Thursday, October 12, 2006

Thoughts on Mello and Fire's Prizewinning Work and Media Coverage

Craig Mello and Andrew Fire were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in Biology yesterday, October 3rd. 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.

I began with the article in the Times that my father sent me.  Some questions come to mind:  What did they know before their prize winning work?  What questions did they ask?  What problems did they work on?  How did they pick these problems?  What criteria did they use to figure out what to do?  Were others working on the same problem?  How many people?  How were they funded?  How much does it cost?  What was different about their approach?  What did they discover?  How did they do it?  And why is it so important for Biology?  Weren’t they part of a community?  How did the prize committee decide to give the award to them?  What criteria did they use?  Why this year?

You get the point:  I had a lot of questions.

I read the article in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and then I poked around the web to see what some other sources had to say about the news.  Many of these questions were answered in every article I read about the award.  But others were not addressed in any of them.  Not surprisingly, most of the focus was on results:  what they learned, how it is being used and who gets credit.  Many articles focus on the knowledge that was derived from or enabled by their original work: the benefits.  A few discussed the basic scientific facts and context of their discovery, but very superficially.  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 no tangible sense of how we know what we know.

Here are links to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal articles.  Here is a search on Google.  And I have also written my own very straightforward, synopsis on the story.

When we read these stories it’s quite easy to get caught up in the flow.  It’s interesting.  It’s exciting.  And when you are finished you 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 two:  the History and Philosophy of this Science.

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.  But such a treatment often obscures the actual phenomena of discovery as much as it explains.  Although good History can overcome the tendency of the narrative to seem inevitable, it is rare.  Bad History is boring and much more prevalent and typically ignores the most compelling and fascinating aspects of scientific revolutions:  that 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.  But when it is good, it can be very, very good.

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. In my research I learned that plant scientists had noticed the effects of RNA-triggered gene suppression in petunias for many years before Mello and Fire began to study the same effects in round worms.  But this tidbit raises more questions than it answers:  How many labs were working on this problem?  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?  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 Science.

Who is doing this?

The field of 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 share 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,” how is this Science?  What was the hypothesis?  What were the tests?  What is the evidence? How do we know?

The attention that stories like this bring is considerable.  For a brief moment yesterday there were millions of readers who had Biology in high school or college and might have connected more deeply with the story on one level or another.   And Science as a set of institutions and individuals who practice Science and communicate well within itself missed an opportunity to reach out and develop, correct or reinforce some fundamental ideas about Science in the lay public.

What a pity.

Granted, this is breaking news.  Perhaps I am asking too much of Science reporters. 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?

Whose job is this?

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.  I am thinking about this as a systematic problem that requires a systematic solution and will be reaching out to people in the coming months to discover how I can work on improving the situation a little bit at a time.

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