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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Narrative

It has always seemed strange to me... the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second. - John Steinbeck

The goal of the politician is to communicate convincingly that s/he operates with the quality of the first to achieve the produce of the second. Science is no different. Our leaders are in powerful positions. They get to tell the story of how they are a part of the productive world of science. How honest are they really?


When you live a life like Frank Sinatra you leave behind plenty of information about who you were. Movies, records, interviews, books, and photographs are there for anyone to tell Franks story. There is one piece film footage that I've seen on two separate documentaries. In the first documentary you see Sinatra surrounded by ten burly men. They are rehearsing for a scene for a movie while Frank was taking a break from recording music in a Capital Records studio. The gist of this scene in the documentary is that Frank is a consumate workaholic. In the next documentary you have the same film footage. It starts just when the rehearsing begins, giving the idea that this is not acting but a moment in his actual life. The scene Frank and friends are going over is one where Frank is playing a tough guy. He calls one of the other men out while the rest stand back in deference to the boss. The gist is that Frank really is a tough guy.

Compare a couple of harmless Sinatra retrospectives to the narrative of a scientists work. In spite of the seemingly objective structure of scientific publications, the fact remains that a publication is merely a narrative. How many hours of work are being represented? How many months? Years? Who did what and how many times did they do it? A carefully edited bit of reality will quickly turn the truth to bullshit. Thus, the narrative is worthy of study as well as the thesis being supported.


1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.
2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story.
3. the art, technique, or process of narrating, or of telling a story:

What scientists want everyone to believe is that we follow a superior set of rules that guide each and every one of us to a superior understanding of our world. What a study of "the narrative" put forth by scientists might uncover are, as Steinbeck called the concomitants of failure and the traits of our success.

Is it possible that "The Narrative" lies at the heart of our problems? Could a change in how we communicate deliver a blow to the cargo cult careerists among us? Can we design a better way, a solution, to share the experience of our work and what we think it means?

Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Betrayers of the Truth - William Broad and Nicholas Wade

Considered as a literary form, a scientific paper is as stylized as a sonnet; if it fails to obey rigid rules of composition, it will simply not be published. In essence, the rules require that an experiment be reported as if every aspect of the procedure had been performed according to the philosophers' prescriptions. The conventions of scientific reporting require the writer to be totally impersonal, so as to give the appearance of objectivity.

One solution is to replace the peer review system with a system where data and notebooks are actually reviewed by scientists trained in dissecting "The Narrative". This would create a new career path for scientists. Imagine also a private firm that performs due diligence for investors and/or charities. Is it possible to propose such an affront to the status quo of peer reviewed narratives?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Chapter One

The History of the Narrative

A Cargo Cult Tribesman Discusses His Life In Biotechnology

The company was situated in one story strip mall style industrial area in Woodland Hills California. The employee parking lot was stuffed in the center of the buildings. Wind did not stir the air in our secluded parking lot. It was quite. By 5 o'clock it was always empty. I walked to my car at the days end in this uncomfortable place. I hadn't done anything useful today, I thought. My mind seemed to be as empty and quite. No profound thoughts had stirred my brainwaves. It was as though I had been in REM for hours. No matter what I did I couldn't get the technology to work as promised. I couldn't prove that the guys working on selecting drug targets were correct. I couldn't get the RNA interference, the latest big thing in biotechnology, to work as promised. Was it me?

Steve Jobs said that the most important thing is the project. Great things in business are not done by one person, they are done by a team of people. You hire an A Team and you get the job done. You will encounter people who are difficult to manage. They are passionate about what they do. There will be fights. There will be a lot of noise coming out of that conference room from time to time. We all seemed to get along just fine. Some nights however, there was a little noise to be heard in the parking lot. We would occasionally open the loading dock door and have a noon time barbeque. We would have ribs, hamburgers, potato salad, chips, soda... and beer. Lots of beer. The beer drinkers knew the end was certain so they were going to enjoy the final days. I was no prude. I would have a couple beers at lunch but I had a long drive home. I'd go back to work. It made me nervous to think this was even allowed. At five o'clock I'd make that lonely journey out to my car. The BBQ would have degenerated into a wasted day of drinking beer in a sad lonely parking lot. The A team.

When the end finally came, nine months after I started, three years after the company began, it was just as quiet inside as it was out back on a non-drinking day. I entered through the lab. Empty. I checked the front desk. Hmm. No one here yet. I was early as usual. No one in the cubicle area. Finally, someone appeared. It was the Chief Scientific Officer coming out of his office. "Come on in Sal". We were out of money. It was over and he meant today. "Go on home and start your job search. Use me as a reference. You did a good job."

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Cycle and The Betrayers of the Truth

When The Great Recession hit in 2008, Jamie Diamon of JP Morgan said, "My daughter called me from school one day, and said, 'Dad, what's a financial crisis?' And, without trying to be funny, I said, 'This type of thing happens every five to seven years.'"

That was 7 years ago. Are we due for another "this type of thing"? If so, how will the cargo cults of biotech fare after their surge in IPOs?

A cargo cult does not get to experience the arrival of cargo. It doesn't come once every 5 to 7 years. They spend their lives performing ceremonies in hopes of one day enjoying the cargo. Likewise, biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry employees/scientists can spend their whole careers in hopes of one day working on a successful drug project. It may never come. There are no cycles in real science.

Western investors are just as susceptible to the lure of ceremony as any cargo cult tribesman. They listen to scientists who have the best credentials. They invest in companies that are using the latest Nobel Prize winning "science". They look for companies that need money within a certain range, as opposed to a specific amount for specific tasks. They tend to differ, however, in the attitude towards the lack of cargo. They won't wait a lifetime to see results. Thus, we should be able to predict our that investment cargo cults will begin to pull out of their biotech cargo cult investments.

What makes investment even more risky is the system of conducting science in modern times. It is not as the professional community of scientists would have you believe. We are led to believe that science is a strictly logical process, involving skilled objective scientists performing experiments in the laboratory, that are rigorously verified by other scientists. All work is published and shared in order to advance the basic science. Any deviations from the truth are weeded out in a self-policing manner.

In the 1982 book, "Betrayers of the Truth, Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science" by William Broad and Nicholas Wade, a different description of how science is conducted was offered. "Logic, replication, peer review, objectivity - all had been successfully defied the scientific forgers, often for extended periods of time." This book written right around the advent of our modern biotechnology industry, did not think about the influence of a multi-billion dollar industry. It focused only on the problems of science.

Chapters in Betrayers of the Truth include; 1)The Flawed Ideal 2) Deceit in History 3) Rise of the Careerists 4) The Limits of Replication 5) Power of the Elite 6) Self-Deception and Gullibility 7)Myth of Logic 8) Masters and Apprentices 9) Immunity of Scrutiny 10) Retreat Under Pressure 11) The Failure of Objectivity 12)Fraud and the Structure of Science. In 1982 the biopharma world began spending billions and billions of dollars resulting in a handful of millionaires and no significant medical advances. William Broad and Nicholas Wade had sent out a warning. As they explained

Fraud, we believe, offers another route to understanding science. medicine, after all, has derived much useful knowledge about the normal functioning of the body from the study of its pathology. By studying science through its pathology rather than through some preconceived criterion, it is easier to see the process as it is , as distinct from how it ought to be.

The pathology of the life sciences is like a big juicy piece of fruit ready to be picked from the vine. Has anything changed since the publication of Betrayers of the Truth in 1982? Have we taken a few hundred billion dollars and amplified the problems of careerism and non-reproducible work? Clearly fraud continues to be a part of everyday life in the sciences. We are no better at preventing nor spotting deceit. The cargo cult aspects of science and the biotech industry remain steady.

There is a pattern however. The layoffs have begun. Sanofi, InterMune, Abbott, Syngenta AG, GSK, and Amgen all have plans to cut their workforce this year. All signs point towards a rough 2015. The consequences of "Fraud and the Structure of Science" do have a pattern.


In the documentary "I Am" movie director/producer Tom Shadyac asked two questions, "What is wrong with the world and what can we do to fix it?" I have long been asking the same questions about the field in which I am passionate about and in which I once worked. What is wrong is complex. I have spent the last year writing a summary of ideas from this blog that very closely mirror "Betrayers of the Truth". Many of the themes, such as careerism, the structure of peer review and publish or parish, and the simple notion that science is a human endeavor thus subject to constant fraud and deceit, are explored. It is my hope to offer solutions for useful careers in science, not the cycle of the money. I will spend the next year or two or three... editing and self-doubting the effort. Then e-publish and offer my thoughts on this blog.