Science Enemies

September 13, 2010

Dr. Becca has a hilarious story up over at LabSpaces.

My history with Science Enemy goes back around 10 years, when I was presenting my first ever conference poster. She was very interested in my work, and, wanting to be sociable, I casually asked her whose lab she was in. My friendly query was met with an indignant “MINE,” and it’s there I believe the rivalry began. I of course tried to remedy this faux pas with “Oh, it’s just because you look so YOUNG!!” (and truly she did), but my conciliatory words fell on deaf ears; it was on.

Go read because there is one part you will have in your mind forevermore.
But it makes me think. A very long time ago I was interested in memory, from the long-term / short-term and other nomenclature debates, to interesting cases from H.M. forward to the experimental literature. And one part of that interest that was always good for entertainment was the TemporalLobeMemoryWarz. This was a war played out most hilariously every year at the Society for Neuroscience in the late eighties/early nineties or thereabouts. Zola-Morgan, Squire, Mishkin, Murray, Gaffan, Moss and assorted other players would bring their latest arguments for how they had proved how many angels could dance on the head of a pin exactly what behavioral task in monkeys or humans (or rats, a bit of spillover into rats let us not forget) revealed which amazing new fact about the temporal lobe memory system (hippocampal formation and overlying cortical regions such as PeriRhinal! ParaHippocampal! whoo-whoo!). And they would take shots at each other.
Then they would go back to their labs and publish some papers and create new experiments to prove their hated rivals wrong. Next fall, the cycle would repeat. More data, more potshots and more hot air about memory.
It was AWESOME!
Quite obviously there were big egos involved. Some of the key players are, by near universal acclaim, grade A egotists. And even if they are not, boy, they sure came across that way.
However, I got the firm impression that science, and our understanding of all the functions of the temporal lobe memory structures, was advanced by this process. I’d estimate more so than if it was some boring epiphenomenon that only one lab was interested in pursuing or if everyone stood around doing independent work and politely golf-clapping each other.
Science Enemies are not always a bad thing, even if Dr. Becca’s is a wackaloon.

10 Responses to “Science Enemies”

  1. S. Rivlin Says:

    As in any human endeavor, scientific competition can be either beneficial or detrimental to it. So long as the competition is square and fair with no cheating or tricking, science and humans greatly benefit from it. Unfortunately, just like in any other competitive field, the cheaters in science do their thing. For some, being “right” is more important than being truthful.

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  2. darwinsdog Says:

    For some, being “right” is more important than being truthful.

    Being right is irrelevant, it’s having others regard one as being right that’s important to the human ego.

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  3. neurolover Says:

    Just around the same time, I was peripherally bemused by the hippocampal synapse wars (and, in particular, a session at the SFN meeting where, as an innocent observer, my head was spun around by the temperature obsession. I actually decided against entering the field as a result of that particular session at the meeting.
    And, I’m not sure whether I think the rivalry (and, I think, it was rivalry, rather than enemies, at least partially because the players you cite were all in comfortable positions, where they were not in any danger) was a good or bad thing. It did seem to devolve into arguing about angels, and I’m not sure I understand even now how one designs the perfect behavioral task, since behavior is imperfect by design.
    (And, in your list, there are only 3 conceptual groups, even if some of the players eventually had their own labs).

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  4. I am bringing a tape measure to my next professional meeting!

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  5. G.D. Says:

    Being right is irrelevant, it’s having others regard one as being right that’s important to the human ego.

    Yes, but do remember that the best way to get others regard you as being right is, in fact, to be right. It’s not the only way, and it doesn’t always work (far from it), but it is still the most effective way to success.

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  6. S. Rivlin Says:

    “Being right is irrelevant, it’s having others regard one as being right that’s important to the human ego.”
    That may be true, but there are those who just cannot stand the idea that they’re wrong, even when you prove it to them. Then, they react in some strange ways. In my field of study I was involved in one of the greater debates that this field had encountered. At the height of the debate, I received an e-mail from a neuroscientist colleague we all familiar with:
    “Hi, extremely nice review in Neurochem International. I’m driven crazy by how resistant some neurology types are to abandoning the whole story of h****/a**** as bad news.
    Was curious what you made of a recent BKS paper in Brain Res and a TINS piece by C et al. I shudder whenever I see a new BKS paper.”

    In response to this e-mail I wrote to my colleague:
    “We were able to produce results that clearly proved the main dogma of BKS wrong. I was invited to present them at an international meeting. After my presentation, BKS rose to strongly oppose our results. He cited that very Brain Res. paper as his proof that our results do not hold water. I was surprised by the silence of others in the crowd and the lack of discussion only to be amazed when, during the coffee break, which followed, countless people approached me to voice their support and to encourage our continued studies that refute the h****/a**** hypothesis. Many of those who came to me “in secret” were BKS’s former students and postdocs. Thus, there are only few who would voice publicly their displeasure with BKS’s stand, but many more disagree with him.”
    To my greater surprise, in response, my colleague conveyed to me his experience:
    “Amused to hear your story. As you know, my interest in the h****/a**** is somewhat peripheral (mostly prompted by a grad student, who I had a decade ago). So I was surprised about 8 years ago when BKS invited me to some conference in his city to talk about the h****/a**** stuff. Decided to go (my wife and I turned it into a vacation), went there, he was wonderfully europeanly cordial amid my being pretty unconnected with most of the folks there. Then, I gave my talk, which is the only s****/a**** talk I’ve ever given in my career, and he just savaged me during the questioning. Yikes, that was awful.”
    Such behavior is typical, especially with scientists who built their career on one specific finding/hypothesis. When the hypothesis is proved wrong, they go berserk.
    A paper was published in 1960 in Science about big name scientists whose hypotheses were proven wrong and their misbehavior that followed. I’ll try to find the specific reference to that paper.

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  7. whimple Says:

    Yes, but do remember that the best way to get others regard you as being right is, in fact, to be right. It’s not the only way, and it doesn’t always work (far from it), but it is still the most effective way to success.
    I disagree. The most effective way to success is to be trendy. Nobody gives a rat’s ass if you’re right unless you’re trendy.

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  8. Ace Says:

    Man, you would have loved the East Coast – West Coast language debate around the same time and going on to the late 90’s early 2000’s (modular/innate vs distributed/learned). It’s still going on but only the biggest zealots still going at it with the same intensity. Yes, we did learn a lot in the process but man, that intensity can also be kinda dark (cough Marc Hauser cough! the retracted Cognition paper was supposedly a big blow to the Westside…)
    I’ve inherited some nemeses from my advisors. At my last SFN I was pleasantly surprised to see I’d amassed some haterz of my own. Can I put that as evidence of independence for my tenure file/career awards?

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  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    Good point Ace (and Uncle Sollie) but I submit to you that in these back-and-forth paper volleying scientific fights it is even more likely that the scientific literature will, at the least, contain the opposing viewpoints/data. Therefore, if a particular lab’s results are dodgy, there is a better chance nobody will be totally led astray if they are reading all of the literature. Also, there seems a better chance of being called out on a non-replicable point, even if it is just a mention in the Discussion “we’ve never been able to replicate the finding of BlardeBlar, 1992, despite using their methods…”

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  10. S. Rivlin Says:

    DM,
    As it happens many times, labs do not use identical systems when trying to replicate results of another lab. The tendency to stick with one trusted and familiar system could lead one to either misinterpret one’s own results or the results of the competing lab. On some occasions, as it happened to me, the results do question a major dogma in which the majority in the field rely on and believe in. When that happens, one’s results are being attacked from all directions, not necessarily with attempts to replicate or refute them experimentally, but by either ignoring them or by attacking/ridiculing the experimenter (see my colleague’s experience as cited in my previous comment). I know of several investigators who found themselves in such a position; it had translated to inability to secure funding and abandoning the field or the specific research project. In my case, persistence despite dry spells in funding did pay off, though it took about six years for the field just to pay attention more seriously to our findings, thanks mainly to a bigwig who happened to cite our work in one of his high IF papers. From then on, the number of citations of our work has rose yearly for about ten years before reaching a plateau, which continues without much decline even today, 22 years after we published it. Needless to say that it took almost half a century for the above-mentioned dogma to disappear and to find myself as one of the originators of a new, thriving field of research in neuroscience. However, I believe that a story such as this is the exception rather than the rule. Each field has its own bigwigs and they influence the trends in their respective fields and consequently the funding of projects that are based on these trends.

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