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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