Thursday, December 29, 2005

All stem cell lines were fabricated

All - not just nine - of Hwang Woo-Suk's eleven stem cell lines were fabricated, a panel of Seoul National University concluded today.
It is still plausible that Hwang's team has successfully cloned a human embryo and the Afghan hound. And Hwang still claims to have developed a technology to build the stem cell lines although he is no longer a trustworthy source. However, the apparent failure to have actually produced the patient-specific stem cell lines implies that a realistic application of these biotechnologies in medicine may be decades (or infinitely far) away.

Moreover, the Washington Post claims that the Korean government has probably bribed some scientists - potential whistleblowers - in order to protect the non-existent good name of Korean biology in the international context.

Some people argue that the whole science will suffer as a consequence of this scandal. I don't buy these worries. If someone criticizes the work of the Korean scientists; as well as the work of their colleagues everywhere in the world who could not figure out what was going on; as well as the work of the journalists who inflated this research into a sensation; as well as the editors of the journals and the Korean government officials who have paid a lot of money without proper checks and balances - I am convinced that at least 90% of this criticism is justified.

People will keep on trying to develop these technologies that could be used to cure many diseases because the potential benefits are huge. They will do so in many countries (and many states) that don't ban this research. I am not afraid that the research will collapse. And the scientists will no longer be viewed as innocent angels. This is very correct. The scientists may be smart and they can work a lot, but they can still share vices with ordinary, mortal human beings. The real science and the ideal science are two different things. For example, many colleagues of ours care about the money far too much. Hwang et al. received 60 million dollars or so. This is not a formality. Many of us would be, unfortunately, ready to improve the results in order to get this money.

It is very important to know that an article published in Science or Nature does not have to be correct. A scientist identified as a top scientist by the Scientific American may be a bubble of fraud. Whenever there is a lot of money at stake, the probability that something is fraud increases. The fields with huge potential applications - in medicine or politics of "climate change" - are the first ones where fraud should be expected and where efficient mechanisms to prevent such fraud should be developed.

Recall that in November, we discussed why Most published findings are false. It was explained that a paper is more likely to be wrong if the field is hot, if the financial stakes are high, if the sample size is small, and if a small fraction of relationships is tested. Hwang's research fits into a large portion of these criteria - so it should have been expected that it was not right.

The work of reviewers is usually not paid at all and it turned out to be quite inefficient in dividing good stuff from bad stuff. Maybe these guys eventually find out that submitting their work to the arXiv is as good as publishing things in Nature and Science. However, new policies to avoid similar fraudulent research in the future will be required, I think.


  1. Yes, scientists are fallable human beings like everybody else. Consequently the vast majority are perfectly honest, decent human beings. The real danger lies at the very apex of the pyramid of success, as it does in any profession. Human beings -- especially alpha males in whatever field -- are status seeking animals; it is deeply programmed in our genes precisely because it attracts more opportunities to to breed, even though the individual concerned may be quite unconcious of what is driving him.

    In this connection I find it amusing that some top scientists say or secretly hope they will achieve immortality in their field; as if immortality could possible be worth a flip once you are gone. When you die, not only you, but the whole world disappears. Even the civilization to which you belong is destined to pass away in a mere blip of cosmic time.

    As Lincoln used to say, "Why should the spirit of a mortal be proud." The best reason to do good work in any field is for the sheer enjoyment of the thing itself, even if fame and recognition afford a certain pleasure too, at least while you are alive.

  2. In the science research circle, while out-right fabrication of data like in this particular case are still rare, scientific dishonesty of various degrees is nevertheless widespread.

    This fact is reflected in the cold fusion affair some years ago. All of a sudden out of no where a couple hundred groups all reported the same "successful" result which was later questioned. Had these folks be a little bit more honest in maintaining a healthy skepticism regarding their own result, they wouldn't be reporting something that does not factually exist. The end result was the first group who reported the fake result was dis-credited, but not punished, and nothing bad happened to any of the several hundred followers. Was the false result intentional data fabrication, or just "honest"(e.g., dishonest) mistake of unintentional bias? Who knows. But what's being questioned here is scientific honesty itself.

    What is worth noting is in this particular case, it was only exposed because of an inside whistle blower, not because any of the researchers being skeptical or questioning their result. No such outsider skepticism was ever exhibited. And predictably, had it been questioned by an outsider and eventually been shown to be wrong, the worst that could happen to Hwang would be he would be discredited but not punished, because no one knows whether it was outrageous data fablication or "honest" mistake, and no one has the interest to push for an investigation to find out the truth. That's the sad reality of today's science research community.

    Theoretical researchers like super string theorists do not do experiments, so they do not have the opportunity to fablicate data. But that does not mean that they do not have opportunity to be dishonesty. Quite on the opposite, these people behave in an utter dishonest way in all opportunities, knowing full well they do not have the danger of being caught fablicating any data, and thus they hold a license to be immune from any punishment for being dishonest.

    The CSL-1 affair is a good example. The super string community is so over joyed at the news of the CSL-1 because it fits their own agenda, that you being to see bold titles like "SUPER STRING THEORY HAS EXPERIMENTAL PROOF" or things like that. Any one being a little bit honest would recognize that the double imagery in CSL-1 are way much more likely to be just instrumental or random data anormality, like a bird shit on the telescope, rather than any new physics. But no string theorist exibit such honest skepticism. Every one hauled as if it's a proven experimental fact.

    If these folks can be a little bit more honest with themselves, they should begin to question whether it is a good idea to continue to waste their lifetime pursuing a dead end which is unlikely leading to any where, and which very likely will be shown to be totaly irrelevant to physics by future generations of researchers, or maybe it is better to work on something more useful, or are they only in this business just to make a living or make a fame? Be honest with your life, because you are the only one to stand to lose if you don't.


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