Here comes the judge

Hey everyone, our May issue is now online. Check it out!

In the review in this issue about reactive oxygen species, Christine Winterbourn makes an interesting comment. She says:

“The early days [in free radical research] were notable for healthy and at times vigorous debate on how free radical chemistry could be rationalized with biological observations. Such debate is still needed today.”

This comment made me think about something I read a couple of months ago in a plane magazine*, which was an interview with Gary Taubes. In describing his new book, he says:

“If I had my druthers, I’d have the public health authorities institute something more akin to the legal system to decide what we know is so and what we don’t. They’d get a jury made up of 12 exceedingly good scientists, none of whom have worked in the fields of nutrition, obesity and chronic disease. Teams of competing experts would present the evidence for or against a particular belief – say, the healthfulness of low-fat diets, or whether salt causes hypertension. The jury would be able to cross-examine witnesses – i.e., those researchers who believed their studies provided some useful evidence. And then maybe the jury would deliberate for as long as it took to give an answer. If they didn’t believe some particular piece of advice was justified, but they couldn’t say it wasn’t, they’d suggest what experiments had to be done to know for sure.”

It’s an interesting idea – that of whether enough debate is occurring in general and how specifically ‘debates’ might occur to be most productive. I feel like I don’t see a lot of debate occurring… I wonder if scientists are less willing to voice their opinions (outside of more regulated talks) than a generation ago, or if there are fewer topics that we feel completely adrift about? Or are there instead more topics that, as we continue to learn, we feel more adrift about, and so it’s less easy to set forth a specific hypothesis (which then makes it difficult to argue for that hypothesis)? What do you guys think? Going back to Gary Taubes’ idea, it seems like there are many biological or medical questions that are unresolved, perhaps at least partially since there are so many different ways of conducting clinical trials or dosing mice, etc. However, if you could assemble a chemistry jury, what topics would you set before the court?

Catherine (associate editor, Nature Chemical Biology)

*Sadly, I don’t remember the airline, so can’t reference this properly. Feel free to tell me!