Standard Operating Procedures
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 10:09 AM [+]
To give some context: the principle investigator I work for had a fully functioning lab down in California before moving up here to start a whole new Center at SCRI, and my job has been to duplicate here the work that was being done there. Initially we felt that this could be done by simply following the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) that were written down in CA, coupled with visiting a nearby collaborating lab that is doing similar work. This has not worked out so well.
First off, the SOPs were not in standardized format and thus lacked many details. But even if they had been in a proper format, my experience with SOPs has shown that hardly ANYONE who has not had direct experience with the particular method is able to sit down with even the best written SOP and duplicate results. After a fair degree of trial and error the method can usually be worked out, but SOPs I've found cannot replace the much more valuable input of a human training another human. Once that is done, the SOP becomes an invaluable resource. But alone...well...not so much. Thus, I will be going down to the lab in CA in order to receive person to person training on some of the methods we've been struggling with here.
In all of this, I am reminded of parallels with Christianity. Consider Scripture, Tradition, and Discipleship.
Of course the obvious first parallel asks: How is Scripture like an SOP? Well not much at all really, but a huge proportion of Christians today believe it is in fact exactly like an SOP. A long time ago, I wrote a sort of mythical story about a long lost lab that produced a great deal of data and that modern labs today were trying to duplicate that data, but really only had the data itself with precious little information on how that data was produced. Obviously an impossible task. I was contending in this little allegory that Scripture is much more akin to data than an SOP - of course there are aspects of an SOP in Scripture, but it is undeniable that those sacred epistles of the New Testament were never intended to be the end-all informer of how to DO Christianity. And so trying to reconstruct the Christian faith from Scripture alone is not unlike trying to repeat experiments when you do not have a proper SOP. And as I've noted, even if you do have a proper SOP this doesn't mean you are going to be able to do the experiments properly.
St. Paul wrote to the Church in Thessalonica: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). As you well know (if you've been here long), Protestant dominated translations of this verse frequently alter its meaning by changing the word "traditions" to "teachings" when in fact the Greek is clearly paradosis which is defined by Thayer & Smith as "A handing over, which is done by word of mouth or in writing, i.e. tradition by instruction, narrative, precept, etc." Further St. Paul wrties to St. Timothy describing to him the means by which the great experiment of Christianity was to be duplicated by future generations: "And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2).
In a healthy laboratory you will find excellent SOP's, but you will neccesarily find people who have experience and extensive skills in performing the functions of the laboratory. As newcomers enter the lab they are given the SOP to read, but they also OBSERVE the procedure being done by the experienced technicians - perhaps numerous times. And then they will themselves perform the method under close supervision of an experienced technician. In time the new technician will gain the skills and experience that no SOP can provide alone. It is, in a way, the same form in Christian discipleship. In the lab there is in fact an ongoing oral tradition on how to do certain things...details that should perhaps be included in SOP's but in my 15 years of scientific experience never seem to make it therein. Indeed there is always something left out such as some minute detail on a brand to use or a certain media color to look for when a particular cell line is not ready for transduction.
At the end of his Gospel St. John notes that "there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 20:25) and I would suggest the same is true of SOP's in a lab. You simply cannot include all the details even though we in the lab certainly try to do so. In Christianity, however, this was never the purpose behind the New Testament. Instead, they banked on an ongoing and living Tradition passed down from generation to generation of new believers, preserved by the Holy Spirit. And in that context, to whatever degree the Bible is an SOP, it fits quite nicely.
I've found in my lab that nothing can replace good old fashioned person to person training. That's the way Jesus ministered as well. One might suggest it's a part of why the Incarnation is so important. Like the Koran, God could have simply dropped a book out of the sky, but chose rather to have a lviving community be His witness and outside of that community His sacred text is largely uninterpretable data.