A good read: from Glen at Dell

For those who don’t know Dr. Glen Otero, he has been a tireless advocate for all things HPC in Life sciences. His background is in computational immunology. Great to work with.

He has an article on the Dell Tech Center (yeah, I know, I need to update the blogroll, I’ll do it this weekend) on a “controversy” thats been finding fertile ground in the conspiracy theory amplifying interwebs.

I highly recommend this article. In it, Glen points out that people place all too much faith in what you hear via rumor and innuendo, and too little in actual fact and skeptical inquiry.

It is terribly important for scientists to get the science right, and admit it when the science is found to be wrong. No ego issues should prevail (they do, scientists are human). But at the same time, the Oprah-level science worldview shouldn’t be amplified, with celebrities, politicians, and other … er … scientific illiterati … tossing their two cents in to a “scientific” debate.

Scientists are supposed to be skeptical, supposed to field arguments against their conclusions, and show how what is presumed to be contradictory is actually supportive. So when celebrities and politicians weigh in, start influencing the debate … and worse, start influencing the direction of science with program managers funding studies with implicit assumptions on results … this is a bad thing. Universally. It can’t end any way but badly.

The scientists stuck in this rut have a choice … show results consistent with the current political winds, or don’t get funding. What do you think they will do?

I can tell you, it gets very lonely telling someone a hard truth, that a deeply held fundamental assumption is likely false. Most people will avoid that confrontation. These things become emotional issues.

Glen points out the anti-vaxers. I agree whole-heartedly with him. I first heard the MMR rumor when our daughter was young and ready to get the shot. I didn’t read the paper, but thought through the risks with my wife (also a scientist type … go figure). The benefits of the vaccine by far vastly outweighed the risks. The fundamental question I asked (and I still ask of medical research) is whether or not the sharp upticks we see in various disease rates comes from an external causative agent or set of agents … or … changes in the way we measure and classify these, including improved technologies and better tools for detection.

That is, are we seeing a real effect, or is it an artifact of better and improving measurement?

There is (sadly) no way to know for sure … there is no null hypothesis in most cases … no way to disambiguate between signal and noise.

The benefits do (massively) outweigh the risks, real, or imagined risks.

I never quite understood why people listened to the celebrities rather than the people who should actually know/understand.

If you are not sure of some medical thing, ask your Doctor. Seriously. If they don’t have an answer, they can help point you in the right direction.

Activists (anti-vaxers and others), politicians, and celebrities shouldn’t be involved in, or driving debate. Yet we saw this in the anti-vax movement, and we see it in other (now fairly widely discredited) movements.

Its good when scientists disagree. Really. One will try to trip the other up with a better interpretation of data. This advances knowledge and understanding, as most scientists are quite collegial, and like a good challenge, and a stimulating debate. The danger is when it gets personal, and the science isn’t viewed with a skeptical eye any more.

This is why “settled science” as a phrase is a misnomer, and more to the point, it shows a deep and profound misunderstanding of how science works.

Science is in the disagreements, the tests, the challenges to the theory/theories.

Non-science is in the emotional buy-in to an unsupportable view point, foisted by celebrities, politicians, and others.

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3 thoughts on “A good read: from Glen at Dell

  1. My favorite example of the misuse of the phrase “settled science” is the bacteria that causes ulcers. I had ulcers in college and the theory then was to reduce acid intake to reduce inflammation but the root cause was always said to be too much stress.

    Then the researcher who I think was from Australia, turns the medical community on it’s head that it’s actually a bacteria. It takes him years to convince the medical community but now we treat ulcers with anti-biotics and it works (very bleeding ulcers).

    I think this shows how the scientific community, while somewhat stodgy, can adapt when new research is presented. It does take time but when finished there is a great deal of evidence that can be sorted through (not like the anti-vaxers whose “studies” have all been proven to be dubious).

    Jeff

  2. Glad you liked the article Joe.

    If you think the anti-vaxers are stubborn, you should read the AIDS denialism chapter in “Science Under Siege”. Even after living through the Peter Duesberg AIDS denialism days while in graduate school, I was still shocked by Christine Maggiore’s actions which defy all rational reasoning and are quite appalling.

    Christine Maggiore is an HIV-positive AIDS denialist who does not practice safe sex. While pregnant with her second child she did not take AZT to reduce the chance of transmitting the virus to her baby. She also increased the risk of viral transmission by breastfeeding her new born daughter. Sadly, her daughter died at the age of three by AIDS-related pneumonia.

    Stories like Christine’s make me believe that the scientific community will continue to lose the public perception and credibility battle unless we help create hollywood blockbusters that feature critical thinking on the issues, explosions and car chases. Ok, maybe not hollywood blockbusters, but we need to elevate what passes for scientific communication in the media to make it more attractive. Which is why I think Randy Olson’s book “Don’t Be Such a Scientist” rings true.

    Glen

  3. @Jeff it was Barry Marshall and Robin Warren from UWA over in Perth (WA) who were credited with the rediscovery of helicobacter pylori (apparently originally found in 1875 by some Germans) and who won the Nobel prize for it in 2005.

    The other cause c??l??bres for science at the moment are the furore over the libel action brought against Dr Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association for an opinion piece in the Guardian:

    http://scepticsbook.com/2010/04/15/the-british-chiropractic-association-drops-libel-case-against-simon-singh/

    and the campaign against homoeopathy, including an investigation into whether the UK NHS should continue to fund it and the 10:23 campaign “There’s Nothing In It” which included an attempted mass overdose of homoeopathic medicine.

    http://www.1023.org.uk/

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