Researchers Aware of/Complicit in Data Falsification

An article on faked science research just came to my attention. I read, and write about, research in a number of scientific fields. This week I completed a multi-million-dollar proposal involving ophthalmology and cancer; next week it’s neurology.

And of course, my readers here know of my decades-long interest in climate research. I lived through, and watched with interest, the transition from “the coming ice age” scare back in the 1970s to the “catastrophic global warming” of the 1990s, which (due to failures of prediction) has now become “climate change” of the 2010s.
Since climate is always changing, this most recent name seemed safe enough to the political powers and scientists who suggested it. The same emails in which the few core scientists strategized on marketing also revealed their selective reporting of data, manipulation, falsification, and people working hard to make certain that no one not part of the climate cabal was able to get their own research into peer-reviewed journals. It’s pretty disgusting, and a relatively small number of scientists have convinced a much larger number that they’re right (hence the “consensus”) — plus, their money and careers depend upon them reaching correct results.

That effect is one I deal with every day. If your results are against the official party line, you’d better not even mention them. You won’t get funded, and if you even talk about them you can lose your university’s support: you’re looking for trouble.

Since the evidence for these scientists’ misbehavior is so clear — they brag about this stuff in the Climategate emails — you could easily wonder how common the problem is in other fields. As it turns out, it may be very common. My current research project in ophthalmology bumped into a paper on Resveratrol which led to a side-investigation and surprising results. When I encountered a series of pulled papers, I finally wound up at this LA Times article. Some excerpts:

A University of Connecticut researcher who worked on the health benefits of a chemical in red wine fabricated data in 145 separate research projects, a three-year investigation has found.
But Healy has also written about the hype around resveratrol. “The marketing frenzy surrounding resveratrol is a prime example of how science can be distorted when it is mingled with hope, amplified for buzz and spun for profit,” she wrote in a 2009 piece that took a critical look at the relative lack of solid science surrounding the antioxidant.

Those same pressures to market successful results also seem to appear during the process of the actual research.

“If you are blatantly honest about your failures, you will get nowhere,” David Rowe, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine and Skeletal Development at the university’s health center, told the Boston Herald. “The fact is that reviewing agencies want success. Therefore you spin your data in the most favorable way. That’s where the dangers begin to come – that you spin it a little more than you can justify and then one thing leads to another. It’s a very mushy, very fuzzy line.”
In a study to be published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 psychologists and found that many said they had engaged in potentially unsavory practices, including selectively reporting studies that ‘worked’ (50%) and yes, even outright falsification of data (1.7%).

This is significant. Half of all these scientists were willing to answer a survey indicating that they had cherry-picked what information to show. There’s a cartoon from the grant-writing business:
Negative data

Unlike Stapel’s case, however, there appear to be several researchers who were aware, and even complicit, in the faking of data in Das’ studies.

This was clearly the case in the Climategate fraud. Some of the scientists in the emails were unhappy, even angry, about what was being done to the data. But even they ultimately went along — and as we’ve seen from the laughable “exonerations” at Penn State and in the UK, their bosses and paymasters had no problem with the process as long as they produce the politically desired results.

Even getting caught — which should have caused officials in governments to distance themselves from this behavior — didn’t faze those governments. They were happy, for example, to explain that a man who admitted violating the Freedom of Information law (by deleting evidence requested under it), didn’t do it. They solved this crime by asking him if he had done anything wrong. He said he hadn’t: case closed.  They did not mention then evidence in which he admitted his crime.

Imagine if the resveratrol business were a multi-trillion dollar, politically powered business like the catastrophic climate change folks. These same LA Times writers would be defending these papers, explaining them away, and attacking anyone who disagreed.

The proper behavior of science, and the core concept of the scientific method, have led to tremendous advances in understanding our world. Normally, science is self-correcting: If other scientists cannot reproduce your work, this becomes widely known and your results get replaced.

That effect is being hampered … by money. Even in non-political areas, grant funding has no interest in repeating experiments that have already been done — the work is not ‘novel’ nor ‘innovative’ they say — and many times the scientists whose work is challenged are sitting on the grant review boards deciding what gets funded.  (I’ve just written a proposal knowing that one of the reviewers will be annoyed at the implicit challenge to his work — and I’ve tried to phrase it as positively toward him as I could. It might work — and represents a major advance.)

But in the Catastrophic Climate Change business, the problem is gigantic. The US is cooler in the 2010s than it was in the 1930s, so their job is to convince us that:

  • this is not true in the rest of the world, which kept poorer records of the 1930s
  • the 1930s were really cooler, once the data has been retroactively adjusted downward
  • other effects of carbon dioxide are catastrophic independent of temperature
  • the powerful CO2-fueled increase in plant growth that feeds billions is somehow bad
  • smog — aerosols — alternately heat or cool the atmosphere as needed to suit the politically needed theory
  • and something — methane or some new effect of catastrophic climate change — will be trotted out.

Reports like the ones mentioned in this article expose a bit of the problem with science as currently practiced. But even these authors would be quick to say that this has absolutely nothing to do with climate science.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle