Unkown Blogger Pursues a Deranged Quest for Normalcy

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The right question

Posted by ubpdqn on April 17, 2011

I have a distant relative who provided me with an instructive story from her career as a senior microbiologist.

One afternoon, a group of her students came to her ecstatically announcing they had confirmed the first human infection by a particularly exotic fungus.

She calmly replied, “no you don’t”. Undeterred the students insisted that the organism obtained from the sick patient was the exotic fungus.

Again my relative replied, “no you don’t”.

Her dismayed students asked, “but how can you say that?”

She replied, “what is your evidence?”

The students produced the results of a battery of tests performed on the cultures from the patient. “The identity of the organism was predicted by the computer and we have repeated the run a number of times.”

My relative then asked, “bring me the agar plates and other cultures from the patient”. This was done expeditiously. She then asked,”what do you see?”.

The students replied, “well, there are pink colonies and green colonies and white colonies…”

“What does that mean?”, she asked.
“There are multiple types of organism growing from the specimen”

“Yes. You asked the computer what single organism can produce the results from the battery of tests you performed. The answer you obtained was correct. However, the isolate from your patient contained more than one type of microorganism.? The question you should have asked was what can explain this battery of tests integrating all the available information.”

I have always found this tale a reminder of the importance of simple observation, careful reasoning and the pitfalls of substituting reasoning for the output of computations.

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