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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Brother Can You Spare a Dime

Medical bioethicist Leigh Turner of McGill University, Quebec

"Biotech, in a similar manner to many religious movements, has its charismatic prophets, enthusiastic evangelists and enrapt audiences. Like religions, it offers a comforting message of salvation. Instead of imagining a day of rapture when the dead rise from their graves to begin eternal life, biotech enthusiasts imagine the era when medical technologies provide a renewable, largely imperishable body. … Biotech is not just an assemblage of research programs and techniques. In a scientific and technological era, biotech also offers a surrogate religious framework for many individuals."

Biotechnology research is mostly cargo cult science. The actual research is performed by some of the lowest paid individuals in a company. The data is hand selected for presentation so as to not offend the corporate ideology. It is then filtered through executives to the investing community. The purpose of this process is to extract money from investors who are easily swayed by the charismatic prophets.

After attending the BIO 2004 conference reporter David Ewing wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, "As of yet, most of what I’m looking for here is in the ‘promise’ category - and has been each year I have come to this ever-larger industry fete."

"Last year, this industry lost $5.4 billion, and has lost a staggering $57.7 billion since BIO last held its annual conference in San Francisco in 1994, according to an Ernst and Young study. Only a few companies have been consistently profitable in the 30 years since biotech was born - a few, such as Amgen and Genentech, fantastically so. Remove them, and the losses and numbers are far worse for the rest of the industry."

Biotechnology simply has not succeeded in applying real science to develop products. It has succeeded only in selling stocks. According to Burrill & Co., US biotech firms raised almost $4 billion by selling new stock to investors in 2004. US biotechs posted almost that much in losses the same year. That is not the power of science. That is the power of greed over common sense. How can the recent discoveries in basic molecular biology and 100 billion dollars lead to jack squat?

Let us go back to Richard Feynmans Cargo Cult Science.

"I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down--or hardly going up--in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress--lots of theory, but no progress--in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way--or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing," according to the experts.

So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science."

Why don't we look into the biotech theories that don't work? How's that genome project working out for us? What about the promise of gene therapy and now siRNA therapy? There are so many examples of Cargo Cult Science in the history and present day biotechnology that it could become a field all its own. At least it could become an important part of the philosophy of science. There are things to be learned in failed experiements. As such, there is a whole lot to be learned from Biotechnology. Mostly we could learn about human nature. What makes a large group of well funded, well educated men and women sit around and try to sell the world a drug like Vioxx? Why do people take monoclonal antibodies against TNF alpha when it has been shown to not only have little effect, but it has also been shown to increase levels of TNF alpha! An entire book needs to be devoted to the story of statins and cholesterol levels.

No one can say what is missing better than Feynman.

"But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school--we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated. "

Investors quite often do not have the scientific background to make good decisions when dealing with the charismatic prophets of biotechnology. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. Every venture capital group needs to fund a small laboratory. The scientific staff of that laboratory needs to reproduce key experiments and read the scientific literature very carefully. They must bend over backwards to prove it wrong. If they can't, then it might just be a good investment.

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