Fighting Heisenberg; how do we improve precision without losing accuracy?

It is easy to say that we are approaching a new golden age in modern medicine. Just in the last few years, we have made great strides in many areas of biomedicine and medical technology. However, with all this new data we face the inevitable dilemma of changing our dogmas and current understanding of science. I chose the title of this blog to be “Fighting Heisenberg” because I love the philosophy behind Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Physicists know the practical definition as the inability to exactly measure both the position and the velocity of a particle; however, the principle states that the more precise we try to measure one object, the less accurate we will be. I have a copy of Heisenberg’s principle next to my desk here at the University of South Carolina to remind me of that very principle every day.

An inherent problem

There is an inherent problem in science; it sucks, and it is very unpredictable. As we push the envelope of scientific discoveries, we face the possibility of misinterpreted results. A recent article by TheScientist discussed the technical bias of RNA-Seq datasets. They address this problem in a well-written article about the reproducibility of RNA-Seq data. This article focuses on the use of quality-control tools to correct the discrepancies in results. They discuss the importance of using consistent quality-control measures and argue for the standardization of these controls. I agree with this argument, the deeper we dig, the more differences we will find. We need to find ways to improve our accuracy as we push the precision of our work. However, within this problem, we uncover another dilemma; what should we believe!? There is a point where we control so much that we inadvertently cause the differences in our results.

What do we do next?

Those who know me best know how I would answer this; do more science! Keep pushing the envelope! But keep our friend Heisenberg in mind. We have to keep pushing our science so that our more precise findings are more accurate and reproducible. On December 13, 2016 the United States Congress passed into law the 21st Century Cures Act. This piece of legislation authorized $6.3 billion in medical research funding. Having been a large part of the 2016 presidential election, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the status of medical science. Most appropriately, it was titled Getting the Bogus Studies Out of Science. This article cited a study by Leonard Freedman at the Global Biological Standards Institute in Washington, DC. which estimated a whopping $28 billion per year was wasted on studies that fail to reach publication or contribute to medicine from the inability to reproduce previous results.

I will leave you with the idea that if we do not keep fighting Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle we will only find ourselves at a standstill in medicine. Keep pushing to find more precise answers to nature and science, but make it part of your job to find and develop cutting-edge methods in your research that will improve the accuracy of your findings.

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