Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

I am Richard Feynman and I approve of this blog

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.


Henry Bauer, Peter Breggin , Harvey Bialy, Giordano Bruno, Erwin Chargaff, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Crick, Paul Crutzen, Marie Curie, Rebecca Culshaw, Freeman Dyson, Peter Duesberg, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Fewster, Galileo Galilei, Alec Gordon, James Hansen, Edward Jenner, Benjamin Jesty, Michio Kaku, Adrian Kent, Ernst Krebs, Thomas Kuhn, Serge Lang, John Lauritsen, Mark Leggett, Richard Lindzen, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, George Miklos, Marco Mamone Capria, Peter Medawar, Kary Mullis, Linus Pauling, Eric Penrose, Max Planck, Rainer Plaga, David Rasnick, Sherwood Rowland, Carl Sagan, Otto Rossler, Fred Singer, Thomas Szasz, Alfred Wegener, Edward O. Wilson, James Watson.

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

(Click for more Unusual Quotations on Science and Belief)

Expanded GUIDE TO SITE PURPOSE AND LAYOUT is in the lower blue section at the bottom of every home page.

Signs of skepticism about the literature now in the media

But they fail to understand the subtler point

The Times notes that the naive faith that many science reporters have in the impeccable validity of papers in science journals is a little dented by the Dr Hwang debacle.

For their benefit, Nicholas Wade tells it like it is:

“Beyond Hwang, the more fundamental issue is that journals do not and cannot guarantee the truth of what they publish,” said Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for The New York Times. “Publication of a paper only means that, in the view of the referees who green-light it, it is interesting and not obviously false. In other words, all of the results in these journals are tentative.”

However, there is no hint of the biggest elephant on the room, which is that science journals do virtually nothing to counter the overly zealous tendency of established scientists to protect a ruling paradigm from demolition, at least initially.

Science journals would do the public and science itself a favor if they would break free from this pattern, since a fundamental characteristic of science is that progress often means that ruling wisdom is replaced.

Journals should host worthy paradigm debate, rather than exclude it too easily. As the cases of Science and Nature in HIV?AIDS shows, it is all too easy for them to become the fellow travelers of those in power in a field, rather than serve science and the public interest by empowering debate.



The New York Times, 13 January 2006



When the journal Science recently retracted two papers by the South Korean researcher Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, it officially confirmed what he had denied for months: Dr. Hwang had fabricated evidence that he had cloned human cells.

The journal Science recently retracted two papers by the South Korean researcher Dr. Hwang Woo Suk.

But the editors of Science were not alone in telling the world of Dr. Hwang’s research. Newspapers, wire services and television networks had initially trumpeted the news, as they often do with information served up by the leading scientific journals.

Now news organizations say they are starting to look at the science journals a bit more skeptically.

“My antennae are definitely up since this whole thing unfolded,” said Rob Stein, a science reporter for The Washington Post. “I’m reading papers a lot more closely than I had in the past, just to sort of satisfy myself that any individual piece of research is valid. But we’re still in sort of the same situation that the journal editors are, which is that if someone wants to completely fabricate data, it’s hard to figure that out.”

But other than heightened skepticism, not a lot has changed in how newspapers treat scientific journals. Indeed, newspaper irs openly acknowledge their dependence on them. At The Los Angeles Times, at least half of the science stories that run on the front page come directly from journals, said Ashley Dunn, the paper’s science editor. Gideon Gil, t

he health and science editor for The Boston Globe, said that two of the three science stories that run on a typical day were from research that appeared in journals.

Beyond newspapers, papers from journals are routinely picked up by newsweeklies, network news, talk radio and Web sites.

“They are the way science is conducted, they’re the way people share information, they’re the best approximation of acceptance by knowledgeable people,” said Laura Chang, science editor for The New York Times. “We do rely on them for the starting point of many of our stories, and that will not change.”

There are limits to the vetting that science reporters, who are generally not scientists themselves, can do. Most journal articles have embargoes attached, giving reporters several days to call specialists in the field, check footnotes on an article and scrutinize the results.

“Scientific discoveries are more difficult because they often require in the generalist reporter a good deal of study, follow-up interviews and some guidance on how to make sense of technical matters,” said Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, which studies journalism. “But I think the scandals do require both a new level of skepticism on the part of the reporter and also maybe some new protocols between scientists and journalists.”

The Hwang case was not the first time journals had been duped: recently, editors at The New England Journal of Medicine said they suspected two cancer papers they published contained fabricated data. In December, the same journal said that the authors of a 2000 study on the painkiller Vioxx had omitted the fact that several patients had had heart attacks while taking the drug in a trial. A study on the painkiller Celebrex that appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association was discredited when it was discovered that the authors had submitted only six months of data, instead of the 12 months of data they had collected.

While the journals have a peer review process that is in part meant to filter out fallacious papers by checking research techniques and conclusions, perhaps the greatest difficulty for science reporters is trying to catch what journal editors have missed.

After hearing the news of Dr. Hwang’s fabrications, Mr. Gil of The Globe said he immediately remembered his newspaper’s coverage of the stem cell papers.

“We were blown away, in part because we had written those stories on Page 1,” Mr. Gil said. “And when we wrote them, we called the leading experts in the world on all this embryonic stem cell stuff, who are here in Boston. And they were as hoodwinked as anybody else.”

Despite the fraud cases, most of what the journals publish is basically credible, said David Perlman, the science editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. Among the most prestigious science journals that reporters consult regularly are Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association.

“I think they and we have been burned enough that they’re making efforts,” Mr. Perlman said. “They’re being more careful now, and I think reporters are too. I definitely have more of a ‘Hey, let’s look more carefully’ attitude now that I did 5 or 10 years ago.”

Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, said in a statement in December that the journal itself was not an investigative body. But when reporting on journal findings, most news outlets fail to caution that studies must be replicated to be truly authenticated.

“Beyond Hwang, the more fundamental issue is that journals do not and cannot guarantee the truth of what they publish,” said Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for The New York Times. “Publication of a paper only means that, in the view of the referees who green-light it, it is interesting and not obviously false. In other words, all of the results in these journals are tentative.”

The journals’ own peer review processes, which are intended to be the first barrier against fraud, have come under criticism lately. A cover story in the February issue of The Scientist said that the top-tier journals were receiving more submissions every year, overtaxing peer reviewers and weakening the screening process.

After the Hwang scandal, Science announced it was considering a set of changes to better prevent fraud: Dr. Kennedy said in January that new rules could include “requiring all authors to detail their specific contributions to the research submitted, and to sign statements of concurrence with the conclusions of the work,” as well as “implementing improved methods of detecting image alteration, although it appears improbable that they would have detected problems in this particular case.” (Through a spokeswoman, Dr. Kennedy declined to be interviewed and said the editors were currently conducting a review of the episode.)

Some newspapers have adopted guidelines of their own to check for conflicts of interest involving authors of journal articles. The Globe instituted guidelines last July requiring reporters to ask researchers about their financial ties to studies, and to include that information in resulting articles. In its weekly health and science section, The Globe outlines any shortcomings of a study under the heading “Cautions.”

Kit Frieden, the health and science editor for The Associated Press, said: “We’ve always had our own peer review process, where on the major studies we seek outside expert comment. We’ve always regarded scientific research cautiously because mistakes can be made, and I don’t think that’s changed.”

The growing competition for the most important research among the journals may contribute to mistakes and fabrications, even in the most prestigious of the bunch. But in the end, the severe consequences of presenting fraudulent research generally act as a deterrent, said Mr. Dunn of The Los Angeles Times.

“Unlike financial fraud, where you can bamboozle somebody of their money and disappear and then start over again, in science the researchers are in one place,” he said. “If they get caught in this type of thing, their careers are over.”

Copyright 2006, NYT

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