We need to stop worrying and trust our robot researchers

The work of Francis Crick and James Watson gives us a vision of what's to come.

It’s now 60 years since the publication of the structure of DNA. As we celebrate the past, the work of Francis Crick and James Watson also gives us a vision of what’s to come. Their paper was not subjected to peer review, today’s gold standard for the validation of scientific research. Instead, it was discussed briefly over a lunch at the Athenaeum Club. In an editorial celebrating the anniversary, the journal Nature, which originally published the research, points out that this is “unthinkable now”.

However, peer review has always been somewhat patchy and it is becoming ever more difficult. This is the age of “big data”, in which scientists make their claims based on analysis of enormous amounts of information, often carried out by custom-written software. The peer review process, done on an unpaid, voluntary basis in researchers’ spare time, doesn’t have the capacity to go through all the data-analysis techniques. Reviewers have to rely on their intuition.

There are many instances of this leading science up the garden path but recently we were treated to a spectacular example in economics. In 2010, Harvard professors published what quickly became one of the most cited papers of the year. Simply put, it said that if your gross public debt is more than 90 per cent of your national income, you are going to struggle to achieve any economic growth.

Dozens of newspapers quoted the research, the Republican Party built its budget proposal on it and no small number of national leaders used it to justify their preferred policies. Which makes it all the more depressing that it has been unmasked as completely wrong.

The problem lay in poor data-handling. The researchers left out certain data points, gave questionable weight to parts of the data set and – most shocking of all – made a mistake in the programming of their Excel spreadsheet.

The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication. It was only when the researchers shared software and raw data with peers sceptical of the research that the errors came to light.

The era of big data in science will stand or fall on such openness and collaboration. It used to be that collaboration arose from the need to create data. Crick and Watson collaborated with Maurice Wilkins to gather the data they needed – from Rosalind Franklin’s desk drawer, without her knowledge or permission. That was what gave them their pivotal insight. However, as Mark R Abbott of Oregon State University puts it, “We are no longer data-limited but insight-limited.”

Gaining insights from the data flood will require a different kind of science from Crick’s and Watson’s and it may turn out to be one to which computers and laboratorybased robots are better suited than human beings. In another 60 years, we may well be looking back at an era when silicon scientists made the most significant discoveries.

A robot working in a lab at Aberystwyth University made the first useful computergenerated scientific contribution in 2009, in the field of yeast genomics. It came up with a hypothesis, performed experiments and reached a conclusion, then had its work published in the journal Science. Since then, computers have made further inroads. So far, most (not all) have been checked by human beings but that won’t be possible for long. Eventually, we’ll be taking their insights on trust and intuition stretched almost to breaking point – just as we did with Crick and Watson.

President Obama inspects a robot built in Virginia. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.