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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Freakology, The Hidden Side of Life Science

What would turn up if we took a Freakonomics approach to uncover the hidden side of the life sciences?

Imagine having control over a small percentage of the NIH grant money. Wouldn't it be interesting to task a handful of scientists with a different sort of project. Take the approach that Freakonomics has taken in looking at "the hidden side of everything". They actually use the scientific method to examine that "hidden side". For example, they looked at Sumo wrestling in Japan. Observation: Using statistics they found that cheating was commonplace at the highest level. Each year the wrestlers must compete once a day for 15 days. If you win 8 matches you are advanced into the Sumo wrestling premiere league. If you lose 8 or more, you are not advanced. What they found through the powers of statistics this. A wrestler with a record of 8 and 6 would lose to his opponent 75% of the time when the opponent had a record of 7 and 7. Later, when the same two opponents met again, the 8 and 6 wrestler would win a majority of the matches. Hypothesis: The loss was a free pass into the premiere league for the would-be loser. The stronger wrestler now has a weaker field to face in the coming season.

Because Sumo wrestling is so revered in Japan, the mere idea of cheating was not to be entertained. Prediction of future observations: Freakonomincs authors Levitt and Dubner were convinced cheating was taking place. Over time people came forth and verified that cheating was a part of the Sumo culture at the highest level. In spite of the human habit of ignoring things for which we don't have an appetite, the truth had to be faced. Cheating was accepted as fact.

Let's take this notion into the world of professional scientists. Certainly there has been no appetite for an examination of the hidden side of their profession. We hold scientists above the common man with regards to honesty and self-policing their occupation. The creation of this "Freakology", funded by an NIH grant, would first have to face this obstacle.

The Freakology exploration into the hidden side of the life sciences would also have a similar purpose as Freakonomics, to entertain. Wouldn't it be a nice break to set aside the latest issue of Science or Nature for some light reading on the hidden side of your occupation? For those who do not believe it is appropriate, those who have similar brain function as religious folk or Sumo wrestling aficionados, we leave them to continue reading the latest study on RNAi knocking out protein X and curing disease Y. For those who see science as the only worth while use of our brains, let's see what this NIH funded Freakology has to say about us.

The first issue of Freakology. WHAT WILL GET YOU PUBLISHED! According to the journal Science:

Science's Mission: Science seeks to publish those papers that are most influential in their fields or across fields and that will significantly advance scientific understanding. Selected papers should present novel and broadly important data, syntheses, or concepts. They should merit the recognition by the scientific community and general public provided by publication in Science, beyond that provided by specialty journals.
There is a hidden side of science (not the journal Science) to be explored here. This description of a Science journal publication versus say that of a Biochemistry journal publication implies that Science editors somehow know what is "beyond" the specialty journals limitations. The proper application of the scientific method is not priority number one, although it is suppose to be assumed that everything they publish has gone through the rigors of our method and is thus reproducible. Beyond that trivial little issue of the scientific method, the editors of Science want sexy science. They want the stuff that will change the world in one paper. They don't want follow ups and detailed sharing of information. They want superior sounding papers. Papers that are "beyond" the rest.

The hidden side to publications in the more elite journals is that there is this built in bias towards more sensational analysis. In the case of Stan Prusiners first prion paper in Science in 1982, for example, the researcher who did the actual lab work at UCSF quit over the publication. He felt that Prusiner was overinterpreting the available data to push the prion hypothesis. No one is willing to admit that a scientist would overinterpret to advance their reputation. Yet in order to be published, Science requires your work to go beyond that of common researchers. This might in fact lead researchers to simply go beyond what the data is telling them. You are after all required to impress by going beyond. Once it reaches the journal, a truly non-scientific method begins. No one reproduces the work. No one is allowed to offer alternative explanations. It is the word of one man, and the et.al. who need the publication on their resume. The greater the "sexiness" requirement, the greater the risk for bad science.

By contrast, lets look at the life of Ignaz Semmelweis. While working at the Vienna  General Hospital in the mid 1800s he discovered that the doctors had 3 times the mortality rate as midwives. The doctors had been conducting autopsies in the basement then going straight upstairs to deliver babies. Ignaz proposed the rather un-sexy and , to some, insulting idea that the doctors needed to wash their hands. In one study the mortality rate of women giving birth at the hospital (10 to 35%) was reduced to under 1%. Ignaz was ignored. Later institutionalized where he died at the age of 47.

This is an old issue for some of us. To some however it would seem to be a hidden side. Long ago we did things that does not make sense to us now. In 100 years or so we will look at the publication model and laugh. With new technologies that can search for plagerism we can spot cheaters. We can conduct meta-analysis to find conflicting results. In time we will have more tools to replace the assumed superiority of the reviewers. For now we can only hope to shine a spotlight on the hidden side of our profession. The first step is to admit that there is a hidden side.

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