People Can Be Devious Lab Rats (and Researchers)

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Posted on January 22, 2014 in Cell Biology, Genetics, Health, Human Body, Mammals, Philosophy of Science, Politics and Ethics

Human lab rats can fool human researchers, who in turn can fool the human public.  Honesty must be the only policy in science.

Fraud by Lab Rats

The laugh is on psychologists who published a landmark longitudinal study in the 1990s about adolescent sexual attitudes.  Science Daily and Live Science reported that the “National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health” (nicknamed Add Health) was skewed by young pranksters who apparently lied on questionnaires about their sexual orientation, inflating the numbers of homosexuals and bisexuals from an expected one percent to 5–7 percent.  The psychologists were further surprised that large numbers of the self-reported nonheterosexuals reported going straight in the later years of the survey.  Surprised, the researchers published the results anyway.  Their “widely-cited” paper, based on 14,000 participants responding in four waves between 1994 and 2008, “led researchers, clinicians and policymakers to an inflated sense that gay youth are more suicidal, depressed and psychologically ill than are straight youth.”

Only now are the researchers realizing that “they should have known something was amiss.”  It’s possible some of the adolescents didn’t understand the questions, but more likely, a follow-up study concluded, they were just joking, thinking it funny to pretend to be homosexual while answering the questions.  The report in Archives of Sexual Behavior is titled, “The Dubious Assessment of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Adolescents of Add Health.”  Because policymakers can be reluctant to question “scientific” results, “The possibility could have serious implications for a generation of researchers who study the data, and it may have broader implications for understanding teen love, health and sexuality, the researchers in the study say.”  The articles did not specifically mention any policies or laws enacted on the basis of the questionable data.

Fraud by Lab Researchers

Last year saw the downfall of a number of psychologists caught fabricating and inflating their data.  Now, one geneticist is seeking a comeback after his humiliating downfall.  Science Insider says that Woo Suk Hwang, the Korean cloner who disgraced himself eight years ago with fraudulent papers about human embryonic stem cells (1/09/2006), is trying to redeem himself with his old specialty of cloning animals.  His scandal had caused some serious soul-searching by journals about scientific integrity (2/05/2006).  In Nature, David Cyranoski wrote more at length about Hwang’s redemption after “one of the most widely reported and universally disappointing cases of scientific fraud in history,” one his university president had called “an unwashable blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country.”  How, then, can the blemish be washed?  Can the leopard change its spots?

Hwang no longer works with human embryonic stem cells, but exercises his expertise with animal cloning.  He started, after all, as a veterinarian.  Still, he is a known liar.  He admitted to lying, but still maintains he really did create a line of hESCs.  He also blames his co-author for duping him.  He has spent no time in jail, despite a 3-year sentence (later reduced to 18 months, pending appeal).  Meanwhile, his lab, still staffed by some of his original colleagues during the scandal, is making good money cloning dogs and other animals – much of it supported with government grants.  The lab has published 40 peer-reviewed papers since the scandal.  “The fact that Hwang is being published in peer-reviewed journals is a sign that he is becoming accepted once more.”  His investors and colleagues seem to think that having been caught in such a high-profile scandal will keep him on best behavior, knowing he will be scrutinzed more carefully.  One partner was impressed with “how hard he works, and how passionate he is for science.”  Another scientist, though, is skeptical: “If you fabricated data once, how would one know that you will not do it again?”

It is likely Hwang still feels the lure of fame for human therapeutic cloning.  The government has given him permission to work on human embryos – just not to clone them.  That hasn’t kept him from applying.  With hopes for redemption, the lure of fame, and enough ambiguity about some aspects of his retracted papers, will he once again be given trust by a public that sees this scientific hero as too high to fail?  More importantly, what’s the complaint about ethics of fraud in a field – human cloning – widely criticized by many ethicists as immoral?

In passing, Cyranoski made this statement about the choice between human embryonic stem cells (hESC) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC):

Nevertheless, Woo Suk Hwang intends to return to human therapeutic cloning. But he may be trying to ride a wave that has already passed. A competing technology — induced pluripotency, discovered in 2006 — creates stem cells from adult cells, skirting the difficulty of sourcing human eggs and the controversy of embryo destruction. Even the announcement last year that a human stem-cell line had finally been created from a cloned embryo got a more muted reception than the carnival that greeted Hwang when he announced his now-discredited paper.

In hindsight, it’s ironic that Hwang fell just months before the iPSC revolution.  Cyranoski’s words reinforce the theme that iPSCs appear to have rendered hESC work redundant if not irrelevant.  Since “therapeutic cloning” remains just as ethically controversial as before, one wonders why Hwang and others still pursue that path with such zeal.

Update 1/22/14:  Nature published an editorial to correct a false impression some were getting from Cyranoski’s article that Hwang has been rehabilitated within the scientific community.  “Nothing could be further from the truth,” the editors say: nor should scientists rush to rehabilitate him.   The editors question the originality, impact, or scientific value of any of his work, and warn about Hwang’s apparent selfish motives to recover, an effort that some South Koreans seem too eager to accept for reasons of national pride.

Update 1/29/14:  The whistleblower who alerted the media to the Hwang fraud told Nature about the threats and abuse he suffered as a result.  For daring to expose a South Korean star scientist, Young-Joon Ryu had to go into hiding six months with his wife.  It took years for him to find new employment, but he does not regret his decision.  “The Hwang case was a wake-up call for many journals to police [fraud] more seriously,” a European science publisher said, adding, “little has formally changed regarding the protection and encouragement of constructive whistle-blowing”.

Consider the parallels to Kermit Gosnell, the late-term abortion monster.  He was condemned not for performing abortions per se, but for violating procedural rules in the manner he did it.  It appears that Hwang, who showed himself unworthy of trust, is being given trust once again after a wrist slap and a public show of indignation.  How terrible that he would lie and fake his data!  That he pressured women to donate eggs and experimented on fertilized human embryos is seen as a lesser offense.  A society that can tolerate unethical behavior in one sphere is not likely to repress it in another.

When a preacher sins, he is usually out of the ministry for good.  It doesn’t mean he can’t earn a living some other way, but no longer can he be trusted to teach others how to live.  While we all love redemption stories, there are certain roles in society that demand higher accountability.  Science (like any scholarly pursuit) should be one of them.  A scientist who has betrayed a trust by fraud undermines any future credibility.  Let that person take up truck driving or cooking, assuming he or she can be trusted to deliver the goods honestly.  Notice once again that science is not a mechanical method.  It depends on the minds and hearts of fallible human beings, aspiring to ethical ideals that are timeless and universal, not made of matter in motion.




One Comment

C Gieschen January 22, 2014

It takes courage to post hostile letters from others (senior geology student at Michigan U.) Funny how he did not take time to easily refute any one single item you have posted. If it is so very easy to do, why didn’t he/she do it? Note his/her uncapitalized “god”. This shows this person is obviously hostile to any notion of god, much less God!

Keep up the good work (God’s work).

A faithful reader and high school Biology teacher,


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