4.0 Junk Science

This book proposes an interesting premise – in corporate-owned capitalist America, we all know we’re constantly bombarded with deceptive exaggerations and even bold-faced lies. When the lies are packaged as “scientific expertise”, a(nother) rather fat ethical line is crossed. This book attempts to defuse those who would profit from such manipulations.

A major premise of the book is that there are pressures, even on scientists (who are still obviously human, no matter how devoted to science), to profit, garner fame, and otherwise get ahead by less-than-ethical means. Case after case is presented of researchers using fabricated data to establish new theories. Conventional wisdom says that this is OK and the research community is self-regulating, because the theory will not stand the test of time. But the current fervor to make the “next great discovery”, according to the author, is so great that other researchers cannot afford to spend much of their time validating others’ works; rather, newly published findings, especially when presented by those at the top of their field, are more often taken as-is, with researchers ready to leapfrog a step or more forward. Once the “junk science” has been accepted the real damage begins, with large amounts of wasted effort made in unproductive directions.

I suppose one might see this as a bit paranoid, but the author spells out several important cases where this worst-case scenario played out.

So, we are supposed to question every angle of new information. To me, this seems to be the underlying theme of the book so far. Then I hit the chapter covering genetic engineering of our food supply, and this theme was turned on its head. The author argues that BECAUSE we have no evidence to damn it, genetic engineering should not be feared. Because it is already being used on a large percentage of the crops we consume, the burden of proof is on people like “bio-Luddite Jeremy Rifkin” to prove its harmfulness (That’s a scientific approach? Last I heard, name calling was in the domain of the playground). What happened to the scientific approach? Thrown out the window? Here is an example of the bizarre argument for genetic engineering as the key to the next technological revolution. He explains the mechanism:

    The current major method of introducing new genes into the genome of plants involves bacteria. Agrobacterium tumefaciens is a pathogenic bacterium that causes cancerous crown gall disease in plants… by transferring part of a large bacterial DNA segment to its plant hosts. Once within the plant cell, this transferred DNA moves to the plant cell nucleus, where it eventually integrates into the host genome… genetic engineering uses this naturally occurring transfer mechanism by substituting one or more genes of interest for the oncogenes in the bacterium, and thereby achieving entry of these new genes into plant cells.

This is his argument to make us feel warm and fuzzy about splicing in “horizontal genes” (from another species)? He says it is not much different from the traditional genetic manipulative practice of selective breeding. Not much? The genes are from another species, it’s completely different. He then goes on to mention all the wonderful benefits we have realized. Then casually dismisses most of the concerns because the threats “can be measured under controlled conditions”. Wouldn’t it be downright scientific to measure those threats before proclaiming that “these concerns… only involve possibilities”? Once Mr. Agin understands the smallest sliver of the full repercussions of horizontal splicing, in scientific terms, I will convert from a “bio-Luddite”, but until then, the scientific method will be required to be applied a bit more diligently.

The irony of this shift in perspective is that it points to the author’s OWN biases and preconceived notions, having (according to the back jacket cover) “thirty years of lab-research experience in neurobiology” and currently holding the position of “associate professor emeritus of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago”.

At that point I was ready to throw the book across the room. The author unknowingly afflicted with the disease against which he is rallying. In its defense, any book that rattles your cage has something to offer, so maybe I’ll pick it up off the floor and finish it some day. :>

6 thoughts on “4.0 Junk Science

  1. Mike, “They” always say that sons get their “smarts” from their mothers, but you must have tapped into something I have,–that I have never used—-, that you can understand this. How can you understand even what he is saying? I guess I do a little,but I have to admit,reluctently, that you’re much smarter than I. Mom

  2. I just finished Michael Crichton’s (author of Jurassic Park) latest fictional novel called “Next”. It’s a book about genetic engineering gone amuck. It’s a fast read, albeit a little hokey at times. There’s a transgenetic humanzee (human-chimpanzee cross-breed) and some other “altered animals”. It also addresses gene patenting in the US. There’s a company in the book that owns a gene found in one of the character’s cells. Through an accident, the company loses the genes in their lab so they hunt down the guy and his offspring to “retrieve” their “property” through forced biopsies. Some of the situations in the story with genetically modified plant and animal life are downright scary. Most of the fictional events are portrayed through accidents or greed that seem plausible (for the most part). I would hope that there are more controls in the real world.

    Chrichton argues, through “Author’s Notes” at the end of the book, that gene patenting should be stopped. He says it’s akin to patenting things found in nature like leaves on a tree or sunlight. He makes some very good arguments.

    In your description of “Junk Science”, Chrichton’s “Author’s Notes” may shed some light on “why” scientists are following this route. He says that the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 allows university scientists to now sell their discoveries to private companies for their personal profit. Prior to this Act, universities held all rights to these discoveries. Now, he claims, most university scientists have corporate ties and rather than working purely for scientific discovery and expansion of human knowledge, scientists are working to commercialize their work. Secrecy now shrouds many scientists’ ongoing work, replacing the once open exchange of ideas in the scholarly universities of the past. Chrichton calls for retraction of the Bayh-Dole Act.

    To expand on Chrichton’s personal political views; a previous book, “State of Fear”, was not so successful, in my opinion. He tries to debunk Global Warming and proposes that it is not really occurring naturally (eco-terrorists are the culprit in this novel). It’s simply a way for scientists and corporations to gain funding and recognition. That book was sort of a disappointment for me.

  3. Nice post. I just read about the Bahy-Dole Act but I can’t figure out where. I agree with Chrichton on that, as you know I’m an open-source kind of guy. But he did tick me off with the global warming anti-FUD BS – the only way I can imagine he chose that tack was to get attention and sell books. So if I read “Next” I’ll have to bum your copy or get it from the library. :>

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