More on how Science works, experiments: what is knowledge worth?

Qaz said (and its worth putting in its entirety):

Except that’s not true either. There are things that don’t work in rats, but do work in people. (Cognitive Behavior Therapy, as a trivial example.)

As I tweeted, people who do communication work recognize that voice, speech and language are different things. It is very difficult to address human problems in language with an animal model. That is not to say that evolution of other animal forms of communication are not inherently interesting and worthy of research and understanding. More from QAZ:

The real question is whether you think medicine should work as a long experience of trial and error or whether you think it should be a science. If it’s a science, than what matters is HOW things work. For that, you need to understand how biology works. We don’t study rats to learn how people work. We study rats to learn how rats work, which tells us how biological mechanisms work. (And since humans are biological mechanisms, that understanding helps us understand how humans work.)

You might as well say quantum physics was a waste of time because it didn’t help build a better railroad track. (Of course, it gave us computers, cell phones, MRI, and most of modern life.)

Quantum physics was funded to be physics. No one expected a railroad. (and, as an important aside: no expects the Spanish Inquisition, either).

Science is valuable because knowledge is valuable.

Knowledge is valuable. Mechanisms and “how” are critical pieces of knowledge (although there is always another level of mechanism and how). The unknown benefits to human society are, by definition, unmeasurable until they happen.

But there are a few practical considerations here. First, if you can do research without funding, and your dept is happy with that, great. There are disciplines, scientific disciplines, for which this is true. I am not at such an institution. Nor do I do research that is possible without funding. Therefore, I must consider what is fundable. Yes, my 22 year old self would accuse my current incarnation as “selling out to the man”. But I love what I do, and the amount of compromise that is involved is relatively minor, to me. I train brilliant, wonderful, thoughtful and, yes, kind people. They want to do research and I want them to do research. I teach the realities of the world. Again, they seldom agree, being still idealistic about what Should Get Funded. But this is the world we live in.

More practical issues:  At clinical meetings the “science and knowledge are the ultimate yardsticks” perspective is met with a shrug and immediate lack of attention (“ok the animal guys are at it again”). It won’t persuade anyone, especially the ones who believe their job is to make People Better. I want to reach those people. What I do is relevant for what they do. And, these folks are reviewing my grants and my trainees grants. Our ability to stay in the game. I refer you to a post of DM’s about basic science. NIH (whether you or I or anyone thinks this is the Right Way to Fund Science) funds work that addresses its human health mission.

Worth quoting is Dr. Becca’s response to DM’s post:

The attitude [I don’t need clinical significance in my work] is just another facet of special snowflake syndrome. “My work is interesting and important and exciting, therefore the country’s largest funding institution should fund it.” Never mind that the research does not fall under the umbrella of what the NIH is interested in funding – The Science Speaks For Itself™!!!


2 thoughts on “More on how Science works, experiments: what is knowledge worth?

  1. Well, when I encounter clinicians, I always give them the many examples from my own work (which I can’t give without revealing myself) where the clinical implications were surprising, but transformative. I don’t disagree that NIH is funded based on clinical implications. (Saying we need to know how X works because X is a human problem is good basic science.) Just that the clinicians’ blind emphasis on “clinical outcomes” is shortsighted and stupid. In my experience, there are lots of examples where the real clinical breakthroughs came because people were working on understanding how something worked and that solved unknown problems in a clinical field. One of my favorite examples is Bowlby, Harlow, and the changes made in the NICU units. (Every premature child that has survived the NICU unit owes part of its life to the maternal experiments done by Harry Harlow.)

    Being aware of the clinical connections to one’s work is very very different from doing science for the clinical reasons.

    PS. Actually, there’s a lot of very interesting work happening on rat cognition, including work figuring out how rats learn to change their representations with experience and how those representations change the decisions the rats make, which connects directly to the actual effective processes underlying Cognitive Behavior Therapy. My point was the statement “if it doesn’t work in a rat, it won’t work in a human” is not a useful tack to take because they can always come up with trivial examples.

    Better to make the clinicians understand that medicine is a science and that knowing how something works helps us improve medicine.

  2. Pingback: Talking Dogs, Analysis and Research | Mistress of the Animals

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