ENCODE and the Truth
Constant facts of all scientific endeavors – Nature always wins. The truth will come out.
An absorbing article last month in The Scientist called The A@#hole Scientist wondered if scientists could be a-holes, as it called them. Of course they can. Simple logic. Scientists are human and humans can be a-holes. QED.
According to the article, a-hole scientists act by “denying funding to one’s competitors, disparaging them or their results, getting them fired, delaying publication of their work—all simply for vanity, supposed superiority, or envy dressed up as rightness.”
In essence, they make it personal.
I was struck by these examples recently while watching the continuing discussions of ENCODE’s work.
And these discussions also reflect directly on something I helped write for Xconomy on ENCODE, providing us further insights into human aspects of doing science.
Let’s work our way through this.
“All simply for vanity, supposed superiority, or envy dressed up as rightness“ reminded me of Richard Feynman. Not because he was an a-hole but because he was such a keen observer of humanity.
No more so than in an influential speech he gave in 1974 entitled Cargo Cult Science.
Every scientist should read it. It does an amazing job describing the human enterprise of research.
Smart researchers get the science wrong, fool themselves into believing that what they WANT to be true IS actually true, allow their own vanity, supposed superiority or envy to impair progress:
“We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work.”
Researchers can be the easiest people to fool. Feynman gives some classic examples demonstrating how scientists fooled themselves for decades, because they ‘believed’ they knew the facts. Personal hubris and ego, plus the rush to gain some fame and excitement, can be very powerful.
But Nature always wins. The truth will come out.
Researchers often make all sorts of biased decisions that have little to do with rational thinking.
They can act like the a-holes described in the Scientist article. Sometimes to support biased models as Feynman discussed.
Science is made up of people that messily move the field forward for personal reasons, often based on their own emotional needs.
It is amazing that it works at all.
Feynman provides a hint – reputation. Science works because it is not alchemy; it is the very public display of the work. With reputation on the line.
It requires publication of research, discussion of the work amongst peers and the defense of ideas. Some models wither rapidly. Others withstand the onslaughts and become powerful models of Nature.
Science is about putting research models – faulty as they are – out into the public arena to fight with other ideas. A healthy competition eventually sculpts a model with some semblance of reality, even though carved by frail humans.
To paraphrase Feynman – Nature and reality will agree or disagree within the public battle of ideas.
This brings me back to ENCODE and its work. Because there has now been a strong pushback on their model describing the transcriptional importance of genomic DNA sequences.
The discussion seems to have many aspects described in “Cargo Cult Science” and “The A@#hole Scientist” – surety of views, lack of humbleness, disparaging attacks and even a hint of workaday a-hole moves.
And one side in particular has made it personal.
Dan Graur, the lead author of a paper critical of ENCODE’s work, said: “Everything that Encode claims is wrong. Their statistics are horrible, for a start. This is not the work of scientists. This is the work of a group of badly trained technicians.”