Science Fiction

One of the truly enjoyable things about doing science is when you come up with an idea – a hypothesis – and have a chance to test it.  This usually stems from the excitement that you think you’ve figured something out, and you want to see if further experiments support your hypothesis.  All too often though, this gets translated to: I want to prove that I am right.

A couple of years ago, a professor at Duke University (lets call him HH) published a series of papers about using computers to engineer new activities into proteins – I won’t go into details, but this was a Big Deal.  Lots of accolades.  Many awards.  Lucrative job offers.  Duke even funded the creation of an internal institute with him as chief.  I used to work in protein engineering (before being a drug hunter), so I was really excited by HH’s results.  And to be honest, I was also a little jealous – I thought, “I wish I’d done that!”  But you still had to respect it – it was really good work.

Anyway, flash forward to this year and the news that he has RETRACTED his landmark papers because other scientists were unable to duplicate his results (another big part of the scientific method).  Retraction – especially at this high-profile level – is also a Really Big Deal.

Why couldn’t others reproduce his work?  There are two current theories:
1. He and his students were sloppy scientists, did poorly controlled experiments and so their unreliable data led to bad interpretations.  In other words: They screwed up.
2. He and/or his students knew they had questionable data and decided to pick-and-choose which data they kept and which they didn’t because it suited proving their idea.  In other words: They cheated to get rich and famous.

Now there’s a huge gulf between committing errors and fraud, so which is it?  No one’s quite sure.  HH first tried to sell-out his student and blame her for everything (nice guy, huh?), which is thoroughly frowned upon and makes him seem like he’s trying to deflect his own responsibility in the matter – which of course, makes people think he’s got more to hide.

The repercussions have been swift– awards are being talked of being revoked (this is the scientific equivalent of Oprah calling James Frey on the carpet for fabricating “A Million Little Pieces”), he may no longer be able to apply for NIH funding and Duke has apparently changed its mind about paying for that Institute for him.  He’ll be the guy talked about in every meeting – and certainly not with the grudging respect of a couple of years ago.

My own feelings are that he let himself become so enamored of his hypotheses – especially that drive to “prove that I’m right” and that he cut-corners on what MUST always be a very rigorous process.  And by doing so, he’s undermined his entire career.

What a waste.

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31 thoughts on “Science Fiction

  1. The lure of fame and fortune can really cloud judgement. I don't know much about the process but I'm surprised he would get such accolades before his results were independently verified.

  2. Wowee. I tend to agree with you, if you get to working on something long enough, judgement can get clouded… I'm not at all surprised that he recieved such acclaim, especially if he had past successes to stand on. It's really unfortunate though.
    If he retracted the papers on his own, then he deserves some respect for that.

  3. Wow, that's really quite sad. But I would think as a scientist you work your whole life to come up with that one thing that will make you rich/make you famous/make a significant contribution to science or medicine. Fabrication of results would be an easy trap to fall into. I admire people (like you) who can do research – you must really have to look for those little accomplishments in order to get some positive reinforcement at work.

  4. greywolf — well, his work passed the scrutiny of peer-review — in which other scientists review your data and decide that its "good enough" to be published. The problem is that in the peer-review process you don't see the raw data, only the data-as-submitted. This leads to the problem that carefully packaged and submitted data can fool even the best reviewers.

  5. Unfortunately Katie, the retractions only came after he was confronted with the evidence from the other group(s) trying to repeat his observations. HH spent a lot of time trying to figure a way that both data sets could be consistent, and retracted only in the face of overwhelming proof that his submission was in error.

  6. Oh Mello — there's a huge temptation to "tweak" data to make it look "better" — and better usually means making it look like your hypothesis predicts it should. Fortunately, there are dry, mathematical ways to analyze data to make sure that good stuff stays and bad stuff goes — you just need to have the integrity not to fudge.
    Research is a tough business for folks that need a lot of positive reinforcement in life (Lord, that could be a whole post of its own) — because most things fail. Even good ideas don't pan out, and things are ALWAYS more complicated than you think. You do learn to take your successes as you get them — and then darn thing is that even THOSE usually lead to more questions!

  7. Oh Mello — there's a huge temptation to "tweak" data to make it look "better" — and better usually means making it look like your hypothesis predicts it should. Fortunately, there are dry, mathematical ways to analyze data to make sure that good stuff stays and bad stuff goes — you just need to have the integrity not to fudge.
    Research is a tough business for folks that need a lot of positive reinforcement in life (Lord, that could be a whole post of its own) — because most things fail. Even good ideas don't pan out, and things are ALWAYS more complicated than you think. You do learn to take your successes as you get them — and then darn thing is that even THOSE usually lead to more questions!

  8. That's why I've always stayed on the clinical side. It can be monontonous in some ways but my inability to think long-term would make research very discouraging.

  9. That's why I've always stayed on the clinical side. It can be monontonous in some ways but my inability to think long-term would make research very discouraging.

  10. Agh! Don't scare me!
    Being in the depths of my own research right now, I'm sure that someone could replicate my results, IF I get them! There's nothing like that moment when you think, "Oh, I found a huge gaping hole in my idea – that's freakin; great!"
    Personally, though, I would much rather fail miserably than fabricate results. If money and fame were that important to me, I would have become a stripper.

  11. Agh! Don't scare me!
    Being in the depths of my own research right now, I'm sure that someone could replicate my results, IF I get them! There's nothing like that moment when you think, "Oh, I found a huge gaping hole in my idea – that's freakin; great!"
    Personally, though, I would much rather fail miserably than fabricate results. If money and fame were that important to me, I would have become a stripper.

  12. What a waste is correct. At least the process worked out in the end. It just took a long time, and lots of work from a lot of people. BTW, one of my advisers always claimed that you can only believe about 30% of what s out there published. The trick, according to him, was to be able to decide correctly on which 1/3 you believe in.

  13. What a waste is correct. At least the process worked out in the end. It just took a long time, and lots of work from a lot of people. BTW, one of my advisers always claimed that you can only believe about 30% of what s out there published. The trick, according to him, was to be able to decide correctly on which 1/3 you believe in.

  14. Wow – that is really awful. You're right – what a waste.
    I really like hearing about this scientific type stuff. Makes me feel smart to have smart friends like you!

  15. Wow – that is really awful. You're right – what a waste.
    I really like hearing about this scientific type stuff. Makes me feel smart to have smart friends like you!

  16. grrrace — there's a lot of folks that don't feel sorry for him, but mostly because he's not a very likeable guy (even before all this came out) — friends and colleagues aren't really rushing to his defense.

  17. Hapa — yeah, I was trying to come up with an analogous Big Deal that non-scientists could relate to a little more than (gasp!) not being able to apply for NIH funding…. ;)

  18. Steph — I'll keep trying to find interesting things to post on, but the one thing that always comes out is that people behave like people no matter what career their in — some are good and some are dirtballs.

  19. Was that duke scientist gaius baltar? weeee
    Nothing like wanting to be right. I did a study back in the 90s on El Nino and hurricanes in the western atlantic. I wanted to prove there would be more hurricanes during El Nino years. Oops, there are less BUT…I discovered a current that developed that ran up the eastern coast of S and central America during El Nino years that directed the storms out to sea unless they had the stones to cross it. weeee nothing like being wrong but figuring out something else. (like marrying the wrong person, and then discovering I hate ponces… I love being over 40. dammit.)

  20. And a lovely one at that. You could use flowers and big elephant ear leaves for your props. I will join you, it will be a duet, and I will use fossils and the occasional hunk of pumice (other rocks would be too heavy).
    wa-wa-waaaa boom pow (strip music)

  21. geogogy: no, he couldn't be gaius baltar! his cylon detector *did* work, and he hid the results. if this dude had been developing a cylon detector, he would have implicated all twelve cylons at once, and then found out at the execution that the real cylons were waiting outside his door.

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