Another one of President Biden’s overlooked achievements is the return of “What about cancer?” jokes to late night television. Even with classified documents salesman Donald Trump still in the news, we once again have such a thing as a slow news day.
To help fill out a late night comedian’s monologue on a slow news day, the writers sometimes scour the scientific news websites looking for news of seemingly pointless scientific studies. Then the late night comedian can present the study and then ask something like “Hey, scientists, have you cured cancer yet?”
For example, last year, Leila Satari and three other scientists published a study that shows that the bacteria on a discarded wad of chewing gum at first matches the kinds of bacteria typically found in a human mouth. Okay, that makes sense. But after a few months, those bacteria are replaced by the kinds of bacteria more normally found where the gum was discarded. Also makes sense, I guess.
The late night comedian might take such a study and say something like “I could’ve told you that. And by the way, scientists, curing cancer, how is that coming along?” Stephen Colbert has been doing this type of joke quite a bit lately. I remember Jay Leno doing this kind of joke back in the days of President George W. Bush.
Does this mean that scientists are supposed to sit around staring a whiteboard with the heading “Ideas for curing cancer”? No, that might actually be counterproductive.
Maybe the chewing gum study will never bear fruit for curing cancer or anything else the late night comedians consider important, but by narrowly focusing only on things that seem to obviously pertain to curing cancer, scientists might miss an unexpected connection that does lead to something that is indisputably important.
From what I’ve read about penicillin, I understand that Sir Alexander Fleming discovered it quite by accident. In 1927, he noticed the mold’s antibacterial properties, but he also noticed impurities that discouraged him from using it as a medication. After asking for help purifying penicillin but not getting it, he seemed to have given up on his discovery.
More than a decade passed by before animal trials could even begin. With a lot more effort, penicillin became more practical to produce.
Viagra is another example of something that was discovered without expressly looking for it. Erectile dysfunction is a legitimate medical problem for some men, but the Pfizer scientists were looking for something to treat hypertension and angina. Some of the men in the early human trials were getting unexpected erections.
So who knows, maybe there is a cure for cancer, and maybe it will be found by looking at something that seems completely unrelated or maybe even extremely trivial.
All scientific research is important. To be clear, though, it only counts as scientific research if the researchers are willing to follow the evidence and revise their hypotheses when their original assumptions are proven wrong. Somehow I don’t think that’s the case with the “gain of function” “researchers”…
So research methodology’s important. Back in 2013, I conducted a study on whether or not the color pink exists. Some scientist caused a hubbub on NPR saying that pink doesn’t exist. I did a scientific study during the 2013 Detroit Design Festival on the subject.
When I told artist Greg Fadell that I was going to do a survey for the study, he immediately objected, and rightly so. If I ask a thousand people whether God exists and a majority of them say yes, that doesn’t prove God’s existence. The existence of pink is a far less controversial matter, though the objection is still valid.
But I didn’t intend to simply ask that one question and tally up the answers. My plan was to show people color swatches and ask them to identify the colors. My hypothesis was that since pink does exist, people with normal vision will be able to agree on what color swatches are pink. The survey results showed confirmed my hypothesis.
That was not a funded study, but I don’t consider it any less important than my earlier study on a different topic that did get university funding. Though I do think the study’s more credible if the subjects were compensated for their time.
In any case, I don’t measure the importance of my studies by how close it gets us to curing cancer. Satisfying our curiosity about the world is a worthwhile justification for a study. Curiosity in general should be cultivated, it is necessary for a working democracy.