Tuesday, January 15, 2013


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The Worst Scientific Mistakes, Missteps and Misdeeds of 2012
By Nadia Drake,
Wired, 14 January 2013.

Science is not immune to the foibles that plague ordinary, not-parked-at-a-lab-bench citizens. But mistakes made in a lab can be dangerous, and even deadly. Misleading or faulty scientific reports can send other scientists astray, wasting years of time and hard-earned research grants. Badly designed apps and poorly analyzed data can help lose a presidential election.

Every year, a number of scientists are caught in various forms of misbehaviour. Now, some scientists even study the misdeeds of others. Here are some of the most notable examples of science-related errors, missteps and dishonesty in 2012, ranging from the mildly amusing to the truly deadly.

1. Pharmaceutical Distributor Contaminates Drug, Causes Outbreak

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Exserohilum rostratum, the fungus blamed for causing meningitis after injection of
contaminated steroids.

In early October, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed a deadly disease outbreak. Taking the form of fungal meningitis, the outbreak has since been linked to tainted batches of steroids used to control back pain. But the drugs weren’t made by a drug manufacturer. They came from a compounding pharmacy, a facility that mixes its own drugs and distributes them.

Now, more than 600 cases have been reported and 40 people have died. The CDC estimates that some 14,000 people in 19 states are at risk for exposure.

Fungal meningitis, mostly caused in this outbreak by Exserohilum rostratum, is not contagious. The infections resulted from spinal injections of contaminated steroids, such as methylprednisolone acetate. The tainted medications originated at the New England Compounding Centre, which sent 17, 676 potentially contaminated vials to 23 states.

As New Scientist reported, such outbreaks aren’t uncommon and are perhaps a disturbing indicator of lax regulations. Compounding facilities aren’t held to the same safety standards as drug manufacturers, and aren’t regulated by the FDA. Now, the federal government is considering new legislation leading to tighter regulations on compounding pharmacies; the New England Compounding Centre has since been closed and is under investigation.

2. Monkeyed Business

New Picture 195A cotton-top tamarin, a species Hauser claimed could recognize itself in the mirror, a key test of intelligence, in a paper that was later retracted. (Credit: Ltshears/Wikimedia Commons)

Marc Hauser, former professor of psychology at Harvard University, fabricated data, manipulated results, and incorrectly described the methods used in some of his studies of cognition in primates, the U.S. Government's Office of Research Integrity concluded in September. Hauser resigned from Harvard in July 2011 after a three-year-long investigation of his lab’s activities. Before that, he had been well known for his studies that blended evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology.

Hauser neither confirmed nor denied the report’s conclusions, but did take responsibility “for all errors made within the lab, whether or not I was directly involved.”

3. Not So Fast, Neutrinos

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In February, last year’s unbelievable report of neutrinos traveling faster than light was officially deemed “unbelievable” when scientists from the OPERA collaboration at Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory suggested a faulty cable connection may have produced the discovery.

A fibre optic cable relaying GPS data wasn’t quite plugged in to the experiment’s main timer, producing data suggesting that neutrinos fired from CERN, in Switzerland, arrived in Italy 60 nanoseconds earlier than physically possible. After tightening the cable connection and repeating the experiment, scientists found the neutrinos behaving as expected. Though Einstein (and special relativity) fared well in the aftermath of the debacle, some OPERA scientists had a bit of a bad time: Spokesman Antonio Ereditato of The University of Bern and physics coordinator Dario Autiero of France’s Institute of Nuclear Physics both resigned, citing intra-team difficulties.

4. Forensic Fraud

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Annie Dookhan leaves the courthouse. (Credit: Joe Spurr/WBUR)

Also in the Boston area, forensic chemist Annie Dookhan was accused of faking drug test results in criminal cases. Thousands of them. Dookhan handled more than 60,000 samples related to 34,000 defendants over her nine years working in a state-run crime lab. Reportedly, she was the most productive of the lab's chemists. But instead of testing all those samples for the presence of drugs, Dookhan allegedly only tested a fraction, and then made up results for the remainder.

The lab closed in August; since then, more than 200 defendants have been released from prison while their attorneys challenge convictions based on the lab's results. In December, a Massachusetts grand jury indicted Dookhan on 17 counts of obstruction of justice, eight counts of tampering with evidence, perjury, and pretending to hold a college degree.

5. The Higgs Boson Is Accidentally Announced Early

This summer, CERN inadvertently revealed the Higgs boson’s discovery a bit prematurely. On July 3 - the day before the official Higgs press conference - a video was accidentally published on CERN’s website in which CMS spokesman Joe Incandela spoke of “a new particle,” described as perhaps the biggest physics discovery “in the last 30 or 40 years.”

Not long afterward, the video went and hid in a password-protected corner of the lab’s website. CERN’s official explanation? It was one of several filmed, produced to cover all possible outcomes of the Higgs announcement. Right.

6. Allow Myself to Review...Myself

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Give yourself the thumbs up. (Credit: .reid./Flickr)

When scientists publish work in peer-reviewed journals, it means that other scientists have reviewed the work. Or does it? Sometimes, the “scientists” who reviewed a paper aren’t other scientists at all. Instead, in what appeared to be the trend this year, sometimes the reviews are provided by the paper’s authors or friends.

In February, journal publisher Elsevier retracted a paper by Guang-Zhi He of the Guiyang College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China after learning that he had offered up false e-mail addresses and impersonated his paper’s reviewers. As Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch describes, Elsevier became suspicious after observing that many of the reviewers’ e-mails were directing to web domains in China - though some of the supposed reviewers weren’t in China.

In August, the same thing happened again. But this time, it led to more than 30 retractions. Korean researcher Hyung-In Moon, who studies plant compounds, had also submitted false reviewer e-mails, and then he or his colleagues wrote the favourable reviews. Too quickly, it seems. Retraction Watch reports that the scheme was revealed when a journal editor noticed that most of the reviews were coming back within 24 hours - way too fast. When asked, Moon admitted to his fabrications.

In September, more false reviews were discovered, this time of mathematics papers, though it isn’t clear who submitted the fraudulent contact information.

7. Retraction Winner

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Credit: Agent Smith/Flickr

An unofficial winner emerged this year: Yoshitaka Fujii, winner of the rather dubious honour of Most Retracted Papers, with 172 falsified reports. Assuming all of those publications are retracted, the Japanese anaesthesiologist will wrest the title from German anaesthesiologist Joachim Boldt, who has racked up a comparatively paltry 90 retractions. In July, a panel assembled by the Japanese Society of Anaesthesiologists concluded that Fujii had fabricated results in studies published between 1993 and 2011. Of the 212 studies examined, the committee could only find three that appeared legit. The fabricated reports described such things as controlled trials that never happened, using patients that don’t exist and medications that were never administered.

8. Socially Unacceptable

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One of Stapel's retracted papers suggested that a littered street was conducive
to discrimination. (Credit: Bruno Alves/Flicker)

In late November, three investigative panels issued the final report in the saga of admitted fraudster Diederik Stapel, a social psychologist formerly on faculty at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. In 2011, Stapel admitted to fabricating data; so far, his imaginative handiwork extends to 55 science papers and book chapters, as well as 10 graduate dissertations. The panel's report not only cites Stapel for bad behaviour, but takes a shot at the entire field of social psychology.

As Science reports, the panel paints "an image of a "sloppy" research culture," and a field whose experts practice flawed science. Indeed, a section of the report titled, "Failure of scientific criticism" says, "Virtually nothing of all the impossibilities, peculiarities and sloppiness mentioned in this report was observed by all these local, national and international members of the field, and no suspicion of fraud whatsoever arose."

The Executive Committee of the European Association of Social Psychology shot back, describing the Stapel report as "unacceptably flawed" and calling its suggestion that the field shares Stapel's flaws as "defamatory, unfounded, and false."

9. Scientist Has His Eye on the Nobel Prize

New Picture 201Upper left: Winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Sir John B. Gurdon (left) and Shinya Yamanaka (right) (© Nobel Media AB 2012, Photo: Niklas Elmehed). Lower left: RongXiang Xu (Mebo International Group). Right: The Nobel Prize (Nobel Foundation).

Did the Nobel prize committee make a mistake this year? Rongxiang Xu, a Chinese scientist and founder of MEBO International, thinks so. Xu claims to have played a major role in advancing the field of regenerative medicine, and in December, he sued Sweden's Karolinska Institute, which awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for defaming his reputation in the field.

The lawsuit suggests that statements made about Nobel prize winners John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka ignored Xu's contributions to the field of cellular reprogramming. "My main priority for filing this suit was to clarify the Academy's mistaken and misleading statements for the preservation of humanity and future generations," Xu said, in a statement.

In awarding the 2012 Nobel prize in Medicine, the prize committee cited Gurdon's 1962 success in cloning frogs by introducing a mature frog cell nucleus into an egg, and Yamanaka's 2006 experiments demonstrating that just a few genes are needed to return adult mouse cells to an embryonic state. Xu claims that he uncovered the existence of a "regenerative cell" in 1984 while studying treatments for burn victims, and that the Nobel prize citation incorrectly attributed the achievement in its prize citation. The Nobel Assembly issued a statement stating that Xu's name had never been suggested to them.

10. Misbehaving Neurosurgeons Are Banned From Experimental Research

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Credit: Phalinn/Flickr

Neurosurgeons experimenting on terminally ill brain cancer patients made the news in July when The Sacramento Bee revealed that two UC Davis neurosurgeons had been reported to the FDA and subsequently banned from performing experimental medical research on humans. After obtaining patient consent, the two surgeons, J. Paul Muizelaar and Rudolph Schrot, had infected three glioblastoma patients with Enterobacter aerogenes bacteria. Two of the patients quickly died from sepsis, the third lived for another year.

The pair had based their work on the controversial theory that post-operative “probiotic” infections can trigger life-prolonging immune responses. Muizelaar and Schrot reportedly thought the experimental procedure was FDA approved.

It wasn't. Turns out, introducing a biological agent into an experimental surgery requires additional regulatory steps. Muizelaar is now on leave from the university.

11. Political Killer

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Credit: Spencer Wright/Flickr

Mitt Romney’s data science team might be experiencing some internal conflicts after making a mess of real-time election data collection in November. On election day, the team deployed a web app called ORCA. It should have provided the team with accurate data on who was showing up to vote in key locations, so that campaign headquarters could strategerize about getting out the vote. Except the app - supposedly accessible by thousands of smartphone-wielding volunteers in the field - didn’t work. It didn't live in an app store, but on a website. It had an "https" URL, and typing "www" or "http" didn't redirect users to the right site. When volunteers could get to the right place, logins and passwords didn’t work. And then the app crashed.

Massive fail, and an embarrassment to the real marine mammals. Orcas are bad-ass killer whales who do things like coordinate efforts to wave-wash seals off tiny icebergs. If they lived on land, orcas would undoubtedly come after this fail-whale of a system.

12. False Heart

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Heart muscle cells. (Credit: akay/Flickr)

Another tale of the too-good-to-be-true involves Japanese researcher Hisashi Moriguchi, who claimed to have conducted the first clinical test using reprogrammed stem cells in humans. In it, Moriguchi supposedly transformed adult cells into heart cells, which he then transplanted into six patients with heart failure. Moriguchi, claiming to have affiliations with both Harvard Medical School and the University of Tokyo, presented the results of his “experiment” in a poster at a meeting of the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported the accomplishment.

Scientists and reporters quickly suggested something was amiss. In response to inquiries, Moriguchi admitted he only discussed the procedure with five of the six reported transplant patients (he maintains the first actually did happen). He’s also not affiliated with Harvard University, publishes grand claims in ways that circumvent the normal peer review process, and includes “collaborators” on his papers who aren’t aware of the work being done. Subsequently, the University of Tokyo dismissed Moriguchi, and Yomiuri Shimbun took disciplinary actions against some of it news staff.

13. Science Is Outlawed

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Flooding on the North Carolina coast after Hurricane Irene in 2011.

In June, North Carolina lawmakers approved a bill (HB 819) requiring the state’s Coastal Resources Commission to plan only for sea levels rising at a rate based on historical records.

In other words, coastal planners are banned from considering models that might produce accelerating sea level rise because of things like rising global temperatures and melting polar ice caps. Sea levels have risen less than 10 inches along the North Carolina in the past century; scientists had suggested sea levels might rise by as much as 39 inches before 2100.

As Stephen Colbert put it, “If your science gives you a result that you don't like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal. Problem solved.”

In July, lawmakers voted to revise the bill, which now bans the consideration of non-linear models only until July 2016. In August, the bill became law.

14. Felix Gives NASA the Bull

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Felix Baumgartner rode a balloon into the stratosphere, dove out of it - from 128,100 feet up - was in free fall for more than 4 minutes, broke the sound barrier, landed gently on Earth, and emerged talking smack about NASA and Richard Branson. Among other comments, Baumgartner suggested to The Daily Telegraph that NASA’s exploration of Mars is a waste of money. “That little knowledge we get from Mars I don't think it does make sense,” Baumgartner said to the Telegraph. Then he took a swing at Richard Branson, suggesting that trying to break the high-altitude jump record - by dropping someone off a Virgin Galactic space plane - “Sounds like kind of a joke because it looks like he wants to use our positive momentum and gain publicity on his side and that is kind of lame."

Twitter parody account @SarcasticRover had a few bits to offer in response, including “I hope #Felix remembers to thank NASA for practically EVERY PIECE OF EQUIPMENT that helped make him the man he is today.”

15. Gold Gets Dusted

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Credit: Image Journeys/Flickr

In December, Pfizer Inc. admitted it had lost track of $700,000 worth of gold dust. They’re not sure if it’s been misplaced or stolen.

[Source: Wired. Edited.]


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