Seven Real Scientific Scandals (and why the climate change emails don’t qualify)

6 12 2009

Kristen Minogue/MEDILL

The email leak from the Climate Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia ranks among the major gaffes in science, if only because it’s rare for so many researchers in a single institution to be thrown under scrutiny at once.

But calling it a scientific scandal or implying that it tarnishes the credible evidence for global warming is simply inaccurate.

A collection of emails set against thousands of databases of scientific research does not throw the vast scientific consensus on global warming into disarray. First of all, the Climate Research Unit isn’t the only institution in the world analyzing global warming trends, and they have all come to the same conclusion. And the emails have been widely and selectively misinterpreted. The idea of trying to “contain” the Medieval Warming Period means to pin down when it happened, not cover up its existence. The “trick” one researcher mentioned to “hide the decline” doesn’t have to do with a decline in temperature at all, but rather a decline in the reliability of data from tree rings. (The trick was to insert good data.)

It’s worth noting that the one scientist who expressed a wish in the emails to redefine the peer-review process, another scientific cornerstone smeared by the email fallout, and requested that colleagues delete files has resigned. So far there is no evidence of actual wrongdoing. It’s also worth noting that even if the CRU data was thrown out, the estimate of how fast the Earth is warming would only move into a shorter time period – the CRU has some of the most conservative figures.

“In terms of public perceptions, in terms of press release, the implications are clearly very, very big,” said Richard Alley, a renowned climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “But the scientific impact, if you were simply to throw out the CRU, that does not change the evidence for global warming.”

In other words, it’s not really a big deal. So when multiple publications label it “the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” it’s a discredit to science.

To put the idea in context, here are seven genuine scientific scandals in no particular order, in which the scientific community proved the researchers in question screwed up and (usually) condemned them.

Chinese computer chip hoax (2006)– In 2003 computer scientist Chen Jin created a computer chip that could process data for cameras, mobile phones and other electronic devices. Its key selling point – “Made in China” – promised to launch the country into a technological market largely dominated by the West. The whistle-blowers arrived in late 2005. They stated Chen had migrant workers scratch the brand name off foreign chips, inserted his own brand name and then sent the specifications to manufacturers. The government found him guilty of fraud in May 2006. China’s Ministry of Science and Technology pulled the plug on all his projects and politely requested that he return his research funds.

First cloned human stem cells fake (2006)– South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk rose to national hero status in May 2005 when he published a paper claiming to have successfully cloned human embryos. The celebrity frenzy lasted for months, when it seemed that therapeutic cloning had reached a much-needed breakthrough and scientists could finally get down to the miracle business of making the lame walk. Then half a year later, Hwang’s own countrymen led the way in revealing that the evidence was fake. The fall was hard, but not without warning. A few months earlier it had come out that he had also committed some serious breaches in medical ethics by using stem cells from his own research team or paid donors.

Miracle cure for aging (2008) – Kim Tae Kook once told reporters he hoped to be Korea’s next Hwang Woo-suk. To his credit, that was before Hwang’s fall from grace. But three years later his wish came true. After developing a technology that promised to destroy cancer and reset cell aging, the medical researcher was found guilty of falsifying data on two papers when one of his own doctoral students could not replicate his results.

The great pretender (1977-80) – If con men can infiltrate medical research, Elias Alsabti certainly deserves the title. Over the course of three years, the 23-year-old Iraqi hopeful plagiarized dozens of papers by erasing the lead author’s name, inserting his own and sending them to obscure journals. Since there are thousands of journals for medicine alone, his thefts usually went undetected. And the lengthy curriculum vitae, coupled with fake credentials, allowed him to charm his way into multiple U.S. universities. However, a few irate victims – and his utter lack of aptitude for genuine research – got him dismissed from most of them in a matter of months. When the press got hold of the story in the summer of 1980, it spelled the end of his colorful career. Alsabti left Carney Hospital in Boston and escaped legal action. He has not been heard from since.

Prolific deceiver (2005) – In March 2005 University of Vermont Medical School researcher Eric Poehlman pled guilty to falsifying data on not one, but 15, different papers, effectively robbing the NIH of almost $3 million in grants. Many of his other papers were found to be free of false information, but he was still barred from receiving any more federal grants for the rest of his life.

The obedience experiments (1961-1974) – Stanley Milgram wanted to know how far people would take the “just following orders” pretext. In a series of experiments called “obedience to authority” – now a staple of psychology classes everywhere – he told participants to deliver electric shocks to an unseen student in punishment for wrong answers. When the unharmed actor pretended to complain, scream or fall silent, many participants protested and were told they had to continue. Technically Milgram wasn’t doing anything wrong because ethics were not as tightly regulated then, but something such as that would warrant severe censure today. It’s debatable whether the greater scandal was his methodology or his results: Almost two-thirds of the participants went ahead and pressed the switch for the whole 450 volts, thinking they were delivering very real pain.

Supervisors hide fraud from NIH(1983) – John Darsee, a medical researcher at Harvard, was supposed to be testing dogs to study heart attack treatment. When his data came out, it looked too good to be true – and it was. It turned out Darsee had taken data from animals that had never been tested and inexplicably managed to collect two weeks of data in a few hours. Almost as embarrassing were his supervisors’ compassionate instincts to overlook his first offense as a peccadillo. Instead of reporting his initial deception to the NIH, which was funding the research, they conducted their own survey and missed even more of his frauds. When the full truth came out a few months later, Harvard had to refund the NIH more than $120,000.




One response

7 12 2009

“In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” – Galileo Galilei, contrarian astronomer.

“…A collection of emails set against thousands of databases of scientific research does not throw the vast scientific consensus on global warming into disarray… ”

Correct, the emails in and of themselves do not. But let us see where they lead…

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