Monday, September 27, 2010

Back to Basics

This past weekend I attended a martial arts seminar taught by the amazing Grand Master Steve Shover. At one point during the seminar I was actually stunned. Not from something flashy or complicated, but by something so simple and based on our timeless mantra, "where the head goes, the body will follow."

After trying the technique I laughed and asked my partner "Why didn't I ever think to do that?" In ten years of doing martial arts and facing that exact attack in the dojo, I had never once thought to counter it in that manner. Part of the problem is the noted ten years of training. We try to complicate things and do something fancy and we forget that sometimes the simplest way is the best way.

As scientists we are notorious for doing the same thing. (There is nothing in this universe more complicated than getting a group of scientists together for a social gathering.) I've had many head slap moments in the laboratory when my troubleshooting turned out to be something very simple. The problem is the same as mine in the martial arts context. We have enough experience to try to make it complicated. We start looking at ramp temperatures or replacing parts before realizing the gas isn't turned on or the needle is bent. We forget the basics in our focus on the details.

I found myself having to remind myself of the same thing on the stand. When you could recite a treatise on the question it's difficult to pull yourself back and focus on what the examiner is truly asking. It's excellent practice however and can help you to focus back on the basics. After all, going off on tangents to fully explain the question as we would in a scientific community is not useful in the court setting and defeats our purpose as an expert witness, which is to clarify the information for a layman. I truly believe that every chemist should go through a mock exam before launching into courtroom testimony. As scientists we have a hard time focusing on the basics and simply answering the question, but that is what's necessary to be an effective expert witness. Not only that but focusing on the basics can also help your troubleshooting abilities in the laboratory.

In martial arts, the best way to understand a technique is to teach it. This is because when you explain it to someone without experience (the fact finder) as opposed to when you discuss it with another of equal rank (the scientific community), you have to focus on the basics and in doing so you remember the basic principles involved and it allows you to apply those principles to the complicated stuff. The same applies for science. Keeping the basics, front and center, and keeping in mind simplicity, not only helps your testimony in the courtroom, but also keeps them in front when you are troubleshooting or developing a new method in the laboratory.

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