Ockham’s broom and the disclosure of dirty secrets – New in Journal of Biology


No, not Ockham’s razor and the parsimony
principle. Ockham’s broom, newer by some centuries, is an implement conceived
by Sydney Brenner whereby inconvenient facts are swept under the carpet, and
now adopted by Journal of Biology as the umbrella title for a new series in
which the inconvenient facts hitherto resolutely ignored by some subsection of
biologists are confronted.

A notable example of the past operation of
Ockham’s broom is in what Charlie Janeway memorably called the immunologist’s
dirty little secret: briefly, you can get lymphocytes to produce antibodies
against pretty well any defined chemical, but only if you inject something
messier, usually at that time dried mycobacterium, along with them.
Immunologists, focusing on the lymphocytes that produce the antibodies,
disregarded the implications of the mycobacterial adjuvant until Janeway
brilliantly exposed the now accepted reality that lymphocytes generally don’t respond
to anything unless they are activated by more evolutionarily ancient phagocytic
cells geared to the recognition of conserved features of pathogens.

Another example is the focus in the 1970s
on viral causes of human cancer, inspired by insights from animal tumor viruses
but that did not account for the vast preponderance of tumors of epithelia
which viruses do not selectively infect.

The Ockham’s broom series will be eclectic
and occasional, because interesting and appropriate topics crop up across all
of biology but not every day: the first, by Bruce Mayer and colleagues, is on
signaling complexes which they argue we must stop seeing as defined assemblages
of interacting proteins in favour of the dynamic reality. A signaling complex
is not a ribosome.

The internet has made it possible for
researchers to base all their reading on key-word searches and thus avoid
distraction by articles outside their field, thereby also avoiding any
consequent breadth of scholarship and or intellectual vitality. Journal of
Biology hopes, by linking on their own series page articles unrelated in
scientific content and pitched to provoke thought, to undermine this relentless
focus. A bit, at least.

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“thereby also avoiding any consequent breadth of scholarship and or intellectual vitality”

… and those damn kids better get off your lawn if they know what’s good for ’em, hey old-timer?