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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Teaching the Dog and Pony Show

From the website of the Biotechnology Institute:

Biotechnology has a wide variety of career opportunities ranging from sales and marketing, to research and development, to manufacturing and quality control and assurance.

Are these really the primary high paying jobs in biotechnology? This is where science goes awry. The Cargo Cult leadership needs people in these positions and they need to start training them how to think as soon a possible.

In the cargo cult science speech, Feynman spoke of a man who ran the Institute of Parapsychology.

This man also speaks about a new institution, in a talk in which
he was resigning as Director of the Institute of Parapsychology.
And, in telling people what to do next, he says that one of the
things they have to do is be sure they only train students who have
shown their ability to get PSI results to an acceptable extent--
not to waste their time on those ambitious and interested students
who get only chance results. It is very dangerous to have such a
policy in teaching--to teach students only how to get certain
results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific

You can teach quantitative analysis, organic chemistry, physics and biology but you can't teach biotechnology. At least not in the manner described by the institute of biotech. You can teach the history of biotechnology. You could try and find a coherent pattern in the organization of tasks that start from idea and end with a product that is sold for money. You could spend years trying to explain how the financing of the business used to work and what the future challenges are. You cannot teach biotechnology as if it were a learnable subject, being taught by those who have already learned how it works. The field is far too complex.

James Randi spoke of a young girl who developed a test for psychic energy readers. She made a barrier between her and the reader. There were two holes where the psychic put his/her hands through. The little girl would then place one of her hands under the right or left hand of the psychic. The psychic had to select which hand based on its readable "energy". Twenty readings were done to rule out random guessing.

Did this little girl have to learn about psychic ability? Did she have to study at the Institute of Parapsychology to conduct research in the area of psychic energy? No, she was conducting a study on whether or not a random pattern could be discovered in what appears to be non-random event. A randomness test could have also been done by tossing a coin in the air. She also did not have to attend a course on how the U.S. Mint makes coins! The real science was in identifying a random set of information that appears to be otherwise and to use statistics to highlight the randomness. The dog and pony show was in identifying a random set of information that will catch the judges eye.

Our mission is to engage, excite, and educate as many people as possible, particularly young people, about biotechnology and its immense potential to heal the sick, feed the hungry, restore the environment, and fuel the economy.

The mission is admirable but we are getting close to teaching kids what to think, not how to think. Biotechnology has been a failure. The adults have not yet figured out how to accomplish the goals listed yet they purport to teach the next generation. We are not "there" yet. There is no "there" there. Let the kids do science projects and let them meet the president. But before we start an institute for biotechnology, let us step back and figure out what biotechnology is. We have to separate the science from the dog and pony shows. The dog and pony show is what they are teaching at the institute.

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