There are certain times of the year that are particularly difficult for academic scientists. If you’re not a scientist, and don’t have a scientist in your life, you might not be aware of the NIH cycle of Standard Due Dates for Competing Applications. For some, the most anxiety-provoking time is the due date, when applicants are scrambling to put the finishing touches on the grant. For others (like me), it’s the review that gets us, waiting for the unknown to happen, and that season is upon us now. Different review panels (study sections) meet at different times within the Scientific Merit Review range (at the bottom of the page with the dates). For me, this time is torture. People tell me that I can’t worry about these things because it’s out of my control, but those are precisely the things that I DO worry about; things that are under my control don’t get worry, they get action (or no action, because I don’t care about them). So this is the time of the year that I’m on edge, not the most pleasant person to be around, and suffering from repeated bouts of insomnia.
Science is a way for us to gather information. It is not the only way, and it’s often not the fastest, easiest, or most efficient, but the strength of the scientific method is that it gives us the most confidence that the answer to the question is, in fact, correct. This does not mean that experiments don’t lead us in the wrong direction, and it doesn’t mean that scientists are perfect and never lie. The latter is a failure of the system that is likely not preventable, but seems to be likely to be detected eventually. The former is simply a reality of life: that nothing is perfect. Over the long term, however, it seems quite clear that one of the strengths of science as an information gathering method is that it tends to be self-correcting. Mistakes, errors, fraud, these things are often revealed and the correct answer is revealed. A lot of this depends on the character and integrity of the scientists. A very well-respected neuroendocrinologist that I have been fortunate to know since my early graduate school years has a quote in his email signature:
Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: It is character.” – Albert Einstein
Earlier this week, there was a ton of news coverage of a new World Health Organization (WHO) report concluding that processed meat is a carcinogen and that eating a couple of pieces of bacon a day will increase rates of certain types of cancer by 18%. The Guardian ran a story with the headline, “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO,” and blogs like Medical Daily posted something called, “Red Meat Is Just As Likely To Give You Cancer As A Cigarette, The World Health Organization Says.”
Let’s consider these headlines a bit more carefully.
Those of us who study natural reward systems, like those involved in feeding and drinking, are often welcome at parties of people who study drug addiction. For many drugs of abuse, a common way of thinking about how they work, at least at first, is by targeting these same reward systems, but bypassing the stuff that “naturally” activates them. So instead of getting a little activation of the system by eating a piece of chocolate, you get a big activation from cocaine.
For many drugs of abuse, this “bypassing” effect is more or less intuitive. Drugs like cocaine and heroin seem to bypass the normal route to particular systems in the brain, and go right to the source. The source, in this way of thinking, is a very important part of our normal systems. It didn’t evolve to respond to drugs. We don’t have a natural system for responding to these drugs. Instead, we have these systems so that we eat, drink, have sex…do the things that are necessary for our survival (as individuals and a species).
Over the past few years, our lab has been beating the drum for the need for new information about the systems that control fluid balance and blood pressure. Studies of these systems have the real potential of leading to new treatment approaches for hypertension. High blood pressure is a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and cardiovascular disease sits at the very top of the list of causes of death worldwide. Hypertension is very common in the United States, and rates of hypertension have increased substantially over the last decade. This increase has occurred in spite of many FDA-approved treatments for hypertension and a strong emphasis on education and public awareness. We have argued that these treatments clearly aren’t enough, and that many treatments that lower blood pressure, don’t lower it enough. This new study certainly supports our view, which is always nice to hear.
A report from scientists trying to replicate lots of studies in psychology has shown a high rate of failure to replicate. This, unfortunately, has been used by people already skeptical of science, or of psychology, as confirming evidence that they were right: that science is all made up mumbo jumbo. Headlines like “Study delivers bleak verdict on validity of psychology experiment results” and opening sentences of articles that read “Don’t trust everything you read in the psychology literature. In fact, two thirds of it should probably be distrusted,” in news outlets that should know better, were all over. This response to the study, and the news of the study, is worth reading.