Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Is the Human Ego good for Science?

I have just finished reading the fascinating book "The Emperor of Scent" by Chandler Burr. It starts off describing the world of perfume with a focus on Luca Turin, a man with the unusual talent of being able to review perfumes with great eloquence, conjuring up beautiful metaphors of experiencing their scent.

The book then takes an unexpected turn into the description of Turin's theory about the mechanism of olfaction. There is some truly interesting science there, such as Turin's discovery of a binding site for NADPH and another for zinc on a protein thought to mediate smell. This supports his hypothesis that the protein functions as an electron tunneling spectroscope detecting differences in vibrational modes. Further evidence is provided by comparing the different smells of deuterated molecules like acetophenone and the similarity of the stench of boranes with thiols, which share similar IR spectral bands. This idea is at odds with the conventional view that molecular shape is responsible for the activity of odorants. (For a summary of Turin's theory I would suggest watching his recent TED talk "The Science of Scent" and his Wikipedia entry)

This is all very interesting stuff and would have made for a good read but what makes this a truly fascinating story is that Burr spends the rest of the book detailing the way the scientific community responded to his findings. As Turin waits a year to finally get rejected by Nature, the reviews, rebuttals and other communications with the editor are examined to expose the intense emotional components that can arise from the peer review process. The author even follows Turin to conferences and reports in detail how various members of the audience react and comment during his talk and at informal meetings over lunch.

People who are not in science may find this disturbing. All too often science operates like the judicial system, where winning can take on more importance than finding the truth.

The fundamental problem is conflict of interest. If you have patents or run a company it may not in your financial best interest to look under every rock, except as required by law. If you have built your career on a certain theory it may not be in your professional best interest to open every can of worms. Burr actually wrote a chapter explaining why the book appeared to be so one sided: it was hard to get detailed comments from Turin's detractors because, although they disagreed with his theory, they had not read his paper and did not have time to do so.

But Turin was really not that different in his conflict of interest related to ego. There are descriptions of him reading articles in a state of dread and delaying experiments for fear that he might be proved wrong. Still, I like to root for the underdog, so the book did have me hoping that he would be vindicated.

If most scientists are motivated by ego, is it possible to do egoless science - and what would that look like?

For starters I think that keeping a true Open Notebook (All Content shared Immediately) does a lot to keep your ego in check. If you report on what you find, when you find it, you don't have time to succumb to the temptation to cherry pick results and embellish the story of what happened.

Another trend that I think will emerge in the next few years and will change the way science gets done is machine-driven science. It will probably prove too much trouble to take into account a researcher's ego and career objectives when coding for AI to plan and analyze experiments to solve problems. Just like Turin, a lot of researchers (including myself, especially early in my career) procrastinate doing certain experiments for fear of not liking the outcome. The key again here is making the experimental logs of those machines public in real time.

When I refer to egoless science, I am speaking at the level of experimentation. I am driven by ego, like everyone else. But I have found it more useful to place its focus at the meta level. Instead of taking pride in appearing to run a perfect operation - and of getting high yields for our reactions - I am most pleased when the members of my group do their best to record exactly what happened, as they do science.

And being a strong proponent of Open Science, my ego is linked to those activities. Even though it is somewhat ironic, I do enjoy competing at being as openly collaborative as I can.

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At 10:54 AM, Blogger Gururaj said...

Science is about a very objective examination of things and an equally objective thought process. Ego would be a big hurdle for both of them. So, it is highly preferable that scientists are humble

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Jean-Claude Bradley said...

Ideally science should be objective. But as this book illustrates emotions can get in the way.

At 5:41 PM, Blogger Mat Todd said...

Interesting post, J-C. I must read the book. [I was friends with Luca's brother at Uni, so was alerted to his interesting work back then]

At 11:02 PM, Blogger Steve Koch said...

Fantastic blog, Jean-Claude! Wow, you really made me want to read that book. I agree that open notebook science and other forms of open science are a great ego check. On the other hand, the extreme of machine-driven science does not strike me as taking over the realm of scientists arguing about ideas. In that sense, the ego is essential.

I read a little about Polanyi a couple years ago, and this reminds me of his arguments that science can't be objective. The example he uses in the intro to his book, "Personal Knowledge..." is that if we were truly objective, we wouldn't spend so much time studying humans. We'd spend all of our time studying empty space.

It also made me think of a recent blog about ending the myth of how science is done. If you look at that complicated diagram, only part of it can be replaced by machines.

Re-reading my last two paragraphs, it looks like I'm trying to refute you, which is not my intent. Those things just popped in my head. Overall, I really do think a lot more objectivity is needed in science, referee work, grant review, etc. We can keep pushing ourselves towards objectivity, and there isn't any real risk of losing the essential human/emotional components.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Jean-Claude Bradley said...

You are right that scientists should be discussing ideas. The problem is having ego too closely tied to the expected results from experiments. As shown in the book that causes apprehension and scientist become reluctant to carry out necessary experiments that might contradict them. If machines can be left to do lots and lots of experiments and report objectively on what happens that should let scientist discuss the ideas more quickly.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Jean-Claude Bradley said...

Wow Mat - small world!

At 2:13 PM, Anonymous Sarah DeLeon said...


to spirit-soul-body

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Dana said...

Hmm, sounds like a really interesting testing book. I had a class in college that discussed issues like this and we read a similar book. I wish I could still remember the name of it...

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Chandler Burr said...

Hi, Jean-Claude. Thanks so much for your nice words about "The Emperor of Scent," I'm really glad you liked it. I'd never heard of the open notebook concept, and it's terrific-- terrifying, obviously, totally scary for a scientist, but fascinating. I have a novel coming out on June 9, "You Or Someone Like You," and I actually went back and looked at some earlier drafts and shuddered to think of people having been able to watch me evolve the thing (evolve as a transitive verb; why not) to where it is now. But the fact is that art is fundamentally different from science; art becomes art at the point that the artist says it does, but the process is itself the substance of science. So I'm relieved to be able to say that I can thus rationalize making scientists do this high-wire act but not novelists. Best, Chandler

At 9:45 AM, Blogger Jean-Claude Bradley said...

Thanks for leaving a message! I really enjoyed your book. The definition of what is art is of course a heated subject - I am reminded of the documentary "My Kid Could Paint That".

I think there is also a great deal of art in science. Coming up with an elegant question to answer a scientific question is truly an art form. Smelling isotopically different molecules was an example of that. I would have been interested in seeing Turin evaluate various commonly available deuterated solvents - I never noticed a difference in smell between CHCl3 and CDCl3.

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Chandler Burr said...

JC, yeah, several people have mentioned that there are deuterated compounds don't smell different from their non-deut counterparts. If you're interested you should def contact Luca; I believe he's at MIT now. Try turin@mit.edu.

At 4:54 AM, Blogger Jean-Claude Bradley said...

Thanks Chandler - it looks like Turin is getting a lot more recognition now with his association at MIT. His RealNose project looks very interesting indeed!


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