I sometimes see myself as a slow learner. I am extremely fast at deep-thinking, which somewhat disguises this fact, but I learn things from the ground up. Until I can think a topic through I sometimes feel unsure about operating from an incomplete understanding.
When I worked in academia I prefered to learn rather than to force my opinions on others. Everybody seemed reasonably smart, and they were absolutely convinced of their own correctness, and so I listened and learned.
As my expertise grew I learned that the theories, of which other people were so profoundly proud, typically contained gaping holes. I am still planning an article in my Influences series about David Calquhoun who was one of my earliest inspirations in speaking truth about the holes in many scientific findings. I have a number of preprint papers sitting in drawers which explore the unfortunate holes in my then boss’ favourite discoveries. My most recent preprint is even on the Bioarxiv.
I don’t just find the holes, I always try to fix them. In every situation in which I have gone to the trouble of pointing out the error in somebody else’s theory I have also fixed the theory. Sometimes the fix makes obvious that the ‘fixed’ theory is at a minimum not sexy, but also likely not the true explanation. I have always offered the original authors coauthorship on this ‘discovery’ (fix). But in current culture, it is not so fashionable to point out why theories fail. People prefer to join the next hype cycle and get carried away on a magic carpet.
This preamble is my self-confession that I have nowhere near the list of published peer-reviewed articles that somebody with my history of (successful) projects should have. I guess that I have serious blindspots as to how to get ahead, and let myself down in publishing.
Despite this history, I have learned that I love to write!
This is why I started to write
I started to write properly during my PhD. I was finally on a track where I was exploring new theories – jointly developed between me and my PhD supervisor – and at some point I had to publish them.
The process of writing was extremely painful, at first, until I had the initial complete draft of the first paper. At this point something magical began to happen. Three joint authors who had previously been painting beautiful pictures in their heads, of their own contribution, had a working draft. We finally had a common view on the topic which we could debate.
We disagreed on everything. In one conversation, on a single paragraph, we would disagree on the wording of individual sentences, the mathematical theory behind the sentence, and the positioning of this information in the context of the entire paper. I’m not going to pretend that this was not frustrating at times. It is hard to discuss minutae of a sentence wording when you know that the bigger issue is whether you should be saying that at all. And like every PhD student I had to remove and replace the exact same sentence many times over, while learning not to point this out to my supervisor.
Over time the draft came together and we began to see the holes in our own logic. This was exciting. It felt more like doing real science than working up the original theory. We were now putting our theory to the test, no longer just in equations and code, but by really working through the steps and comparing our ideas with our own results. I loved this process and learned so much from it.
We all have blindspots. I love my favourite theories. Writing and then editing my own thoughts has taught me more about my own blindspots than any other teacher. I have areas which I prefer to gloss over. I have mathematical methods which I don’t fully understand. By writing and then reviewing my own work, I have learned to better master my own techniques.
Ultimately I find the feeling of having a coherent theory deeply calming. The further I move through the editing process the calmer I become. By the end, and there is always an end, it is almost with regret that I call a halt and move on to publishing.
This is why I continue to write
I am not an academic any more. I really haven’t been one for almost 2 years now. But I am still a researcher. I do considerable research into the methods behind Inference and Causality Theory. I have spent some time working on systems simulations of the Immune System. And my current project, which I lead, is a €1.3m EU funded project into using Behavioural Modelling to bootstrap statistical machine learning techniques.
I started a blog, partly to improve on my own learning rate, partly to create a repository of ideas which would serve as a public proof that the guy behind Simmunology is not a complete fantasist, and largely because I realised that my own insights into the topics which I write about are at least as profound as those of the other voices out there.
I said that I am a slow learner. I eventually learned that I am actually ridiculously good at: Computational Neuroscience, Mathematical Modelling, Statistical Correctness and Machine Learning. These are topics on which I am inordinately credible and therefore I should go to the effort of being heard on them.
Throughout my career I have had many close friendships with top-level researchers. We have enjoyed exchanging ideas and explaining techniques to one another. Most of my sparring partners have now gone on to become tenure-track or fully tenured professors at institutions such as Harvard and Stanford. This is not by accident. We sought one another out, because we are good at what we do.
My blog is an opportunity to continue these relationships and to develop new ones. I will do my best to continue to produce deep-thought and analysis on topics of interest. And I hope that a self-selecting group will continue to provide me feedback on them.
This is where I will probably end up
I am frequently naive. I get away with this because I am otherwise a high performer. Using my brain to filter for tricks would make me less naive, but it would also slow my thoughts down. That said I can sort of see where this blog might end up.
I do want to be noticed. Or more accurately, I want to be respected by likeminded people and to be allowed to work on things which are important to me. I don’t want to be a publicity whore. But if my blog gains me a reputation as somebody who’s opinion matters on topics such as Data Methods (AI) in Biology then all of this will have been incredibly worthwhile.
Until then, the writing is its own reward.