I’ve fallen … and I can’t get up!
I was looking forward to a presidential defenestration in the US of A, and it was not to be. It’s hard to imagine a football coach with four losing seasons getting a contract extension for four more of the same. Recruiting has been weak, transparency has been opaque, investment returns on taxpayer’s money negative and team spirit for “we, the people” is as bad as I’ve seen it in seven decades.
To be fair, for the first two of my decades, I was clueless. My third decade, in the late 1960s, was bad. Many were mad then, but today we are more frustrated and sad, starving for a better day and not quite knowing how to get it all restarted. If we had a Minister for Happiness, as does the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, she would be very sad indeed.
We completed a contest that was characterized by putting class against class, race against race, religion against religion and young against old. Billions of dollars were spent being divisive, and we never could seriously debate. We heard the word “liar” an awful lot.
Then there were references to “tired old policies,” “the top-two percent,” “playing by the same rules,” “paying down a deficit on the backs of the poor, sick and old,” “millionaires and billionaires,” “war on women,” “spread the wealth around” and “fair share.” What rules, what policies, what’s fair, what’s the fix? These were not revealed.
One of the campaigns proposed no substantive plans and spent its war chest vilifying the two good men in opposition. It worked, but made no one happy. The other campaign made really foolish statements on immigration and social issues that threw raw meat to their opponents. Long-term policy questions faded completely in the face of short-term greed and fear. Truth is the first casualty of a political campaign.
As depressing as this is to those respectful of the basic tenets of our democracy, it is not new. Supporters of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the campaign of 1800 transformed the other candidate into a monster, ignoring the reality of two founding fathers of exceptional accomplishment. Who they purportedly fathered was one of the issues and ‘‘a country” was not one of the answers.
In 1800, there was no Twitter, no e-mail, no blogging, no cable TV, no Smartphones, few newspapers and no electricity. Today, you can indeed repeat a thing often enough with it being heard frequently enough that it becomes true enough. This technique is referred to as “truth by assertion,” and there is no doubt about its efficacy. “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”—Goebbels.
I know this works very well on even the best and brightest of my academic colleagues. They suffer from confirmation or expectation bias, as do all experimentalists, racists, misogynists and columnists. In our industry, most of us operate according to an honor code with respect to competitors. Imagine if we didn’t. A new flow cytometer is introduced. The leading competitor then runs a series of ads, Tweets and blogs accusing advocates for the new device to be mean to cells, to line them up against their will and to be especially unfair to circulating tumor cells. Their instrument clearly doesn’t work, includes shoddy parts, service is terrible and their application notes are all fabricated while they cheat on their taxes. The integrity of science is based on facts, and facts win the day. We are often guilty of excessive enthusiasm for our own themes, but for the most part, we don’t live by bashing others.
But what defines an American? What is our plan, our mission statement? We either do not know or have forgotten. We’ve always been a heterogeneous mixture—a melting pot—but today our multicultural tendencies have run away from integration toward segregated tribes. Focusing on the values that separate the demographics is a proven way to destroy a society. That was not the intention of recognizing and valuing differences. We are no longer blended, but rather hyphenated.
Some say there is no room for politics in science. That’s wrong. Politics is what distinguishes us from raccoons and is what funds science and medicine, like it or not. Not only is our national debt heading ineluctably toward $20 trillion, our gross national happiness continues to head south, and the slope is steepening. I wonder how the labs are doing in Bhutan.
What have I learned this year that I didn’t know sooner? I learned that junk DNA is no longer junk. I learned that tumors evolve to resist the drugs we throw at them. I learned that noninvasive prenatal genetic testing shows much promise. This was the year of extensive exposure of the human gut microbiome and its role in health and disease, suggesting new avenues for research. Recent FDA approvals of first-in-class therapies are a further cause for celebration—so, too, Big Pharma’s embrace of more open innovation.
Together, they will achieve more. I learned that we have multiple satellites circling Mars and communicating with a cool SUV making chemical and physical measurements while sending us vacation pictures. I learned that others purportedly have evidence for the Higgs boson. I can’t see anything in Facebook but a waste of time. The election aside, science advanced nicely in 2012.
Have a great 2013! I fear the ‘13 is a premonition, at least for weak funding prospects for government grants. Then again, the Mayan doomsday prophesies for my wife’s birthday on Dec. 21 may be an escape for us all. I could buy a fabulous gift on credit—and never have to pay for it. Now I feel better. Catharsis is achieved.