Monday, April 18, 2011


Sometimes I think I'm too hard on us plain old folks. I expect us to live up to our species name, Homo sapiens (sapient: wise, sage, discerning), but then I remember our characterological Achilles heel, error. It's built in. No human is free of human error.

But don't abandon hope, for Science might yet conjure a remedy. Check out this article from last week's Progress magazine.

To err is human, they say. But is it? Are we fated eternally to miss typos, get lost, splash sauce onto our shirts?
Not necessarily, claims Dr. Gladys Taylor, Chief Investigator in the Serology Branch of the respected Sloan-Smithson Institute in Albany, New York. According to Dr. Taylor, human fallibility actually represents a chemical imbalance. “It seems,” she says, “that we're on the verge of isolating the blood factor responsible for blunders. Barring any further mishaps, we'll have our breakthrough any day now.”
Scientists have long attributed mistakes in our species to a hypothetical protein, Human Error Factor (HEF). But the substance had never actually been identified until Dr. Taylor's team inadvertently benefited from a series of tragedies caused by human error. Her technicians secured blood samples from Union Carbide engineers in Bhopal, India, former nuclear reactor operators in Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island, and random Pentagon employees.
“These people were rich in HEF,” smiles Dr. Taylor. “It just bubbled up to the top of their specimens and formed a crust--an imperfect crust, at that.”
From that sample, her laboratory isolated almost pure Human Error Factor. “We could have purified it completely,” explains Dr. Taylor, “but for technical limits in our equipment. So we've ordered more accurate gear. Actually, we've had to order it three times now. First it got lost in shipping, and the next time the parcel service truck ran off the road.”
When scientists finally have pure HEF at their disposal, they'll be able to program bacterial colonies to mass-produce antibodies to it so that eventually we’ll be able to vaccinate ourselves against mistakes.
According to Dr. Taylor, “Development will take a few years, since, like all vaccines, we'll need to test it on lab animals first, then on detainees and whoever. Only then can we give it to humans.”
Dr. Taylor's pioneering has stimulated research elsewhere. Other labs have reported, for example, that while all people carry HEF, some have more than others. The spectrum ranges from computer software engineers—who have three times the average concentration—to Presbyterian ministers, who seem totally free of the substance.
“One statistic has me worried, though,” Dr. Taylor admits. “Public officials seem to rank high in HEF; in fact, the higher the official, the higher the HEF level. Therefore we've asked the Surgeon General to test our highest government personnel. I hope he gets our letter soon. We tried to call him, but operators kept misdirecting us.”
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Taylor's suggestion has not found a champion on Capitol Hill. “Preposterous!” thunders Rep. Samuel Chadwick (R-NH). “Members of Congress aren’t the ones to test for this human error stuff. Test athletes! Test welfare queens!” And Sen. William Sims (D-NM) asks, “What’s all this talk about incompetence in government, anyway? If it's so common, why have I missed it?” 

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