Monday, June 6, 2011

Letters of "Idealism"

Back in the day, when students read books, things were different. A typical college student in the fifties or sixties would walk around carrying a book, or having one in their back pocket. Often the book had nothing to do with what was assigned in class, and would have arrived in the purview of the students’ focus through any number of oblique avenues - but never from “the Professor”.

One of these touchstone books was Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” This small book was a set of eight exquisite letters written from the 28-year-old poet Rilke to a 19-year-old would be poet, a fellow named Franz Kappus. This set of letters gave “advice” and “reflection” to the younger aspiring poet about love, life, resignation, solitude and a host of other feelings and experiences. The book is still in print but seldom read by college students - who have other things on their mind these days.

Please consider the following from the perspective of Rilke’s Letters. These two letters, part of an ongoing series, are written as “guidance” to a contemporary and hypothetical young researcher. They are the contribution of one of my alter-egos.

Dear “Hypothetical”,

Let's start with reading a published paper describing scientific research. Unless it is directly in a field vital to your continued existence, you can pretty well ignore the title. It will be inscrutable at best, with many omissions and obscurities. Reading the abstract may possibly tell you what the title was intended to mean, but this only takes you to another level of obscurity.

The important information comes from the names of authors and their current affiliations. Do you recognize any 'invisible colleges' worth joining? Has the balance of power shifted?

Real meat is hidden in acknowledgments of grants. Which funding did they use, and how much? What does this tell you about alliances between organizations? It is vital to discover what went into this research. The output is far less important, you hold it in your hands.

Next, scan the paper for useful information. Hard data which can't be reinterpreted can generally be ignored. Nobody needs your support for facts. Opinions are another matter entirely. Does this tell you how to slant your next grant proposal? If the authors were nobodies, you wouldn't even bother. If they are 800-lb. gorillas, the dominant silverbacks of the field, you have to pay careful attention to their slightest quirks.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of recognizing the final arbiter of scientific truth early in your career -- the ability to obtain funding.

With admiration,

Dear “Hypothetical future important person”,

Your idealism is commendable in the abstract, but an absolute disaster in concrete career terms. You have this notion that scientists move ahead by solving problems of great importance to society. The truth is that they move forward by working on such problems, not solving them.

Let us consider the clear example of the Apollo program, in which scientists were curious about the composition of the Moon, and engineers were employed with the mission of landing a man on the Moon, and returning him safely to Earth, before the decade was out. Here was a mission stated clearly at the highest levels of government. Thousands worked on this, and solved the problem ahead of the stated deadline.

What happened? Thousands of them were laid off, starting even before the first Moon landing. Many lost their homes, some lost the automobiles they planned to use in search of their next job; the federal credit union which had loaned them the money to buy these even kept their last paycheck on the reasonable assumption that such jobs were going to be few and far between once the program ended, leading to defaults on loans.

A better paradigm is exhibited by the War on Cancer, launched during this same period. Has cancer been vanquished? Do patients still tremble when given these diagnoses? Has the cost of treating cancer fallen or risen? Do scientists working on cancer research still have jobs?

I should think the important career lessons are blindingly obvious.



  1. Chris,

    Your wisdom and writing astounds me and continually educates me.

    To have found or recalled this tome with these "letters" are IMHO beyond serendipity. It brings to mind the book of Ecclesiastes..." Whatever is has already been,and what will be has been before".

    This post deserves a much wider audience especially in this age of pseudo-science.

    Thank you for your thought provoking post.

    ~ JT

  2. Sadly, these letters reflect the truth of our situation. Those who are merely working on the problem of M.E., which they prefer to call "CFS" of course, are getting all kinds of funding, while those who have solved the problem, the Whittemore Peterson Institute, are receiving no funding to fill in the details of how to use their discovery.

    How does this serve our society? The only results I see are continuing illness and death, and great monetary cost to our society.

    Patricia Carter

  3. Dear "Hypothetical,"

    Three additional important points, if you plan to do research involving human subjects:

    (1) Don't care about them. That's the job of the institutional research review boards at your institution. Your job is to bring in the grant money and any whiff of evidence that you have a sincere care for your subjects will weaken your proposal.

    (2) Don't be female. Women are notoriously poor at getting their proposals funded, publishing in high-visibility journals, having their articles cited frequently, getting tenure, and otherwise succeeding in other academic or soft-money endeavors.

    If you accidentally happen to be female, be sure to engage in public emotional outbursts, over-state the implications of your research, and be as manipulative as possible with the media and in meetings, conferences, and on journal and grant review committees. These behaviors will demonstrate that although you accidentally happen to be female, you can still behave exactly like "one of the boys," i.e., those who get funded.

    (3) Especially don't be a female who cares about her human subjects. This combination of attributes will ensure that your every eyeblink will be interpreted as "unprofessional." And if this combination should lead you to communicate with your subject population in a way that differs from how the scientific game is played, but gives them hope and keeps many of them alive for another day, you are surely doomed forever in obtaining the funding needed to do your research.

    Truly, if you let your caring and possible mothering responses cause you to do and say things that are outside the way the "boys" play the science game, you'll be vilified and permanently ostracized. You might actually talk openly with your human subjects about what you're thinking, what you're preliminarily finding, what your studies may or may not indicate, or where you think the research should go next.

    God help you if you make the mistake of taking your care for your human subjects to the level at which you talk with them as if they're adults. It's critical for the future of your funding opportunities that you exclude them from your thinking process and treat them as if they have no more intelligence than contaminated lab mice.


    Sexism aside, the thing that hardly anyone in the scientific establishment "gets" is that Annette, Andrea and Judy are our own. Like Annette and like Jamie, I, too, have a daughter who has lost important formative years of her life to this miserable disease, let alone the years of wasted days others have experienced over the past 30 years. (cont)

  4. As long as the likes of Judy, the Ruscettis, and Harvey Alter continue to say that XMRV and friends look like they might be causal, none of us will desert them. If they tell us that they were wrong about XMRV and friends, we still won't desert them. They either demonstrably have a stake in finding the cause of this disease, or else have publicly demonstrated they actually care about those of us trying to live with this disease and that they are committed to finding a cause that will lead to treatments.

    No matter where the XMRV and friends debate ends up, I will be terminally furious about the not-invented-here treatment of the WPI. Without them, every researcher everywhere would have continued to ignore us, and all of our US govt research institutions would have continued wasting the $3.64/patient spent on TMJ research.

  5. Dr. Collins, if the Lipkin studies show that the XMRV and friends hypothesis isn't upheld, you are still not off the hook. Many of us won't believe anything that any other researchers say, other than the WPI, the Ruscettis and Dr. Alter. In terms of whose messages you potentially control, that would be the Ruscettis and Harvey, but I also know they aren't any more controllable than Judy.

    So please understand that even if THEY ALL agree they were wrong, we won't be satisfied unless we see at least the same amount of research money that HHS overall has spent on DISPROVING the XMRV and friends hypothesis being spent on FINDING the damned cause. Find it. And don't leave WPI out of the discovery grant monies, because many of us won't believe anything that any of your agencies find without their participation and endorsement.

    Thanks for continuing the Lipkin studies. But we really need MORE NOW, no matter how they turn out.

  6. Even if XMRV turns out to be a complete red herring, I will still support and send contributions to the WPI. If XMRV is not the cause, they will simply carry on and look for other causes. I do believe they are the only research organisation dedicated to finding the cause of my illness. Lipkin is in it to put his name on something. Peterson, Singh and others have been scared off for fear of their reputations. But those at the WPI have taken this disease as their personal mission in life. There's the difference. You cannot scare people out of their very raison d'etre.

  7. If the upcoming two studies show that the WPI have been detecting contamination (and have resisted acknowledging it despite all the evidence) then i doubt they will be at the front of the queue when grants are given out.

    Also if they (WPI) are shown to have been incorrect i'm worried that a hardcore group of people will still believe that XMRV causes ME/CFS.

    Just think how much easier it'll be to dismiss us if we abandon evidence and reason. I think we should stop treating scientists (and journalists) as being either on our side or against us. It is embarrassing hearing about Dr Mikovits like she is the second coming. What about Dr Peterson? He's suddenly become a backstabber, who is working against us? That is the implication of what i've been hearing recently. Maybe we'd be better off if we could try to be a little less emotional about things.

  8. To all the people willing to donate to the WPI could you consider also donating to ME Research UK, a charity that funds biomedical research into Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

    Some research this organisation has previously funded has been mentioned on this very blog in positive terms (dundee uni study).

    The more people working for us the greater our chance of success!

  9. well... let's see... I went to college in the late 80's, carried books like this with me at all times, and even read this one, and several other Rilke, can you believe it?

    (boomers, *sigh* gotta love 'em)

    otherwise a brilliant columm, Chris, one of your most chilling and incisive.

  10. I carried around "Mao's Little Red Book" in high school,
    just because it totally galled the people carrying erudite compendiums of philosophical minsinformation.

  11. So because the space program was a success the scientists employed in it suffered. What are you implying about cancer scientists? That they don't want to succeed or they'll be out of work?

  12. CFS PA... you're a sculptor?

    I've often thought that there really needs to be a bronze plaque of Cheney and Peterson at the Incline Village library, right next door to their old Alder st. office.
    Where they launched the CFS debacle, so many years ago.

    If that wasn't a historic moment, what is?

  13. Chris, you bringing up Rainer Maria Rilke, brought a smile to my face. I went to university in the early 90s and Rainer Maria Rilke was my 'companion'. When I first became severely ill in 2009, I remembered Rainer Maria Rilke's "The Panther", because I felt trapped in my body, like the panther his the cage. I translated it freestyle into english for a friend at that time. I would like to share it:

    The Panther

    The bypassing bars have let his gaze grow so weary,
    it discerns no more.
    He perceives a thousand bars
    and behind a thousand bars, no world.

    The soft movement of a sinuous strong stride
    paces in the smallest of circles,
    like a dance of energy around a center
    in which a strong will stands petrified.

    Only once in a while the curtain of his pupil
    draws open-. To let a picture stream in,
    it flows through the silence of his tense limbs-
    and reaching his heart, loses it's existence.