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When Scientists Dabble in History

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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By any measure, Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute, is one of the most important scientists in the world today.  His science is groundbreaking, his institutional power is enormous, and his ethical reputation is sterling. Yet Lander now finds himself the target of immense criticism as a result of … trying to do history.

Lander's essay "The Heroes of Crispr," recently published in the journal Cell, has been attacked for its failure to disclose his research center’s stake in a massive patent fight over the extraordinary genome-editing technology Crispr/Cas9, as well as for downplaying the roles of two female scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, who are on the other side of what's been called the biggest patent war in the history of biotech.

What went wrong? The lesson of this kerfuffle isn’t only, as some have proposed, that critics are jealous of Lander’s influence or opposed to his big-science ideology and accomplishments. It’s something more subtle and more interesting: There's a huge difference between doing your job and trying to write the history of that job. 

The field of history requires skills of its own, and it has its own norms, virtues and pitfalls -- and its own disciplinary training. No one would think they could walk into a lab and do sophisticated biology without training and preparation.

History isn’t so different. We all know how to tell stories that have a point. But a contemporary history written by an informed insider who’s a participant in another field can run into particular trouble -- because historical writing is supposed to be different from other forms of discourse, more careful and objective.

Doudna, for example, gave a TED Talk last year that opened with the highly disputable claim that she and Charpentier “invented” Crispr/Cas9. She hasn’t been pilloried for that, even though many people strongly disagree with her. That’s likely because a TED Talk is understood to be a site of self-promotion -- not a carefully crafted historical record.

As for Lander, the title of his essay is a good place to start: It purports to create and enshrine a pantheon of heroes. Good history shouldn’t be written that way, at least not if the intended readers are out of middle school.

To be sure, lots of "heroic" history has been written over the centuries. As Bernard Bailyn, the preeminent American historian of the last 50 years, pointed out in 1974, such heroic history tends to be written when the outcome of a historical event “is still in some degree in question” and “emotions are still deeply engaged.” Building on the work of British historian Sir Herbert Butterfield,  Bailyn noted that heroic history is “highly personified: individuals count overwhelmingly; their personal qualities appear to make a difference between victory and defeat.”

This characterization applies to Lander’s essay -- and helps explain the reaction to it. Lander provides highly personalized accounts of his scientific “heroes,” using them to conclude that the “most important” lesson of the Crispr story is that “medical breakthroughs often emerge from completely unpredictable origins.” His heroes’ motivations "were a mix of personal curiosity … military exigency … and industrial application.”

Critics have noted online that Lander provides less of a personal back story for Doudna, a Berkeley biologist, than he does to his other figures. He does call her “a world-renowned structural biologist,” so the problem isn't that he’s stinting in his praise. It's that his heroes are created, in part, through their back stories.

To make matters worse, Doudna is in the running not only for CRISP/Cas9 patents but also for a shared Nobel Prize that will almost certainly be given someday for the technology (Doudna and Charpentier were considered top contenders last year). Both qualify as historical events “still in question,” in Bailyn’s terms -- and as Doudna’s TED Talk shows. Emotions are certainly “deeply engaged” on all sides. Giving short shrift to the story of a leading opponent in a self-described heroic history seems like a bad idea.

Failing to disclose his own role and his institute's stake in the matter is also a mistake that no trained historian would make. Lander wasn’t being unethical -- he disclosed the potential conflict to the journal’s editors. (Doudna co-authored a nonhistorical piece on Crispr in the same issue that also didn’t disclose her stake in the patent dispute.)

The editors said there was no problem -- because they’re biologists, not historians. A historian who has played a role in the events he’s writing about has a duty of intellectual honesty to disclose that role; that duty can’t be satisfied by following a policy that is arguably appropriate for a scientific journal that doesn't ordinarily publish historical essays.

So why did Lander write a historical essay in the first place? He notes in his introduction a quip by the immunologist (and terrific writer) Sir Peter Medawar: “The history of science bores most scientists stiff.” His intended audience seems to have been not so much scientists as two other targets he mentions: “government agencies and foundations” who fund science, and “a general public who often imagines scientists as lone geniuses cloistered in laboratories.”

For these audiences, Lander’s message is primarily that science needs to shift from the classic ideal of framing hypotheses and testing them in the laboratory to what he calls “'hypothesis-free’ discovery based on big data.” Lander, who first trained as a mathematician, has been a major actor in bringing big data and computational techniques to the forefront of the biological sciences.

Lander is no doubt correct about the importance of Crispr in biology. But he would have done better to frame his essay not as history but as a plausible normative argument in favor of his science, illustrated with examples. Now the whole episode will go into the history books. And later generations of historians, less concerned about making heroes, will have something to say about it.

  1. Disclosure: I’ve met Lander twice, once socially and once in connection with a matter on which I was consulted; he wasn’t the client.

  2. Butterfield famously characterized what he called the “Whig interpretation of history.” I found one posting online calling Lander’s approach Whig history, but with respect, that’s wrong: Heroic history precedes Whig history, which Bailyn calls a later stage that is then followed by a more tragic history, where the writer has no stake in the outcome.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net