The consequence of errors
From memory molecules to the criminal chromosome, erroneous conclusions continue to blight scientific research
OI 10.1038/sj.embor.7400389 | Published online 01.04.2005
EMBO reports (2005) 6, 306-309
Ancient Greek philosophers laid the groundwork for the scientific tradition of critical inquiry, but they nevertheless missed out on one aspect important to modern science. Many philosophers obtained their results through a tradition of contemplation and thought rather than experimental procedure, which, not surprisingly, led to errors. Aristotle's belief that the brain is a cooling organ for the blood was definitely not based on anything that scientists today would consider scientific evidence. He also thought that in humans, goats and pigs, males have more teeth than females, a notion easy enough to correct. His statement that flies have four legs was repeated in natural history texts for more than a thousand years despite the fact that a little counting would have proven otherwise.
Today, these errors are anecdotal, and science prides itself on having progressed from intuition‐driven to solid, experiment‐based reasoning. But modern science is not as infallible as it seems—it has erred in the recent past and still does today. To err is human. Given the increasing influence of science on nearly all aspects of daily life, the important question is how efficiently such errors are recognized and corrected.
The basis of every experiment is the acquisition of data. But even if this merely involves counting, it can be astonishingly difficult to obtain reliable data. In the 1950s and 1960s—centuries after the number of fly legs and male teeth had been corrected—James McConnell at Ann Arbor University (MI, USA) carried out experiments to condition planarians to associate a light stimulus with an electric shock so they would scrunch up their bodies in response to light. The educated worm was then ground up and fed to untrained littermates. Once they had cannibalized their brethren, these worms learned to contract in response to light twice as fast as compared with controls, according to McConnell. He concluded that the conditioned memory was stored in a molecule that could be transferred by ingestion (Rose, 1993). Today, we know that memory is not transferable in this way. But the implications of McConnell's experiment—that specific memories are stored in isolatable molecules—caused quite a stir at the time. “Eat your professor”, the New York Times suggested (Zankl, 2004), and TIME Magazine discussed potential misuses, such as a police state or government brainwashing a whole population by lacing tap water.
"…modern science is not as infallible as it seems—it has erred in the recent past and still does today".
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