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I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing that ever interfered with my learning was my education. I am Freeman Dyson, and I approve of this blog, but would warn the author that life as a heretic is a hard one, since the ignorant and the half informed, let alone those who should know better, will automatically trash their betters who try to enlighten them with independent thinking, as I have found to my sorrow in commenting on "global warming" and its cures.
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Calling Peter Falk – Colombo needed as a peer reviewer

Spotting misleading science demands a certain detective’s skills

The Times’ Gina Kolata has sensibly pursued the question of how the peer reviewers for Science can have given the thumbs-up to such a misleading article as Dr Hwang’s account in May of an easy way to obtain stem cells from embryos.

Her article today (Sun Dec 18) is a news item on how “A Cloning Scandal Rocks a Pillar of Science Publishing”, recording the excuses offered by the editors of Science for the debacle.

The reviewers comment on the paper and also assess its quality, checking off boxes ranging from “reject” to “publish without delay.” About 25 percent of those reviewed end up being published. But the reviewers are not the science police, Ms. Bradford and outside scientists emphasized.

“We work on the assumption that the data are real,” Ms. Bradford said. “The question is, Do the data support the conclusions?”

But is this good enough? The problem here, as we understand it, is that of the 11 lines of stem cells cloned, some of the photographs were exactly the same, ie did not substantiate the claimed 11 different lines. That one reputable scientist might have misled reviewers is not as worrying as the fact that the reviewers did not notice obvious defects in the photographic evidence.

“What we do not understand is how one person could have hoaxed all 24 of the collaborators on the papers – all of whom seemed eager to claim the work as ‘our’ work at the time,” Dr. Zoloth said. “Did we see only what we yearned to see?”

In other words, the familiar phenomenon which contravenes the vital principle of science, which is that those practicing the vocation make it their first duty to check themselves and their perceptions for bias arising from wish-fulfilment, self-interest, or any other prejudice. Science after all is an objective practice, not a subjective art, which is why it is based on reproducible experiment and measurement by instruments and not subjective evaluation.

But anyway we think that the underlying problem is another one only hinted at in the account of the misery at Science, and among those watching with horror from elsewhere in the field as things unravel. It is the natural tendency for decent human beings to trust their colleagues in a field not to let them down.

But Dr. Hwang also held a news conference on Friday in which he insisted that the data were correct. And Dr. Schatten, in a telephone interview on Wednesday, did not really distance himself from Dr. Hwang, whom he had previously introduced as his best friend, or from the results.

“I still remain totally optimistic and convinced about all of this,” Dr. Schatten said. “I’m optimistic that at some point, I hope sooner than later, this is brought to a satisfactory conclusion that I think will be constructive for everyone including the man I still think of as my best friend.”

As Dr Hwang continues to deny there is any problem with the data, although he is withdrawing the paper, Dr. Schatten continues to emphasize his trusting relationship with him, though he probably knows that things will turn out to be as bad as they look now.

This is very natural behavior, arising from the need to affirm the virtue of confidence in colleagues, the collegiality of good science politics, and the desire to save the face of colleagues in public.

Unfortunately, these very decent and understandable characteristics of the kind of person one wants to work with may be inappropriate when pursuing scientific truth. Probably good science demands the investigative style of Peter Falk’s famous television crime mystery role as Columbo, in the long running series of the same name.

When Lieutenant Columbo investigates a crime perpetrated by a celebrity or other prominent person (the culprit is always at the top of his or her field) he is always civil and self-deprecating, a posture symbolized by his grubby raincoat and aging auto. But he is also always entirely uninfluenced by the fame and reputation of his target.

Seems to us the same attitude has to be adopted by peer reviewers in science if these kind of embarrassing confidence tricks are to be avoided in the future.

Such objectivity would also help in assessing the reviews of established paradigms, as in the many cases where the challenger is young and is reflexively poo pooed by reviewers and prevented from publishing, only to win the Nobel in the end.

In science after all it is not the credentials, or clubbiness of the claimant which determines the value of a new claim, but the argument and the evidence, which should be objectively assessed. Cosy collegiality should be reserved for the faculty club lunches and conference dinners where scientists bond, enhancing their cooperation and their careers, but kept out of their evaluations of scientific papers.

But of course the chances of that happening are probably minimal, given human nature. Possibly the answer is to include scientists from another field among the peer reviewers, or something similar.

Maybe someone at Science should give Peter Falk a call.

(show)

The New York Times

December 18, 2005

A Cloning Scandal Rocks a Pillar of Science Publishing

By GINA KOLATA

Science magazine has seen its share of controversies over the years: papers questioned and withdrawn and occasional accusations of scientific fraud. But none of those incidents, says Science’s executive editor, Monica M. Bradford, can compare to the turmoil that has been shaking the magazine for the last month.

It involves a dazzling paper in which South Korean scientists announced not only that they had produced cloned human embryos and extracted their stem cells but that they had done so with such efficiency that it seemed almost easy.

The publication of that paper, celebrated by Science with great fanfare on May 19, has now turned into a debacle. And the mood in Science’s editorial offices on the 10th floor of a gray marble office building in Washington has gone from elation to distress and exhaustion.

On Friday, Science announced that that paper was in the process of being withdrawn. In the meantime, investigations continue into what actually happened at the South Korean research labs and where the truth lies.

“This has become so dramatic,” Ms. Bradford said, saying she could think of no precedent at the journal. “In a sense it has been unlike anything else.”

For Science, the chain of events began on Tuesday, March 15, when the manuscript arrived by e-mail. It was clearly a high-profile paper, and its lead author, Hwang Woo Suk of Seoul National University, was known at the journal.

He had published a previous paper in Science, on Feb. 12, 2004, announcing that he had, with great difficulty, cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells.

Still, Science put this latest paper from Dr. Hwang’s lab through the same process it put the nearly 12,000 other papers received this year, Ms. Bradford said.

Papers are sent to one or two outside experts on the journal’s board of reviewing editors who advise on whether they are appropriate for Science magazine. Seventy percent of submitted papers are rejected. The others are sent to at least two additional scientists for in-depth review.

The reviewers comment on the paper and also assess its quality, checking off boxes ranging from “reject” to “publish without delay.” About 25 percent of those reviewed end up being published. But the reviewers are not the science police, Ms. Bradford and outside scientists emphasized.

“We work on the assumption that the data are real,” Ms. Bradford said. “The question is, Do the data support the conclusions?”

On May 12, after having passed scrutiny by three outside reviewers, Dr. Hwang’s paper was accepted for publication, faster than the journal’s average time from submission to acceptance, which is about three months.

When the paper appeared May 19, it met with enormous acclaim. Dr. Hwang traveled the world lecturing on his work and scientists trekked to South Korea to visit the lab and see how the feat was accomplished.

The first hints that something might not be right came in November. By Dec. 9, Ms. Bradford and her colleagues – Katrina L. Kelner, the deputy editor, who has an office next door; another editor, working from another city, whom Ms. Bradford would not identify; and the editor in chief, Donald Kennedy, who is at Stanford – were trying to get some answers.

As the weeks passed, Dr. Hwang, was hospitalized for stress but insisted that his group had really cloned human embryos and created 11 lines of stem cells, as his paper reported. But one of his co-authors, Dr. Roh Sung Il, said the data were fraudulent.

One question was whether photographs, described in the paper as being stem cells derived from cloned human embryos, were frauds. Dr. Roh said they were actually from a large computer file of stem cells and not derived from cloning experiments.

Another question involved the veracity of the DNA fingerprints in the Science paper that were used to show that a stem cell was genetically identical to a person who provided cells for cloning.

“We sent a series of questions to the authors,” Ms. Bradford said. “How did this high resolution image get put together? Look at all your images. Go through your data. The same with the DNA fingerprinting: go through your data. What are your answers?”

But despite repeated calls and e-mail messages to South Korea, Ms. Bradford said Thursday, “We haven’t gotten any answers yet.”

All along, Science’s news department, a group of journalists at the magazine, was kept separate from the editorial investigation.

Colin Norman, Science’s news editor, said the editors on the editorial side “tell us when something is going to be released to the press, but not much more.” In fact, he said, “I only know what I’m reading in the press at the moment, which is pretty amazing.”

The story continues, with its twists and turns. On Dec. 12, the one American author on the paper, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, asked that his name be taken off and his university began an inquiry. On Friday, Dr. Schatten and Dr. Hwang told Science they wished to retract the paper.

But Dr. Hwang also held a news conference on Friday in which he insisted that the data were correct. And Dr. Schatten, in a telephone interview on Wednesday, did not really distance himself from Dr. Hwang, whom he had previously introduced as his best friend, or from the results.

“I still remain totally optimistic and convinced about all of this,” Dr. Schatten said. “I’m optimistic that at some point, I hope sooner than later, this is brought to a satisfactory conclusion that I think will be constructive for everyone including the man I still think of as my best friend.”

Dr. Kennedy said in news conference by telephone on Friday afternoon, “As of now we can’t reach any conclusions with respect to misconduct issues.” He also said that as of now the journal’s editors did not know the exact reasons that Dr. Schatten and Dr. Hwang asked that the paper be withdrawn.

If the paper is withdrawn, Dr. Kennedy said, “There will have to be a retraction statement, and it will have to contain more than we now know about the authors’ reasons for retracting it.”

He added, “I can’t state chapter and verse, but it is more than we have gotten now.”

Dr. Hwang and Dr. Schatten were the only 2 of the paper’s 25 authors who asked that it be retracted, Dr. Kennedy said. Ordinarily, Science requires each one of a paper’s authors to sign a statement agreeing to a retraction. Ms. Bradford said that despite quite a bit of effort, she and her colleagues had been unable to get even e-mail addresses for all of the authors. But Dr. Kennedy said Dr. Hwang was trying to reach the members of his group.

Meanwhile, stem cell scientists and ethicists continue to follow the story with what Laurie Zoloth, an ethicist at Northwestern University, describes as “a kind of collective mesmerized despair,” and some troubling questions.

“What we do not understand is how one person could have hoaxed all 24 of the collaborators on the papers – all of whom seemed eager to claim the work as ‘our’ work at the time,” Dr. Zoloth said. “Did we see only what we yearned to see?”

* Copyright 2005The New York Times Company

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