My Gut Says...
by Allegra Goodman
"My gut tells me..." does NOT cut it in the scientific world. That is the overarching message in this page-turning novel by Allegra Goodman. Goodman has managed to take the rigorous protocols of scientific inquiry, the tedious process of replicating experiments, and the politics of grant applications and combine them into a juicy read. I do have an ever-expanding interest in science and the scientific process, so it could be that I just read this at an opportune time in my own development as a reader/writer/pastor/thinker, but I could hardly put it down. It reminded me of some novels I have read about academia and the politics therein (Straight Man by Richard Russo comes to mind, as does Moo by Jane Smiley), only Intuition is less of a satire and more of a workplace drama that raises serious questions. Those questions ultimately have an effect on people in the "real" world outside the classroom or the laboratory who are desperately waiting for the development of new drugs and treatments for debilitating and terminal illnesses.
Intuition is about a researcher who believes intuitively that a certain virus can be useful for treating cancer. He is so blinded by his own good intentions AND ambitions that he cuts corners on scientific process and protocols. In the short term, he gains a lot of recognition for the lab he works in. In the longer term, he and his lab are disgraced when other labs cannot replicate the supposed results of his experiments. At the end of the novel, the skeptics are vindicated, the entire staff is sadder but wiser (also humbled), and most of the players are recommitted to following established processes for testing out their theories.
I am all for scientific rigor, especially when lives are at stake. I do wonder, though, what place intuition has in that process, if any. As a pastor, a lot of my work is instinctual, and I rely a lot on my gut. I have been told that my instincts are pretty good, and I think my intuition is a God-given gift. My guess is that there are scientists out there who have some intuitive gifts that the process squelches. Of course instincts should always be backed by scientific confirmation, but in this competitive environment for grant money, and the pressure on clinicians to publish something "significant" asap, is it possible that there are sound intuitions out there that never get pursued because there is not the time or the money to do so? In the long term, who loses in a process like that?
I don't have easy answers, but I do wonder if there is a place for research that is less of a sure bet but that might have major benefits in the future. Anyway, Intuition will keep you reading, and keep you thinking.