The rule of simplicity, template theories, and disregard for irreproducibility in macromolecular chemistry - the example of Pauling's questionable research on antibody formation
In 1940, Linus Pauling proposed his template theory of antibody formation, one of several theories that rejected Paul Ehrlich's selective theory of preformed 'receptors' (antibodies), assuming instead a direct moulding of antibody shapes onto that of the antigen. Pauling's theory was informed by his pioneering work on protein structure, and it was inspired by the intuitive “rule of parsimony” and simplicity. His subsequent claim of having produced specific artificial antibodies could not be reproduced by prominent immunochemists, and his theory was shown to be mistaken. A citation analysis shows that Pauling's papers on antibody generation are cited until today, in particular as pioneering studies of the chemical technology 'molecular imprinting'. My talk shows how strongly philosophical ideas (such as simplicity or parsimony) and the aesthetic power of models can impact the work of scientists and facilitate irreproducibility.
Ute Deichmann is director of the Jacques Loeb Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and also adj. Prof. at the University of Cologne. Her research is on the origin and change of concepts and epistemologies in modern experimental biology and on the impact of various ideologies on science. Recent publications include: "The social construction of the social epigenome and the larger biological context," Epigenetics & Chromatin 2020; "Data, theory, and scientific belief in early molecular biology: Pauling's and Crick's conflicting notions about the genetic determination of protein synthesis and the solution to the 'secret of life'," HYLE - International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, 2021; "Science and political ideology - totalitarian countries and Western democracies," JGPS, under review. She is the author of Biologen unter Hitler (1991 Campus, 1995 Fischer) (engl. transl. 1996, Harvard UP) and Flüchten, Mitmachen, Vergessen. Chemiker und Biochemiker im Nationalsozialismus (2001, Wiley). For her work, she was awarded several prizes.
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