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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, September 04, 2009

War Between Business And Science

Have you ever wondered why billionaire talkshow diva Oprah Winfrey is so well respected by business professionals but almost universally disliked by scientific professionals?

Check out what a Harvard Business School Professor has to say about her:

""Still, when Professor Nancy Koehn introduced her guest on the last day of class this past spring, "everyone did a double take," Koehn recalls. Oprah Winfrey was in the house.

How the icon of daytime television and chief executive of a major media empire came to HBS after three years of effort is a story in itself. And what she told students brought them a unique perspective about leaders and leadership in the twenty-first century. "I think she's a great bellwether for the future of business," Koehn says. "Maybe she and her organization are on a path that a lot of leaders and organizations are going to be on.""

Compare and contrast that appraisal with this view from medical doctor David Gorski:

"Personally, I have no problem with Oprah’s level of success. Clearly, she is a very talented and savvy TV host and businesswoman.

Unfortunately, in marked contrast, Oprah has about as close to no critical thinking skills when it comes to science and medicine as I’ve ever seen, and she uses the vast power and influence her TV show and media empire give her in order to subject the world to her special brand of mystical New Age thinking and belief in various forms of what can only be characterized as dubious medical therapies at best and quackery at worst. Arguably there is no single person in the world with more influence pushing woo than Oprah."

Do you know why Oprah seems to be so intent on supporting dubious medical therapies?

Here at Fresh Brainz, I've had the misfortune of being trained in BOTH science and business, so let me give you my own analysis of what is going on...


When you hear the word "science" or "evidence-based medicine" what does it mean to YOU?

Maybe you associate those words with a method of discovering facts and building theories by making observations, doing experiments/testing treatments, interpreting results and checking for biological significance/inherent biases/alternative explanations etc.

In other words, a careful method of learning about reality.

Or maybe you associate these words with large bureaucratic organizations/corporations, expensive machines, committees of powerful old men, obsession over meaningless details, close-mindedness and arrogance.

In other words, "wasting" tonnes of money to investigate the details of Nature that nobody else cares about, or a giant corporate machine that creates an incredibly high entry barrier so that only it alone can rake in the big bucks.

The reality is that modern scientific research is very expensive.

The days of the lone microscopist making a significant finding are numbered (though probably not true for the lone amateur astronomer). You can recycle fashion trends every two decades, but you can only make a scientific discovery once.

The "cheap" science, the "small" science; they have already been done by people in the past.

To do big science today, you need more than fancy degrees from a brand name school.

You also need big money.

That represents a very high entry barrier. You want to map the human transcriptome? Perform a large-scale clinical trial? Only governments and multinational corporations have that kind of money.

Moreover, from a purely business perspective, scientific research represents a weak return on investment.

Practically all curiosity-driven basic research has no chance of making money directly, while only a small proportion of biomed/biotech research will ever reach profitability. Even if you can come up with a technology or treatment with promising biological effectiveness, it will still have to face years of regulatory hurdles, as well as market pressures, before it can start raking in the dollars.

Clinical research is obviously nearer to practical applications, but only big companies have the resources to conduct large-scale trials. If you intend to invest money in a big, well-established pharma company, you can't expect to make much more than an incremental gain of around 10% yearly.

That is because most of the company's growth is already over, during its infancy - but that was also the riskiest stage of its development.

So what do you do if you are an ambitious young person who wants to build a successful business, preferably within your own lifetime?

Here's one way of doing it:

You take a fucking chance.

Governments and Big Pharma don't talk to nobodies. So you talk to much smaller players - obscure new outfits, individual inventors, alternative medicine practitioners, motivational gurus, unknown book authors...

It doesn't matter what they do, as long as you can identify the potential for a powerful social impact.

You have to understand the needs and desires of regular people, work closely with those who claim to have just the solution that the people need, and then promote their special solution confidently to the world.

The highest growth potential comes from untested small players, thus you should try to seek them out and grow with them. Remember that when blue chips rise by a few dollars it's only a percentage gain, but when a penny stock rises by a few dollars, it has increased its value by a FEW FOLD. The returns on investment can be tremendous.

However, penny stocks are very risky. Similarly, if you constantly align yourself with mystics and alternative healers, you might open the doors not only to harmless crackpots, but deliberate frauds and pranksters as well. This can have a negative effect, both on your bottomline and on your reputation.

Fortunately, if you were NOT trained in science, you don't have to dwell on it. Just disassociate yourself from any negative incidents, and move on. Your target audience won't know the difference anyway and won't expect you to be scientifically accurate. Academics may protest but you can always appeal to the anti-establishment sentiments of your supporters!

It's more important to get the timing right and seize an opportunity quickly, than to be factually correct or even conceptually consistent.

Remember that your goal is commerce, not science. More human than human should be your motto - it's about selling a hyperreality to the masses. Nobody will give you a single cent more for being too truthful or too careful.

In fact, in Oprah's case, she often seems to act first and check later!

This can be clearly seen from the site "Top 12 Oprah Mistakes, Lies and Embarrassments". The writer concluded that (emphasis mine) :

"In a long and extraordinarily successful career, Oprah Winfrey has often been wrong, but she rarely, if ever, conveys uncertainty. She’s admitted to having used cocaine in her 20s, under the influence of her then-boyfriend. She’s made questionable diet and health choices and presented each one to the world as a wonderful new discovery, only to change programs, beliefs and approaches. She’s invited at least two blatant frauds to share their stories with the world on her show, and has encouraged us to buy books full of lies and health products with no proven benefits. She is, in short, wrong quite a lot. And that’s okay. Most of us are. Most of us, though, don’t have millions of people accepting our every word as gospel. That should inspire a person to choose her words with a bit more care."

Note that uncertainty and persistence is the bread and butter of scientific research, whereas unshakeable confidence and flexibility is an indispensible aspect of business enterprise.

Also, Dr. Gorski may wonder why Oprah is successful despite her apparent lack of critical thinking, but in contrast, I find it hard to see how Oprah could have succeeded if she was saddled with critical thought!


"Science" means something different from an academic or business perspective. It is both a method and an industry; an endeavour of individual effort and organizational strategy.

To make money directly from science is a difficult challenge because there are many contradictory skillsets between business professionals and scientific professionals.

But ultimately, in any organization somebody has to be the one to make the big decisions.

What if you spent your entire life training to become a scientist, only to realize that somebody who is neither interested in your research nor even appreciates its significance actually has more power over your research direction, your lab and your whole career than you yourself?

Conversely, what if you were a business-trained manager who was told that science was just another area of business, only to realize that research routinely spends far more money than it can ever generate, and because of the increasing pressure to achieve a better return on investment, you now have to convince over 1,000 disgruntled PhDs that all big science decisions have to be made by you yourself?

Those are interesting, academic questions.

Perhaps not academic for long.


angry doc said...

I dunno...

If society as a whole puts more value on entertainment than science, then they will reap the consequences.

On the other hand, if we people of science cannot offer society at large what they want, how can we demand something of value (money, respect) from them in turn?

I say take the well-paying job, save up, and the day when we build our death-ray we'll show them! We'll show all of them!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Haha... I was thinking more along the lines of making lovebots...

Actually I believe that the essence of the matter is that hyperreality can sell much better than real-reality. This is not a new discovery; politicians, business people, especially marketing people and advertisers etc. have known this for very long time.

Exaggerations and distortions can make something rather bland far more desirable eg. "Reality TV" has tonnes of scripted elements in it and movies "Based on a true story" often have very little basis on the true story.

Even in the world of science, scientists sometimes criticize other scientists who exaggerate the novelty/significance/relevance of their work in order to secure funding.

So hyperreality is really-real from a human social perspective.

Personally, I find this fact surprisingly easy to accept.

Where I see potential conflict is not in accepting the existence of hyperreality, but in the contrasting interpretations of its value by business and science people.

Hyperreality can be good business but can also be bad science. If the two fields converge, and somebody has the final say, then disputes are inevitable.