Skeptics everywhere

December 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s an early holiday gift for It Takes 30 readers, from Allan Drummond.  I think you will recognize its general structure, and I’m sure that many of you (especially wet lab workers) will empathize with some of its sentiments.

The Sparrow

Once upon a weekend dreary, as I labored, my eyes bleary,
Over many a faint (or spurious) signal from a fluorophore —
While my cells sat photobleaching, suddenly there came a screeching
Like a tiny voice beseeching, reaching my ears through the door.
“Who could that be,” said I, “screeching by my laboratory door?”
And I opened it, unsure.

Later, now, I mull it over — it was friable October;
Leaves once bright, now dull and sober, piled and shattered by the door.
Night had turned to sunless morning, gravid clouds hung black with warning,
But a hope had started forming as my cells went dark once more —
For I’d seen a long-sought signal as fluorescence died once more.
I flipped the switch outside my door.

With the hall illumined, seeing that there was no human being,
Still I heard that bloomin’ keening, drawing my gaze to the floor.
One drab sparrow there was sitting, black eyes staring, never flitting —
Our new building’s oft admitting such birds through its lobby door.
“Through our soaring atrium,” I sighed, “you’ve flown up to my door.”
And the bird said, “Are you sure?”

Now these words were far from screech-like; this bird’s voice was surely speech-like!
“What is this?” I croaked, thoughts beached like boats upon a rocky shore.
Surely I had heard in error, surely was this bird the bearer
Merely of some waking terror spawned by sleepless nights before.
“Talking birds,” said I, “suggest I should have slept the night before.”
Quoth the sparrow, “Are you sure?”

By that phrase I was dumbfounded.  It could speak!  I stood, astounded.
Then I knew: “This means I’ve found it, found what I’ve been looking for!”
Birds have come as signs and omens since the time of Greeks and Romans
Meaning that I’d seen what no man’s ever gazed upon before —
Dying cells had shown effects that none had ever seen before!
Quoth the sparrow: “Are you sure?”

Now these words awakened something — queries from this small, ill-come thing
In my mind had fast become things that I could not quite ignore.
So I went to check my data: cell size, brightness, and θ,
All to satisfy this late arrival who requested more —
All to slake the thirst of this new presence who demanded more —
Like a dread Reviewer 4.

And that sparrow, doubt incorporate, trailing me as if in orbit,
Lit upon Palade’s portrait, hung above my monitor.
“Foul omen,” cursed I, searching through my notes while it sat perching,
Preening and, it seemed, besmirching all that I had done before —
Preening like a haughty rival who’d reviewed my grants before
And found much there to abhor.

Then I found what I’d been seeking: data of which I’d been speaking
That would silence its critiquing and allow me peace once more.
Now its words it would revalue; cynicism, too, devalue
Once it noted this P-value, less than 0.004!
“Here’s your null hypothesis, whose chance, per thousand, is but four!”
Quoth the sparrow, “Are you sure?”

That statistic’s clear conclusion did assume both fast diffusion
And a normal distribution (which I had scant data for).
Then I feared a worse confusion — could this be a pure illusion?
Green fluorescent protein fusion causing changes which I’d score?
GFP could not have caused the findings at my study’s core!
Quoth the sparrow, “Are you sure?”

Were my findings true and actual?  Were they merely artifactual?
(Publish things you might retract?  You’ll feel no fear that frightens more.)
No sure fact could I remember; even findings from September
Faded like the darkling embers of a dying, bleaching fluor —
Once-bright certainty had dimmed much like a fast-degrading fluor —
Still the bird jeered, “Are you sure?”

Long I faced this tiny skeptic — long its query most dyspeptic
Spurred me on so that I kept explaining what seemed clear before.
Doubt my sleepless mind infected: what was known, what just expected,
Normalized, or just corrected to agree with plots of yore?
That bird’s question, oft reflected, did into my psyche bore —
And from me all reason tore.

Still the sparrow, never flitting, sits in judgment unremitting
On Palade’s picture sitting just above my monitor.
Now I hear my colleagues knocking, but I shall escape their mocking,
All their criticisms blocking, locking them outside my door —
Here I’ll sit and, rocking, rocking, gaze upon dead cells once more —
And I’ll gaze — until I’m sure!

—D. Allan D., with apologies to E. Allan P.

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