Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Re: The ninth wave

I usually reed Gregory A Petsko' comments and editorials in Genome Biology that are unfortunately only available with subscription. In the last edition of the journal he wrote a comment entitled "The ninth wave". I have lived most of my life 10min away from the Atlantic ocean and at least to my recollection we used to talk about the 7th wave not the ninth as the biggest wave in a set of waves, but this it not the point :).
Petsko argues that the increase of free access to information on the web and of computer savvy investigators presents a clear danger of a flood of useless correlations hinting at potential discoveries never followed by careful experimental work:
Computational analysis of someone else's data, on the other hand, always produces results, and all too often no one but the cognoscenti can tell if these results mean anything.

This reminded me of a review I read recently from Andy Clark (via Evolgen). Andy Clark talks about the huge increase of researchers in comparative genomics:
...one of its worst disasters is that it has created a hoard of genomics investigators who think that evolutionary biology is just fun, speculative story telling. Sadly, much of the scientific publication industry seems to respond to the herd as much as it does to scientific rigor, and so we have a bit of a mess on our hands.

I have a feeling that this is the opinion of a lot of researchers. There is this generalized consensus that people working on computational biology have it easy. Sitting at the computer all day, inventing correlations with other people's data.
Maybe some people feel this way because it is relatively fast to go from idea to result using computers if you have in a mind clearly what you want to test while the experimental work certainly takes longer.
Why should I re-do the experimental work if I can answer a question that I think is interesting using available information ? I should be criticized if I try to overinterpret the results, if the methods used are not appropriate or if the question is not relevant but I should not be criticized for looking for an answer the fastest way I can.