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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Information Scapegoat

Wise Old Sage:  Why hasn't the cargo shown up? Where are those big metal birds that brought food and medicine to the white man?

CEO of Cargo Cult:  We have information that can bring the cargo but everyone is hoarding it. If we could simply share our information using the "computers" we would get the cargo.

Enter Sage Bionetworks.  The Sage is now going to help the gatherers of information. The similarities between this information sharing and the Genome Project:
But a lot of what comes next will depend partly on what Sage does to clear the way, and what people in the biomedical research community choose to do with its platform. “Our mission is to develop flexible approaches that can be championed by others,” Friend says.
Championed by others?

Friend is Stephen Friend, a former VP at Merck who started a nonprofit with a bold vision to speed up drug discovery. He plans on offering the scientific community a common place online where scientists could pool their data and brainpower to speed up the pace of discovery and drug development. According to S. Friend, "biology has become far too complex for any lone researcher or Big Pharma company to keep tackling problems in isolation." 

Biology has gotten more complex?

Flash back to the days when biology was not too complex. It was so simple, we could still make progress without computers! Rene Descartes was a scientist who made many important contributions to the scientific community. He had a set of information that he thought had value.

 Meditations is by far Descartes's most popular work—though this would not have been the case in Descartes's day. This work is important to today's scholar for many reasons, not the least of which is its including as an attached text written objections from some of the best minds living in Paris. Mersenne sent the Meditations to philosophers and theologians for criticism. The list of critics includes: Caterus, Hobbes, Arnauld, Gassendi, and Mersenne himself, with several other unnamed readers who raised their objections through Mersenne. A later edition would include an objection from Bordin. Descartes replied to each critic, and the result was an appended text referred to as “The Objections and Replies.” The second edition contains seven sets in all.
Descartes's letter to the “learned and distinguished men” of the Sorbonne, which is appended to the Meditations, suggests that he was trying to pitch the Meditations as a textbook for the university. Though the endorsement of the Learned Men would not have guaranteed that the Meditations would be accepted or used as a textbook, it could certainly be viewed as an important step to getting it accepted. Unlike today's notion of a textbook, in Descartes's day “textbooks” were intended mostly for teachers, not students. Typically, at the close of a teacher's career, his notes would be published for the benefit of those who would go on to teach such course material.

A text book for teachers who would go on to teach... What we have with Sage Bionetworks is a list of information. The difference is clear. Sage offers random information that the proprietors did not generate themselves. They hope to share the information with people who will turn it into technologies that make money. Cargo. Descartes had a set of information that he gathered himself. He offered it up to the teachers in a manner that would allow them to understand, in great detail, who, what, when, why and how this information came to be and what can be done with it. It wasn't a football to be handed off but a playbook on how to play the game.

Disassembled an old car. Lay the parts on the ground. Bring in an engineer and tell him to make the car run again. It won't work. Sage Bionetworks likewise, will not work.

One of the ways scientists used to get information was in the laboratory. The laboratory is where you ask nature a question. If you are clever and do so in the right way, nature will reveal itself to you. At the end of your career you might have a very interesting text book to write.

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