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Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Trouble With Positive Thinking/Falling From Grace

What is the difference between purposely deceiving an audience and accidentally deceiving yourself? My hero James Randi points out that a magician is the only honest professional, in that s/he sets out to deceive you, tells you that they are going to do it, then does. Contrast that with an advertising professional. They are like magicians except they do not want you to know they are trying to deceive you. A true skeptic however, knows the score. We set our minds to the task of finding the deception, just as Feynman did in the Cargo Cult speech when discussing the Wesson Oil ad campaign.
The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson oil doesn't soak through food. Well, that's true. It's not dishonest; but the thing I'm talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest; it's a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will--including Wesson oil. So it's the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true, and the difference is what we have to deal with.
Imagine Feynman standing in front of the Wesson Oil section of your local grocery store. "Hey, that oil is no different than this one." The would-be purchasers of Wesson Oil would think he is a nut. Yet he speaks the truth. Those who choose to deceive, on the other hand, positively convince the consumer through tv commercials with attractive middle class people that Wesson Oil is a wise choice. The facts thus take a back seat in influencing decisions when more pleasant narratives are in place. Our irrational behavior is our achilles heal. To make matters worse, we have been conditioned to believe that we cannot be so easily fooled. To consider the notion would be to admit a naivete that we don't want to believe. The leaders of biotechnology/pharmaceuticals likewise do not entertain the idea that their selection process has ever been faulty. They have selected for the best and the brightest individuals. Please ignore our history of successes and failures. These individuals simply cannot entertain the notions that luck has anything to do with the fact that they are still employed. Yet lately, even the positive thinkers are starting to have doubts about their chosen profession. In this article we see that people are starting to feel as if we are falling from grace. Grace? Were these people being positive to avoid getting weeded out of our industry? I began this blog with the exact opposite notion about myself and my cohorts. I felt that we were merely watchtower employees of a cargo cult. The layoffs were a part of my industry before I began and after I left. Every time I lost a job I felt that, while I had learned something, the world had not gained much from our efforts. I did not get down on myself because I had learned something. I had grown and every time I found myself at the next cargo cult, I would one day read about the demise of the last one. I made no excuses for myself nor the cargo cult. I failed and they failed because we did not take science seriously. We favored our careers over the thing that made our careers possible. We were standing on the shoulders of giants waiting for them to take us to the land of milk and honey. They didn't budge! As I come back to this blog it is with the purpose to attack the positive thinking that has created four decades of nowhere careers, bad science and the loss of a few hundred billion dollars. In his book, "The Antidote, Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking" Oliver Burkeman describes a study where researchers at a molecular biology lab at UC Berkely were themselves studied. Each time they encountered a result that they had not expected, they first questioned themselves. What had they done wrong. The thought that what they were seeing was to be taken seriously and used to move forward was not entertained. They moved forward in pursuit of the positive result, the one they designed into the experiment. These scientists aspire lead their own labs or groups within biopharma. They want a job! It's not getting harder to have a job as the "Falling From Grace" article suggests. It remains hard to keep a biopharma job. What we are doing is not working. Yet we don't give up. We fight to keep our employment because that one project is your whole job. This is not sustainable. Fight to remain in research, not just the research project you are on. Admit defeat when you know it's time to move on. And move on! It is a cargo cult science out there and that is the problem. Bend over backwards to be honest and leave your hopes and dreams at the door. The scientific method will lead you in directions your positive thinking irrational mind can't imagine.