Science Is Truth Until It Isn’t

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Science cat
Don’t forget to credit my research assistant, Erwin Schrödinger. Image: ScienceLive / Shutterstock

“Trust the science; follow the scientists” has become a familiar refrain during our past year of living dangerously. It is the admonition of world health organisations to shifty politicians; it is good advice for all whose lives have been battered into disruption by Covid-19. But another insidious pandemic has been creeping up on us. The World Health Organization calls it the “infodemic”. It includes those endlessly forwarded emails from ill-informed relatives, social media posts, and sensational videos full of spurious “cures” and malicious lies about the virus and the pandemic. The disinformation isn’t all the work of internet trolls, conspiracy theorists and “alternative” medicine peddlers. Some actual scientists have been caught in acts of deception. These are people who undermine whatever faith the public has left in science, and who sabotage the credibility of their scrupulous colleagues. One of the worst cases of fraud was Dr Andrew Wakefield’s bogus 1998 research paper linking vaccines to autism, which endangered the lives of countless children before it was debunked and its author struck off the UK medical register. In this 700th anniversary year of Dante Alighieri’s death, we should reserve a special place in his Inferno for those who profit from turning the truths of Mother Nature into dangerous lies.

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it,” the physicist Richard Feynman once said in a lecture on scientific method. It’s a noble truth — your theory is wrong if the experiments say so — but given the flaws of human nature, it’s not that simple. Sloppy work or deliberate fraud can make your theory seem correct enough to get published in one prestigious journal, and cited in many others. Scientific theories should follow the Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest”. Yesterday’s cast-off ideas (goodbye, phlogiston) may pave the path to progress, but along the way, there are also some fake signposts pointing in wrong directions.

In the infamous Piltdown Man hoax of 1912, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson presented bone fragments from an English gravel pit to palaeontologists as the fossils of a previously unknown species of early human — a 500,000-year-old “missing link” between ape and homo sapiens. The remains were the crown of a modern human skull fitted to an orangutan jaw with filed-down teeth. But it took 41 years before the forgery was finally proven in 1953, over which time it led palaeontology down many false pathways and time-wasting controversies.

Now, the Covid-19 pandemic is again testing the limits of the research process, and there has been a swell of criticism about scientists publishing hasty papers of poor quality on various aspects of the outbreak. The bulk of such reports would be careless rather than fraudulent. But the new corona-virus pandemic was barely three months old when a genuine cheat raised an ugly head, disguised as Surgisphere, a U.S. healthcare analytics company. The firm’s founder and CEO was Sapan Desai, a shape-shifting genius — he completed a PhD in anatomy and cell biology, and an M.D. degree, by age 27, and shortly after he finished an MBA. He also has a record of shoddy scientific behaviour over many years that would fill a book – or a damning Wikipedia entry. (In 2010, editors flagged the Wikipedia page for possible deletion because they already doubted Desai’s credentials).

Surgisphere raised alarms in May 2020 after it was found that large datasets of Covid-19 patients which it had provided to scientists were wildly unreliable. The data made its way into studies published in two of the world’s most prestigious medical science journals, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine. The reports were sensational –  and widely covered and analysed in the world’s media. They said that patients being tested with chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as possible treatments for Covid-19 were up to five times as likely to have abnormal heart rhythms as other patients, and were at higher risk of dying. The World Health Organization halted global trials of the anti-malaria drug as a treatment for the coronavirus. Another “very stable genius” in the White House further boosted this obscure drug’s infamy by touting it as a cure for Covid-19.

Scientists and science journalists quickly found that the data cited in the reports contained impossibly high numbers of cases. For some countries, they were larger than the official numbers of cases or deaths. The Guardian and The Scientist reported being unable to find any hospital that had contributed to Surgisphere’s registry. The Lancet and The New England Journal retracted the studies and Richard Horton, the Lancet editor, said the report was a fabrication and “a monumental fraud”. It was a notable (but not laudable) achievement for Surgisphere to have two illustrious journals simultaneously print, then retract, reports based on its fake data. A 2004 publication of Desai’s was reexamined in 2020 and showed data manipulation in photographs. A New York Times expose said he had been an unreliable physician and quoted a chief resident from Duke University, where Desai worked in 2006 as a general surgeon: “You couldn’t trust what he said. You would verify everything that he did and take everything he did with a grain of salt.”

There could scarcely be a worse time to foist fraudulent science on the public than during a pandemic. Science occasionally gets to take centre-stage in the world’s mainstream media — moon landings, giant tsunamis, global pandemics. That’s when the scientists get a golden opportunity to impress and dazzle, to educate jaded, cynical and inattentive people on the beauty of scientific truth and the benefits of scientific endeavour. While 99.9 percent of dedicated scientists relish such moments, it takes only one sleazy fraud like Sapan Desai to rip the stage floorboards from under his colleagues’ feet. The conspirators and trolls hoot with glee: “We knew it! Fake science. Fake moon landings. Fake pandemic.” Or worse, a killer virus was manufactured in a secret government laboratory.

Andrew Wakefield was at a different level as a scientific fraudster two decades ago. He almost single-handedly created the scourge of the anti-vaccination movement, putting at risk the lives of tens of thousands of children whose parents swallowed his lies. Katherine Pandora, Associate Professor for the History of Science at Oklahoma University, told the popular technology magazine Gizmodo last year: “I would nominate the opportunistic research articles by Andrew Wakefield and his twelve co-authors that claimed that the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine was linked with the development of autism as the biggest fraud of the last 50 years”. The Lancet was again the unlucky journal that had to retract Wakefield’s research, but not before the public damage was done.

But in the same article, Robert Proctor, a professor of Pulmonary Medicine at Stanford University, made a more compelling case for the “greatest scientific fraud”. The villain of his piece was the Council for Tobacco Research. From 1954 onwards the CTR was the tool of Big Tobacco’s campaign against evidence that cigarettes kill. Clarence Cook Little, its chief scientist, notoriously promoted cigarette-friendly science, securing millions of dollars in cash for compliant researchers. Little was also a lifelong proponent of the fascist pseudo-science of eugenics. Scholars at the world’s top universities should hang their heads in eternal shame for enabling the deception of such a charlatan. “Twenty-seven Nobel laureates took money from Big Tobacco, and every major university was showered with cash,” Proctor told Gizmodo.

Proctor agrees with many other scientists that the tobacco deception was the greatest because it developed a methodology for a particular type of scientific fraud. “Big Carbon today claims that ‘we need more research’ to find out whether the climate is warming, and that’s a trick learned from Big Tobacco. Countless other polluters have learned: hire scholars to deny, delay, and distract. Then call for ‘more research’ to explore ‘both sides’ of their fabricated controversy … It would be hard to name a more deadly scientific fraud, and for that reason, we can rank the CTR’s ‘the greatest'”.

Such notorious cases are the apex of the known pyramid of fraud, the ones that make scientists in the same field blush with shame when they are mentioned. But how big is the pyramid and can it blot out the horizon of honest research? One measure of the problem is the number of papers retracted by peer review journals. The retraction of erroneous articles corrects scientific literature and also illuminates the scientific process. Aside from the more severe retractions like those mentioned above, the rising frequency of recalls is a growing concern. In 2012, Ferric C. Fang of Washington University School of Medicine and two co-authors published a study titled Misconduct Accounts for the Majority of Retracted Scientific Publications. Fang searched PubMed, an American database that referenced more than 25 million articles, mainly biomedical research, published since the 1940s. He identified 2,047 retracted articles, the earliest published in 1973 and retracted in 1977. His report stated:

“A detailed review of all 2,047 biomedical and life-science research articles … revealed that only 21.3 percent of retractions were attributable to error. In contrast, 67.4 percent were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4 percent), duplicate publication (14.2 percent), and plagiarism (9.8 percent). Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retraction announcements have led to a previous underestimation of the role of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased 10-fold since 1975. Retractions exhibit distinctive temporal and geographic patterns that may reveal underlying causes.”

It’s a shocking reevaluation for us non-scientists who have kept our faith in the general honesty of scientific research, regardless of a few news-grabbing bad apples. The retracted articles Fang studied were authored in 56 countries and there was some interesting geographic — or perhaps cultural — variation. America, Germany, Japan, and China accounted for three-quarters of retractions because of fraud. China and India collectively had more plagiarism cases than the U.S. (Fang’s paper suggested that most fraudulent articles occurred in countries with long research traditions — U.S., Germany, Japan — and these are problematic for high-impact journals. Plagiarism and duplicate publication seem to happen in countries that lack such a long research tradition and tend to appear in lower-impact journals).

Fraud in biological and medical research may be more worrying in our pandemic times. Still, no scientific era or discipline has been spared from the plague of human hubris, greed or self-importance that seems to motivate the fraudsters. The road to fame, rewards and fortune is hard in any profession, and the temptation to find a handy shortcut visits us all. For the cheating researcher, the shortcut can only lead to a cliff edge at the end of a once-promising career. And some people never learn. In physics, the immutable law of energy conservation has attracted the attention of many fakirs who claimed to have broken it. The prize here is perpetual motion, or the ability to do work without expending an equivalent amount of energy.

John Keely with his "perpetual motion" engine, 1895.
John Keely with his “perpetual motion” engine, 1895.

At the end of the 19th century, a Kansas man named John Keeley spent more than twenty years persuading the public that he had discovered a previously unknown mysterious force he used in his laboratories to run a machine, the Keeley motor. He was always just on the point of perfecting it so he could put it to practical use. For a quarter of a century, New York businessmen would visit his laboratory to see the Keeley motor buzzing away without any apparent energy expenditure. He secured substantial investments for continuing research, including money from the famous magnate John Jacob Astor. After Keeley died in 1898, an investigation of the laboratory revealed that the “new force” was ordinary compressed air in tubes concealed beneath the floor and pumped secretly to the “perpetual” engine. Ah, well, we may sigh, that was the 19th century — technology was new, and folks were gullible.

We can glide gently over the great “cold fusion” saga of 1989, pausing only to wonder if those guys are still around. A few are, but it is a pariah field, cast out into the scientific wilderness. Sorry, there’s no cheap nuclear power in a glass on a tabletop coming any time soon, or ever. So, mindful of Keeley, we come to August 2006, in Dublin, Ireland. A small, private technology company named Steorn Ltd. announces that it has developed a technology to provide “free, clean, and constant energy,” via an apparent perpetual motion machine. Here we go again. Steorn placed an ad in The Economist saying that eight independent scientists had validated their technology, named Orbo.  None of the scientists would talk to the media because “they did not want to become embroiled in a controversy.” So who’s going to fall for that in the 21st century — every high-school pupil in Ireland knows that the law of conservation of energy is an unbreakable principle of science. And yet, the company’s finances showed incoming investments of €3 million. In 2006, Steorn secured €8 million in loans from a range of investors to continue their research. Yes, it was the reincarnation of the Keeley motor — not the one that ran on zero energy, but the one that pumped suckers’ euros into “further research” to validate the free-energy claim. Steorn didn’t quite make it to Keeley’s 20 years of scamming, but it was still 2016 before its CEO Shaun McCarthy quit, telling shareholders that it had “failed to meet expectations”. After acquiring €23 million of investment over ten years, Steorn fired its staff and closed its doors.

No religion can claim all its priests are holy, so it’s probably not surprising that science can’t claim all its researchers are pure of heart. In most examples of scientific fraud, “follow the money” seems to answer the question “why?” For scientists lured to do fraudulent research for tobacco, energy or perpetual-motion companies, the capitalist money bags loom large – if not for direct personal gain, then at least for nice laboratories and tenured career paths at desirable universities. In these challenging times for higher education, science remains a career-driven field. A good reputation brings support and funding, and reputation is still built on that old cliché, “publish or perish”. Therein lies the constant temptation for a struggling or fame-seeking researcher to maybe tweak the data a little.

A vital principle of the scientific method is the replication of research results. To paraphrase Feynman, if the experiment can’t be repeated, it can’t be correct. But in many fields, results can be difficult to reproduce accurately. A researcher may falsify data and not be caught, and they can plead innocence if their results don’t mesh with others in the field. When a scientific paper is reviewed, no one visits the laboratory to check how the work was done – a degree of trust is assumed. False data are usually uncovered if no one else can repeat the experiments and there is no evidence for the authors’ claims.  Theories or hypotheses must be verifiable to stand the test of time and that is an important bastion of scientific truth.

Most scientists, like most people, are honest, but “most” may not be good enough. The world is now facing the unprecedented devastation of climate change, species extinctions and new viruses. It is no time for the public to be harbouring doubts about scientific research. This is a public that must pressure its leaders in every country to act in defence of humanity’s future, and an apathetic or cynical public will only accelerate the future’s problems. So, Scientific Community, you might want to consider a collective rethink on how you police your researchers, especially with the evidence that things are deteriorating on the integrity front. Methods to detect deception appear woefully inadequate. The very future of the planet may depend on scientific research being taken seriously and acted upon. It might be a good time to call for some real science police.