[personal profile] serakit
 Cancer at its most basic level is caused by a mutation in a protein in a cell, or so it was at least implied if not outright stated in my biology class today. Basic biology lesson (okay, a two-minute review of what we took a whole class reviewing and is apparently a separate semester-long class): DNA stays in the nucleus. Copies are made by mRNA, which visits the separated individual strands and makes copies. The copies then leave the cell and are copied again. Sets of three base pairs are called codons. Codons each code for an amino acid (or beginning and ending markers), and a set of amino acids becomes a protein. The reason you code for a protein is because you want that protein to do something. Now, errors in all that copying, or in how the protein folds, will give you a mutant protein. Either it won't bind to the other proteins it was supposed to bind to, resulting in something that was supposed to express and now isn't, or it will bind to something that it wasn't supposed to bind to resulting in something expressing in ways other than it should. This is one of the things that causes cancer.

Now, I know from Molecular Biology that there are repair enzymes floating around which correct errors in the copying and they catch a great many of them. The ones they don't catch still cause problems, though. The original theory, which I think I have just spotted the flaw in, was a question of why one could not simply give extra repair enzymes to those at a high risk for hereditary cancer, since a very obvious possible reason for cancer's heredity would be a genetic flaw in one's repair enzymes. The problem in that theory was the question of protein folding, which I hadn't heard a lot about prior to yesterday (or if I did, I don't remember it). I don't know how that works or if the repair enzymes correct for that. However, presumably they would still correct those forms of cancer which are caused by mutations in the actual genetic copy rather than the folding of the protein.

And that's all very simplistic and obvious and if it were that simple someone would have gotten it ages ago, so I know there is a flaw in my reasoning somewhere. I just can't see it, and presumably as time goes on and I learn more within the class, I will gain a deeper understanding and be able to see it.

However, now I'm going to connect cross-discipline: the above is a perfect example of the concept of a pet theory, which we were looking at in Conceptions and Misconceptions, which is my education class this term. Pet theories are those things we come up with that are based not on science but on mere anecdotal evidence (yes, yes, oxymoron, I know), and I pointed out during class that once we've formed them, we'll remember the unusual incidences that conform to the theory but not the more mundane ones that don't. So even though we know it's irrational, we'll keep it because it seems like it makes logical sense.

Pet theories are themselves an example of what Howard Gardner calls intuitive learning in The Unschooled Mind: the concepts we form in childhood that are immature and based on our experiences, formed by casual observations and cemented early enough in childhood that they remain deep in our core even when we learn traditional schooling later. The problem with traditional schooling is that it doesn't necessarily produce *understanding*; Gardner points out the tacit agreement that we will test students on a particular form and not vary from that form so that we can claim they understand, and when students are asked questions that deviate from the expected forms they revert to their inner intuitive learner, their pet theories. (Or, if you really want me to be blending things, the idea of "revert to training", where under pressure we go back to what we've practiced, "sense" or "body" memory: http://www.thisistrue.com/blog-the_life_you_save_may_be.html) I have seen people get very extreme about the form; I'm recalling a story probably related to this concept about how a student lost credit for writing a math problem vertically rather than horizontally even though the answer was still correct, because the question asked for a "number sentence" solving the problem. Last term there was a reading about understanding, and what it means to understand, since we say we're teaching for understanding. Rarely does it occur to anyone to go back and test understanding, or know what to do about it if they don't get the desired results. Gardner defines understanding as the ability to use the information in a significantly different form from that it in which it was taught, which must be at least somewhat new and unexpected.

Now, to connect this all neatly back in a circle: I am conscious of my theory about cancer prevention likely being inaccurate, based on simplistic theories about how the world works. (And when I'm not half-asleep, I can even tell you which theories, but I'm at the moment too tired to go any deeper into meta than I already have.) I am expecting that the class will give me a greater understanding so that I can determine where the flaws in my reasoning are. If Gardner is to be believed (and if I'm understanding him correctly), this actually happening is very unusual and I am very unusual for realizing that there's got to be something wrong with my theory even if I can't see it. Which seems strange to me because all of this feels so obvious and basic including my suspicions of theories that are obvious and basic, but most people would apparently regard that as an actual theory about how the world works, on the same level of the old physics question about what forces are acting on the thrown quarter after it has left your hand.

Yes, I am indeed here for an education, why do you ask?

Date: 2010-03-04 09:12 pm (UTC)
jducoeur: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jducoeur
Just so. And pet theories *are* occasionally correct: for example, my pet theory about neural networks, mental patterns and how people learn seems to still be mostly holding up.

The trick, though, is to be supple with your pet theories. It's very easy to get overly invested in them, and that's where people tend to go wrong. Instead, very consciously make a game of treating them as real science: look for opportunities to *disprove* your pet theory, and when you find problems be careful to make the theory adjust to the facts rather than vice versa.

Frankly, I find that approach more fun: sometimes frustrating when I get proven wrong, but overall it means that I can take some pride of intellectual honesty. I try not to kid myself that I'm being properly scientifically rigorous, but being open to change is at least a step in the right direction. And the exercise keeps one mentally flexible...



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