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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pasteurizing the truth? Why even the best scientists need an ELN

Did you know?

Louis Pasteur is famous for his many contributions to medicine and science. His image is held high as a benevolent, bearded beacon of scientific integrity and his grandfatherly face looks down approvingly from dog-eared middle-school science classroom posters around the world. Although it may be hard to open a bottle of milk without being reminded of Pasteur’s many accomplishments, details of the specifics of his day-to-day research remained sketchy for many years after his death. It turns out that Pasteur was a somewhat complex and secretive man who fiercely protected his notebooks and apparently believed in neither research transparency nor peer review as we understand it today. In fact, his original laboratory notebooks did not become available for public scrutiny until the 1970s.  In his 1996 book The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Dr. Gerald L. Geison examines Pasteur’s life and legacy as it is revealed through his original research notes and writings. His conclusions are somewhat surprising, even unsettling, as Geison identifies a number of serious discrepancies between the procedures and results Pasteur reports in his laboratory notebooks and his public claims and pronouncements. In some cases, Pasteur borrows procedures from others and claims them as his own. In other more serious cases, Pasteur appears to make some reckless medical decisions based on scant research data. To his credit, the outcome of these cases was invariably favorable, but in modern times, medical treatment that amounts to experimentation on human subjects would be considered unethical or even criminally negligent. On the other hand, we should exercise caution when judging the actions  of past scientists through the lens of modern medical regulations and standards, and as Geison points out, although there are some discrepancies between Pasteur’s public and private writings, his lab notebooks still reveal exceptional skills as an experimentalist and theoretician. The fact that he kept a laboratory notebook at all also reveals an earnest desire to faithfully and empirically pursue answers based on real scientific observations.

 A fascinating review of Geison’s book in the New York Times includes some interesting reflections by some of Pasteur’s modern-day colleagues on the importance of the lab notebook:

“If a scientist's papers are correct, confirmation comes from others who repeat the experiment. But it is when they cannot repeat what you have published that you had better have good notebooks so you can go back and find out a reason for the discrepancy," said Dr. Jay Levy, an AIDS researcher at the University of California at San Francisco.
"With all the investigations done now, I emphasize to my lab that someone might need to come here to look at a notebook, and that is why none is allowed to be taken out of the lab," Dr. Levy added.
That rule was strictly enforced only after a researcher was mugged on his way home from work and had a notebook stolen. "He held on to his backpack so much that the robbers thought it had something of monetary value," Dr. Levy said. The notebook was never recovered and the scientist had to spend several months repeating his work.”

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