David Hubel on why reading research papers is like chewing sawdust

Nov 02, 2013


medicine, research


Science had his obituary here. He wrote wonderfully about science, and about how great science should and was done. Some favourite quotes stick in my mind (the ‘we’ is with Torsten Wiesel)

Hubel says he saves time by reading as little as possible in his field: “Reading most papers today is like eating sawdust.”

One’s skill as a doctor must necessarily depend on seeing many patients: one does not get good sitting by one’s self in an office. A doctor’s success is measured by his ability to diagnose and cure, not the ability to run a hospital.

There can be no question that in science many things were easier then. There was far less competition: journal editors provided little of the niggling criticism that they do today; a paper was usually either accepted or (rarely) rejected. The pressure to publish was less, and more than once Torsten and I wrote a paper and put it in a drawer for several months to let the ideas mature. It was hard to write a grant that was so bad it would be funded

on grants they say that much of their research “can be described as a massive fishing expedition, an expression commonly used by study sections to dispar- age bad grant requests”. Their research, they explain, was seldom hypothesis driven. “But the lack of a hypothesis need not necessarily prevent one from catching big fish.”

On statistics: “We could hardly get excited about an effect so feeble as to require statis- tics for its demonstration.” 

And why —as I think— clinicians should not do PhDs:

A big advantage of the Walter Reed years was that as an MD I was, in effect, a postdoc and had managed to avoid the courses and close supervision and committee meetings that a graduate student has to survive, including the necessity of writing a book-length thesis as one’s first writing assignment. I have always been thankful that I managed, not through deliberate planning, to bypass all those graduate- school years.

And some lines from an article in Neuron in 2009 on what has gone wrong with University science (DOI 10.1016/j.neuron.2009.09.022) 

“What has slowly dawned on me is the degree to which that way of doing biological science in universities was almost universal, probably up to the 70s or 80s. In biology one can think of a pantheon of great scientists who laid the foundations of what the field has become today. Names include E.D. Adrian, Brian Matthews, Bernard Katz, Giuseppi Mor- uzzi, Alan Hodgkin, Andrew Huxley, Stephen Kuffler, John Eccles, Seymour Benzer, Sydney Brenner, Jacques Monod, Francois Jacob, Max Perutz— the list goes on and on. These people worked alone or in groups of two or some- times, rarely, three…..
If I were 40 years younger and a group leader and found myself imprisoned in an office most of the time, I would adopt a 5-year plan to change my scientific style. I would choose a project to share with one partner, put aside a lab bench that I could call my own, and submit a research proposal to fund that project. I would encourage any postdocs in my lab to do the same, with their own funding and independent projects. I would give advice gently and sparingly, realizing that strongly worded advice from a senior person can be hard to ignore and that in science making one’s own mistakes can be an important part of learning. I would limit my committee assignments to one or two and encourage my more senior postdocs to do the same. (I vividly remember asking George Wald, of visual-pigment fame, how he managed to avoid all the wasted time on commit- tees. He answered: ‘It’s simple: I accept all committee assignments, and never show up for a meeting.’) I would make it a rule that a name on a paper means that one has actually sat at the bench twisting the dials. I would continue to teach because I enjoy teaching and think I do it well. One has to learn to teach and to develop one’s teaching style, and for that reason I would give everyone in my group the chance to try it.”

He talks well about his career in ‘Brain and Visual Perception’ Hubel and Wiesel, OUP 2005 (most of the quotes I think are from the Neuron piece and this book).

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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