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Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Proverbial N-Ray Prism

In a story related to my last, comes the story of the mutated prion that wasn't. We all make mistakes. It is how science deals with them that the keeps us from the truth.

There was a young post-doc who began his career in a laboratory of a prominent scientist. The scientist, not the post-doc, had an idea that needed to be verified. The idea was that a single amino acid substitution could prevent the conformational change of a protein that allegedly led to a brain disorder. There was cloning to be done, assay development, and the usual gels and western blots. Not rocket science but the conclusion, if things worked as expected, would put the world on notice. This was to be a major stepping stone.

At the end of a year the data was in and it all looked kosher. It was time to write up the paper and get the news out. There was only one problem. No one had sequenced the DNA of the clone being used in the study. Prior to submitting their paper the clone was sequenced. The mutation in the amino acid sequence wasn't there. The research was done on a protein that was the same as the controls. A new question arose. How did the data fit the preconceived notion?

How did they see their N-Rays without the prism?

The young post-doc failed in his task. It wasn't his idea but he understood what was expected of him. If he was to make it in the business the results needed to come out a certain way. Like a Sherlock Holmes novel, the final outcome smooths out the leaps of faith and unwarranted assumptions. Science is about genius. At least that is what we think the world expects of us.

Imagine a P.I. testing his post docs by giving them a bias in the form of a protein that is suppose to do something. An assay is provided to give an output signal that will vary from run to run. The protein and its control are in fact the same protein. Will the post-doc point out the precision issues of the assay or will he run the assays until the desired story has been told? In other words, create an N-Ray story. Short, sweet, elegant and false. Provide the measuring tools and bias the outcome. Who uses science to tell the truth? Who uses the bias to tell the story they know will get them them ahead in life?

If you've ever been in a bad job and you needed to get out, you knew better than to tell the next potential employer you want out of a bad situation. You tell the employer that you are looking to advance your career or something along those lines. The truth is not well tolerated in many human endeavors. It is not tolerated in professional science. It is not tolerated in finance or government. We want certain things to be true. Whether or not the prism is there, we want to see N-Rays.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Ginsberg,

IL-15 will turn out to be N-rays too.