“We Need Only One Santa”: My Answer to Grand Health Promises

“We need only one Santa” is a line from a video by Icelandic’s Best Party, which won enough support that its leader, Jon Gnarr, became mayor.

“We need only one Santa” would have been a good response to any big health promise in the last 20 years. Not one has come true, just as there is no Santa Claus. “Beating cancer now is a realistic ambition because, at long last, we largely know its true genetic and chemical characteristics,” wrote James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, in 2009. We need only one Santa, Dr. Watson.

At the NIH, “one of our biggest projects is the BRAIN initiative . . . We are bringing together the best and the brightest people from a variety of disciplines to figure out, over the next 10 years, exactly how the brain works,” said Francis Collins, head of the NIH, a few days ago. We need only one Santa, Dr. Collins.

8 Responses to ““We Need Only One Santa”: My Answer to Grand Health Promises”

  1. dearieme Says:

    You’ll be accused of the War on Santa, Seth.

  2. Maarten Says:

    Don’t you think the above efforts should be made, or are you just opposed to the hyperbole?
    I’d rather have scientist run ahead of themselves out of ambition, then pessimistic scientists who don’t even try.

  3. Seth Roberts Says:

    I am opposed to the hyperbole. If liars get all the available grant money…

  4. dearieme Says:

    “I’d rather have scientist run ahead of themselves out of ambition, then pessimistic scientists who don’t even try.” What a wonderful example of the false dichotomy.

  5. Cahokia Says:

    “I’d rather have scientist run ahead of themselves out of ambition, then pessimistic scientists who don’t even try.”

    I agree. I know Seth Roberts isn’t opposed to cutting edge medical research per se, just to inflated claims and academic group-think. However, posts like this easily read as arguments against biotech, genetics research, stem cell research, etc.

    There’s only so much fermented foods and honey before bedtime can do to extend healthy human lifespan.

  6. Cuhtzaka Indlis Says:

    Gnarr squeaked into office on a 34% combined protest vote /comedy /off-the-wall campaign and has made some progress on his promises, but Reykjavik’s major –and very real– problems are still there. Overstatements are expected in campaigns.

    Watson helped discover DNA structure while pursuing anti-cancer strategies. Your quote is from his campaign (note the word ‘campaign’) to free up more cancer research money and again change the FDA’s perpetually outdated drug-testing policies. Overstatement is expected in campaigns.

    Collins shepherded the Human Genome Project, the DNA mapping project that allowed Watson to dream so large. Now he is describing a vastly larger, longer, and more complex project; but he’s describing a reasonable expectation for a decade-long project.

    Seth: You are unaware of the overpromising of oncogene researchers? Collins is “describing a reasonable expectation”? You know this how?

  7. Cuhtzaka Indlis Says:

    Seth: “. . . overpromising of oncogene researchers . . . You know this how?”

    Proof of performance. Collins never promised to cure cancer, he promised –and delivered– on mapping the human genome. This latest is not much different than a contractor’s promise to build a high-rise bigger than one successfully built before. In this case, a high-rise that makes extensive use of building techniques pioneered in the previous project.

    You put Collins’ description in with two examples of issue advocacy; issues where real performance has always lagged far behind the verbiage. Both Gnarr’s and Watson’s hopes/promises have followed the traditional success (and failure) rates for political change and cancer therapy. Neither has ‘bumped’ or radically altered the trajectory of their subjects. Gnarr and Watson promise changes of *things*: governance and cures. Collins’ promise is discovery.

    Can I or anyone guarantee the project’s on-time on-cost performance 10 years out? No, but nobody can absolutely predict anything –perhaps not even the sunrise– ten years out. But ‘reasonable expectation’ is a reasonable description of the brain mapping project.

    Seth: You believe Collins’s promise (“to figure out [in 10 years] exactly how the brain works”) is not much different than “a contractor’s promise to build a high-rise bigger than one successfully built before”? Surely not. If Collins truly thinks that mapping a network = finding out exactly how something works, he has lost his marbles and should be removed from his job. If Collins knows better but thinks his listeners will believe anything, that is unfortunate and really is a lot like a parent telling a three-year-old about Santa Claus.

  8. Joe Says:

    Chromosomal Chaos and Cancer
    http://mcb.berkeley.edu/labs/duesberg/pdfs/2007,_Duesberg0507,_SciAm.pdf

    Here’s my hunch (if we’re lucky). The 21st century will find us making more progress against disease, especially one like cancer (including ways to totally prevent them), even cures, by exploring clean new paths, instead of mindlessly following the same old, pothole-riddled ones.