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James Watson sez: Cancer cure is coming in minus 14 years!

From a recent news article by Laura Helmuth, I learned this amusing fact about DNA-discoverer James Watson: “he told a New York Times reporter 16 years ago that a researcher was ‘going to cure cancer in two years.'” Here’s the link to the NYT story, dated 3 May 1998:

Within a year, if all goes well, the first cancer patient will be injected with two new drugs that can eradicate any type of cancer, with no obvious side effects and no drug resistance — in mice.

Some cancer researchers say the drugs are the most exciting treatment that they have ever seen. But then they temper their enthusiasm with caution, noting that the history of cancer treatments is full of high expectations followed by dashed hopes when drugs with remarkable effects in animals are tested in people.

Still, the National Cancer Institute has made the drugs its top priority, said Dr. Richard D. Klausner, the director. Dr. Klausner called them ”the single most exciting thing on the horizon” for the treatment of cancer.

The reporter is careful to mix enthusiasm with caution:

Dr. James M. Pluda, who is directing the cancer institute’s planned tests of the drugs in patients, said he and others at the institute were ”electrified” when they heard the drug’s discoverer deliver a lecture about the newest results. ”People were almost overwhelmed,” Dr. Pluda said. ”The data were remarkable.”

Although the discovery of the drugs, and some of their effects, have been reported over the past few years, Dr. Pluda said that ”if people understood how many steps ahead” the research was compared to what had been published, ”they’d be even more in awe.”

But Dr. Jerome Groopman, a cancer researcher at the Harvard Medical School, was wary. ”We are all driven by hope,” Dr. Groopman said. ”But a sober scientist waits for the data.” And until the drugs are given to humans, he said, the crucial data simply do not exist.

But here’s a quote from the biggest name in biology:

Other scientists are not so restrained. “Judah is going to cure cancer in two years,” said Dr. James D. Watson, a Nobel laureate who directs the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a cancer research center on Long Island.

It’s good to remember that even famous people—even people who are famous for being smart—can say stupid things.

Watson does seem to have a talent for hyperbole, though. I bet he wrote really good letters of recommendations and really good grant applications. Those are two arenas, along with journalism, where there’s a clear incentive to hype hype hype.

P.S. We shouldn’t blame Watson for the cancer cure not working out. It’s probably the fault of all those Africans, women, and fat people in science. If only biology were a purer field, then I’m pretty sure we’d have had that cancer cure as of 2000, just on schedule. It’s totally unfair. Thin white guys do all the work, then people like Oprah come in and try to get all the credit. What’s with that, anyway???

23 Comments

  1. Oncodoc says:

    I think it was Asimov who said that when a famous expert says something is possible, he may be right, or he might be wrong. But when a famous expert says something is impossible, he is almost always wrong.

    • Anonymous says:

      Oh that’s definitely true. I can think of a few dozen examples off the top of my head.

      It seems to be some weird occupational disease of Statisticians in particular that they constantly pronounce “XYZ is impossible” when what they really mean is “I spent a little bit of time thinking about XYZ and couldn’t see how to do it”. Unsurprisingly, they’re almost always wrong.

  2. Clyde Schechter says:

    “P.S. We shouldn’t blame Watson for the cancer cure not working out. It’s probably the fault of all those Africans, women, and fat people in science. If only biology were a purer field, then I’m pretty sure we’d have had that cancer cure as of 2000, just on schedule. It’s totally unfair. Thin white guys do all the work, then people like Oprah come in and try to get all the credit. What’s with that, anyway???”

    What is that about????? It doesn’t seem to reflect Andrew’s usual beliefs. Is it some kind of inside joke? Can you let the rest of us in on it?

  3. Tom Dietterich says:

    This is the most outstanding and revolutionary blog on the web. Even Andrew’s off-hand comments are insightful and impactful. He is a thought-leader with his finger on the pulse of advances in all areas of human endeavor.

  4. numeric says:

    One of the problems with an individual such as Watson making comments such as he does is that it allows us to exculpate our own guilt for some of the more unsavory practices of our society from which we all benefit (exploitation of essentially slave labor in Asian countries so we can have cheap Iphones, police practices which imprison or kill marginalized members of society, etc to promote social order, name your own favorite social ill here). I do not except myself here. I only point out that certain beliefs become obsolete and then career-endangering and then even grounds of ostracism. Some people seem better able to incorporate the current zeitgeist than others (there are, of course, always questions about these people’s sincerity, but sincerity is perhaps a concept we shouldn’t inspect too closely–see above comments on acceptance of unsavory practices). We basically need a humane method of superannuation, particularly with the demise of mandatory retirement. Maybe Arthur H. Miller would be alive today if we had such.

    • Rahul says:

      I never understand the iPhone critique. Assume, with one sudden stroke you could shut down all iPhone manufacturing in Asia. Or even all phone assembly plants.

      What then would those Asians be doing that would count as less exploitative?

      • numeric says:

        One would not shut down all of the Asian manufacturing, but American (and hopefully European) companies would require minimum labor standards from their suppliers, just as they require minimum technical specifications to be met. This would add marginally to the cost of a product but make a huge difference in the lives of those employees.

        • Rahul says:

          What kind of minimum labor standards do you have in mind? Are you for having labor laws as stringent as the West? If so, I think that’s misguided.

          From what I’ve seen in India, a worker working for Dow or John Deere is in a lot better working condition than working for an Indian owned, local, non-multinational company.

          • Popeye says:

            Well, there’s also the fact that people ooh and aah at their sleek electronic gadgets and bask in the glow of their elegant simplicity, and the fact that whether someone is an iPhone consumer or an iPhone factory worker is largely an accident of birth. This is not to say that we should shut down Asian manufacturing or that self-flagellation is useful, but it also doesn’t mean that the world is a just place.

          • numeric says:

            The labor laws don’t need to be as stringent (though not locking laborers in so they burn to death in case of a fire would be a good start–the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire prompted reforms in this country when conditions for laborers weren’t much different here than they are in China now). The jobs for Indians (or Chinese, or Vietnamese, etc) will not go away if we condition American companies use of foreign facilities on upgraded labor standards–rather, the owner of these facilities will simply charge American companies more for the cost of implementing the standards. While these standards will cost some money, the main cost saving (cheap labor) will remain, so these Asian facilities will be able to outcompete American facilities on a cost basis.

  5. adrianoesch says:

    just one more comment on watson: “we should celebrate scientists when they deserve it & when they turn out to be awful bigots, let’s be honest about that too” – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/01/dna-james-watson-scientist-selling-nobel-prize-medal?CMP=twt_gu

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