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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Humdrum Hirelings and Dumb Followers

If you want to speak out against Cargo Cultism within science you should probably start by being someone like Richard Feynman, not a biotech laboratory worker. The leaders of biotech Cults may not fancy themselves as Cargo Cult leaders, rather real scientists like Feynman. Fools like me have a problem. Whereas the Cargo Cult leaders seem to lack that thing that makes science work, the common tribesman lacks that thing that influences others. Compare the following comments. The first comes from Douglas Fairbanks' book, "Laugh and Live":
Our natural aim is to make for ourselves a true personality that does not know defeat... How immeasurably inferior to such a spirit is the fellow who whines and moanes at every  evil twist of fortune. He has no confidence in himself an nothing else to do except confide his woes to all who will listen to his cowardly story of defeat. Such men are least useful in the important work of this world. They are the humdrum hirelings-the dumb followers. 
Next my friend from Allozyne:
Your posts are emblematic of someone who spends a lot of time complaining and little time actually working to try and make a positive impact a.k.a fighting the good fight. You couch yourself as a "leader" and yet your myopic POV is stark evidence that you have never sat at the "big boy" table nor been an influencer in any strategic decision... 

These two people, decades apart, separate vocations, never having met, would seem to put me and my philosophy in a nattering nabob category. A loser category. 

I was in fact a mere hireling. In my defence I am certain that I was hired to be a dumb follower. My attempts to alter that reality was met with great opposition. I turned to a simple blog to cleanse the mind. I've never thought of influencing anyone through this medium. To me this has been fun. Writing about the little things is enjoyable. Why does something like biotech, and scientific research in general, fail so often? It's fun to think that you might have a few thoughts on the subject. You are not just a humdrum hireling/dumb follower. In "Laugh and Live" Douglas Fairbanks offers up all kinds of advice on how to become the kind of fellow that was popular back in the early 1900's. In the Cargo Cult Scientist I offer up thoughts on a different kind of thinking. As Steve Jobs said, "Think differently". 

I came across an example of scientific/mathematic thinking that I think is important to this blog. Daniel Kahneman gives this simple puzzle to point out the battle between fast and slow thinking. "A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" The fast thinking mind comes up with the answer; ten cents. The correct answer is 5 cents. Think about it. I've come across this same mathematical error quite often among the tribesmen of biotech. For example, a one percent solution prepared by adding ten grams of solute to one a liter volume (not brought up to a 1 liter volume). It is a fast thinking error that is common. Does it matter? Is it complaining to suggest that fast (lazy) thinking is common in the life sciences.

In the above puzzle a common mistake is used to illustrate a bigger issue. An entire book from a Nobel prize winning scientist is dedicated to the subject. "Thinking Fast and Slow" should be required reading for anyone conducting research. You may think you don't make simple errors that arise from thinking too fast. Chances are you occasionally do. I'm not being a nattering nabob on this issue. I make simple errors and I don't think it is negative. The ambitious person may cover up their mistakes. Every time I catch errors I feel I get better at preventing them in the future. I even offer the scenarios up for others to contemplate, much like the common "ball and bat" math mistake described above. Not only do I point out my own mistakes, without guilt of having made them, I tend to point out the errors of others. I don't see the downside, perhaps because I have an un-diagnosed case of Asbergers. It is not the specific error or who made the error that attracts my attention, but the type of error that is made. If it is common we can train ourselves to be on the lookout. 

My response to Douglas Fairbanks and my Alloyzne friend would be that science requires a different kind of person. It requires people who prefer to think slowly and carefully. People who think slow are valuable people in the world of science. People who think fast are great in movie audiences or investor meetings. In science however we run the risk of promoting the "humdrum hirelings/dumb followers" because they are best at thinking fast and being a good follower. They don't know defeat... but they should. They may be too dumb to know they've failed. In science we know defeat. It is a small child dying of cancer or the grandmother/mother/sister/wife with Alzheimers. We have never tasted the success of a Douglas Fairbanks and his rise to Hollywood elite. We've never sat at the big boy table at Allozyne. We just don't care about those kinds of things. We want to succeed at something else.

My Allozyne detractor is someone I'd like to hear from again. I've taken his comments to heart. I've had the very same ideas leveled against me by a silent movie actor who died in 1939. I hear what they are saying. Am I a loser? That's rhetorical. In many ways the answer is yes. I am a bad fast thinker and a very slow thinker in general. It takes me a while to grasp the meaning of things.


James Randi once created a fake guru to fool the people of Australia. He trained a young man to get on stage and talk to dead people and bend spoons and so on. At the end of the experiment they told the people that the young man was scamming them. The people didn't care. Many still believed in the young man. They wanted to believe the young man. Randi failed to demonstrate to his audience that they were easily fooled. He failed! I think of my failures in the same way. Perhaps I am right about this cargo cult thing. Maybe I am too harsh and there are degrees of CCS to this business. But this is not what people want to hear. The truth, even in the scientific community, is not as influential as more pleasant explanations.

Whether or not I could explain that the correct answer to the "Thinking Fast and Slow" example above to someone who doesn't think it matters, the fact remains that the answer is five cents. I may fail to convince others but I have a way of getting to the truth. That is what I consider success. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Data Analysis for Researchers? Who Us?

Recently I was looking at the requirements for a data analysis certificate at the local university. Biotechnology takes data analysis too lightly. Certification in anything other than HR is unheard of. The qualifications of a researcher or someone who designs experiments vary greatly. One company may require very little of a person working in their labs. The next company may require a PhD to run their western blots. Who is analyzing the data coming from the lab? Is the data handed off to a specialist for analysis?
The requirements for the data analysis certificate are the following:
Select 10 or 11 credits from the courses below to complete the certificate program.

Required courses
STAT 511 – Design and Data Analysis for Researchers I (4 cr.)

STAT 512 – Design and Data Analysis for Researchers II (4 cr.)


Select a minimum of two credits from the following courses.
STAA 565 – Quantitative Reasoning (1 cr.)

STAA 566 – Computational and Graphical Statistics (1 cr.)

STAT 547 – Statistics for Environmental Monitoring (3 cr.)

Admission to the University is not required to earn the Certificate of Completion in Data Analysis. You can register for any course in the certificate program as long as you meet the course prerequisites.
Data analysis for researchers? What kind of research? The prerequisite math requirements alone are beyond what most universities require for bio or life science degrees. The degrees most prevalent in biotechnology do not have the same standards as those required to obtain the data analysis certificate.

I took a look at a few jobs in the local area to see if they required the same rigorous standards as the university certification. The Allen Institute for Brain Science is hiring a Scientist I. This individual will be required to "Work with experimentalists to understand their data and to suggest new experiments." What would the difference be between "understanding the data" as it is arbitrarily shared with you by the experimentalists (as AIBS requires) versus packaging the data and subjecting it to the analytical tools taught for this certification program?

Of the jobs available on the WBBA website, none require any data analysis certification. To obtain this certification would be very expensive. The upside is the wonderful knowledge you will gain. The downside is having a useless degree with regards to working in biotechnology. It would be like having a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering in the Cargo Cults.

Stinking thinking? No. This is an area ready for profit. If the Reproducibility Initiative were to one day mature into a world class tester of the tests, analyzer of the analysis, it would need an entire department of nerds with data analysis certification. Job requirement: Certification.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Xconomy Is Running Out of Cargo Cults

I've always felt that the role of Xconomy in the biotechnology industry has been to cheerlead. They are to biotechnology what FOX News is to the right wingers. Xconomy was organized with the idea that biotechnology and money were a match made in heaven. They have tried and tried but they just can't make this Cargo Cult look like a real airport however. Each biotech company Xconomy hoped to befriend was a fire along the Cargo Cult Airport. The fires burned out one by one until only a tiny handful remains. Tribes like Seattle have almost completely disappeared. What is left is nostalgia.

When the Cargo Cult Scientist began back in 2006, I was well into a career in an industry that involved routine mass layoffs. The layoffs were meant to halt the negative direction in which a company was headed. Flash forward to todays headlines from Biospace. Six of eight stories are about laying off staff.

  1. Pfizer Inc. and the Incredible Shrinking Sales Force
  2. Sandoz Inc. Closes Med Plant
  3. AMRI to Close US Site and Shift Work to NY and Singapore
  4. NeurogesX Inc. to Cut Jobs
  5. Spherix Announces Restructuring 
  6. Cumberland Pharma Lays Off One Third of Sales Force

Some things never change. The leaders have been changing direction since we began. Rarely do we revisit the certainty the leaders had when they began doing the thing that they later had to change. Rarely does anyone at Xconomy use our history in understanding our present. Why did those companies hire all of those people? What were those people suppose to have done? Where is the Cargo now?

Xconomy does admit that there could be a problem. In the article linked above, a former Icos (of Cialis fame) employee spoke of what she like about her current biotech job.
This person pointed out that the company was appealing in part because it had a decent amount of cash, which meant it could operate for at least a couple years.
This "this person" has a job. She is not going to change the industry. She does not question her leaders. She does her job and stays the course. She is just glad to think that the layoffs won't be coming for at least another couple years.

What does this "this person" do? Xconomy has never been interested science, just the business of science. The people down below who work for the security of "at least a couple years", aren't interviewed on Xconomy stories. Xconomy was formed to facilitate the conversation between the money and the takers. The people whom Xconomy is written for do not work in the lab. Like a Cargo Cult, none of the people in charge know how things actually work. They know money. The leaders read Xconomy because it offers a positive spin on the one aspect of the business that they care about, the money. The money is the cargo in this cult. Drugs and drug development is of little interest.

The money seems to have dried up. To what extent has this industry faced a reduction in funding, jobs, productivity... Xconomy has been "reporting" on this industry for quite some time now. They seem to have missed the real story. While the industry was steaming headlong into its own personal depression long before the rest of the economy went south, Xconomy was telling feel good stories about people getting rich and making awesome drugs like Provenge. Now they are left wondering where that old "can do" spirit has gone. Never mind that, what happened to journalism? 


Sunday, December 02, 2012


If one were to study the origens of story telling, they might begin with cavemen and their paintings on cave walls. We are probably missing millions of years worth of information. No matter what we try and wrap our brains around we seem to only see the tip of the iceberg. I recently purchased a set of videos on the history of Hollywood. If you think it all began around the time of Edison you would be wrong. For a long time people had been gathering in darkened theaters to watch images of light flash by on a screen while music or some narrative played. When Edison et. al. came along they began with the simple fascinating images of people in movement. Not long after this novelty wore off they began telling stories. Science has turned out to be very much like Hollywood. Fictional stories are far more lucrative than documentaries that make you think. Peole prefer Batman.

Our history is like this history of Hollywood. Both began long before the era on which people choose to focus. All of the real science that went into creating both industries was exciting. The book "Silent Lives" describes the times of people in the early days of the motion picture industry. The book "Double Helix" describes the lives of two men in the early days of biotechnology. The early days were full of desperation and hope. We now know that success was obtained so we feel comfortable. The movies at first were short examples of pictures creating the illusion of motion. Nickelodeons offered very brief scences of a person jumping up and down or someone taking a walk. The Watson and Crick DNA structure paper was also short, one page long. The early days of both industries started with just the basics. We can show people in motion. We know the structure of DNA. Where do we go from here. We've come a long way.

An interesting side of the movie business is the throngs of young people who flock to Hollywood eager to make a living in the business. You hear about the success of Brad Pitt. He dropped out of college in his last semester. He worked as the El Pollo Loco chicken for a brief while and got a big break on Thelma and Luise. Who you don't hear about is Kathryn Carner. She is a lovely young lady with lots of talent. She never made it however. She is still out there being a creative person but she didn't make it like Pitt. When we think of Hollywood we think Pitt, not Carner. The truth is that Hollywood is both of them.

Now, likewise, when we think of biotech we think of Amgen. We think of Leroy Hood. Some people make it. Most people flounder. Just like Hollywood we have more talent than we can support. There must be some way of sorting out the ones who will make it. Who makes it and who doesn't? What science makes it? What does it take?

As we've often talked about here on the CCS, the narrative is something that all serious scientists take into consideration. The lesser men and women get their PhDs and go desperately searching for a job, any job. They may end up in Seattle or San Francisco. They may have a PhD in Microbiology and end up running a protein purification group at a small start-up. It is the serious scientist that forges his/her own path. David Sinclair, for example, knew that a Resveratrol career would get him tenure and a $720 million dollar biotech deal. Not many protein purification supervisors think big like that. It is that kind of dreaming that made Hollywood and biotechnology. Unfortunately for us, science is not all narrative. Where we part ways in comparisons is in the origens of our stories. In biotech it must be real. In Hollywood it just has to be interesting. In the Cargo Cults we prefer the Hollywood system.