Hide and Seek

I guess the hunt is never over. Just when you think you’re winning, a sleeper cell surfaces, one you hadn’t even suspected, and closets itself somewhere you’d never think to look –an endless game of hide and seek. A Samsara of possibilities.

An yet, what would be the thrill of exploration if you knew all of the findings beforehand? We all need quests -adventures that uncover the hitherto unexpected, don’t you think? It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. Me, anyway.

Questions and answers, for example… Let me play the devil’s advocate for a moment. We tend to assume that answers are the result of questions –we ask a question and then search for a correct -or at least appropriate– answer. But are we actually falling into a post hoc fallacy? ‘Post hoc, ergo propter hoc’ –because something occurred right after, or seems to be a response, we assume the initial thing caused the second. That’s just one way to look at it, of course. What if we assume there are answers lying around everywhere, and that the game is to find the appropriate question –the one that fits? A kind of ante hoc approach, I suppose, in which the answers come first.

Okay, try this. Answer: There are significant numbers of bacteria living under, and protected by, the fingernails. Question: Why doesn’t persistent scrubbing eliminate bacteria on the hands? I know this approach is merely a capricious inversion, but sometimes transpositions help us gain an interesting, if not useful, perspective. An article from BBC brought it to mind: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160622-what-lives-under-your-fingernails

I’m a surgeon, and early in my career it occurred to me that the water I was using at the scrub sink before an operation was itself not sterile. After a fastidious and lengthy hand and arm scrub with whatever cleansing soap was in vogue, I would then rinse off the soap with what amounted to tap water… And then, yes, I would observe ‘operating room technique’ and don sterile gloves for the procedure, but, apart from perhaps reducing the amount of whatever had been on my hands, what had all that scrubbing accomplished? Was it just a theoretical conjecture that it actually made a difference? A sop to sterile tradition? And if I were required to wear sterile gloves anyway why not just, I don’t know, use the same soap I used in the shower? It would certainly be cheaper. Questions! Questions swirling around hunting desperately for answers…

Had we posed the answer first, though… (Can you pose an answer?) Maybe the answer: ‘there are significant numbers of bacteria in the subungual compartment’ is a perfect fit for the question: why ‘is this hand region […] relatively inaccessible to antimicrobial agents during normal hand-washing procedures’?

Think about it for moment. Isn’t this the classic conundrum of basic science –science that is done for its own sake, science that has no existing practical applications? It consists of a whole platoon of answers to questions that have not yet been framed –or at least questions that were not anticipated at the time, or maybe just not the questions that were asked. A classic example of an answer (observation) looking for the right question was that of the findings of Penzias and Wilson –two physicists working on a new type of antenna at Bell Labs in New Jersey. In the early 1960ies they found a source of noise (the answer) in the atmosphere that they couldn’t explain. Finally, after eliminating other questions, they realized it was the cosmic microwave background (CMB) left over from the Big Bang. They received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics for finding the proper question: ‘Is there any evidence of the Big Bang still around?’

And how about another answer: DNA is a large double helical molecule containing patterns of paired nucleotides and is found in cell nuclei for some reason. Question: why is it there? Or even: Could it be related to reproduction? Or heredity…?

Okay, I know this is a bit of a cart-before-the-horse stretch, but I think it does make us less complacent and maybe more appreciative of raw data. Details. Complexity. I’m not suggesting that Inductive logic is somehow flawed –it’s one of the fundamental tenets of the Scientific Method which posits using observation (answers) to derive general principles (more answers).

It’s not that confusing, really –it’s actually how things work in Science. The questions often arise because of the observations –after them, in other words- and so require experiments (questions) to see if the observations were indeed the answers…

So, isn’t the world a wonderful place? I ask that question -just one of many- after observing all the answers lying around unquestioned –unbothered, really- on the grass and among the flowers growing outside my window, all the unchallenged clouds in the sky above, and all the sunlight glinting off my polished floor.

I wonder, sometimes, whether the King James translation of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was unwittingly prescient: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’ And only when we recognize the importance of the observation, are we encouraged to ask why is that?



Scientific Fraud

Science –whose Latin etymology denotes knowledge- started off as a branch of philosophy and gradually morphed into its present form. Recently, however, it seems to be resting on a progressively unstable foundation with the general public. By its very nature, Science accumulates its knowledge by induction: observations elicit explanations which suggest experiments designed to test these. The results are always contingent –a classic example might be that of swans: if all we see are white swans, it might be reasonable to conclude that all swans are white –until, that is, we find a black swan. So knowledge is couched in probabilities –everything is potentially refutable and our statements about it must reflect how likely it is to be a continuing truth. This is fine unless we crave certainty.

In an increasingly uncertain world one can understand the appeal of religions, if for no other reason than the assurance that the mainstream variants project. But historically, even the supposedly eternal truths revealed by religions have been contingent upon success in battle, or survival in times of environmental or social disasters. Certainty is a horizon that shifts and recedes whenever it is approached. However close we may feel we are, it is, like the rainbow, forever out of reach.

Of course, many do not agree with this; many feel that certainty is attainable and harbour a lingering suspicion of any system that cannot provide it. Why should faith be piled onto something that accepts that it is open to being refuted -welcomes it, in fact?

There are enough confusing and seemingly contradictory studies published to challenge the Public’s trust in Science. At times, its credibility seems to be balancing on a knife’s edge; the slightest puff of scandal could well be enough to destabilize the already tenuous confidence. For some people, it is already gossamer thin.

It is with this in mind that my fears often migrate to the subject of fraud in science. For me, it is not only a question of how it could happen, but rather, why it would. I was intrigued by an article in an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal from last year entitled: ‘Scientific misconduct or criminal offence?’  (http://www.cmaj.ca/content/187/17/1273.full) The article examines whether we should be treating scientific fraud as merely naughty ill-advised behaviour, incompetence, or criminally punishable conduct. The standard of proof needed to successfully achieve a legal conviction is apparently quite stringent and so, often in the interests of limited financial resources and depending upon the seriousness of the case, lesser sanctions are frequently used. In Canada there is a Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research. ‘The Secretariat is a government agency responsible for implementing the Tri-Agency Framework on Responsible Conduct of Research on behalf of Canada’s major federal government granting agencies… A researcher who breeches the framework may receive letters of education or admonishment. More serious cases could merit sanctions, including withdrawal of funding or even the ability to apply for funding.’ And each year, says Susan Zimmerman, the current executive director, ‘there are about 90 breeches of the framework, but very few, perhaps three or four, would be considered serious. Even fewer would constitute a criminal offence. And if one did, the Secretariat is already obligated to notify the authorities. Instead of trying to ferret out the rare egregious bad apple, the Secretariat, as stewards of public money, focuses on reducing unacceptable results. The agency considers that approach to be a more productive use of limited resources than trying to determine if a researcher made an honest mistake or acted in bad faith.’

All fine and good, I suppose, but I still wonder about the already suspicious Public Opinion about science in general. ‘In a 2014 BMJ article, Bhutta, who has a strong interest in research ethics, argued that scientific fraud can have huge consequences on public health and clinical practice, citing the damage to global vaccination coverage caused by the “fraudulent and discredited” research of Dr. Andrew Wakefield that linked vaccines to autism. There is little risk to committing research fraud, beyond damage to reputation, and the research community is doing an inadequate job of policing itself, according to Bhutta, who wrote that “additional deterrence through punitive measures such as criminal proceedings should be added to the repertoire of measures available.”’

If the results of a study were indeed woven out of whole cloth, the lack of legal consequences would feed the worst fears of an admittedly small segment of society which mistrusted western medicine’s perceived mantle of omniscience to start with. If it were fraudulent, they would wonder, then why wasn’t the doctor prosecuted? Was it because there was some uncomfortable truth to his findings that an embarrassed Medical establishment, which had been pushing the safety of vaccines for years, was trying to cover up? How many other studies are fraudulent that either haven’t come to light, or have been quietly hidden under the covers?

The point is not so much that infractions are few and often inconsequential, nor that the naysayers and critics are few in number, but that the the condemnations are loud and insistent. Without a visible and concerted effort to rebut their arguments, allay their suspicions, and demonstrate that there are consequences for deception, their doubts will only grow larger, and their trust in the scientific approach further diminish. Already we have seen the effects of an underlying mistrust in the uncertainties of science manifesting itself in the climate change deniers.

Add fraud to the inherent uncertainties embedded in the scientific method, and we can begin to worry about the punishment of Sisyphus condemned forever to roll a massive boulder up a hill then watch it roll back down again. Consequences must suit the action. Justice delayed is justice denied.