The Dumbest Question You Can Ask A Scientist

From and published in “How to Fly a Horse“, the dumbest question you can ask a scientist.

The dumbest question you can ask a scientist — or any other creator, inventor, or discoverer — about his or her work is,

“What’s the economic value?”

One reason: In 1888, after eight years of experiments, Heinrich Hertz created electromagnetic waves in air. He died six years later, believing his work was theoretical and without practical value. (In an often repeated, probably apocryphal story, Hertz tells students the waves have “no use whatsoever.”) Then, after his death, inventors found Hertz’s waves could be used to communicate, renamed them “radio waves,” and started a revolution of immeasurable consequence. First came wireless telegraph, then voice broadcasting, two-way radio, radio telescopes, radar, television, microwave ovens, radio satellites, cellphones, radio-frequency identification, GPS, UAVs, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and, now, the Internet of Things — Hertz’s children all.

Another reason: In 1924, Gordon Dobson, working in his backyard in England, invented a device for measuring atmospheric ozone. In 1976, after deploying 100 of them globally, he died. His work helped save the world. Scientists discovered that CFCs, chemicals used in refrigerators and aerosols, could destroy ozone, exposing us to deadly radiation. The chemical company DuPont, which made billions of dollars selling CFCs, demanded “reputable evidence.” NASA satellites found nothing, but one of Dobson’s devices, in Antarctica since 1957, detected a massive ozone hole. CFC production stopped. Now the hole, once larger than North America plus China, will be gone by 2050.

Why does this matter? Because the dumbest question holds us back. In 2009, physicist David Kaplan gave a lecture on the Higgs boson. An audience member asked,

“What do we gain? What’s the economic return? How do you justify all this?”

Kaplan’s good-natured response appears in the movie Particle Fever:

“I have no idea.”

(Then he mentioned radio.)

The question must be especially painful for American physicists like Kaplan. Scientists discovered the Higgs boson — or something almost exactly like it — using Europe’s Large Hadron Collider. Members of Congress killed the American equivalent, the Superconducting Super Collider, in favor of what one, Don Ritter, called,

“making things people want to buy.”

Kaplan’s audience member was interested enough to show up at the lecture, and Ritter is an MIT alumnus who branded himself “the scientist-congressman,” yet both make the mistake at the heart of the dumbest question: confusing unknowable value with no value. History shows that basic science brings the greatest economic value of all — Hertz and Dobson are two of many examples.

Why? First, because of what economics is. Science begets technology, which begets goods, which beget value. Science is the principal source of value in modern economies. Second, because economies are chaotic, most of the consequences of any particular technology are unpredictable. An example: The watermill led to the automatic loom, which led to general literacy.

Add in the fact that the point of basic science is to know what’s unknown, and we see that the dumbest question requests the unknowable value of the unknowable consequences of an unknown thing. Note that only two of these are “unknowable.” The third, the “thing,” is only “unknown.” And the unknown, not the unknowable, is what should guide basic science. Kaplan ended his answer by saying,

“Basic science needs to occur at a level where you are not asking what is the economic gain, you are asking what do we not know? And where can we make progress?”

The work of basic scientists like Hertz, Dobson, and Kaplan can only be driven by curiosity, not purpose. What is the value of a particular curiosity? There is no way to know in advance. Discovery is curiosity’s product; everything else, including immeasurable economic value, follows. We cannot know the worth of something we have not yet discovered. The joy is the rainbow, not the hope of gold at the rainbow’s end.

Knocking Out Melanoma: Does This Triple Combo Have What It Takes?


NIH Director's Blog

3-Way Knockout of MelanomaIt would be great if we could knock out cancer with a single punch. But the more we learn about cancer’s molecular complexities and the immune system’s response to tumors, the more it appears that we may need a precise combination of blows to defeat a patient’s cancer permanently, with no need for a later rematch. One cancer that provides us with a ringside seat on the powerful potential—and tough challenges—of targeted combination therapy is melanoma, especially the approximately 50% of advanced tumors with a specific “driver” mutation in the BRAF gene [1].

Drugs that target cells carrying BRAF mutations initially provided great hope for melanoma, with many reports of dramatic shrinkage of tumors in patients with advanced disease.  But almost invariably, the disease recurred and was no longer responsive to those same drugs.  A few years ago, researchers thought they’d come up with a solid combination to fight BRAF-

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Watch ‘Cancer: the Emperor of all Maladies’ Tonight on PBS! #KenBurns

On March 30, 31, and April 1, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET, PBS will air a three-part documentary on cancer, based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.  The film is produced by Ken Burns and directed by Barak Goodman.

Live-tweeting is encouraged during the film, follow the #CancerFilm on Twitter and join in.  PBS News Hour will also be doing a live discussion beforehand with Ken Burns (@KenBurns), and you can follow along with #NewsHourChats

Excited that Ken Burns has taken up this project, and looking forward to the three-part special!

BMC Mass Retractions #Scandal #WTF

We’ve talked about retractions and fraud in the past (and the role that peer review has in these cases), but this is extreme.  From The Scientist:

Fake peer review has claimed more victims from the scientific literature, with open-access publisher BioMed Central (BMC) retracting dozens of papers that it began investigating after editors had noticed inconsistencies regarding reviewers. BMC retracted 43 papers in total yesterday (March 26), according to Retraction Watch.

The retracted papers were all originally published this year and were spread over at least 13 BMC journals, with 15 studies having been published in the European Journal of Medical Research. Theretraction notices published by BMC all read similarly. The papers were retracted “because the peer-review process was inappropriately influenced and compromised,” according to the notices.  “As a result, the scientific integrity of the article cannot be guaranteed. A systematic and detailed investigation suggests that a third party was involved in supplying fabricated details of potential peer reviewers for a large number of manuscripts submitted to different journals.”

BMC launched an investigation of around 50 papers published in its titles last November when journal editors noticed suspicious errors, such as incorrect e-mail addresses or misspelled names for reviewers, during final checks on the manuscripts.

Such third-party peer review outfits have sunk other manuscripts recently, with publishing giant Elsevier retracting 16 studies for fake peer review last December and dozens more retractions at a variety of journals.

Specifics are spare as yet on the third-party organization that triggered this latest slew of BMC retractions, but yesterday (March 26) on the publisher’s blog, senior editor of research integrity Elizabeth Moylan wrote: “Some of the manipulations appear to have been conducted by third-party agencies offering language-editing and submission assistance to authors. It is unclear whether the authors of the manuscripts involved were aware that the agencies were proposing fabricated reviewers on their behalf or whether authors proposed fabricated names directly themselves.”

An unnamed BMC representative told Retraction Watch that the publisher did know more about the shadowy third party, but that it wasn’t yet making some details public. “We’ve been told some things in confidence that we’re not reporting on our blog, and the reason we’re not is we don’t have enough evidence to point fingers,” the representative said. “What we’ve done all along is point out the patterns that we have noticed, and we’ve talked to other publishers and we’ve talked to [the Committee on Publishing Ethics] to make sure that people know how we’re stopping them.”

#Science Quotable: Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin educates Senator Mitch McConnell #ClimateChange


Dear Majority Leader McConnell,

I disagree. Climate change is real. It’s a threat to humanity. We should be working harder to address it, not rolling back efforts to do so. I fully support the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan.


Peter Shumlin
Governor of Vermont

More info on the letter and McConnell’s anti-EPA plan here.

Shelf Life Episode 5 – How To Time Travel To a Star – @AMNH video

Museum astrophysicists are searching through early photographs of the night sky and, with the help of high school students, helping to digitize them along the way. For more about astronomical instrumentation through the ages, head over to the episode website:…