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Friday, September 07, 2007

Chairman Mao was right!

I did not grow as a generation fully influenced by Mao Zedong. Actually, several days after I was born, he passed away. However, we still got to study quite a number of his quotes. One of them is "practice is the only way to validate the truth" (pardon my unpolished interpretation). 实践是检验真理的唯一标准。I have never given this quote much thought before yesterday.

Yesterday, I received an email regarding a computational biology challenge. The contestants are supposed to analyze the data and discover the gold standard genes or gene-gene interactions hidden in the data. This is a blinded challenge and the results will be announced during the conference. A winner will be named.

I was intrigued. For a couple of the challenges, I thought of some ideas. I thought, my methods might actually work well. "Shall I enter this contest then?" I asked myself. Then, it suddenly worried me that what if the data do not agree with my assumptions for my method. "That would really be a problem!" I thought, "and I might be at the bottom of the contest." But then it hit me: it would actually be nice that the method doesn't work and we understand which assumptions are wrong. How else can we learn about the biological systems if we don't fail?

This reminded me of my struggle with a simulation study recently. Part of the phenomenon I observed does not agree with my intuition. At first, I kept debugging my codes. But the codes were so short that I was finally convinced that what I observed was a true phenomenon of the statistics I was evaluating when the dimension is too large.

Often, I judge the validity of a method first by intuition. These recent experiences show that knowledge can actually occur when the intuition fails. And intuition is just knowledge based on past failed judgements. Therefore, Chairman Mao was right about one thing, if we don't just do it and fail, we can't learn the truth. Sometimes, it is necessary to make a fool out of ourselves for the greater good---better knowledge for the mankind. :) Or we can just have one more reason to feel less grumpy whenever we fail.

1 comment:

Li Song said...

I think this was said by Deng when 华国锋 publicized his "两个凡是".