Scientists are all over each other looking for flaws in ideas and data. This is what makes science so powerful: relentless peer review. It’s why we can all be pretty confident about scientific consensus in fields we do not have technical expertise to assess, like climate change. Yet powerful forces in the (mostly US) public arena believe deeply that scientists can go horribly wrong because scientists go in for mass delusion or worse, mass conspiracy to get grant money (scientists could put together a conspiracy if they tried). For a classic and truly frightening example of this, brace yourself and check this out.
I try various ways to get all this across in class. I talk about Lysenko and what he did to Soviet plant genetics (and hunger levels). Abetted by politicians, Lysenko was successful by negating the scientific process (not least by having scientific critics killed or imprisoned). I also talk about the trials and tribulations of Penn State’s very own Mike Mann, who has been harassed by politicians who think they know his science better than he or his colleagues do.
But to get the point across, I hit on a fabulous scheme. I said in class, and followed up in an email:
” I will give $100 to the first person who finds an example where bad, fraudulent, mistaken or incorrect science was first demonstrated by someone other than a professional scientist (e.g. a politician, lawyer, lobbyist, concerned parent). To play safe, the example should come for the 20th or 21st Century. I contend that the process of science (formal and informal peer review) does more to keep science honest than anything else. Be the first to prove me wrong and you are $100 richer!”
I thought that would be the end of it, as it had been when I made the same challenge before. But not this time!! Here is me losing my $100 in front of 300 students. After a spirited and very thoughtful Thanksgiving e-discussion with Isaac Will, I decided he had found a case. Dr Andrew Wakefield did terrible damage to public health by linking the MMR vaccine to autism in a paper in The Lancet. Many, many scientists subsequently showed with different data there was no link, and I believe that their scientific work was most important in debunking Wakefield’s mischief. But that still left Wakefield’s original data – all rather poor but nonetheless unarguably still there. Issac argued that investigative journalist Brian Deer showed just what crap it was. He figured out that Wakefield had terrible financial conflicts of interest AND that his patients were not random cases but carefully chosen to try to show an MMR-autism link. Deer’s work demonstrated that Wakefield’s poor (shockingly poor) science was actually fraudulent. This led to the retraction of the paper by The Lancet. The story is well summarized here. In essence, Deer showed the only ‘data’ supporting Wakefield’s case was garbage, thereby taking the final study off the table. I felt Issac had a point: Deer indeed revealed important scientific weaknesses not discovered by scientists. So I became $100 poorer.
But oh, what a teachable moment. One case in over 100 years. Next year, I’ll post the $100 challenge again. Can anyone think of another case?