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Friday, July 12, 2013

Scientific Myth

But it's not clear that a direct effort to "build community" will work in the absence of common ideals or values for which individuals are willing to sacrifice. Athenian citizens, for example, had to swear an oath to uphold "the ideals and sacred things of the city." The most common use of the word "sacred" in our public life is in relation to "cow." For the most part, we treat each other not as citizens but as consumers. 
John Stuart Mill said something about happiness that applies to this notion of building community. He said that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct and the end of life; but he also said that this end--happiness--is only attained by not making it the direct end. The same can be said of community. Community is not a direct end, but arises as a kind of by-product when people are working for common ideals that are larger than themselves--such as "the ideals and sacred things of the city. 
- Betty Sue Flowers - The American Dream and the Economic Myth
The same can be said of the scientific community. A cure or a new paradigm for improving health is not a direct end but arises as a by-product when scientists pursue the truth. I want to highlight a few concepts from this essay, as they pertain to Cargo Cult Science.

Direct End Research - Quest For The Cargo

Here is an example of the problems one encounters when seeking a "direct end".  "The Death of a Drug Class Shows Difficulty of Using Gene Data to Design Drugs"The "direct end" is diabetes. Scientists found a correlation between mutations on the PPAR gamma gene and an increased risk for diabetes. An intervention on PPAR activity was designed with the hopes and dreams of altering the "direct end". They took a shot and exacerbated the direct end!

Why call it quits? Is there nothing to be learned from all of this "science"? Wouldn't it be interesting to be put on a project to explain how this drug target brought about an opposite direct end? The current view is that there is no money in explaining what happened. Yet a by-product of this project could be a greater understanding of cardiovascular health. It could lead to a greater understanding of gene "mutations" and their consequences.

How Tall Is Your Building?
The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that you could always tell what the dominant myth of a culture was by looking at its tallest buildings. In medieval times, the tallest buildings in any city were the cathedrals; later, princely palaces and government buildings dominated the landscape; now the tallest buildings are commercial, reflecting the economic myth within which we now live.
I once went in for a job interview at the now defunct Targeted Genetics, a gene therapy company. 1100 Olive Way, Suite 100 downtown Seattle. I got to the building and looked up at the towering structure surrounded in glass. The men entering the building were dressed in suits and ties, the women in dresses looking fine. "Finally," I thought, "a work space worthy of a scientist." I went inside, "Targeted Genetics 17th floor. "Wait a minute, suite 100? This can't be." I went back outside. There to the west was an old one story building with the number 1100 above the door. People dressed in jeans and t-shirts were coming and going. Alas, the laboratories were here. The people on the 17th story of 1110 (not 1100) Olive Way had a different function. They handled the money, the narrative, the legal issues and investor relations.

The Economic Myth / Good Science = Good Money
American culture knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
The economic myth honors quantity over quality.
If you were a Martian who speaks English and you came to this planet to study our understanding of the life forms that exist on planet earth, you may wonder why earthlings have placed a financial value on science. Publicly traded companies see their stock price going up and down based upon stories. Sometimes a patient will die during a clinical trial. Sometimes the CEO will be sent to jail for insider trading. The real value of a science based company, to a Martian, may be in their grasp of what is true and what is false. Each company boasts of their techology. Alnylam, for example, "is focused on developing a new class of innovative medicines with the potential to revolutionize the treatment of human disease by harnessing a powerful and natural biological mechanism known as RNA interference." Yet laying off the scientific staff boosts the stock price. Leaving only a product, and not an ongoing harnessing of RNAi potential increases the company value. 

The real value of a biotech/pharma company is in the lead product/s and the ability of key players to get approval, make sales, and not get caught cheating. The quality of the science and technology (the community of scientists and their rules of conduct) that produced the product takes a back seat the the potential quantity of money involved in future sales.  

The Loss of Self Worth to Scientists
In addition to a loss of the values embodied in our earlier myths, there is a danger for the society dominated by the economic myth that its citizens can lose their sense of a larger significance--or even of significance on an individual level. 
The thousands and thousands of highly educated people have gone through the system of scientific employment at biotech/pharma companies. When people lose their jobs we all think, in the back of our minds, that we/they were not good enough. We were hired to fill up the pipelines, yet they are drying up. The direct end, the reason we were hired, is often not accomplished. We are hired to fill up the journals with new exciting avenues for ourselves and others to pursue. Yet we are a community that lives in fear of job loss. We live in fear that the results from our experiments will not match up to the hoped for direct end. Our self worth is tied to understanding the things in nature that make others wealthy.

Our community is deteriorating. Those Athenian citizens, who swore an oath to uphold "the ideals and sacred things of the city" were different than us. We don't slow it down and talk much about our ideals and sacred things. We have deadlines and money to make. So much that much of what passes for science is purely mythological story telling. How do we tell science from Cargo Cult Science in this age of increasing deception? Start a conversation. Here is a good one. 

Our journals offer up depictions of scientific work. But do they speak for the entire community of scientists? Do they protect the truth in nature as "our ideals and sacred things"?

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