Something that diverts attention from the real issue or purpose

A bundle of smelly smoked (red) herrings drawn across a fox's trail confuses the hounds (Cowie et al. 1985). Discovering that a "metaphorical red herring had been hiding in one's path is a scientist's nightmare, although not discovering it if it is there is even worse. It possibly tends to materialize more frequently on the fringe of hectic, fast-advancing disciplines that attract risk-takers

("scoopophobia). The diversionary data or concepts could pose a real treat to academic careers. Indeed one may toy with the arithmetic of the red herring phenomenon: the magnitude of damage is likely to be proportional to the significance of the research topic, the time elapsed since the diversion, the ego-driven stubbornness of the investigator, and the number of scientists that managed to become enticed by the misleading clue.

Red herrings come in multiple sizes. Tiny herrings are daily encounters in research laboratories, and are frequently identified rapidly as "artefacts and 'disturbances' (e.g. Lynch 1985). They are disguised as imaginary bands on electrophoretic gels, speckles on blots, blips on oscilloscopes, distortions in histological preparations, or erratic software. Experienced investigators are quick to sort out the herrings from the real big fish, and alert the scientific community to the potential problem (e.g. Moser et al. 1994). Furthermore, talented scientists somehow find their way between the exceptional and the expected; in encountering surprising findings, such individuals may insist that what others see as a red herring, is actually not, and ultimately they win.

Medium-size herrings are those that affect a person's career over extended periods but do not necessarily divert the activities of the research community at large. This may happen, for example, in eccentric projects, which are not quick to attract many followers. Imagine a hypothetical scientist sitting in a hypothetical laboratory, aiming to elucidate the function of a hypothetical metabolic pathway. That person erroneously becomes convinced (because of a sampling error, dim light, or too much beer) that a hypothetical rare fly carries a new variant of an enzyme that catalyses a redundant metabolic pathway, and for which 72 variants had already been discovered in other species. As after, that same person devotes a frustrated career to the search for the nonexistent isozyme. Sad, indeed, but the impact on the scientific community is bound to be small, if at all.

Some research programmes that now look rather eccentric were not regarded as such at their time; see, for example, the case of "Clever Hans. In some respects, the horse Hans was a red herring on the path of experimental psychology. In that specific case, the exposure of the interpretational and conceptual mistake had a beneficial effect on subsequent research (Sebeok and Rosenthal 1981), because it led to the identification of sources of errors, for example, of the demand characteristics type (Orne 1962, "bias). Giant herrings, of the order of magnitude of the Clever Hans phenomenon, may stir stormy waves in the scientific community. A more recent example is that of memory transfer. In the early sixties, several laboratories devoted substantial resources in an attempt to replicate the results of the so-called memory transfer experiments. The original reports have claimed that specific memories can be transferred from one individual to another, either via cannibalism (in the flatworm Planaria) or in brain extracts (in rats). For a while the possibility existed that many research groups, excited by the striking breakthrough, would embark upon a lengthy journey into a blind ally. As the idea of specific memory transfer is so catchy, the methods and data were soon scrutinized and ultimately the approach was abandoned (Hartry et al. 1964; Byrne et al. 1966).

The 64 000 herrings question is whether right now we coexist with hidden fat red herrings, that lure scores of labs off-track. One can never be sure. Is there a red herring element in the link of massive modulation of neuronal "protein synthesis and gene expression with memory? ("consolidation, "immediate early genes, "late response genes.) And is "long-term potentiation, a fascinating cellular phenomenon per se, actually diverting us away from the ultimate goal of memory research, namely the mechanisms of experience-dependent alterations in "internal representation? Thus are heretic notions, no doubt, but orthodox believers may not be especially good in detecting conceptual mines. We should accept that red herrings are cohabitants of the scientific "culture, and that the success in detecting them is based on a the combination of luck, open-mindedness, intuition, humbleness, and most of all, experience. At least the latter competence can be acquired. A good lab should therefore alert its graduates to the smell of red herrings. Familiarity with the history of the discipline, and with the failures as well as the success stories, is useful in achieving that goal.

Selected associations: Clever Hans, Culture, Phrenology

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