February 3, 2010

The Macmillan Building
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In Learning to Share (NATURE vol. 463 no. 7280 January 28, 2010 page 401) you make an excellent point.  GlaxoSmithKline, a for-profit company will give to the public information on 13,500 possible new drugs for malaria to the benefit of society.  Yet publicly funded universities are far less forthcoming and guard their intellectual property jealously.  It goes beyond that.  Sharing goes two ways.  Not only are the expensively funded universities loathe to give anything away, but they are also if anything more loathe to accept anything intellectual. 

The problem is obvious.  Science will never be able to prove everything that is true if nothing else for the simple reason that it is impossible even in principle to prove everything that is true.  Geodel demonstrated that with the help of the true-but-unprovable statement, “This statement cannot be disproved.”  The same conclusion can be reached reasoning from evidence that the universe is expanding, from quantum theory and from everyday life.  So scientific knowledge will forever be incomplete. 

Science of course never proves anything.  It can only disprove.  Only choose the best among competing theories.  Like the ghost of Christmas yet to come it shadows forth not that which must be but that which may be only.  And whence come theories?  They must be thought up.  By somebody.  As a Harvard medical student I was encouraged to do original research.  I needed to “have” an idea, like it was a kitten or something.  How?  Medical knowledge was perforce taught as a seamless whole; you have to be able to grade the students.  I did my best, but the results were pedestrian.  Now with decades of further study, the whole edifice seems to me to be in rags.  But try to offer an idea?  I have tried.  The result has been unedifying panorama of ostrich tail feathers and environs.  As you point out on page 429, scientists can only be challenged by scientists.  The rest of us are expected simply to accept and believe.  Ideas from outside the club are not welcome.

Your David Jones columnist used to offer a new idea every week.  I greatly enjoyed his work. 

It is a fairly simple institutional problem.  The boffins have no reason to fear the rubes.  Look at music: occasionally a musical invention made by nobody in particular is turned into a hit.  Nobody begrudges the fame of the star.  In science ideas could be collected on a website instead of an archipelago of smoky bars.  There could be regular courses on, “Questions in genetics” or “questions in clinical medicine.”  The best teachers would scour the earth for novel ideas.  But there should be some sort of central clearing house.  Something of the sort was done years ago in a little journal called Wild Surmise.  The principle mission was to call attention to the then ignored fact that Vietnam Veterans were dying in unacceptable numbers.  But a number of ideas were offered and any that were suggested by readers were welcome.  There were enough outside ideas offered for proof of principle. 

Had some such information base existed a half century ago, I might have contributed even then.  I certainly would have looked it over when it was my turn to have an idea for school.  Any widely available and serious attempt to put together as many different unsupported or inadequately supported hypotheses as possible would be good for education, good for science and good for society.  The lack is a serious failure of the academic community. 


M. Linton Herbert MD

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