Duty Calls, Philosophy, Science

On systems biology and bullshit

Clarity and lucidity are key strengths of scientists and writers. Jargon and cliches can make the best paper unreadable. This is why science writer Carl Zimmer keeps an index of banned words his students should avoid.

One of the words on the index is ‘breakthrough,’ which is overused, because the person reporting it doesn’t bother to think about how big the step forward really is. Using such cliches shows sloppy thinking and lack of scrutiny. This is why Zimmer bans ‘breakthrough‘ “unless you are covering Principia Mathematica”, in which case you are fine, regardless of whether you refer to Whitehead and Russell or Newton.

Not only science writers need to avoid cliches and enrich their texts for content – ‘real’ scientists also often use fancy buzz words with far too much levity. Just think of these three (in no particular order) that you can hear in almost every systems biology talk:

  1. Integrated,
  2. Network,
  3. System.

I have no problem at all with the terms per se and they are at the center of what me and my group are doing. Every day we integrate complementary data, we use networks to prioritize genes for follow-up studies, and we build quantitiative models of how different players in the cell act together.

But I have a problem with the way these ideas get communicated. Whoever talked about systems biology and networks and the need to integrate data first (let’s say 10-15 years ago) was a visionary! But the people who now endlessly repeat the same words just want to appear as if they had vision, even if they have nothing to add. In many talks ‘integrated‘, ‘network‘, ‘system‘ have become cliches without content: IntegratedNetworkSystem-speak instead of lucidity.

Integrated, networks, systems — my ears are ringing

Over the last few months I have started to distance myself from IntegratedNetworkSystem-speak. The reason is simple: I believe IntegratedNetworkSystem-speak mindlessly copies phrases that hide more than they explain.

Integrated — looking at things from different perspectives is good, no doubt. And in science this means bringing different types of data about the same phenomenon together. No problems so far. But ‘integration’ often means: ignoring the specifics of each individual dataset, the individual sources of noise, the individual biases each technology has — in this way, integration leads to a jumbled mash-up, no coherent whole.

Networks — Graph and network algorithms are a staple of computer science and one of the reasons why network biology is flourishing. But in most talks I hear, a network is what you call things when they are more complicated than you can handle. Most networks describe associations and would have been called clusters just 5 years ago – plotting them as artistic network hairballs promises insights into the ‘wiring diagram’ of the cell, instead of just saying what they actually show: similar genes lumped together.

Systems — systems biology, systems genetics, systems medicine, systems microscopy, systems biomedicine, systems art, system of systems . . . systems everything! When I hear a word so often, I start to think it is a placeholder, devoid of any content it might have had.

Why all that IntegratedNetworkSystem-speak? All three terms are fuzzy and hard to define; thus everyone can own them. All three terms have acquired considerable fluidity as their use became widespread; and their fluidity now contributes to their popularity: the more slippery, the more contagious. They have become memes, which adapt their meaning over time. They are marketing terms and in fashion. And they are eye-candy because they look so good! Who wouldn’t rather want to be an integrating, networking systems biologist than the opposite: a myopic, simplistic reductionist?

Harry Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit

Because of its ubiquity IntegratedNetworkSystem-speak has become bullshit — not only in the colloquial sense, but with a deep philosophical meaning.

Let’s introduce Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt, who is most famous for a small text he wrote in 1986 and which became a sensation in 2005. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit describes a theory of what makes bullshit and how it differs from truth and lies:

[Bullshit] is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

Bullshitting is not lying, and bits of it might even be true:

The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensable distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is why IntegratedNetworkSystem-speak is so abundant in grant applications: It’s easier to say “Systems medicine and integrated networks will cure cancer” than “I need money, and I will use every buzzword I know to get it”.

Frankfurt gives an enjoyable presentation of his theory in this interview in The Daily Show:

“[Bullshitters] don’t care particularly about the truth. They care about producing a certain impression in the minds … They are engaged in the enterprise of manipulating opinion, the are not engaged in the enterprise of reporting the facts.”

What makes me worry a bit is this feature of bullshit:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenver a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more extensive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

Everybody in interdisciplinary research knows that feeling. Some bullshitting might even be unavoidable if you made ignorance your comfort zone. But we (another of Carl Zimmer’s banned words) should reduce the bullshit.

The first step is awareness: Instead of mindlessly sprinkling ‘integrated systems networks’ over everything you write, stop and think: maybe there is a more specific and less cliche word that you can use instead. I have started to purge my webpage and research statement of IntegratedNetworkSystem-speak, my slides will be next.


PS: After I had written this post I started to google around and found this text about the same topic, which after 4 years is still highly relevant.

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5 thoughts on “On systems biology and bullshit

  1. Great point Florian. I have a similar reaction to the buzz words. I wonder what the distribution of reactions that different people have looks like; what fraction of people have our reaction and what fraction of people would think more highly of analysis embellished with an additional bullshitt-inspiring “integrated”?

    1. Hi Nikolai. Interestingly enough I found myself in the second group while writing my tenure report. So you sit there writing this long document for an unspecified readership with heterogeneous backgrounds and need to communicate your work in words that at least create the right associations … and suddenly I found myself writing the words ‘systems genetics’ over and over. And the people who read my text said ‘Oh wow, suddenly it’s so much clearer’ and -hah!- I learned to love the systems.

  2. This is exactly what has been happening to science for a while: infestation with buzzwords, shiny stuff…and bullshit. Integrated-systems-networks ring bells and sell well…Papers in top journals are often full of overblown statements that sell well to editors, while solid science is either humbly hiding in supplemental information, or completely replaced by “marketing material”. Grantsmanship has been replaced by salesmanship – a job for bullshit artists. In order to get tenure track position, applicants often have to have a funded research, papers in top journals, smooth and shiny teaching philosophy…Did all those old farts, who got their faculty positions 30+ years ago, also had to write 100+ pages of grant proposals? Were they required to have funded research to get on tenure-track? Were they supposed to waste their valuable time and produce polished bullshit essays on student-centered education? If not, why do those old farts manning search committees require all that crap from new candidates?

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