Learning thresholds

Kim Goodsell was not a scientist, but she wanted to understand the baffling constellation of disease symptoms that were affecting her. The doctors delivered partial diagnoses, that accounted for some of her problems, but not all. So she plunged into the scientific literature herself. The point of the linked article is that there is a wealth of genetic information out there, and that we might someday get to the point of tapping into the contributions of citizen scientists. But I thought this was the most interesting part:

She started by diving into PubMed—an online search engine for biomedical papers—hunting down everything she could on Charcot-Marie-Tooth. She hoped that her brief fling with a scientific education would carry her through. But with pre-med knowledge that had been gathering dust for 30 years and no formal training in genetics, Kim quickly ran headfirst into a wall of unfamiliar concepts and impenetrable jargon. “It was like reading Chinese,” she says.

But she persisted. She scratched around in Google until she found uploaded PDFs of the articles she wanted. She would read an abstract and Google every word she didn’t understand. When those searches snowballed into even more jargon, she’d Google that too. The expanding tree of gibberish seemed infinite—apoptosis, phenotypic, desmosome—until, one day, it wasn’t. “You get a feeling for what’s being said,” Kim says. “Pretty soon you start to learn the language.”

I know that feeling! I watch students struggle with it every year, too. There is a certain level of biological literacy that has to be met before one can grasp the more sophisticated concepts -- and that once the door is opened, it becomes easier and easier to go deeper.

Someone who is strongly motivated and determined, like Kim Goodsell, can do it on their own, but I really feel that achieving that basic level of understanding is the goal of an undergraduate education. We prep students with enough information to get over the threshold (and also, maybe, some specific skills to get them started in professional schools), so that in an ideal world they can then charge off and keep learning on their own.

This isn't just true of biology, either. Literature, art, history, philosophy, economics, psychology, etc., etc., etc. all have a set of fundamental concepts that are hurdles to getting started…but once you're over them, you can soar.

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The dangerous part about the kind of self-teaching Ms. Goodall describes is just how much utter crap/woo/scam (choose your favorite term) can be found doing such searches. The fact that she started (based, clearly, on her own desire for reliable science) from a vetted and trustable source (PubMed) allowed her to avoid that minefield.

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 21 Aug 2014 #permalink

The important take away is that "SHE plunged in". She wasn't plunged in. She took control. That is the ONLY way any significant learning is going to happen. So unlike the conclusion of the author of this post, I would suggest that a great aim for undergrad education would be to enable graduates to reclaim their powers/independence which for the most part was stripped away from them in schooling!
Yeah, I know..I am a dreamer!! :-)

By Andrew Weiler (not verified) on 22 Aug 2014 #permalink

Define 'scientist'. An operational definition might be a person who engages in science. OK, so now we have to define science. Here's my definition: putting a thesis to the test by creating a hypothesis (an 'if' ... then' prediction) that can be falsified inter-subjectively by the recorded data.

Clarifying what science is not is also helpful. I suggest that science is not the same as technology; that technologists are not the same as scientists; and that the technical literature is distinct from the scientific literature. Many who might like to think of themselves as 'scientists' are more accurately described as 'technologists'. For example, medical doctors engaged in clinical practise and chartered engineers engaged in designing useful structures are technologists not scientists. Further, most medical research seeks to find practical solutions to disease. Thus, medical research itself often has more in common with seeking engineering solutions than the pure research of science proper.

To Kim Goodsell, it seemed more likely that her medical problems had one underlying genetic defect that that her problems were caused by two genetic defects. That's a reasonable hypothesis for anyone to make. Hence, Goodsell searched the published literature using PubMed, which again is a reasonable starting point for anyone who knows even the basics about medical databases.

Google Scholar rather than Google also comes in handy. Google per se is most useful for tracking down a full copy of a paper in PDF, that are otherwise behind a paywall, once you have identified exactly what papers you want to read using PubMed or Google Scholar. None of this requires that you be a Nobel Laureate in physiology or medicine. Just because half the world's population has an IQ of less than 100, it doesn't follow that all humans are as clueless as the least clueless.

If you define the mean IQ of a normal population as 100, with an SD of 15, then roughly one fortieth or 2.5% of the world's population of roughly seven billion has an IQ of 130 or more. I suggest that, with a bit of perseverance, a person with an IQ of 130 or more is intelligent enough, if sufficiently motivated, to teach themselves pretty much the fundamentals of anything.

Hence, there are roughly two hundred million humans on this planet, who irrespective of whether they have graduated from medical school or not, are perfectly capable of reading and understanding the medical literature.

By Richard Mahony (not verified) on 22 Aug 2014 #permalink

'... than that her problems were caused by two genetic defects.'

By Richard Mahony (not verified) on 22 Aug 2014 #permalink

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yes this is right that when you learn something you become a master of it. i am working at leatherzapp and i know nothing about leather and clothing items first but now i learned a lot.