Seeing Patterns Is Important Knowledge

Collecting, categorizing, and taxonomizing, are early steps toward scientific knowledge, as the example below illustrates. But these activities are often dismissed or ridiculed by members of the scientific establishment.

(p. A23) In the 1970s, Dr. Melzack turned to another problem he had been thinking about for years: pain measurement. At the time, doctors had only very crude instruments, like simply asking people to rate their pain level on a scale from 1 to 10 (a method that is still in use). As a young researcher, Dr. Melzack had worked in a chronic pain clinic and befriended a 70-year-old woman with diabetes.

“She was a highly intelligent person with a good vocabulary, and I began to collect her descriptive words about pain, like ‘burning,’ ‘shooting,’ ‘horrible’ and ‘excruciating,’” he told McGill Reporter in a 2008 interview.

He continued to build his adjective collection by listening to many patients’ descriptions and, working with a statistician, divided them into 20 categories, each describing a particular kind of pain: “tugging,” “pulling” and “wrenching” in one category, for instance, and “pinching,” “pressing” and “gnawing” in another.

This descriptive catalog, published in the journal Pain in 1975, became the McGill Pain Questionnaire. It soon became a standard measure worldwide, deeply enriching the conversations doctors have with their patients, and in many cases helping with diagnosis.

For the full obituary, see:

Benedict Carey. “Ronald Melzack, Cartographer of Pain, Is Dead at 90.” The New York Times (Monday, January 13, 2020): A23.

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Jan. 12, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

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