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The amateur scientist
Some 50 years ago I was in the late 1960s: a period of advancements, turmoil and tragedy that rivals today, but without the augmentation of tweets, blogs and cable news. It’s not possible to compare without bias, but my instinct tells me it was far worse then. Many things delighted and distracted me at the time, and one of these was a column appearing in my subscription to Scientific American, called “The Amateur Scientist.”
The column ran, with variations, over approximately 70 percent of a century (1928-2001). The history of this column is well told by Wikipedia. In the early years—my father’s time—the focus was on amateur astronomy and building telescopes. I particularly remember being guided to construct a dropping mercury polarograph and an aseptic transfer chamber for bacteriology. I was an electrified and infected amateur. Many science fair projects got their start with these beautifully written “how to do it with the stuff in your grandpa’s garage” instructions. My high school and college years were those of plastics, astronautics, transistors, antibiotics—and fast cars, boats and fighter planes.
Today I feel more like an amateur scientist than ever before. They say all good things become a commodity. The fruits of science and engineering over the past half-century have been many commodities that we take for granted, without considering how little we understand about them. The teenage boys who won World War II could disassemble/reassemble a jeep in the field and do the same with a car or radio when they returned home. Today they are playing games on their cell phones. Reductionist biology has yet to explain consciousness or oncology or the origins of so many degenerative diseases. A given “scientist” today knows less and less of what there is to be known.
Yet we are not very honest with the public on what we expect science, and any given scientist, to be able to accomplish. I am frequently asked about climate, a topic far from my wheelhouse. I am invited to join the editorial boards of predatory journals in fields where I have no expertise at all. I’m out of date, passed by and in so many areas disconnected. I’m OK with it, given that it’s a measure of progress by others. What annoys me is the hubris of the rest of you (smile emoticon) as expressed in the hype of press releases, the incomprehensible academic jargon (see the Randall Willis column “A word about communication” in the recent July issue of DDNews) and the expectation that good decisions will surely come from science advice coupled to Big Data, with so little attention to whether the data is good data.
I’m skeptical. We too often take the complicated and simplify, but the result is the tyranny of averages. Climate models suggest benefits in some places, disasters in others; some species that will thrive and others that will fade. It will be interesting to see how our species manages in our ecosystem role, where we are not all that special.
Several years ago, I was dismayed that Theranos in California proposed making quantitative diagnostic measurements in pharmacies and grocery stores on the wrong samples at the wrong time of day with no validation that the data would be useful. While some of it would be interesting in values extreme from population averages, much would be quite useless without interpretation. They avoided quality assurance with a loophole in in-vitro diagnostic regulations. The claimed saving of time and money would likely bring a poor return, and the possibility for errors of commission and omission were great.
In the last few weeks I’ve read more about smartphone apps for personal medical diagnostics. Mention is made of these possibilities, without mention of whether the numbers would be good, or why my physician would spend his time downloading data transmitted from my phone and those of a hundred others. In JAMA (June 2017), a Viewpoint article by Dr. Kimberly Lovett Rockwell (Vol. 317, 2486-2487) opined on the risks of direct-to-consumer diagnostic testing more generally. Who will pay? Who will interpret? Who will educate? While we do seek “generalizable knowledge” in clinical trials and thus to make “evidence-based” decisions, the fact is that no such trials of drugs or diagnostic measurements apply unambiguously to any individual among we Homo sapiens. “Sapiens” means “wise” in Latin; generalizable evidence for that notion is lacking. None of us are wise in all things. No quantitative diagnostic test means a whole lot without of the broader context of time (history) and parallel tests. Most qualitative genetic tests are inferential, probabilistic and not very useful predictors of the future. Does the public understand this? The yes/no tests for strep throat, HIV or pregnancy are not representative of most diagnostic tests.
We in science are prone to wild and wooly statements that don’t hold up across the silos of science. Other mammals as research models for Homo sapiens cannot be replaced by cell cultures or microfluidics, yet a physicist or engineer might think so because the ambiguities are left out of university press releases. Some imply that CRISPR and stem cells will enable reprogramming in the manner of a software update from Microsoft. How many appreciate the risks in that? Can we tone down the irrational exuberance? Borrowing from Chuck Yeager and Don Rumsfeld, there are many unknown unknowns (or perhaps ughknown ughknowns).
Where will Congress get good science advice? Reliable sources are scarce. We’ve let the public down with our hubris and expectation that science should be supported just because we say so. There are far too many examples of overpromising and underdelivering. The public is onto our tricks. Respect them more. In 1906, Harvey Wiley and Teddy Roosevelt thought to protect the public from misinformation about health-related products. That was a good start, but we could use more truth in labeling for our press releases.
I’m one amateur scientist looking for others. It’s amazing what one can tell the public as long as there is a microscopic footnote like this: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” Perhaps we need an analogous statement for press releases and even peer-reviewed publications. “Keep calm and carry on.”