Questions To Ask Scientific Authority

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The attention
of the media and the scientific and medical community has recently
been focused on the fraud committed by South Korean scientist Hwang
Woo-suk
, who claimed to have created human cells from cloned
embryos.

Less attention
has centered on Miodrag
Stojkovic
, the scientist who was instrumental in cloning the
first human embryo in Britain. Stojkovic recently resigned from
his celebrated post at Newcastle University. Now doing research
in Spain, he is leveling accusations of scientific impropriety toward
former colleagues.

Stem cell research
may be the most sensational and explosive scientific development
of recent years. But the most heralded breakthrough was a massive
fraud; another has prompted a pioneering scientist to cry “foul.”
It becomes important to remember the admonition, “Question Authority.”

Medical research
is an arcane mystery to lay people, like me, who must rely to an
uncomfortable degree upon expert opinions. We live under the medical
and political policies that can often proceed from research.

Our hopes hinge
on technologies like stem cell research – which may point to
cures for diabetes or Alzheimer’s Disease. Our fear creates opportunities
for modern versions of snake-oil remedies: for example, the “genetic
tests” sold
on the Internet
which allegedly measure the risk of developing
diseases but which scientists call a “waste of money.”

Ideally, an
educated media asks the skeptical questions that protect public
interest. That ideal is rare. And, so, “Question Authority” becomes
personal responsibility. But which questions should be asked?

The facts of
the two controversies provide some guidance.

Hwang was a
case of outright fraud but Stojkovic’s research has not been discredited.
Rather, his allegations concern misconduct in how research has been
credited and presented. One criticism: the university ignored sound
scientific practice by announcing a breakthrough to the press before
peer review had been conducted. The timing seemed designed to steal
publicity from the then-lauded Hwang whose paper hit the press at
the same moment.

The respected
weekly journal of science Nature responded with a June 2,
2005 editorial
entitled “Too much, too soon: How not to promote your latest research
findings in the media.” Key to Nature’s condemnation was
the fact that a “full research paper is kept confidential until
it is accepted and published” which meant that the media did not
have access either to the Newcastle team’s data or to an informed
review. They were merely given conclusions with which to run.

Stojkovic,
who co-operated with the press announcement, now claims to have
been blindsided by the university.

Whatever the
truth, common sense questions should be asked Hwang, the Newcastle
team and every other researcher.

The first question
pertains to the nature of any claim. Are the results “statistical,”
or do they proceed from an unambiguous "yes/no" experiment?

Statistical
results generally involve observing data from which correlations
can be drawn to indicate possible cause-and-effect. An example is
the much-acclaimed research on mouth cancer for which Dr.
Jon Sudbo
of the Norwegian Radium Hospital observed a database
of 908 participants. Sudbo has admitted
to fabricating
his database. Many questions addressed to statistical
studies involve little more than closely analyzing the specifics
of the data. For example, when 250 of the 908 people studied by
Sudbo shared the same birth date, a red flag should have fluttered.

Results, such
as those claimed by Hwang and the Newcastle team, are “yes/no.”
That is to say, the cells and embryos were either cloned in the
manner indicated, or not. The questions addressed to “yes/no” experiments
may be more fundamental than those addressed to statistical claims
but all research should be able to answer them. Those questions
include:

  • Is the report,
    including all data and methodology, available for examination?
    If not, then the researcher is asking you to accept his word for
    the findings.
  • What is
    the researcher’s reputation? More credibility should be accorded
    to the claims of a scientist with a sound track record than to
    an unknown factor who comes out of nowhere.
  • Who funds
    the research? A questionable source of money does not invalidate
    research but public skepticism should sharpen if the funder stands
    to profit from a specific finding and, indeed, that finding results.
  • Have the
    findings been independently verified? Claims should be sufficiently
    documented to allow replication. (Unfortunately non-scientific
    concerns, like patents, sometimes interfere with disclosure.)
  • Does the
    claim contradict previous data? A breakthrough that achieves a
    difficult result is qualitatively different than one that achieves
    a result previously believed impossible. A "paradigm shift"
    demands a high degree of proof because it involves invalidating
    previous findings.
  • Does the
    claim include policy recommendations or changes in law? Research
    that includes a political agenda is more likely to express the
    researcher’s personal beliefs than work that merely states data
    and findings.
  • What is
    the response of the scientific community?
  • Where was
    the research published? The differing levels of prestige for scientific
    journals has been quantified in terms of their “impact
    factor.”
    If a researcher publishes in a low-impact journal,
    then asking "why" becomes appropriate.

The preceding
questions do not guarantee that fraudulent or incompetent work will
be detected. For example, Hwang’s work was heralded by the prestigious
Science.
Sudbo’s work was published in both the New England Journal of
Medicine, in April 2004, and the Journal of Clinical Oncology,
in March 2005. The scientific community, like the media, is simply
not doing its job.

Thus, asking
these questions becomes more necessary. The claims of scientific
authority should receive the same skepticism that usually greets
similarly bold claims of political authority. Both impact your life
and are your business.

February
3, 2006

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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