Category Archives: Science

Wikileaks and Apple – why does Apple not leak anymore?

steve jobs by Collin Allen

Wikileaks: traditional liberalism with balls?
[Via Boing Boing]

The mainstream media likes to suggest, with a nudge and a wink and abuse of the word “cyber,” that Wikileaks represents a radical ideological position. But if there’s a moral crusade to be found, maybe it’s rooted in a tradition closer to home: classical Western liberal-democratic principles.

In The New Republic, Noam Scheiber takes for granted that Wikileaks is here to stay, with relentless pressure on big business and big government that permanently hampers their ability to prevent leaks. This will result in smaller, more humane organizations.

I have no idea what size organization is optimal for preventing leaks, but, presumably, it should be small enough to avoid wide-scale alienation, which clearly excludes big bureaucracies. Ideally, you’d want to stay small enough to preserve a sense of community, so that people’s ties to one another and the leadership act as a powerful check against leaking.

To make this point, Scheiber reminds us that Wikileaks’ stated aim–making organizations operate more ethically–is a mainstream one: “It’s easier for honest CEOs to run an honest business, if the dishonest businesses are more affected negatively by leaks than honest businesses,” he quotes Julian Assange.

Scheiber’s argument seems to be that Wikileaks’ disclosures could have more subtle and far-reaching effects on organizations than it expects.


Apple demonstrates today the sort of company Scheiber discusses. Maybe it is because Jobs hates leaks.

Scheiber’s article is one that should be read by everyone. It is a very important one in its implications. Wikileaks, and the ideas behind it, may alter how businesses work and adapt. It touches on some of the ideas of David Brin in The Transparent Society – the same technologies that permit the powerful to spy on us can, and should, be used to spy on the powerful.

Scheiber postulates, and I agree, that the inability of large companies to stem leaks may result in the greater proliferation of corporate ‘cells – it is easier to control the flow in smaller groups without stemming the tide totally. Inefficiencies in small groups can be overcome when needed. In larger groups, it can be deadly.

Luckily, we also have the ability today for smaller organizations to leverage the abilities of others to succeed. The small biotech company I was VP, Research at had perhaps 3 of us who were working in the lab. But we did not need more because we could have other companies do the sequencing for us – no need for a core facility with tens of people. We could have other companies synthesize DNA for us – no need for a core facility with tens of people. We were able to accomplish great work with a company with 10-20 fold fewer people than it would have taken just 10 years earlier.

So, there will be business pressures to become smaller and more adaptive as well as information pressures.

That is why I think Apple is the first of its kind – a truly large company that has somehow maintained the abilty for small company adaptability. It acts small, has research abilities that are far beyond the modest number of people it has doing R&D. It is able to run rings consistently around other companies. It is one of the largest companies by capital value on the planet yet it acts like a startup.

I don’t know all the details of why but we all know that Jobs is the reason. But I think part of the way this new sort of company came about was because of Jobs’ reaction to leaks.

Apple used to leak like a sieve with whole websites devoted to writing about them. Jobs pretty much stopped that, so much so that a lost iPhone became a cause celebré.

One would have expected this sort of iron control on information leaks would have harmed Apple. Most organizations respond to by clamping down on information flow but, and this is especially true of large ones, this is like giving themselves a lobotomy. Information flow slows, making it very hard to make good decisions and adapt properly to changing conditions.

That is what Assange claims he wants to do with Wikileaks – cause the old dinosaurs to react in ways that result in their own downfall.

Well, Apple shut down leaks and actually became a better and stronger company. I’d love to know the details but I expect that Jobs actually implemented some of what Scheiber discusses. Break the groups down into more manageable units and use pressures to make leaking a violation of social mores.

Of course, this is a two way street and these same social mores can push back on the company to be more ethical, etc. Even the smallest group is open to leaks when some feel the company is acting unethically. It all becomes a system of controls and feedbacks that does not harm the information flow needed to adapt.

I believe that when it is all said and done, we will discover that the same things that ended most of Apple’s leaks also led to a large amount of their success. That somehow Jobs’ response actually did not stifle creativity but enhanced it.

If we can replicate this elsewhere, then things like Wikileaks would not need to be feared by most organizations. In fact, Wikileaks would become irrelevant for the vast majority of us.

Five important things to remember in science

blackjack by banspy

Avoid the career virus!
[Via Naturally Selected]

When we come down with flu, we do everything we can to get rid of the virus and get better. But when we come down with mind viruses—or ideas that harm us rather than help us—we often just accept them as “how things are,” doing nothing to counter their damaging effects.

There’s one mind virus, particularly acute these days, we should all pay attention to:

Science is a real struggle. It is a dog eat dog endeavor, and if you aren’t hyper competitive, super smart, and working 80 hours a week, you won’t succeed.

This mind virus was highlighted by the recent case of the postdoc poisoning his colleague’s cell cultures, because he was afraid she might be getting ahead. Not only was the act itself borne of this mind virus, but so were many of the comments following it. “That’s just the way it is in science these days,” was a common refrain in the blogosphere.


Such ultracompetitiveness often does more harm in science than good. Pushing yourself may help sometimes but viewing everything as a zero-sum game where the only way to move yourself forward is to harm others is not a long-term successful strategy.

Because science is a small world and it gets around when you abuse others. Your brilliance may be enough to overcome the distaste of others but you can find yourself quite alone when you need help the most.

Here are the 5 things Morgan suggests that can help:

  1. Learn to live “in the moment” and enjoy every moment. If you’re in the moment, then you’ll realize that you have great power to make things happen. Some people refer to this as “mindfulness.” It works.
  2. Don’t focus on what success others are having, or what you haven’t achieved yet. Focus only on your own success and what you want to achieve.
  3. Help other people rather than being afraid of them. The more you help others, the more it will come back to help you. his doesn’t mean giving away your results to a competitor—but it does mean helping a lab-mate or a colleague whenever you have the chance.
  4. Get enough sleep. Many of us academics think that the only way to get ahead is to spend long hours working, while depriving ourselves of sleep. That’s like driving your car without enough engine oil. You can get away with it for a while, but eventually the engine blows out.
  5. Realize that the only thing you can control in your life is what’s in front you, here and now. You can’t control the competition. You can’t control whether your experiments will have the outcome you want. Make the most of what you can control, by doing the right work at the right time—and ignore the rest.

Not only will your life improve, but very likely you will be more productive and a lot happier. Work towards win-win and things will be much better. There can be more than one blackjack at the table.

The conversation I moderated

On September 14, I moderated a discussion between Ash Awad, Vice President of Energy & Facility Services at McKinstry; and Daniel Friedman, Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington.

The topic was A Conversation About Sustainable Design and the Seattle Channel videotaped it. It was a fantastic evening and I had a wonderful time sitting between two great speakers.

Its late and I’m rambling about Scienceblogs

I continue to have some discussions in comments of my Scienceblogs post that results in a treatise on my part. Greg Laden is the most recent victim of my verbosity – he has a great blog.

And, as with the previous reply to David Croty, I’ve decided to put it up as a post. Mainly because I wrote so much that it deserves more recognition with its own title, for instance. Plus it is very late and I do not feel like cutting it all down. I hope it looks okay in the morning.

So I make it a post. But it covers some more of my thoughts about the community that has been forming at Scienceblogs and where it will go from here.

First, Greg’s comment:

Just to expand on the point a little: For the most part, Scienceblogs has been explicitly non-communal. It is a network, there are communication channels (but not used by most bloggers) and things do get organized now and then (like a fundraising drive that about 20% of the blgogers engage in every year).

This is all very much on purpose. We blog as indy bloggers, and the ‘overlords’ (Seed’s Sb staff) organize all this internal network wide link love (reader’s picks, ed’s picks, most active, Page 3.14, the front page, 24 hour page, RSS feeds, etc.) and make links between things like NYT and NGS. But as bloggers, we’re just blogging away.

In once sense, I would say that PepsiBlawg Gate was an example of a “community” forming out of a thing that really wasn’t much of a community because most bloggers had fairly negative feelings about the blog so some degree of organization happened.

It would be interesting in the end to look at the kinds of things people do and their reaction to the Pepsiblog. There may be some stark (and thus perhaps not really that interesting in the end) patterns there. For the most part, labby research scientists did not quit, journalists and book writers did, for instance. Which brings up a point that Bora has almost talked me out of but not quite yet: Journalistic modus operendi, ethics, etc. are fundamentally different than for scientists. Not saying one is better than the other … just that they are fondling different parts of the elephant.

Which is a thought I’ll leave you with but I don’t recommend keeping in your head for too long.

My reply:

Even though my connection with the Scienceblog community was as a reader and sometimes commenter, as a scientist I feel confident that I can provide an opinion (My family knows that I have an opinion on everything so maybe that is a personal trait rather than a professional one. But ‘as a scientist’ sounds better than ‘as a know-it-all’). Confident mainly because I have been a part of several real-life enactments of just such a ‘community’ of researchers, connected by weak ties, who, through a precipitating event by ‘outsiders,’ came together to take some sort of action.

So, I think to a certain degree we may be arguing semantics about what really defines a community. In large measure, Scienceblogs is a network with mostly weak ties, but with some links perhaps a little stronger than others. And while there was not a decided push to create a defined community with uniform rules, titles and positions, when humans work along the same lines, doing similar things – even in digital space – connections get made and a sense of comity starts to emerge.

Thus insider slang terms like Sciblings, blogchild and Overlords developed. You would see memes and arguments sweep through certain blogs. There obviously were some strong connections that provided rapid information transfer between Sciblings.

There was an nascent community just waiting for an event that would precipitate action, making many weak ties much stronger, while breaking some altogether.

In the instances I have been involved in, a bunch of independent-minded, “leave me alone to do my work” researchers came together because a decision was made by upper management that directly affected the scientists – a decision that was never discussed with them until AFTER it was made. The scientists were left out of any input in the decision, even though it affected every single one of them.

In each case, there was a rapid meeting called by the researchers to discuss what they should do. Scientists who had never been in the same room with each other were now discussing the proper response with each other. Action had to be taken and committees were formed.

Instead of a bunch of weakly tied people, there were now a lot of very strongly defined paths for communication.

Perhaps this is only an aspect of egomaniac researchers, who think they have to be informed beforehand about anything and have a part of every decision. I do not think so. I think it can happen with any community when the weak ties that are present are tugged by an outside “threat.”

Heck, I’ve seen it happen in neighborhoods when a new development appears on the city plans.

What I think happened with the PepsiBlawg Gate was a crystallization of a large fragment of the network because, to some, it became obvious that the reasons they had joined and maintained even weak ties in the network /community were in conflict with what the ‘Overlords’ wanted to do. The lack of communication, and the ‘disrespect’ that engendered, meant some sort of response was needed.

And I’ve been fascinated by that response, because it has taken many forms. Some people exited without any need for real consultation. Some did not begin to really think about it until others in the network/community that they respected made a decision – Bora being the strongest example. Still others, such as PZ, decided to take direct action and go on strike unless the ‘Overlords’ listened to them.

These are all ways one would expect different people in a community to respond to change. It is what I spend my days examining at SpreadingScience.

I do not think Scienceblogs will vanish. It’ll be different. I think there will be much more defined communication between members, with regular meetings between the bloggers and the people from Seed Media. Instead of an ad hoc sort of network/community, it may very well become a much more defined one. Like the taming of the Old West, it may be more or less attractive, depending on the outlook of the individual. The bloggers who left may very well continue to link and discuss things written on Scienceblogs. The reverse will also happen.

In effect, there will be a much wider network/community with some very strong, defined ties that were not present before. I expect other types of science blogging sites to become important – such as Science 2.0 and others. It’ll be great for most of the bloggers and their readers. It may just not be quite as optimal for Seed as it had been before when they virtually had cornered the market.

And that was kind of my point in the post. If Seed had been a little better about servicing its bloggers, it would have kept the market pretty much to itself. Now, not so much. Meaning that, as far as it might be concerned, there is a loss in value that might take some effort to recreate. Effort that it would not have needed if it had not ticked people off.

Finally, I think that the different viewpoints between scientific journalists and journalistic scientists makes for a much better description of the elephant than either alone. In any effective network/community, diversity of world views is a key part. It is very hard to solve complex problems over and over if everyone thinks the same way. It is the friction that arises from the different views that eventually allows us to make the wise decision.

Creating a sustainable community at Scienceblogs

community by D’Arcy Norman

I wrote this in response to a comment left by David Croty – who is one of the guys at the great site, The Scholarly Kitchen – at my previous post on the blowup at Scienceblogs.

The inherent problem is that the best interests of the company running the social network often are in direct opposition to the users of that social network. In the case of Facebook, their profits are going to be reliant on selling out the privacy of their users. In the case of ScienceBlogs, commercialization alienated the strongly anti-business, anti-industry members of their community and threatened their perceptions of themselves as an elite and well-respected group of experts.

One can, as you suggest, focus instead on serving those users but that’s a mighty difficult thing to monetize. If you’re a corporation with investors who would like to be paid back (like Seed Media), you need some way to make money. Perhaps running social networks will fall out of fashion as a profit-making enterprise due to these conflicts.

It was getting pretty long so I made it a post.

David, That is part of what I am trying to delineate. Scienceblogs went and created this community of blogs, hoping it would drive more traffic to their magazine and its website. But the magazine failed and the magazine website is not making nearly the inroads as the Scienceblogs are.

Seed Media simply did not realize that Scienceblogs had become this community – any group that can decide to strike is a community of people – with an focus independent of Seed..

Its business model for these blogs simply is not sustainable, even if it was full of pro-business, pro-industry people. Seed as looking for a bunch of well-written, independent voices. They got those in spades. The writers are always going to be independent, to the detriment of Seed when their motives conflict. Which it is almost bound to do because Seed’s focus was on getting advertising money, not on servicing the community created by the bloggers. A similar problem is seen in newspapers.

A better business model would be to find ways for the Scienceblogs to be sustainable in themselves, I can think of a couple of ways but it requires an organization quite different from something like Seed, which seems to be still trapped in the era of magazines and print.

Frankly, it is extremely difficult to monetize any sort of social community that is digital and open. It is not only too easy to create an ad hoc social community but, in the era of Web 2.0, it is too easy for members of the social network to leave and create another ad hoc community. The community want to support the community’s needs and wants, not necessarily the needs of the founding institution. Something Facebook would do well to consider.

So, where to make money? Well, if you have the right niche, you might make it by charging admission online. Essentially, the WSJ and science journals, such as Protocols, can do this and survive. They fulfill a need for a specific sort of information – which the community realizes costs money and is hard to create – and do not need the same network effects (think Metcalfe’s law) as Facebook to be successful.

Not so for Facebook and Scienceblogs. The content is easier to create and costs less to produce but it also harder to make sticky, holding onto readers in a way to make much money. So, how to create a sustainable business? Well, one way would be to make money on the things that can not be digitized – the human angle.

Thus, whoever takes control of nurturing the Scienceblogs community makes a business out of that by servicing the community it creates. How, and still make some money? Off the top of my head – have a yearly conference where they bring together their bloggers with the people who follow them. Perhaps take some of them out on tour. Looking at the successful nature of w00tstock, this can be a pretty interesting model. They could even host a scientific/non-scientific conference. Or a TED-like symposium. Or one on how to communicate science. Or one on atheism vs. religion. Or one on evolution. I would pay to see PZ and others. The bloggers could receive compensation for this and I would imagine the meetings could become quite popular.

And also realize that the community also encompasses all those that read these blogs. So, if people pay a yearly fee, they can get reduced prices to attend the symposia/meetings. Or maybe a special edition of The Best of Scienceblogs.

The point is that many of the creators of these blogs write about going to meetings or panels or debates. And many of the readers of these blogs would love first-hand contact with the bloggers. How about a business model where sponsoring these events is a money-making opportunity?

O’Reilly has a similar sort of model where it publishes specialized books for a variety of high tech communities but also puts on a set of conferences that bring together the various members of its communities. These are quite highly attended. The conferences drive book sales and the books drive the conferences.

Of course, this would require a very different organization than Seed currently occupies and may not be as interesting to some investors.

But, if a different set of investors wanted to produce a real organization that serviced the community it created (and probably have many more creative ideas that I can come up with), I think it could be sustainable.

I agree with you that organizations that simply make their money by online social networks will have a hard time because the profit motive often goes against the community’s wants. When that happens, the community may very well migrate somewhere else. To survive, Facebook and others may need to figure out ways to monetize servicing the community, not the advertisers.

Do not tick off the community you created if you want it to survive

science by o palsson  

Bora and PalMD leave ScienceBlogs: What to do now?
[Via Respectful Insolence]

I can’t believe it.

I really can’t believe it.

I really, really, really can’t believe it.

Bora has left ScienceBlogs.

Readers of just this blog probably don’t know what a body blow that is to the ScienceBlogs collective. Readers of multiple ScienceBlogs probably realize that Bora was the proverbial heart and soul of ScienceBlogs. It’s news that’s left Isis the Scientist speechless and GrrlScientist “deeply upset.” Even ScienceBlogs’ big macher PZ Myers has pointed out how Bora compared the situation here to to Bion’s Effect, where the departure of a few people at a party triggers a sudden end to the event. I don’t know whether Bora’s departure is the seismic shift that leads to the collapse of Sb or not, but I do know that it’s a wake up call to me that maybe I was too quick to go back to business as usual after our corporate overlords decided to invite a corporate blog to be added to the Sb stable as co-equals with the rest of us, hopelessly blurring the line between content and advertising.

Why is this such a big deal?


A few days ago, I discussed how an ad hoc community – the Tour de France peloton – controls group behavior. I also made a mention of how the group deals with perceived outside interference. In the case of the Tour, the peloton adopted a behavior that benefited the group, to the detriment of individuals or the outsiders.

Here, we also see some behavior dealing with external interference. In this case, it was the inclusion of a blog that was bought by a corporation in order to provide its own views, without any real communication with the community about what was happening.

The group did not take well at all to this event at all. Read Bora’s post to get an idea of what happened and why these responses are being made.

What we have here is somewhat the opposite of the group coming together and getting stronger in response to outsiders. The group is, in response, may breaking apart. In part, this may be due to the particular instance – the inclusion of a new member actually undercut the entire reason for the group to exist. But it is also due to the same technologies that make it so easy for ad hoc groups to form.

Scienceblogs is a great example of the benefits and perils of technology. Ad hoc groups can be created very easily. Seed Media did this and worked to create a community that would support and attract people who would allow it to stay in business.

Now it appears to have messed things up by forgetting that in a Web 2.0 world, the community must be served first or it will leave.

The people of the community were creating all this content because they enjoyed the community, not because they made a lot of money or wanted Seed to make a lot of money. Most had other careers. They wrote at Scienceblogs because of the network of people they were a part of.

Apparently the managers of Seed did not really understand why it was that these people were even there. They needed to make some money and completely ticked off the community with their ham-handed process. They forgot who there real customers were.

Most media still think that servicing advertisers is the bedrock of their business. But, for businesses who require networks to survive, servicing the network is paramount. Without the bloggers, there is not Scienceblogs, no matter how much advertisers are feted.

Technology makes an ad-hoc community really easy to create. And it makes it really easy for the community to change its mind, for individuals to leave and aggregate at a new community if they are not happy.

Compare where Facebook and MySpace were 3 years ago to their relative popularity now. The same will befall Facebook if it forgets this.

I think that while Scienceblogs will survive, it will never again be THE place for people who write about science. Already other sites, such as Field of Science and Genomes Unzipped, are picking up new people.

I imagine that we will now have several well-connected networks of blogs about science, providing greater diversity and wider ranges of information to move around. Technology will not make it much more difficult for readers for read – adding Field of Science’s RSS feed to my aggregator adds minimally to my daily efforts.

The only one really harmed here, in the long run, will be Seed. The bloggers can easily become parts of other networks, taking the readers, eyeballs and advertisers with them. There will just be fewer for Scienceblogs to use to support itself.

Sometimes failure is an option

The Long of Coming Up Short

Thumbnail image for Whitney Johnson 2.jpgI didn’t take Calculus in high school, and I almost didn’t take Advanced Placement (AP) American History for fear that I wouldn’t get an A. In retrospect, given that I’ve pursued a career in finance, achieving a B in Calculus rather than knowing little to nothing on the topic would have been a decent trade. Yet I was so concerned about getting anything less than an A, which for me was tantamount to an F, that I wouldn’t take the risk.

Fear of failure can be a debilitating trait personally and professionally. According to Dr. Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota, an expert on stress and coping in children (as quoted in Mind in the Making, by Ellen Galinsky), we must learn to fail so that we can learn to succeed. She explains, “if you never allow your children to exceed what they can do, how are they going to learn to manage adult life — where a lot of it is managing more than you thought you could manage?” The same is true in the workplace: If we never have the opportunity to exceed what we can do, or think we can do, how will we manage?

When we are doing the work we really want to do, and hoping to triumph professionally, we will likely experience failures, and experience them repeatedly. And we’ll be in good company. According to Columbia University professor Amar V. Bhide, for 90% of all successful new businesses, the strategy the founders initially pursued didn’t lead to the business’s success. Meanwhile, Dr. Fritz Grupe, founder of, has found that 80% of college-bound students have yet to choose a major, and “50% of those who do declare a major, change majors — with many doing so two and three times during their college years.” That’s a lot of intermediate failures, or at the very least detours, before arriving at success.

One way we practice learning to fail is by institutionalizing opportunities to take on challenges. Singapore has, in part, become one of the world’s leaders in math education because a lesson isn’t complete if the students haven’t been given something they don’t know how to do. In the words of George Polya, a Hungarian mathematician and educator, we need to build processes into our work to find “a way out of difficulty, a way around an obstacle, attaining an aim which is not immediately attainable.”


An important aspect of a resilient organization is the ability to deal with failure. In a complex world with a multitude of difficult problems, success is not always immediately possible. It can take several iterative steps through failure to find the right solution, to gain wisdom.

I’ve written about the DIKW model of Innovation. Data is manipulated by humans to become different forms of information. The interconversion of information produces knowledge, which results in the ability to make a decision. Often this decision may be to recognize that previous attempts were wrong – a failure – and need to be modified, resulting in another iteration of the DIK cycle.

In a resilient company, each iteration drives the organization towards wisdom – the ability to make the correct decision.

Often, a good strategy is to find out the things that do not work – that are successful failures. An example I use in game play is called Bulls and Creots. Trying to guess a four digit number, with correct numbers in the right place called Bulls and correct numbers in the wrong place called Creots.

There are about 4500 possible numbers assuming no repeats and no zero in the first position. It helps to have a system to work through the possibilities in the best possible fashion. However, the most informative answer is to be completely wrong.

Guessing 4 numbers that are not in the answer removes 40% of the possibilities. One failure greatly limits the future possibilities, making it much easier to narrow down on the correct solutions.

I worked at a biotechnology company called Immunex for 16 years. It was a very well-run, innovative company that did a pretty good job accepting failure if well done. It was one of those 90% of businesses that found success at something different from the initial idea.

Too many companies believe that if they only promote those who are always successful, then they will always win. They fail to recognize that sometimes success can be debilitating and that sometimes failure is liberating.

In a complex world, sometimes the path to wisdom requires failure.

New Seminar – You’re not crazy. You are innovative.


I’ve been working on a series of seminars. I hope to announce more of them soon but I have the first one ready.

You’re not crazy. You are innovative. will examine the disruptive innovators in a community. These people are absolutely critical for the introduction of new ideas into an organizations – ideas that could make or break the success of the company.

Yet often these people are seen more for their disruptive activities rather than their innovation. The majority of the community – the people who simply get things done – views disruption negatively because it changes their workflow, making it hard to simply get things done. Doers distrust disruptors.

This seminar will explore how human social networks adapt to change and why the disruptors are so often not listened to. It will demonstrate that the social networks of disruptors and doers look very different and how Web 2.0 tools can be used to identify members in each group.

It will also provide insights into human social networks that can empower disruptors, making it easier for their innovative ideas to traverse a community and have the major impacts that they should.

The next class in Seattle will start soon. I can also provide seminars for groups. If you would like to attend, send us an email.

Why science communication often fails

science by o palsson

A great paradox of the current world:

Researchers are probably uniquely qualified to present the facts about much of the complexity we are dealing with, allowing us to make rational decisions about the problems facing us. But their training also makes them uniquely UNABLE to provide the stories that people will actually listen to.

My words about the problem.The same rules of thumb that create great science produces scientists that have a hard time connecting with the rules of thumb used by most others. Their heuristics do not overlap enough.

There was a wonderful conjunction of several online posts I read today that helps illustrate this. The first was this one:

Is Our Scientists Learning?
[Via The Intersection]

In my talks, I often discuss the different groups who came to meet with me when I worked on Capitol Hill with regard to who was most effective. On science related issues, the general breakdown fell into two categories (with exceptions):

  1. Scientists from universities or NGO’s would usually show up in my office with a briefing binder as thick as a phone book. There would be a lot of charts, p-values, figures, and complicated concepts. Most didn’t talk to me, but at me. And the take home message would be different than that of the other scientists I met the previous hour on the same subject.
  2. Special interest groups were frequently very well organized. They spoke with a common theme and brought articulate speakers. Rather than stop in our office, they usually hosted large and well attended briefings, supplying easy to digest hardcover books with titles like ‘climate change conspiracy.’ Typically they were funny and made references to Michael Crichton’s science fiction. Perhaps most importantly, they provided a free boxed lunches and held long Q&As to engage the audience.

Both types introduced themselves as the “honest broker” of scientific information, but the latter often made the stronger impression with staffers.


So we have a whole post discussing how sucky scientists are because they present facts and not lunches, they show figures instead smoozing, they have charts instead of playing to the egos of policy makers.

As a researcher, it was a little upsetting to read something like this, that facts are not what are important. In fact, the truth may be the least important thing. Others felt the same way:

Once Again, Professional Science Communicators Blame the Victim
[Via Mike the Mad Biologist]

Since I’ve raised this issue before, and it doesn’t seem to have taken, the gloves are coming off.

Once again, we see the sorry spectacle of blaming scientists for policy failures–all scientists, not a subset (consider this foreshadowing). As always the ‘scientists’ are described as bookish nerds who bore policy makers and reporters with p-values.

This is as stupid as blaming a working ob/gyn for the lobbying failures of NARAL.


This pretty much shows the scientist’s viewpoint. We deal in facts. That is how we’re trained, how we talk and how we expect others to respond. It is really hard to understand that most people are not convinced by facts. In contrast to researchers, they are convinced by stories and by narratives.

An article I ran across drove this point home:

BBC News – Why do people vote against their own interests?

[Via BBC ]

Last year, in a series of “town-hall meetings” across the country, Americans got the chance to debate President Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms.

What happened was an explosion of rage and barely suppressed violence.

Polling evidence suggests that the numbers who think the reforms go too far are nearly matched by those who think they do not go far enough.

But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform – the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state – are often the ones it seems designed to help.


This article explored why people were so against things that actually would help them. And it suggests that stories are what count, not facts:

For Mr Westen, stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win: “One of the fallacies that politicians often have on the Left is that things are obvious, when they are not obvious.


As Mr Frank sees it, authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex.

In a very complex world, people do not have the time to fully understand the many aspects of this complexity. They have to use their own heuristics to try and reach a decision. These rules of thumb are very seldom based purely on facts unless those are what one has been trained to use.

I’ve written about the need for a story, the need to create narratives, in order to effect change.

Scientists have had a lot of hard training to provide them with tools and approaches to make decisions based on facts. Most people have not. They respond to stories and narratives that resonate with their personal heuristics.

So, researchers present the facts, show charts and expect people to reach the same logical conclusions they did. But most people react to stories that make these complex facts understandable.

But to scientists, those stories are poor substitutes for the truth. And they may be poor substitutes but that is often irrelevant to the discussion.

It does not matter whether a scientist is able to convince someone to adopt a policy because of the facts or because of a nice lunch. What matters is the convincing.

Of course, that is an anathema to many researchers. If facts do not work, nothing will.

So, the conflict.

I agree with Mike that this is not something most scientists can deal with. It goes against their own heuristics.

But there has to be a way to identify people who can present a truthful scientific narrative that will help policy makers decide on the reality-based solution. Otherwise, the group with the best lunch – and most money – will drive the decisions.

Who am I?

I figure that I may be getting some traffic from the Huffington Post article so an introduction.

I’ve been working in the field of biotechnology since the early 80s, spending 16 years as a researcher at Immunex, the premier biotech in the Seattle area until it was bought by Amgen. It was an incredible crucible of top-notch researchers working with little money to find cures for important diseases. There were, I believe, less than 50 employees when I started and several thousand when I left. So I had first hand knowledge of many of the needs of a small biotech as it grew. I was a small part in the development of a biologic that changed people’s lives – ENBREL.

I left Immunex when Amgen finalized the merger and spent some time thinking about what to do next. Luckily Immunex stock options, which were given to all Immunex employees when I started, provided some economic buffer. I worked with the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association on several projects and helped form a philanthropic organization called the Sustainable Path Foundation, where I am still a Board member.

I started a blog called A Man With a PhD, something I continue to this day, as well as a science-based blog called Living Code for Corante, that Forbes picked as the 3rd best Medical blog in 2003.

In 2004, I became the third employee of a startup biotechnology company called Etubics. As VP in charge of Research, I did everything from ordering lab equipment, growing cells, negotiating contracts and having to fly cross country to talk with suppliers. All while trying to raise money so we could have a hope of producing the vaccines that I believe can change the world.

So I got to see firsthand and at the highest levels, what it takes to start and run a company. I left last year as the company was entering a new phase, where clinical development and manufacturing were at the forefront and research was on the back burner. Not only were these areas I did not have a lot of expertise or interest, but I also was pretty well burned out. The stress of a small company is enormous, particularly in an industry where it takes over 15 years for a therapeutic to get from the research lab to the patient.

I left to pursue one of my real passions – how to understand why Immunex was such a powerhouse of research, why it is was one of the few biotech companies started in the 80s to produce a blockbuster drugs, along with several other good drugs, and whether this could be replicated.

That is what SpreadingScience is about – how to create organizations that are resilient to change, that can adapt in ways that increase the successful outcomes need. You can read some of the material or follow my blog to get an idea of how I am accomplishing this.