Thursday, June 13, 2013

Theory vs Data: Or Just a New Gene?

What comes first, the chicken or the egg? In science we often think the data is the dominant sine qua non. We see that ever so more today as we examine all of the researchers who “find” another gene “causing” cancer. The problem is that finding a new gene is just too easy and the Press is all too ignorant to ask what it really means.

There are two quotes worth noting, one from the work on DNA itself and the second from the folks who brought us Quantum Mechanics.

First, there is a quote from the book by Jusdon on DNA. In Judson there is a quote (p 93):

“It is also a good rule not to put too much confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they are confirmed by theory.” Sir Arthur Eddington wrote in 1934: his paradoxical inversion of the inductive system as preached from Bacon to Russell has become an epigraph for the latter day recension of the scientific method as practices.

The second is a quote from a discussion on Quantum Mechanics by Gribbin. From Gribbin (pp 139-140) we have:

At one point Einstein had commented: “It is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.”

In both cases there is the imperative to ultimately put all data in the context of a world view, a model of reality that links inputs and outputs, and which can become both the language of the very concepts and the sounding board upon which measurements are made.

All too often we see researchers just dumping a ton of new genes and arguing that they are causative. On the other hand we have detailed pathway models demonstrating cause and effect. Yet the discoverers of the new gene seem never to place them in a context. They are at best correlative, and most likely nor causative.


Judson, H., The Eighth Day of Creation, Touchstone (New York) 1979.

Gribbin, J., Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution, Wiley (New York) 2013.