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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Writing About Work

In order to build "wealth into our system" we have to learn how to write. In school we are taught how the English language is to be used properly. Grammatical errors in any course your take may just lower your score. You could use a double negative on an essay question in history class and you lose points. Proper English is always important. What is just as important in science is knowing what needs to be documented.

That may just show my own bias towards certain people I've worked with. The worst of the worst rarely put anything in writing. When they do you almost always have to ask for clarification. The best of the best always try to get what matters written down. Yet even in college the laboratory notebook is taken for granted. It's another thing that is graded. Mistakes are quantitated. The more you make the worse your grade. However, the biggest mistake is to not say anything about something that people are going to want to know. Most often you are going be that person.

The FDA, your scientific misconduct investigators, your PI, your boss are also groups of people who are going to want to know what you do in the laboratory. Most likely you're going to be in trouble if these guys come snooping into your notebook. They are going to grade your notebook. The Baltimore Case gives us keen insight into how this works. A postdoctoral fellow in Imanishi-Kari's laboratory, Margot O'Toole, could not reproduce the results from an experiment that was discussed in a paper published in Cell. Once an office bound scientist publishes something, they protect their claims in a most unscientific way. They did not compare notes taken by two different people who performed the work in the lab. They took what suited their story best and stuck with it using their authority to silence the confounding evidence. But Margot had her data. She used it to make her case. A personal conflict between the two scientists developed. Margot O'Toole bravely went forth with her laboratory notebook to back up her story. What happened next was non-science and Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore got away with their misconduct. Margot O'Toole spent the next few years working out of science as a result.

This would appear to indicate that Margot O'Toole did not have compelling evidence written in her notebooks. It was however alleged that Imanishi-Kari was the one who had not been adept at keeping notes on her work.
"I was supposedly wasting materials by doing the experiment and coming up with the wrong answers." Shortly thereafter she was demoted to breeding lab mice. Then, in the course of researching the heredity of one particular mouse, O'Toole consulted lab notebooks used by Imanishi-Kari and made an astonishing discovery: The data recorded there didn't support Imanishi-Kari's conclusions either. "I knew [the conclusions] had been fudged," says O'Toole. "Finally the world made sense again to me."

Writing down what you do is a skill. You don't always realize something is important when it is happening. Imanishi-Kari didn't realize that there was evidence left behind that what happened with O'Toole was the expected outcome. The laboratory notebook had the real story. The journal Cell, was lied to. This leads to a very important piece to what Feynman was talking about when he spoke of building wealth into a system of discovery. The things you observe and take note of can lead to the truth. Even if you write down that you looked up at the moon last week and it wasn't there, you have useful information. The moon was there but we had an eclipse. You just didn't know about the eclipse. Not seeing the moon (okay I know you can still see it) doesn't mean the moon failed to exist. So just be honest and you will be rewarded. Do what Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari do and you will probably get published more often, but you will not get the rewards that scientific people care about.

Celebrex is an example of how the Pharmaceutical industry doesn't get this. Pfizer had clinical trial data that showed how the use of this pill increased the likelihood of heart attack and stroke. The FDA doesn't require the drug companies to disclose information on every trial so they do not actually have the ability to protect us. They hear what the drug companies chose to tell them.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to
help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the
information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or

Keep good records, even when you don't know what they mean. It will come to you later when you have more information.

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