Thursday, October 12, 2006

Mello and Fire Win the Nobel: But How Do They Know?

Craig Mello and Andrew Fire were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in Biology on October 3rd, 2006. At first glance, the coverage seemed wonderful.  But as I thought about it in more depth, it seemed symptomatic of the divide between Science and Society on so many levels.

Scientists and the lay public having read the same stories may actually agree on the key facts:  what they discovered, why it is important and why they were awarded the prize.  But there the similarities end.  Consider the following questions:
  • What was known before their prizewinning work?
  • What questions did they ask initially that led to their discovery?
  • How did they decide to work on this problem?
  • How many others were working on the same problem?
  • What was different about their approach?
  • How much did it cost and how were they funded?
  • And so on...  
What can lay readers know about this kind of context to the story?  In fact, they may not even be aware that they have these questions.

Scientists and engineers bring lots of personal experience, which help them imagine what these scientists actually did even if they do not know about the specifics of this story.  That understanding is critical to understanding not only what Mello and Fire discovered but also how they know it. And that is precisely what the lay reader is missing.

Although this gap is not the only factor in the divide between science and society, it is a significant contributor to mistrust between scientists and non-scientists.  And I believe it is an important obstacle in so many public debates in our society where scientific evidence is presented as if it were simply another subjective point of view.

Most of the articles on this event focused on the results:  what they learned, how it is being used and who gets credit.  A few discussed the basic scientific facts and context of their discovery, but very superficially.  Others included some of the knowledge that was derived from or enabled by their original work.  But most readers will remember only that they discovered a means of suppressing genes in plants and animals using RNA (which is kind of a puzzling thing to remember since RNA is used by cells themselves to read DNA and transfer information to the cellular machinery which makes proteins).  The only mention of process and their personal experience of their research focused on decision making in the prize committee and politics within the scientific community.  There was nothing on the historical context of this discovery and certainly no account for how we know what we know.

When we read these stories it’s quite easy to get caught up in the flow.  It’s interesting.  It’s exciting.  And when we are finished we feel informed.  But what have we learned?  What will we remember?  What do we still want to know?  If we allow ourselves a moment of reflection and name what we are still missing, we feel quite differently.  Just think about the dimensions of this story that we have not yet explored.  Although there are many, I’ll focus on only three:  the History of these ideas; the actual work of Mello and Fire, and the Philosophy behind their work.  In short, how do we know what we know?

Looking at the work of Mello and Fire from a historical perspective would add tremendous depth to the story.  In the broadest brush strokes, it might be interesting to recall the work of Linnaeus, Mendel, Darwin, Watson, Crick and Franklin to put this finding in its context in Biology, Evolution and Genetics.  This is very, very small piece in a very, very large puzzle.  But that relationship is critical.

Unfortunately, a superficial historical treatment can hide even more than it explains. It’s easy to get lost in the narrative; it can be boring.  It may provide context but at the same time it often makes the individual creativity, art and choices of real human beings seem like destiny, as if it were all inevitably leading to our current understanding, a secular version of revealed truth. But this is just bad History.

Good history on the other hand brings these people alive.  The late Stephen J. Gould, for example, was able to convey the drama of discovery and the tumultuous ways scientific thought actually evolves.  As the reader, Gould helps you remember how what seems obvious today was simply inconceivable yesterday even though dozens, hundreds, or perhaps thousands of people, highly talented, motivated and knowledgeable individuals, were working on the problem. In this case, the conventional view of RNA in gene expression – as the messenger molecule that carries information from DNA in the nucleus to the ribosomes where proteins are made – actually made it hard to accept what experimental evidence was showing:  that RNA was interfering with gene expression in these cases.  Many scientists had the same evidence.  But only Mello and Fire realized that RNA was actually inhibiting gene expression, not enabling it!  And in the process they revealed that gene regulation and evolution were far more complex and nuanced than most scientists imagined.  When the lay reader understands the difficulty of making that conceptual leap, then they also understand what Mello and Fire accomplished.

And by understanding how difficult this really was in this case, the lay reader can understand what scientific innovation actually is in general.

Of course, a good story teller can make the present just as dramatic as the past.  There are social, political and human dimensions to this story that the lay public will never appreciate unless it is researched, organized and presented in a compelling, interesting package. For example, the New York Times noted that plant scientists had observed the effects of RNA-triggered gene suppression in petunias before Mello and Fire began to study the same effects in round worms.  The same article suggested that some plant scientists believed that they should have been honored by the Nobel Committee as well.  But what are these professional rivalries really like?  Scientists know but the lay public remains in the dark. Why did Mello and Fire choose this question as the focus of their research?  What advantages did Mello and Fire have?  What did they actually do that was different?  What was it like when they realized what they had?  When they published their work, what was the reaction of the others who were looking at the same data but did not draw the same conclusions?  Was there resistance to the idea that RNA could be both a means of expressing genes and a means of suppressing them?  What did they do to be sure of their results?

In addition to the personal stories, the social and political dimensions remain unexplored.  How does this change our perspective on the utility and value of the Human Genome Project and earlier, more linear views of gene expression?  How does it contribute to the momentum of scientists who are using more holistic approaches and Systems Biology and offset decades of reductionist research?  And how will a more systematic approach change biotech, the development of new drugs and the commercial practice of patenting individual genes?  By documenting the personal stories and the details of their scientific lives, the public would have a rare view of the inner workings, the social, political and economic dimensions of Science, and the personal drama that is absolutely part of Science.

Epistemology offers another lens through which we can examine the work of Mello and Fire:  how do they know what they know?  When we simply explain the mechanics of what they discovered – how it works, in other words – we are missing an important dimension of Science. When we superficially cover the facts, focus on the benefits and completely ignore how we know it, we really weaken the social foundation upon which Science rests:  a shared understanding of what Science is.  Richard Feynman said, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statement of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.” Well, how certain are we of these “facts”?  If, as Steven J. Gould says, “Science is a method for testing claims about the natural world, not a compendium of absolute truths,” then how is this Science?  What was the hypothesis?  What were the tests?  What is the evidence?   How do we know?

The epistemology of scientific evidence, personal stories and the History of Science are all additional ways of knowing about science; they all contribute to how we know.  The attention that stories like this bring is considerable.  For a brief moment last week there were millions of readers who had had Biology in high school or college and might have connected more deeply with the story on one level or another.   And Science missed an opportunity to reach out and develop, correct or reinforce some fundamental ideas about Science, especially by explaining, extending or reinforcing how we know about Science.

What a pity.  Where is that forum?  How can Science express itself in these ways?  What agencies are responsible for collecting and communicating these ideas?

Granted, this is breaking news.  Perhaps I am asking too much of science reporters and the popular press. In fact, I am using this story and exaggerating my case to make a point.  But do you think there will be any widespread coverage of this story a week from now?  When new stories break that relate to this discovery and this award, will readers be able to track back to this event and find background reading, context and answers to some of their outstanding questions?  When this discovery finds its way into high school and college textbooks, will any of these ideas be developed in any kind of meaningful way?  Where can readers go to obtain this kind of additional context?

Although I am critical of the mainstream media coverage of stories like this, I certainly realize that it is as much a reflection of our society’s understanding of Science as it is a cause of it.  I am not so na├»ve to think that writing a few stories and posting them on a website like this one can have anything but the smallest effect on the larger social problem of how we think – or perhaps more accurately – how we fail to think about Science as a society.  However, if we consider these new dimensions of how we communicate Science that include how we know what we know, and if we work these ideas into science education at all levels, if we develop these ideas in businesses and organizations that rely on technology, innovation and scientific evidence, if we create new media and forums for communicating these ideas, perhaps we will change some minds, one individual at a time.

COMMENTS from the original blog

2006-10-12 22:19:24 doreen
isn't this true of any story, any discipline?
individuals within the sub-culture know much, much more than the casual reader.  what's the big deal?

2006-11-02 16:07:33 stefano
same in any sub-culture
Good point.  No qualitative difference.  But there are important implications here.  Science is a very, very small sub-culture which is very, very higly leveraged with respect to its impact on society.  In an open, democratic society, people not in the scientific community need to understand what it is doing, how to support it or influence it's focus, and how to manage the consequences.

2007-10-31 14:52:02 stefano
The "Big Deal" is public decision-making.
I've thought about this some more and now I am much more clear on why this is important.  If a specialist, a stamp collector, say, were to make a decision that affects only them, you are right.  He or she may know a lot more than the rest of us, and who cares what they buy or sell.  But imagine the professional relationship between a lay client and their doctor, lawyer, financial adviser or architect, for example.  Even if the lay client decides to trust them and allow them to make specialized decisions on their behalf, when the decisions are controversial, the lay client needs to know enough to make a good choice of advisers.

In a representative democracy, leaders need to know enough science to pick scientific advisers and to frame public decision-making clearly so their constituents can learn, become engaged in the process and then hold them accountable for the results.  All of this requires a basic understanding of the science in question, especially if the science itself is controversial.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to read what I wrote before reading about Snow's 'Two Cultures' and its critics.