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Friday, April 13, 2012

John Le Carre

At 9:37 of this video you hear a great description of what journalism should be. "Whatever we came upon, however offensive it was to those in power, we told it straight".

There is plenty to cull from this interview that pertains to our own predicament in science. I'm certain that what we experience when dealing with the elite has been dealt with by those in the past. The concept then of telling the truth, as Feynman described, comes with great opposition that has always existed. If the truth is something that benefits power then they will have you go back and make sure you are accurate. If it goes against their hopes and dreams it might just get squashed on the spot. You will end up marching your meager possessions out to your car in a cardboard box that day. This is true now, yesterday, in industry and in academia.

My work in a Nobel Prize winning laboratory seemed to have a strange relationship with the truth. I wasn't alone in my utter confusion at this my very first foray into big time science. My lowly supervisor however understood what it took to get her name on a Prusiner publication. She has spent her entire working life at this lab and by professional science standards, is successful. Yet if she were to be sent to any other lab, her work ethic and intelligence may not be sufficient to keep her around. She found her niche, and it required a special talent. It wasn't scientific.

David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre, spoke truth to power. Gary Taubes spoke truth to power. What we need more of are people like these. It is difficult however because we have no real science journalists. Science information is told to us by people who journalists should be writing about. When Taubes wrote about Prusiners very first Prion paper he mentioned something Prusiner left out.
The researcher who did Prusiner's lab work at the University of California at San Francisco quit over the publication of Prusiner's very first prion paper in 1982, arguing that Prusiner was overinterpreting the available data to push the prion hypothesis. 
Only a journalist would enter that information into the public domain. In discussing Prion research one might want to know who this man was and why, exactly, he quit. All we know is that he quit due to "overinterpreting the available data".

To some of us, science is not just the boring details offered to us by the authors of published papers. It's personalities, power, lies, cheats and the occasional flash of brilliance. The truth behind our daily lives conducting science and spending billions of dollars is a good story. Who is really telling that story. If you are lucky enough to work in this field, whatever we come upon, however offensive it is to those in power, tell it straight.

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