Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Friday, September 08, 2006

That feeling of awe

I'm in a little bit of shock and I don't know how to put this.

It's 4 in the afternoon and I'm in my office.A little over two years ago when I arrived in Hong Kong, I started a research project with someone in my department. This person is a few years senior to me, and has been a close collaborator with my advisor. So much so that as a grad student I'd effectively been his RA at times, since I used to work at night in the US, which is while he was online in HK. He was also instrumental in bringing me here, pulling for me at recruiting meetings and pushing me hard when I was undecided. Plus he's a great fun person, heavily into cricket, etc. etc. etc.

However, his research area was completely different from mine, but at that stage after tenure, he was looking to broaden out a little. So he had this idea which he broached to me. It didn't sound like the most exciting thing in the world but I said what they hey, let's try it. I thought it would be good to have some research projects with people in my new department, and this one was good enough.

Somewhere along the line, during the discussions, a third person got invited on to the project. He's based in the US and was passing through HK at the time, and got talking about this.

The three of us exchanged a few emails. The two of us in Hong Kong did more of the talking. Eventually, we ran an experiment. It was a very careful, methodical, and interesting study involving a "real behavioral dependent variable" -- something that gets a lot of weight in the field. [It was stuff to do with how people's impulsive behaviors depend on other recent behaviors, and we had our participants doing stuff and then being allowed to eat from bowlsful of cheeseballs which, unknown to them, were counted by our RAs. It was all very cool.] However, none of our initial hypotheses was supported. The only spark was one little pattern, which we thought might be interesting to pursue.

So we thought about it, and delayed, and discussed a little more, emailed the guy in the US a couple of updates, and finally several months later ran a second study with a modified agenda. However, there again our hypotheses weren't really supported except for again, one little pattern that may have been argued to be consistent with the previous one. We didn't really know why, though.

At this stage, I'd about given up on the project. A year and a half had passed and I had other projects that were more promising, more interesting, and more fun. I'd been fortunate to get some good publications in quickly, and didn't really need this distraction, this "dog" project. Plus the brand of cheeseballs that we'd been using went out of business. That seemed like a sign.

But then we got invited onto a session that someone in Germany was organizing for the field's main conference. You get three papers together and make up a session proposal, people evaluate the thing and decide whether to accept the session or not. Getting invited onto this session meant we had to have a coherent story to tell. We almost turned the invitation down, but then thought it might help as a last gasp motivator to revive the project and get something done. So we toiled on - more from a sense of duty than adventure. The US guy had woken up meanwhile, and sent in a couple of enquiries about the progress. We emailed back and forth and finally settled on a story that might explain our data. But we needed more support, especially if we were to present at this conference.

So we had to get some more data, and so we ran a third study back in May. Yet again, the results were disappointing. While the basic pattern was again there in the data, the rest of what we saw refuted what we'd written in the proposal. To make things worse, the session proposal got accepted. So now we really had to figure out how to avoid making fools of ourselves (best strategy: go up there, waffle for fifteen minutes by presenting a literature review aka "other people's work", quickly flash a couple of non-controversial results, smile brightly, apologize for running out of time, invite anyone interested to "contact us after the talk", disappear). July-August saw some frantic emailing back and forth. We remembered that the US guy had proposed a different study back in May. Pressure on him to collect some data there. New story constructed on the basis of three disappointing experiments run to date. Conference in the end of September. Self ~ aka presenter ~ psyching up to be at bullshitting best.

Last week, I put together the presentation on the basis of the three experiments we had. It felt like sculpting bullshit -- that's exactly what I said to a colleague one day. But having done it, I felt better. I almost even believed what I was planning to say. Almost.

This morning, the new data from the fourth study came in. It's a drastically different study with a drastically different methodology, involving response times calibrated down to milliseconds. The guy in the US emailed in practically each analysis as he ran it, while the two of us in HK interpreted the numbers and suggested new tests. It is unbelievable - the patterns almost exactly support the new story, the one we arrived on after months of wrangling and hopelessness. Suffice it to say that we are pretty close to speechless.

There's a bit in Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman where he talks about walking out into the night after stumbling onto some patterns in his data. He talks about the wonder of being the first person in the world to know something -- being for a brief instant the only person to know it.

In some small little way, that's what I have right now. That feeling of awe.

It's that joy of doing research. That's why I do this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

:) I can imagine! It really is a wonderful feeling and a great ego boost.

Recently though I have been thinking that what if, some layman knew this all along. Most of the time I feel that I am just validating a result that probably someone already knew as an intution.

9/08/2006 7:10 PM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

That is just awesome and i'm happy for you. First inspite of all the frustration in research there's no joy like discovering something for the very first time. And knowing that no one before you has ever thought of it or been able to prove it. That is bliss. Extremely rewarding. Makes every bit of frustration so worthwhile. I sincerely hope your experiments work out. Good luck. And congratulations!

9/08/2006 9:30 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Not fair! This is like reading a Hercule Poirot murder mystery, reaching the end and then finding that the last five pages have been ripped out of the book.
I realize that blogging requires a certain level of anonymity and glossing over of details, but I'm on the edge of my seat here.
When we meet I'm going to press you for details on exactly what it is that you stumbled upon.

9/08/2006 9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

tr: very nice. as a grad student (I think, from what you write, in your field) good to know that even two year old research projects can have happy endings.


9/08/2006 11:03 PM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

Ah, your very own Eureka moment! So, for second day in a row, well done, sir! :-)

Psst...are these RAs paid well to count the number of cheeseballs the guinea pigs eat? Wouldn't mind a switch in jobs :-)

9/09/2006 1:05 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

it is, isn't it?! i get the feeling you've had one as well ;-)

i personally don't worry that something i may establish empirically may have been known to some layman. there are plenty of lay beliefs out there (believe me, that's one of my areas of research :-) and most of them are wrong. there's this book called "How We Know What Isn't So" (by tom gilovich, a cornell psychologist), which i think should be compulsory reading for everyone who has to interact with other human beings.

thanks, and the same to you :-)

ya, i know, sorry. thing is, i wrote that in the first flush of excitement but it's still a plenty long road till this research gets into print. (and frankly, there's a very large chance that you'll find it pretty darn arcane.)

cool! will you be in orlando? if so, since i guess you know who i am, why don't you get in touch once we're there (and i can tell you how i have live projects that date back to my first year in grad school...)

thankee kindly :-)

the RAs get 40 hk$ per hour -- that's about 220+ indian rupees. but you can't work more than ten hours a week. and you need to know cantonese. (and i bet they don't have interesting blogs.)

9/09/2006 1:30 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

but totally agree with MT...such a frustrating read - wish i knew more.
hmmm i think theres a somewhat standard rate for RAs...i am paid about the same...and cant even sucks!

9/09/2006 1:39 AM  
Blogger wildflower seed said...

GFY. Sculpting bullshit - nicely put! :)

Made me wonder about my own situation. Academic research *very* seldom gives me the sense of awe that you describe. The truths I discover seem to have little permanence, and very little to do with my existence and all the questions surrounding it. When, however, I am able to intuit the answers to these latter questions, the Aha moment for me is much more meaningful, even if I am unable to verify my intuition right away (this search is not science really - I just know!). The sense of fulfillment resulting from such discoveries merits a different order of description altogether.

9/09/2006 4:01 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

apologies. but like i said to mt, you'd probably find it very boring :-)

it's interesting that the wage rate seems about standardized. here in hk it's set by the government (!). the funny thing is that the students seem happy enough to get these jobs - there's always demand. if the pay isn't good enough ~ well ~ maybe they heard about the cheeseballs.

nice insight about the sculpting, eh? ;-)

on a more serious note, maybe you need to look for research topics that interest you more, or that you find more meaningful?

9/09/2006 1:58 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Szerelem, "you'd probably find it very boring" is academia code for "it would probably go way over the heads of you ignorant peasants".
TR, I'm going to ask you for details when we meet regardless of your disparaging platitudes.

9/09/2006 2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree with mt.

"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you..." or "I have discovered a marvellous new result which this blog is unfortunately too small to contain"

Anyway, good luck


9/09/2006 3:19 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Awww...come on!! how do you know we'd find it boring?? =P
We might be smarter than you think...or maybe not....
About the RA jobs - ofcourse there is always demand!!...first, it looks good on your CV and second when you are a barely surviving student ANY money is good!

9/09/2006 3:33 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

mt, rahul, szerelem:
ouch! didn't mean to sound disparaging at all, i'm sorry! i just meant that you would find it boring. it's a theoretical point that's probably not of general interest and it's certainly not a huge breakthrough or anything. plus, in order to make it as google-safe as possible i'd have to strip it of all keywords, and that would just render it blah.

9/09/2006 5:40 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Oh come on, I was just kidding. I know you know I'm incredibly smart.

9/10/2006 4:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TR: yes I'll be there at Orlando. I think you and I have some areas or research in common (self-control for one). will catch up with you before Orlando and there. of course I hpe we can talk some jazz as well (as in you talk,I listen).


9/10/2006 9:36 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

exactly! and you know that i'm an incredibly good explainer, so we should have it out of the way in ten seconds flat and get on with the real business. rre! woohoo!

it was clear as mod
bot it cover de groun'
an' the con-fushan made me brain go roun'
so i went and asked a good frien' a mine
known to de world as albert einstein

very cool. i look forward to seeing you there :-D

9/10/2006 11:16 AM  
Blogger km said...

Excellent. This is heavy, man (and reading VB's comments makes it heavier still.)

9/12/2006 11:27 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

yea, and a bottle of bread ;-)

9/12/2006 11:54 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home