On science blogs this week: Fraud again & again
Written by Tabitha M. Powledge Blog
MISCONDUCT, FRAUD, RETRACTIONS, AND OTHER NEFARIOUSNESS. That paper published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the one showing that scientific misconduct, not honest error, is the reason for most retractions of research papers, is bad news for us all. At the very least it will erode further the idea that what science is about is trying to find the truth.
If you don't know all about the paper already, top bloggers have summarized excellently. Find Paul Basken's good summary at Percolator, a blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education. John Timmer is on the case(s) at Ars Technica. At the NPR blog Shots, David Schultz interviews the paper's senior author. And of course Retraction Watch's Ivan Oransky recaps the paper at length.
Number and cause of retractions since 1977, Credit: Fang et al. PNAS 2012)
Ashutosh Jogalekar's summary at the Curious Wavefunction points out that of the 3 forms of misconduct — fraud, plagiarism, and duplicate publication — fraud is by far the most common. The post also explores some alarming details — for example, that many retracted papers are still available and cited.
You can get to Carl Zimmer's New York Times piece on the paper through his blog The Loom, but before you click through to the Times, look at the thoughtful blog comments, which lay out several motives for cheating and also note that the PNAS paper covered only life sciences.
I don't know of a similar study in the physical sciences. But it's no secret that the social sciences are full of research misconduct, not to mention methodologically junk papers, a topic I've covered here before. Just last week Nobelist Daniel Kahneman urged his fellow social psychologists to avoid what he called "a train wreck." At Percolator, Tom Bartlett considers Kahneman's call to clean up methodology for replicating the findings of priming studies, research on the small cues that affect subconscious processes strongly.
Fraud doesn't only mean making up data for a paper. Sometimes it means making up peer reviews — and peer reviewers. At the Science Careers Blog, Beryl Benderly discusses a Chronicle of Higher Education report on scientists in South Korea, China, and Iran who rigged journals' reviewing systems so they were able to review their own papers. Glowingly, of course. Beryl points out
this form of fakery ought to be very easy to prevent with even minimal checking ... Just about every university has an easily accessible online directory, so ten minutes of an editor's time ought to suffice for finding evidence that a suggested reviewer actually exists, as well as his or her accurate e-mail address.
At Gene Expression, Razib Khan, wonders if misconduct means the end of science. A few frauds, he suggests, can lead to many, and before long trust in the system will have vanished — for good reason.
He has a point.
LIES, DAMN LIES, AND STATISTICS. Not, of course, that misrepresentations are confined to science. Herewith, links to some science-related fact-checking growing out of Wednesday night's presidential debate between Obama and Romney.
At Health News Review, Gary Schwitzer heaps encomiums on the Times efforts, calling them "a solid public service piece of explanatory journalism." He links to the Times's debate transcript, which incorporates call-outs explaining the facts related to (and often contrary to) the various assertions made during the debate. The annotations cover many topics, and there are sections on health care in general and Medicare in particular. No section specifically on Obamacare, but it was mentioned often.
On health care: Jonathan Cohn's post at New Republic is mostly about Romney's mistatements on health care and Obama's lame responses. It was indeed painful. At the Health Business blog, David Williams asked and commented on his own questions, among them whether we can afford to protect everyone over 55 from any changes in Medicare. Williams didn't actually say it, but I'm guessing from the context that his answer is "no."
He may have won the debate on style, David Cutler says at JAMA Forum, but Romney flunked on health care matters. Cutler shows convincingly, for example, why the $716 billion Obamacare takes out of Medicare is a very good thing, and why, despite Romney's claim to the contrary, the Republican's proposed replacement for Obamacare would not cover all those with preexisting conditions.
Of course, telling the truth about Obamacare is no easy job. It's a complicated law, full of complicated provisions. At Kaiser Health News blog Capsules, Phil Galewitz describes a post-debate panel discussion that noted those difficulties. One hopeful note: There is, panelists said, bipartisan support at least for Accountable Care Organizations established by the legislation. ACOs are groups of hospitals and doctors that get flat fees for patient care but share in any savings that come from lowering costs while improving quality.
THE DEBATE WAS NO CLIMATE FOR CLIMATE CHANGE. Several bloggers bemoaned the fact that climate change went unmentioned. David Wogan, at the SciAm blog Plugged In, is not sure that was altogether a bad thing, although he hopes it's a topic for future debates.
Even if climate change were a domestic policy issue, with the gift of hindsight, it’s clear that any prolonged discussion of science or climate change would have immediately become a train wreck, or mired in wonk speak. The debate was barely under control as it was.
About that $90 billion for green energy, which Romney said was wasted: At the Green blog, Matthew Wald says that the figure is accurate, but the money was partly allocated during the Bush administration and it hasn't all been spent. More details, too.
Wald's language was restrained, but at Climate Progress Stephen Lacey's was not. He explains — passionately — why Romney's claim that half of the green energy companies the government funded have gone out of business is absotively posilutly a big fat lie. At his blog Watts Up With That, Anthony Watts embraced the falsehood and crowed "Bazinga!" at a Romney joke about it. Rats. Watts likes "The Big Bang Theory?" I will never feel the same about that show.
Watts also gleefully posted an interview with Al Gore, who attributed Obama's poor performance to altitude. Apparently Romney did his debate training at the debate locale, mile-high Denver, but Obama touched down only a few hours before curtain time. Oh, my stars and garters. Oh, Al.