Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

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Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

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blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.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 ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

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Dr Hwang busted as having cloned only a dog named Snuppy

Nine other scientists barred from fleeing

A Seoul National University panel report today says the handsome Dr Hwang didn’t clone any human embryo, just a dog, and Hwang and nine colleagues are banned from leaving the country until Korean prosecutors can investigate their culpability for this fiasco.

According to Researcher Faked Evidence of Human Cloning, Koreans Report by Nicholas Wade and Choe Sang-Hun in the New York Times


The finding strips any possibility of legitimate achievement in human cell cloning from a researcher who had been propelled to international celebrity and whose promise to make paralyzed people walk had been engraved on a Korean postage stamp.

In his string of splashy papers, his one legitimate claim was to have cloned the dog he named Snuppy, the panel said.

This hasn’t deterred a crowd of 150 supporters from gathering and hanging banners from trees.

Dr. Hwang still has public support. Last night 150 people festooned trees and shrubs at the gate of Seoul National University with strips of yellow, blue and green cloth. Banners that were hung between the trees showed the Korean flag and slogans such as “The Pride of Korea” or “Biotechnology is Our Future.”

Meanwhile the special stamp issued in his honor presumably is rocketing in price.

The farce once again draws attention to the fallibility of the peer review process, in this case at Science. If the cultural and language barrier was a problem, perhaps a special effort should have been made to ensure that it was penetrated. The New York Times evidently gets such help for Nicholas Wade when needed, judging from the byline to the article.

Part of the problem according to Nicholas Wade in the article was that Hwang appeared to have had his technique so “sewn up” that other leading figures in the field were not motivated to repeat it for themselves.

Dr. Hwang’s escapade may have prevented other researchers entering the field of human cloning because he seemed to have it all sewn up. “I have to admit that I decided not to push the efforts here at Stanford because it would have been almost unethical to work with human eggs if he had made the process so efficient,” said Dr. Irving Weissman, a leading stem cell researcher.

Also, a American prominent in the field was beguiled into being a senior co-author of a paper reporting an experiment he played no part in performing.

Dr. Hwang also enlisted a leading American expert on cloning monkeys, Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, as the senior co-author on his 2005 report, even though Dr. Schatten had done none of the experiments. “Everyone wondered how Schatten got to be the senior co-author, but his vouching for Hwang made it a little more likely,” Dr. Weissman said.

Can the editors and peer reviewers be blamed for being fooled? Some say they were sloppy to overlook the fact that photos in two different papers were identical. It is hard not to agree.


“It sounds as though their processes were rather sloppy,” said Dr. Benjamin Lewin, the founder and former editor of Cell, a biology journal known for its rigor. “At a minimum, Science should have been more careful and should never have reached the stage of publishing a paper with identical photos,” he said, referring to the fact that some photos of cell colonies in Dr. Hwang’s 2005 article were duplicates of one another.

It must be doubly painful for the editor of Science that it was Nature that published the Hwang paper on cloning the puppy, which has apparently stood up under review. But neither journal has a reputation for really rigorous review, it is pointed out.

Dr. Lewin said that a journal editor needed to develop an intimate knowledge of his reviewers’ strengths and weaknesses, and that “Nature and Science don’t have the reputation for rigorous review.”

We can imagine why. The pressures of rivalry between Science and Nature can only add to the burden of reviewing what must be an overwhelming number of submissions these days, with science vastly expanded compared with thirty years ago, and globally competitive to boot. Shades of Derek de Solla Price, the Yale historian of science who was writing more than thirty years ago that the number of scientists alive was greater than all of the scientists who had lived before, and the number of journals and papers were already beyond reason.

But clearly there must be some way of introducing more skepticism into peer review when great claims are made. For as the field of HIV?AIDS also shows, once they are allowed and then are funded by governments the leading members of a field tend to support claims of their peers without thinking much about them. Soon enough they become so firmly established that any critics are run out of town on a rail.

Luckily in this case it was an easy case to crack, because the issue was whether experiments had been done correctly or not. Just as in the case of cold fusion, the fact that experiments had not been done well or in this case not done at all soon emerged, once they were questioned.

The common theme running through all this post facto analysis is that competition rules – it encourages rival journals to race into print without proper review, it lures leading figures into associating themselves with success and endorsing what turns out later to be a fraud, and it makes science a turf war where a Dr Hwang can bluff his way into staking out an area of accomplishment and keeping rivals from it, when he hasn’t actually accomplished the breakthrough.

Science has always been competitive but clearly it is more competitive these days with the media ready to endorse claims with world headlines overnight that will open the doors to millions in funding.

What is obviously needed is a way to referee the game more closely to curb competitive excesses, but apparently no one is working on the problem hard enough to have come up with good suggestions.

Perhaps the existence of the Web will be enough, added to television coverage, as it was in this case, to do the job.

(show)

The New York Times

January 10, 2006

Researcher Faked Evidence of Human Cloning, Koreans Report

By NICHOLAS WADE and CHOE SANG-HUN

Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, the South Korean researcher who claimed to have cloned human cells, fabricated evidence for all of that research, according to a report released today by a Seoul National University panel investigating his work.

The finding strips any possibility of legitimate achievement in human cell cloning from a researcher who had been propelled to international celebrity and whose promise to make paralyzed people walk had been engraved on a Korean postage stamp.

In his string of splashy papers, his one legitimate claim was to have cloned the dog he named Snuppy, the panel said.

“Dr. Hwang’s team cannot avoid taking grave responsibility for fabricating its papers and concealing data,” said Chung Myunghee, the head of the university’s investigatory panel.

Last month the panel said there was no evidence to support Dr. Hwang’s claim of June 2005 to have cloned cells from 11 patients with an efficient new technique using very few human eggs.

But that still left open the possibility that he had gotten the cloning technique to work to some degree, as he wrote in the report first announcing his success in an earlier article of March 2004. The panel has now found the 2004 article was also fabricated, according to wire service reports.

Dr. Hwang’s professional demise is a severe embarrassment for the Korean government, which invested copiously in his laboratory and in making him a national hero. But the blow to Korea’s scientific reputation abroad may be cushioned by the fact that other Korean institutions, notably the television program “PD Notebook” and a group of skeptical young Korean scientists, took the lead in discovering the problems with Dr. Hwang’s work and in eventually forcing today’s investigation by the university.

Dr. Hwang still has public support. Last night 150 people festooned trees and shrubs at the gate of Seoul National University with strips of yellow, blue and green cloth. Banners that were hung between the trees showed the Korean flag and slogans such as “The Pride of Korea” or “Biotechnology is Our Future.”

Korean prosecutors, however, have banned Dr. Hwang and nine other South Korean scientists from leaving the country. They have said they will launch an investigation as soon as the university panel has announced its findings.

As for the field of embryonic stem cells, researchers in the United States say it should not be much affected in the long run, at least on a scientific level, since its theoretical promise is unchanged by one man’s misdeeds.

In practical terms, however, the panel’s new finding is a sharp setback for therapeutic cloning, the much discussed goal of converting a patient’s own cells into new tissue to treat a wide variety of degenerative diseases from diabetes to heart disease. The technique for cloning human cells, which seemed to have been achieved since March 2004, now turns out not to exist at all, forcing cloning researchers back to square one.

The Seoul panel’s finding also raises the question of how an important but fabricated result could survive unchallenged, in a presumably rigorous and competitive scientific field, for almost two years.

Dr. Hwang’s escapade may have prevented other researchers entering the field of human cloning because he seemed to have it all sewn up. “I have to admit that I decided not to push the efforts here at Stanford because it would have been almost unethical to work with human eggs if he had made the process so efficient,” said Dr. Irving Weissman, a leading stem cell researcher.

Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts company that had been active in the human cloning research, said the company’s funding had dried up after Dr. Hwang claimed success in 2004.

One reason Dr. Hwang’s results seemed credible is that he gave lectures in the United States in which he explained each step of his process. “He went through the exact method, telling people how to do it,” Dr. Weissman said. Dr. Hwang also enlisted a leading American expert on cloning monkeys, Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, as the senior co-author on his 2005 report, even though Dr. Schatten had done none of the experiments. “Everyone wondered how Schatten got to be the senior co-author, but his vouching for Hwang made it a little more likely,” Dr. Weissman said.

Scientific journals play an important gatekeeping role in science by screening out fallacious reports. But Dr. Hwang’s two reports on human cloning were published by Science and his claim to have cloned a dog was accepted by Nature, another leading journal and Science’s rival in recruiting important papers. The editors of each journal has said in the Hwang case that the expert reviewers who scrutinize submitted manuscripts cannot be expected to detect fabricated data. Not everyone agrees.

“It sounds as though their processes were rather sloppy,” said Dr. Benjamin Lewin, the founder and former editor of Cell, a biology journal known for its rigor. “At a minimum, Science should have been more careful and should never have reached the stage of publishing a paper with identical photos,” he said, referring to the fact that some photos of cell colonies in Dr. Hwang’s 2005 article were duplicates of one another.

Dr. Lewin said that a journal editor needed to develop an intimate knowledge of his reviewers’ strengths and weaknesses, and that “Nature and Science don’t have the reputation for rigorous review.”

With Dr. Hwang’s professional implosion, the goal of cloning human cells is once again open. Dr. George Daley, of Harvard Medical School, said there was no reason to suppose human cells could not be cloned, despite Dr. Hwang’s failure to do so even with rich funding and copious supplies of human eggs.

Dr. Daley said that two laboratories at Harvard, his own and Dr. Kevin Eggan’s, had been seeking approval for more than a year to clone human cells. Two groups in England are pursuing the same goal, one at Newcastle University and the other led by Ian Wilmut, the cloner of Dolly the sheep. Advanced Cell Technology, of Worcester, Massachusetts, is also back in the game. “I think it’s just a matter of time before other groups produce this,” Dr. Daley said, although he added that it may be a long time before anyone attains the level of efficiency claimed by Dr. Hwang.

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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