They Wanted It To Be True So Badly That They Starved Monkeys for 23 Years

As the electric blanket of humidity that drapes the South in August begins to yield to autumn, I want to believe that the football team at the University of South Carolina, my alma mater, will win the national championship. I’ve worked really hard to build a story in my head that this will finally be the year for the Gamecocks, and I believe this story. Since I was eight years old I’ve been a fan, and fan is short for fanatic.

But scientists shouldn’t be fanatics -- they should care about truth. They shouldn’t root for anything. Unlike the rest of us who trick ourselves into believing things – crazy unprecedented things like South Carolina winning it all – scientists must take a cold, hard look at the facts.

 “Some scientists, anticipating such benefits, began severely restricting their own diets….but the bottom line was that the monkeys that ate less did not live any longer than those that ate normally…. Rafael de Cabo, lead author of the diet study, published online on Wednesday in the journal Nature, said he was surprised and disappointed that the underfed monkeys did not live longer.”

De Cabo is disappointed because what he was rooting for didn’t happen. Of course, scientists care about the outcome of their research. Sometimes they care because they’re competitive and want to prove something before a rival does, or they need an article published to get tenure or promoted – science is still done by humans, after all. But also, and more interestingly, sometimes they care because of good intentions, not bad. Obesity is a nasty, growing problem that shortens life spans. So scientists want to help the world by demonstrating the counter-positive: that calorie restriction extends life.

I believe that because of the rigor in the profession, scientists are less likely to work to prove the truth they want to prove than most of us. But when scientists go to monkey-starving lengths to make their case, it should be a warning sign for the rest of us. We need to stop ourselves from turning good intentions into self-deception.

Still, I really think this is the year for South Carolina Football.