Monday, August 13, 2018

Big Data: the new Waiting for Godot

In Samuel Beckett's cryptic play, Waiting for Godot, two men spend the entire play anticipating the arrival of someone, Godot, at which point presumably something will happen--one can say, perhaps, that the wait will have been for some achieved objective.  But what?  Could it simply mean that they can then go somewhere else?  Or, perhaps, there will be no end because Godot will never, in fact, arrive.

A good discussion of all of this is on the BBC Radio 4 The Forum podcast.  Apparently, Beckett insisted that any such answers were in the play itself--he didn't imply that there was some external meaning, such as that Godot was God, or that the play was an allegory for the Cold War--which is one reason the play is so enigmatic.

Was the play written intentionally to be a joke, or a hoax?  Of course, since the author refused to answer or perhaps even to recognize the legitimacy of the question, we'll never know.  Or perhaps that in itself, is the tipoff that it really is a hoax.  Or maybe (I think more likely) that because it was written in France in 1949, it's an existentialist era statement of the angst that comes from the recognition that the important questions in life don't have answers.

Waiting for the biomedical Promised Land
That was then, but today we are witnessing real-life versions of the play: things just as cleverly open-ended, with the 'What happens then?' question only having a vague, deferred answer, as in Beckett's title.  And, as in the play, it is not clear how self-aware even some of the perpetrators are of what they are about.

I refer to the possibility that we are witnessing various Big Data endeavors, unknowingly imitative but as cleverly and cryptically open-ended as the implied resolution that will happen when Godot arrives.  Big Data 'omics is a current, perhaps all too convenient, scientific version of the play, that we might call Waiting for God'omics.  The arrival of the objective--indeed, not really stated, but just generically promised as, for example, 'precision genomic medicine' for 'All of Us'--is absolutely as slyly vague as what Vladimir and Estragon were presumably waiting for.  The genomic Godot will never arrive!

This view is largely but not entirely cynical, for reasons that are at least a bit subtle themselves.

Reaching the oasis, the end of the rainbow, or the Promised Land is bad for business
One might note that if the 'omics Godot were ever to arrive, it would be the end of the Big Data (or should one say Big Gravy?) train, so obviously our Drs Vladimirs and Estragons must ensure that such a tragedy, arrival at the promised land, the elimination of all diseases in everyone, or whatever, never happens in real life.  Is there any sense that anyone seriously thinks we would reach resolution of the cause of disease, with precision for all of us, say, and be able (that is, willing) to close down the Big Budget nature of our proliferating 'omictical me-too world?

We have entrenched the search for Godot, a goal so vague as to be unattainable.  Even the proper use of the term 'precision' implies an asymptote, a truth that one never reaches but can get ever closer to.  If we could get there, as is implied, we should have been promised 'exact' genomic medicine. And wouldn't this imply that then, finally, we'll divert the resources towards cures and prevention?

However, even if the perpetrators of the Big Promises never think or aren't aware of it, we must note that the goal cannot be reached even with the best and most honorable of intentions.  Because of births and deaths, and environmental changes, and mutations and recombination, there truly never is the palm-draped oasis at which our venture could cease.  There will never be an 'all' of us, and genetic causation is ever-changing (in part because of the similarly dynamic environment), meaning that there are no such things as risks to be approached with 'precision'.  Risks are changeable and not stable, and indeed not fixed numerical values.  At best, they are collective population (or sample) averages.  So there is never a 'there' there, anywhere.  There is only a different one everywhere.

But awareness of these facts doesn't seem to be part of the 'omicsalyptic promises with which we are inundated.  They seem, by contrast, rote promises that are little if any different from political, economic, or religious promises--if only we do this, we'd get to a Promised Land.  But such a land does not exist.

If we had, say, a real national health system, it would be properly and avowedly open-ended without anyone honorable objecting (if it were done well).  And epidemiologically, of course, there will always be new mutations, recombinations, environments and the like to try to understand--disease with, or without strong genotype-phenotype causation.  There will always be a need for health research (and basic science).  But science, of all fields of human endeavor, should be honest. It should not hold out the promise that Godot will arrive, but in a sense, openly acknowledge that that can never happen.

But this doesn't let those off the guilty hook who are hawking today's implicit Big Data, big open-ended budget promise that by goosing up research now we'll soon eliminate genetic disease (I recall that Francis Collins did indeed, not all that long ago, promise that this Paradise would come soon--um, I think his date was something like 2010!)  It's irresponsible, self-interested promising, of course.  And those in genomics who are intelligent enough to deserve to be in genomics do, or should, know that very well.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, we'll always be told that we're waiting for Godot, and that he'll be coming soon.

NOTE:  One might observe that Godoism is a firmly entrenched strategy elsewhere in our society, for examples, in regard to  theoretical physics, where there will never be a collider big enough to answer the questions about fundamental particles: coming to closure would be as fiscally threatening to physics as it is to life sciences.  Science is not alone in this, but our society does not pay it nearly enough skeptical heed.

No comments: