Why Good Biologists are Better Than Sherlock

Me, pretending to be Sherlock with my 'critical thinking' hat on
Sherlock Holmes is famous for his ability to apply logical reasoning. His amazing ability to watch, to observe, to put two and two together and make a conclusion. A critical thinker, his theories are not wild and are only based on fact. He studies, finds ways to find and gather all the information he can.. and then boom, hits everyone with the name of the culprit.

My argument, is that a good biologist (actually, any good scientist) needs to be at least as good as Sherlock to perform, and if they want to be really successful they have to be better.

Taking biologists as an example. In general biologists observe (like Sherlock), they watch animals, plants, insects, micro-organisms, they dissect and look inside. They gather all they information they can (like Sherlock), look at all the evidence, and then, boom, hit everyone with their conclusions about life, how we work, how other animals work and how we have reached where we are today.

My argument is that biologists today are better than Sherlock as they have to go one step further.. they have to investigate the unseeable. Unlike in the recent Sherlock T.V. programme on the BBC you cannot simply look down a light microscope at an unidentified substance.. and identify it as a certain drug. No matter who you are (not even House M.D., who is based on Sherlock could manage that impossible feat)! It just isn't that easy.  

I am talking here mostly about molecular biologists, pharmacologists, cell biologists, geneticists anyone that studies things beyond what the eye can see (like me). As here lies a problem. How do you study effects, processes and create conclusions based beyond what is visible? (I appreciate that this concept applies to other areas of science too, physicists have similar problems and I would fully support the notion that they too are better than Sherlock).

Biologists have to evaluate the problem and work out how they can tackle the unseeable, with only the limited tools that are available (although this toolset is growing rapidly). There are big obstacles to work round. It is impossible to see and study (at the moment) everything we want to. Most experiments look at one thing in isolation, which when the one thing you are studying actually works alongside a whole range of complex networks (like a cell)  makes the step back into the bigger picture and the formation of a robust, definate conclusion...difficult.

For example. You are studying the role of protein A. You find protein A in a cell, you have a rough idea what it might do. But what if there are different versions of protein A in different cell types (say 4 or 5)? So now you have to study protein A.1, A.2, A.3, A.4 and A.5. What if protein A(1-5) interacts with a signaling pathway? Then things get even more complicated as there are a number of interactions that protein A (1-5) can make with different components in the pathway. And if something else is happening in the cell - different environmental conditions or presence of another particular protein, the effects of protein A might change. One way we look at this is to remove all of protein A, then you test and see what happens. BUT, the presence of protein A may alter the levels of protein D,E,F and G. And the results you measure might be a result of these proteins changing. So you can look at the changing levels of other proteins (but what if there are other proteins that you are not aware of?) You can also investigate the pathway that is being activated. You might see levels of X being activated.. but are they being activated? Or is something else being inhibited leading to an activation? It's complicated. This website has a great visual. It shows the similarities with signaling pathways and the Tokyo subway map.

I constantly think about my work as an unfolding puzzle. I can see pieces A,B,C,G,F and V but all the rest of the letters are missing. I have no way of seeing the other pieces and I do not know how many pieces I am supposed to be finding. I have an idea, but I cannot say for certain.

My area of work is tiny and it is one small piece in the giant puzzle of how the human body works. I can only make conclusions based on what I have found and what I have seen. I do that, but if I did that and that alone I would be a fool. I need to take into account, evaluate and judge what others have found and see how those pieces fit in my puzzle. Do they make the puzzle bigger and create a big picture? A clearer small picture? Or do they create a big mass nonsense jumble?

If all the pieces that we know about were put together and I had to describe what we see in biology I would definitely pick some abstract art. Possibly a Jackson Pollock. That is what we are dealing with. Chaotic splodges. And yet out of these chaotic splodges biologists are able to look at the big picture (along with the small picture) and make sense. This is how cures for diseases are found. This is how we know about endorphins and how hormones control menstrual cycles. We have to work together to create the full picture. The puzzle is far too big for one person alone. Sherlock is famed for being a lone thinker (although he does draw on others to gather and give him information). A great biologist is an amazing critical thinker, observes on a wide scale is aware of what others have done (and the limitations of their work), and puts their thoughts and findings together with others to create the big picture.


  1. Nom. Protein alphabet soup.

  2. I get so annoyed that Sherlock makes it seem that you can indentify anything with just a microscope! I had drafted a whole post on how science gets misrepresented in this way on TV and film. Grrrr!

  3. Ok.

    But who is "good biologist"? You, Heather? You are still a kid.

    Maybe you, Jessica? And you are not a biologist at all.

    Because the aim of good biologist is just to create a method, which would allow to "identify anything with just a microscope". Note! I don't state that it is possible always and everywhere. I say that it is "an aim".

  4. It's just me exploring the challenges of science! And that a good scientist needs to have a mix of skills.


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