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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Culture of the Cult

Western blot and ELISA are simple things. They are also what got David Baltimore and Silvia Bulfone-Paus into trouble. Both tests can give varying and ambiguous results. When you are on the margin of detecting a signal that proves your theory, you should bend over backwards to prove you did or didn't detect it. This, however, is a part of the culture of the cult.

As a cargo cult leader, you must set up what you perceive to be the truth. The bamboo antennas for example, may be reshaped time and time again. Each time you must have a reason for reshaping the antennas and a reason for the new shape. Therefore, there must be some truth that makes the old shape wrong and the new shape correct. That truth is the heart of the matter. If the makers of the antennas screw up, you can maintain, as a leader, that you are still the keeper of the truth. You are in charge and the others need to do their job better. In general, you must keep several degrees of separation between your "heart of the matter" and the incompetence of the others. They keep the planes from landing in spite of your brilliance.

How does this translate in the real world of science? You may think that scientists work in laboratories and maintain careful records of all they do. This is false. I once worked for a Nobel Prize winning scientist. He came into the lab once to have his picture taken for the award ceremony. He was loaned a white lab coat. He posed next to a hood where inside we had lit a bunson burner for a special "sciency" effect. Later that photograph was hung up inside the laboratory. The caption underneath the picture read, "this isn't like my piano at home". Rest assured, this would have made the Nobel Prize winning scientist very angry. There was little chance of him ever seeing it however. It was inside the lab.

It is not just Nobel Prize winning scientists who stay away from the plebeian confines of the laboratory. Almost all PHds stay away. The laboratory worker is the lowest member of any scientific project. Ironic? There are scientists, project managers, department heads and many more individuals, all of whom help create the degrees of separation. This is why Dr. Silvia Bulfone-Paus had the wool pulled over her eyes by her scientific misconductors. 12 papers now have to be retracted which will effect the other non-laboratory scientists. Their lab staff may have already tried to replicate the results that were a part of the misconduct. At this point it becomes a toss up between who is right, your lab tech or the published (un-retracted) paper. It's hard to use laboratory data to refute published data. Non-laboratory scientists prefer published data.

The quest for fame and funding create this culture. That is what this Cargo Cult Scientist believes. Toiling away in the lab for days only to find out your protein was misfolded or your reagents were at the wrong pH in step 27 is tough. It's also boring. You end up in an office with the non-laboratory scientists explaining what happened. If it is what they wanted to happen you will have an easy time. If it's not the mood turns dark and the relationship becomes more adversarial. But reality is best observed in the laboratory. That is where we need to go back to. Considering how much money has been lost in the industry, can we afford to keep the degrees of separation in place?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Television crews also like bottles containing coloured liquids arranged in the backgound. They are fond of red and blue liquids if I remember correctly.