Search This Blog

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ideas Not Preached from the Pews

The discussion of ideas is necessary for them to catch on. Watching TV or reading a book can be enjoyable but the best shows and books lead to further discussions. You get to participate in the seed that was planted. Watching NOVA or reading a Malcolm Gladwell book may enhance your ability to hold an intelligent conversation. It's up to you to surround yourself with people who also enjoy discussing new ideas. If you enjoy science, you should have friends who have something to share about the latest findings in Science or Nature or any of the other journals. Beyond the mandatory presentations and seminars, you should discuss the latest ideas.

I've had an epiphany on this very subject. I have no friends who enjoy exploring the absurdity of science as it is currently practiced. No one I know has anything negative to say about the profession of science. It seems impolite to be so negative about something that has a positive effect on our society such as science. I believe that only a small percentage of the ideas put forth by scientists ever amount to any greater understanding of our world. And that small percentage is very powerful. The other 95% of our ideas are not going to be useful. They may even be harmful. That 95% of BS deserves greater discussion.

For example, there is a paper out in Nature this week entitled "Broad neutralization coverage of HIV by multiple highly potent antibodies". The title itself seems unscientific. Using words like "highly potent" should be qualified in the conclusions of your paper. But that is the conversation I can't have.

Upon hearing about the HIV paper in Nature, I asked a friend if it would be a good idea to test the authors ability to identify their antibodies by coding each one (A, B, C... Q). Using the techniques reported in Nature, could they retake those measurements to identify each antibody. My friend was shocked that I was nothing but excited about how far science has advanced in HIV research. I said that I would be very excited if I could believe it were true. I was told I was just a skeptic. We did not discuss the paper, just the benefits of believing versus non-belief.

Every Sunday you will find churches full of people listening to a person discuss some aspect of the bible. That one book is discussed in a one way conversation by the preacher to the congregation. Later that conversation is carried on amongst the congregation. The better the sermon the more it will be discussed. Where do scientists gather on a weekly basis to discuss the latest findings? Usually, in the U.S., we gather in rooms where the lowest ranking "scientists" present their data to the highest ranking scientists. The direction of the conversation is taught in graduate school where the wannabe PhD "defends" his/her work to their committee. The preaching among scientists, in other words, is done from the pews, not the pulpit. Subsequent conversations are usually held by disgruntled grad students back at the laboratory, well out of the hearing range of a college professor. It is here where the real scientific conversations take place. Ideas are put forth to squash the dumb ideas. All of the proper controls are thought up. But rarely will those ideas be taken seriously unless they support the ideas of the preacher from the pew.

The mainstream idea to improve our world through science is to increase funding. The idea that I have today is to increase the discussion of scientific work. How to do it? If you read the Huffington Post, you will see that certain articles illicit more comments than others. What if there were a Huffington Post-like science blog where people could discuss work such as the latest HIV/AIDS paper in Nature? As we do with the work of social/economic engineers (our elected leaders) we can discuss the ideas and the merits of the scientific community leaders. Thought leaders such as Andrew Fire and Craig Mello can offer up their thoughts on why RNAi has been such a bust. Throw in a some comments from RNAi biotech CEOs and CSOs and see what the rest of us who are very interested in the subject have to say. We'll get into arguments and have an old fashioned debate, rather than the usual Lead Zepplins found in the journals. Break a paper down to pieces such as the IC50 measurements used in the HIV/AIDS Nature paper. Try and illicit a discussion on the measurements, the use of statistics, and the conclusions that can realistically be drawn. Highlight vested interests and how they effect certain outcomes. Talk about the "sexiness" of the research and how it enhances careers but increases the amount of BS being put forth. Highlight seemingly boring observations and how they can make a big difference.

The preachers from the pews do not seem to inspire. They conspire to keep bad information in the published journals so as to not hurt their careers. They have created a situation where laboratory work is looked down upon. Their greatest sin however, is that they are boring. They do not want the lower ranking members of science to discuss their work. They want us to read about how successful they were and thank them. If we don't believe them or we question them we are nattering nabobs. It flies in the face of what science is all about. If we want to know what really happened in the laboratory, we are going to have to let the people who actually do the work have a say. Let the people who read the papers and try to use them have a say. By increasing the level of talk surrounding science we'll increase the honesty.

No comments: