“I think the most general claim here,” Ericsson says of his work, “is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.” This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.

So before we get into a knicker-twist over genes versus the environment, the message of this work seems to be that if you want to get really good at something, you have to practice, practice, practice.

But genius = good genes x workaholism.

To me, the more interesting issue relevant to this blog is the question: What sort of deliberate practice, focusing on technique and not outcome, would make one a good scientist?

An artist may paint the same bridge over and over, a dancer may practice her Tai Chi, a guitarist will work on progressions until their spinal. But what should a young scientist do over and over, focusing on the skill and not the outcome? Sure, each profession has a skill set (for me, its fixing tiny ants on tiny triangles of paper attached to stainless steel pins, so as not to immerse said ant in a sarcophagus of Elmer’s Glue)

Carebara reina, a damn tiny ant

But what intellectual practice makes you a better scientist? Here are my fives for today: Read the rest of this entry »