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Thursday, July 18, 2013

There's No Business Like Science Business

It didn't work. I only got four hits in a day. Perhaps the words Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are saturated on the internet. It was just a test.

I mentioned The Bonfire of the Vanities. A real life tragic human situation became became useful to powerful people. The whole story becomes a screenplay to the powerful people. They, like Hollywood producers and directors, began to rewrite and tweak the script to fit their careers. Al Sharpton, for example, turned the Trayvon Martin Story into yet another case that requires one of his world famous protest marches. Lesser players, wanting to brand themselves as the next Al Sharpton, took the script and wrote themselves in as the civil rights leader in the scenes following the verdict.

The case is not unlike the world of science. Leaders often go astray for years but find new hope in a new screenplay. How many old scientists became RNAi experts? A producer or director in Hollywood becomes successful by making movies that make money. It's "Show Business". The same goes for science. It's "Science Business". The RNAi story, real or not, was a script that anyone could sell.

When selecting a screenplay to produce and direct, a scientist must look at the ones that will get published by the best journals. Here is what the journal Science has to say about what they will publish:

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.

Ones adherence to the truth, and the ability for others to reproduce your work, is not mentioned in Science's Mission. Your screenplay need only influence, be novel, seem important and merit recognition. The skill of the new scientist is to select the topic of their career. In most cases however, the scientist does not get to select his/her topic. It is given to them by the person with the money. That person has already selected the topic/screenplay. The new PhD is then brought in as an expert witness. What happens next is very creative. The simple FACS data, western blots and ELISAs come to life and tell the story. 

Great science and art begins where our hopes and dreams leave off. The hopes and dreams of the journal Science is that all of their articles are influential, novel and will advance scientific understanding. It is thus, up to the current editors to select that caliber of screenplay. It is a scary job to tackle. Lets see what can go wrong.

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid were two artists who took a scientific approach to creating the best painting ever. They began with an extensive poll of peoples art preferences. Subjects were asked if they preferred interior or landscape scenes, what kind of animals they liked, favorite colors, what kinds of people and so forth. Taking the aggregate results, the artists produced this painting.

Hilarious. The painting is called America's Most Wanted. This is what the people wanted, according to the survey.

What the journal "Science" (and the others) want, is like this. The journal tells you in advance what they expect. You take their expectations and write your story. You pitch the story, first, in your own mind. What kind of experiments and results do they want from me? How about some Resverotrol making old mice appear more youthful! Maybe RNAi knocking out TNF alpha! You design experiments to provide results like the elements in this painting. George Washington, pretty kids, deer, a nice lake, some mountains... You put them all together and you have provided the customer with what they asked for. You have written the screenplay that people want. It is Science Business 101.

What people outside of science do not know is that most of what gets published is to science what America's Most Wanted is to art. But science is abstract. It is complicated and complex. It is not easy to separate the good from the bad, especially when you are dealing with an accomplished writer. They know what the "best story" is, and exactly where to place it on their canvas.

In the end, our leaders do not have much of an impact on the real world. Al Sharpton will not change racial attitudes. David Sinclair will not make Resveratrol into the fountain of youth in a pill. They will however, remain at the top of their game until a better story comes along.


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