Our recent post about the non-existent Los Angeles tunnel reminded me of another bit of hype from the past: a claim by science hero James Watson in 1998 that cancer would be cured in two years. I was curious what was up with that so I googled and came across this news article from 2013 pointing to him writing, “We now have no general of influence, much less power … leading our country’s War on Cancer.”
B-b-b-ut . . . cancer had already been cured 13 years earlier! So what’s the problem? Maybe the “war” analogy is appropriate: the threat from Germany was stopped in 1918 but then twenty years later they had to do it all over again.
And this interview from 2016, where we learn that Watson at age 88 can still serve a tennis ball at 100 miles per hour. Also, he says, “I was pessimistic about curing cancer when gene-targeted drugs began to fail, but now I’m optimistic.”
Ahhh, now he’s optimistic. That’s good! The article continues with this juicy bit:
On what he sees as the best hope for treating and even curing advanced (metastatic) cancer: an experimental drug from Boston Biomedical (for which Watson is a paid consultant):
Papers have identified the gene STAT3, a transcription factor [that turns on other genes], as expressed in most kinds of cancer. It causes cancer cells to become filled with antioxidants [which neutralize many common chemotherapies]. In the presence of the experimental drug that targets STAT3, cancers become sensitive to chemotherapies like paclitaxel and docetaxel again. This is the most important advance in the last 40 years. It really looks like late-stage cancer will be partly stopped by a drug.
Hey, wait a second! In 1998, Watson was talking about a cure for cancer in two years. According to the news article from back then, he said that the developer of this cure “would be remembered along with scientists like Charles Darwin as someone who permanently altered civilization.” And that was less than 40 years previous.
So in what sense is this advance from 2016 “the most important advance in the last 40 years,” if only 18 years earlier there had been the advance that led his pal to be remembered along with Darwin etc etc.?
I’m all for people updating their opinions based on data, but if you’re gonna be hyping things that disappear, shouldn’t you at least acknowledge that you’ve changed your mind. I have the same feeling about this as I do about Stasi-guy and the Nudegelords memory-holing their hype of disgraced food scientist Brian Wansink (work that they earlier referred to as “masterpieces”).
As discussed in a previous thread:
The problem is that Watson was using “letter of recommendation” language rather than science language or journalism language. Letters of recommendation are full of B.S.; it’s practically required. For example, I recall years ago being asked to fill out a recommendation with options that went something like this:
– best student I’ve ever seen
– in top 1% of all students
– top 5%
– top 15%
– top 50%
– bottom 50%.
Top 15% is pretty good, right? But it’s on the bottom half of the scale. So to fill out this form in the way that’s expected of me, I had to do some mental gymnastics, where first I considered some narrow category where this particular student was excellent, and then I could honestly declare the student to be in the top 5%. I don’t remember who the student was, I just remember this annoying form which is pretty much demanding that I do some exaggeration.
The flip side of this is recommendations that are too honest. For example, I remember once receiving a letter of recommendation from an econ professor saying that a certain student was pretty good, not good enough for one of the top 8 programs but ok for anything from 9 through 20. This was just obnoxious, in no small part because of the ridiculous implication that the student could be evaluated at that level of precision, also in the assumption that qualifications could be summarized in a single dimension.
Anyway, the connection to Watson is that he was an academic administrator for many years, so I guess he got in the habit of writing letters that were full of hype so he could justify each hire and promotion he made, and so he could promote his students and postdocs to jobs elsewhere.
The trouble is that when the hype gets reported straight up with no acknowledgement later that it didn’t happen as they claimed it would. Same as with that tunnel story.