Day 193: The Crapshoot Of Bogus Science

originally published July 11, 2012

After having listened to numerous conversations recently on the merits of religion vs. science (and vice versa), I was tempted to drop today’s subject and write another article about Sergeant Stubby, the army Wonderdog. But it would be irresponsible of me not to look into the topic of scientific misconduct.

Scientific Misconduct was never a worry for me; I only made it through entry level physics in high school because I wrote an exam late while my teacher went over the answers with my class in the room beside me, fully within earshot. Come to think of it, I guess scientific misconduct has actually served me well. Go figure.

There are a number of ways in which scientists can gamble by trying to cheat the system. And we’re talking about a huge gamble here; one’s reputation, the foundation upon which anyone is going to give two craps about what one says in the future, can be wiped out by a single act of screwery. So why do people do it?

If you have no results, if you’ve sat in a lab for four years trying to prove or disprove something and all you get is an inconclusive stack of maybes and sort-ofs and it-happened-to-everyone-but-that-one-guy-dammits, you might feel your career sifting through the porous underside of hope. You might see how easy it could be if that 3 was ‘accidentally’ jotted down as a 33, and thanks to that you have just proven the existence of Batman.

There are a number of different forms of scientific misconduct, all of which can be demonstrated with a simple experiment, attempting to prove that bacon is linked with longevity.

The experiment recorded the testimony of numerous old people about how much bacon they have eaten each week, as well as any physical ailments or recent dietary restrictions they have been forced to incorporate.

First, there’s fabrication. I didn’t actually talk to any old people, but I’ll say I did and present my findings. Oh look! Bacon leads to long life. Let’s eat.

Falsification would be when I opt not to record the high cholesterol count that my bacon-eating old people tell me they suffer from, instead jotting down “Everything’s Groovy!” for each one.

Plagiarism is when I look up a previous bacon-to-longevity study (as I’m sure there are many), and publish it as my own findings. Or maybe I’ve done this before, and I’m republishing the same findings once again because I didn’t get any free bacon from the last time I published it and I now have a better publicity agent.

Maybe I violated ethical standards. Perhaps I sent a jolt of electricity when people answered the way I didn’t want them to. It’s entirely possible that I outright killed the respondents who claimed not to eat any bacon, because their demise supports my hypothesis. Maybe this is the article that gets the authorities to start looking into me.

Ghostwriting is a dangerous form of misconduct. My final published paper might be written by the Pork Council in hopes of generating more sales. Or, if I write that bacon leads to early death, it may have actually been written by a pig in a fedora, trying to conceal the truth.

Uncovering scientific misconduct can be tricky, but it happens. Here are a handful of cases where the gamble didn’t pay off.

Milena Penkowa, seen here in her mandatory Science Community Glamor Shot, was a Danish professor who specialized in proteins and liposomes and other things I can frown, nod my head and pretend to understand. She was outed by her graduate students, who were having a suspiciously difficult time replicating her experiments. Eventually she was forced to retract a bunch of articles and resign her position, though she maintained her innocence.

Yoshitaka Fujii may be the Baryshnikov of misconduct. A resident of Mr. Rogers’ Land of Make-Believe, Fujii fabricated data in at least 172 scientific papers. I get paid nothing to sit here and make stuff up, and Fujii was hauling in a mint. His specialty was anesthesia. He was focusing on the serotonin receptor antagonist known as granisetron, notably its effectiveness at treating post-anesthetic nausea.

To give you an idea of Fujii’s passionate commitment to bullshit, an investigation of 212 of the 249 papers he’d written revealed not only that 172 contained fabricated data, but 126 of them appeared to be made up completely. The report states that it was “as if someone sat at a desk and wrote a novel about a research idea.” Putting aside the 37 papers that weren’t investigated, still at least half of Fujii’s life’s work was complete fiction. This is why he holds the record for blatantly pooping on the scientific community.

Running a distant second is Joachim Boldt of Germany, also a specialist in anesthesiology. In all fairness to Boldt, it looks like most of his misconduct involves not having proper approval or insufficient background research – verboten in the scientific world, but probably not as heinous as making everything up from scratch. He gets points for percentage though – 90 out of 102 of his studies are believed to be reeking of fraud. It makes me wonder why Boldt even got into the science game to begin with. Did he just love white coats?

(note: I don’t know how many of these accusations against any of these people are legit, and how many are made up by jealous ex-boy/girlfriends. My research ground is Wikipedia, which is a wonderful resource except when it’s full of crap)

What Andrew Wakefield’s misconduct lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for it with the impact he had on the scientific world. In 1998 Wakefield claimed that there was a link between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine and autism, as well as bowel disease. Wakefield was found not only to have published sub-legit data, but there were also allegations of financial conflicts of interest. Oh, and the child abuse.

The media was especially tough on Wakefield when it was shown that he subjected a number of developmentally disabled kids to unnecessary colonoscopies and lumbar punctures. It’s said that the results of his paper led to a public scare that made parents keep their kids from getting vaccinated. Subsequently, England saw a rise in measles cases, some of which were fatal.

Wakefield never admitted that his findings were bullshit. He stands by them still, claiming there was no hoax, no fraud, no scammery involved whatsoever. Some supporters, like Jenny McCarthy, who believes her son became autistic because of the vaccine, stand by him.

Before I pass judgment on Wakefield, I’d want to read up on all the facts, investigate the matter in great depth. But I’m so busy with this bacon thing right now, there just isn’t time.

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