Saturday, September 1, 2012

A right answer to a wrong question

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ―Voltaire

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers; he's one who asks the right questions.” ―Claude Levi-Strauss.

When I was a medical student, we started studying internal medicine in the fourth college year. This changed later and students started to learn their internal medicine in the third year. A meeting of medical teachers of the various Iraqi medical colleges was arranged one day in Baghdad to discuss which of the two ways is better and whether we should go back to starting in the fourth year. The discussion concentrated on the training of fourth year students and whether having studied medicine in their third year has benefited them. In other words the assembling teachers were trying to answer the question: Are fourth year students better in internal medicine if they have started studying the subject in their third year? The meeting was convened early during the academic year. All attendants agreed that the level of fourth year students is better when they have studied medicine in their third year; an obvious finding that should go without saying! Students who had some training in the previous year should be better than those who are starting afresh. The teachers went on from this to conclude that it is better to start training of internal medicine in the third year. Nobody tried to answer the right question: Are students who start their training in the third year better than those who start in the fourth when they graduate or at least at the end of the fourth year? It is quite possible that during the fourth year (or the years after) students starting in the fourth can catch up with (or even pass) those starting in the third year especially if they have more hours during the fourth year as is usually the case if training starts in the fourth. I pointed out that the meeting was addressing the wrong question but no body seemed to care or to see the difference!
I am not claiming that starting in the fourth year is better than starting in the third or vice versa. The answer to this is to be left to specialists in medical education and should be built on properly designed studies. I only wanted to say that asking the right question is more important than knowing the right answer of a wrong question.