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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Beyond Science

One of the lesser arguments against certified reproducible results is that research will cost too much to reproduce. The past 30 years of biotechnology is a testament that this logic is flawed. Non-reproducible cargo cult science is expensive. Pharm research has wasted an estimated trillion dollars in the past decade. If you are into math and science, one trillion is an impressive number when we are talking dollar bills. Something must be done or the good that is in the life sciences will be put on a shelf until some other generation of people take a different path. Until then we will continue to lose our jobs while the bullshitters live out their reckless scientific careers.

What I mean by reckless scientific careers can be seen in the Amgen study. When 47 out of 51 oncology papers turn out to be non-reproducible you have a problem. People use this information. Scientists must rely on their peers but clearly they must do so only through the scientific method. Most scientists do not have the resources to try and reproduce 51 papers. They thus have to go on faith. Faith has failed. It's time to get science police on the job, armed with the scientific method, to go out and do the work that the average scientist cannot afford to do.

Andrew Carnegie made a few bucks in his day. He wanted the world to buy his steel because he felt that it was an amazing material that could be used in mass quantities as the world became more modern. Bridges, railroads, skyscrapers and the list goes on. He saw the power of steel as well as the financial power that was possible. In order to convince the people that steel was the latest greatest building material he put on a show. It was thought that elephants would instinctively not walk across a bridge that they felt would not support them. In a publicity stunt he had an elephant walk across a steel bridge. The bridge was of course strong enough to hold the elephant. People became believers with stunts like this and Canegie became the richest man on the planet.

Science is also powerful. It is used these days in the place of elephants. We can calculate what it takes to build long lasting bridges and tall buildings. But the kind of science we use in biotechnology and pharma R&D is not quite so strong. Currently that kind of science can be used to extract large sums of money from Cargo Cult Leaders and some of their followers, but it has not led to any revolutionary changes in health care. What could we do with the real power of science if it were forced to be strong, like the science behind the building of a bridge or a skyscraper?

Andrew Carnegie saw the potential in steel. Somewhere there must be a businessman/woman who sees the potential in keeping the life sciences alive with a reenforcing steel like force that keeps the companies and the papers from crumbling to the ground the moment someone tries to use them to advance our field. It will take vision and showmanship. Someone must begin to demonstrate the strength to fight against the nay-sayers. Who will our Carnegie be? Has he/she been born yet? There are many reasons why any reproducibility initiative will fail in the world of science. We need to start thinking about why it will succeed. I think that good reprocuble science will make us a whole lot more money the the Cargo Cult Science.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The First Reason

The first reason the Reproducibility Initiative and other efforts by PLos will succeed is because science is king. The scientific method is the most powerful tool we have as humans to understand our world and how it actually works. Religion has not given us indoor lighting or airplanes. Politicians have not given us a sustainable government. Scientists on the other hand have provided us with a body of knowledge that not only helps us now, but will help those in our future. We have an obligation to get it right.

We have a built in Reproducibility Initiative in our science education. The Merck Index lists a number of physical constants that are... reproducible. The are constant. Water, for example, boils at 100 degrees. We send our students into the laboratory to test that constant. I have yet to hear of a University where students discovered that constant to be wishy washy bullshit. You couldn't write up a paper on the fact that water boils at 100 degrees. You can't convince a journal that this has new and interesting applications. But if you get yourself a STEM degree, you will be taught this little fact. Why? Because it is useful reproducible information.

As I've mentioned in the past, research is like a crossword puzzle. When we get something wrong, but think that it is right, we trip ourselves up in the method. That method, the scientific method, is a method of solving a far more complex puzzle. Their are no individuals who are going to solve a complex puzzle such as cancer. Science will solve that puzzle. Each scientist must offer up their small answers with absolute certainty that they have something of value.

Arrogance, careerism, greed, desperation are a few excuses for jotting down the wrong answers without regard for the subsequent consequences. The greater problem is allowing for these wrong answers, and admiring those who provide them for the rest of us, thus hindering the progress of science. Science is powerful. Scientists are only men and women. What we must admire more than the people, is the science they leave behind. Real science has always opened doors, for good or evil, that lead to a new world. Throwing money at a biotech company or a cancer charity is simply wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is not science. If we respect science, we must subject it to rigorous standards. The status quo of publication is wishful thinking. The status quo is a mockery of the scientific method. The old white haired men who rule over their journals, never testing for reproducibility, looking only for sexy new narratives will never do to science what the boring old "water boils at 100 degrees" concept of science has done. Science has to be reproducible. When that happens the power of science is unleashed. When our first concern is financial or any other issue, we are misunderstanding the role science has played in our lives. We must get it right, or we are no better than a religion or a politician. Science is where we leave our hopes and dreams behind to allow reality to direct us in our pursuit of understanding the world we live in. Our first concern must be scientific integrity.

Fame on fortune will follow. The Reproducibility Initiative (or any idea/effort along these lines) will make your personal hopes and dreams come true because science is that powerful. When you put anything before that thing that Feynman speaks of, the concept of science over cargo cults, you begin to lose what science really is. You lose what science can do for you. You end up with a biotechnology company or a pink ribbon bumper sticker. Those things we hope for can come true if we stay focused and believe in science. It may not seem possible now, to have a for profit initiative to clean up the mess left behind by some scientists, but the power of real science, reproducible science, will make it worth our investments. In the future, scientists will scratch their heads and wonder why humans could have been so foolish to have had a system that did not attempt to reproduce what the leaders were putting forth. The same as we look back scratching our heads at the Salem witch hunts or using leaches to cure disease. It is merely scientific progress. That is first reason any efforts to highlight reproducibility matters.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Doing The Dishes

Paul Ryan's dish washing scandal has Inspired me to keep going. Any person who can stand in front of other people washing clean dishes is clearly a Cargo Cult Leader. Why? Because the purpose of washing dishes is to make dirty dishes clean! Paul Ryan washes dishes to create an illusion like we in science use big words and wear white lab coats.

I won't prattle on about it. It's funny. It's a man who would be be equally successful had he pursued a career in science. A leader knows the dishes needn't be be dirty when the objective is only to convince people you are cleaning them. Put on proper attire, look like you are working...

Thus I must return to this project. The Cargo Cult Scientist took a little break. No excuse. Nothing to report. The world is still ruled by men who wash clean dishes. I want to talk about the reproducibility initiative. Next post. Why do we need it?

While checking out at Safeway lately, I've been asked to donate a few cents by rounding up my purchase to the next even dollar. I refuse. Knowing what goes on in research I refuse to give. I would give to the International Peace Love and Harmony chairity if there was one and I thought they could achieve such a goal. The same goes for breast cancer (or any cancer) research. I would give them money if I thought they were fighting cancer. I do not. Not until they have checks and balances would I consider their work to be worth a penny. Cancer charities need accountability financially and scientifically. The reproducibility initiative is what I where I would donate my money. It would be indirect however. The initiative needs to establish its efficacy in sniffing out bullshit and the bullshitters. It needs to gain the respect that the life sciences have failed to achieve.

Imagine a huge fund raising event to raise money to test the efficacy of the Reproducibility Initiative. Those who feel it cannot succeed, here and here for example, are the same who think biotech companies can succeed. Cargo Cult leaders! I think this will work. If Ryan Paul can be a successful politician with ideas such as washing clean dishes, then science can succeed by creating the illusion (at least) that we care too. And we have got the scientific method on our side. Some of us really do care. We care more than we care about our own careers and our venture capitalists careers. It's science that is in trouble these days. The way it's practice. The way moneyed interests profit via Safeway fund raising events. The cancer we face is the lack of reproducibility from more successful cheaters and bullshitters. More successful people like Paul Ryan wash clean dishes and nobody needs that. Science has always had its fakers but lately they've cut into our credibility and there is a way to fight back. Test the tests. Research the researchers. More later.