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April 26, 2007
Less Than Zero
When I wrote about lousy animal models of disease a few days ago, there was a general principle at the back of my mind. (There generally is - my wife, over the years, has become accustomed to the sudden dolly-back panorama shots that appear unannounced in my conversation). It was: that a bad model system is much, much worse than no model system at all.
I've been convinced of that for a long time. When you have no model for what you're doing, you're forced to realize that you have no clear idea of what's going on. That's uncomfortable, to be sure, but you at least realize the situation. But when you have a poor model, the temptation to believe in it, at least partially, is hard to resist. Even if it's giving you the right answers at a rate worse than chance, you can still take (irrational) comfort in knowing that at least you're not flying blind - even as you do worse than the people who are.
There are many reasons to hold on to an underperforming model. Sometimes pride is the problem. I've seen groups that stuck with assays just because they'd invented them, even though the method was slowly wasting everyone's time. Never underestimate cluelessness, either. People will use worthless techniques for quite a while if they're not in the habit of checking to see if they're any good. But the biggest reason that useless procedures hang around, I'm convinced, is fear.
Fear, that is, of being left out in the middle of the field with no models, no insights, and no path forward at all. It's a bad feeling, rather scary, and rather difficult to explain to upper management if you're a project leader. Better, then, to hold on to the assays and models you have, to defend them even if you're not sure you trust them. With any luck, the project will end (although probably not happily) before the facts have to be faced. As Belloc advised children in other situations: "Always keep ahold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse."
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