March 4, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

What Scientists Don’t Know and How They Don’t Know It

In light of another huge science scandal, questions rise about what scientists know.  Several recent stories cast doubt on the infallibility of the scientific method – and even the ability of scientific inquiry to solve some mysteries.

  1. Fraud exposed:  92 peer-reviewed papers published over a decade, now found out to be fraudulent?  How is that possible?  UK Telegraph sounded the alarm about Joachim Boldt, “regarded as a leading specialist in intravenous fluid management” with colloids, published widely in leading British medical journals.  “Experts described Mr Boldt’s alleged forgeries as possibly the biggest medical research scandal since Andrew Wakefield was struck off last year for falsely claiming to have proved a link between the MMR vaccine and autism…. Mr Boldt’s alleged forgeries date back up to a decade.
        Even worse, “British patients could have been put in danger” by treatments given under the authority of science.  Colloid treatment he said was safe “can result in complications including heart and kidney failure, fluid entering the lungs and anaphylactic shock.”
        It appears that Boldt “forged the signatures of his alleged ‘co-authors’ on his studies, conducted drugs trials without official approval and claimed money for operations that he never performed,” possibly to win the graces of manufacturers of the expensive colloid medicines.  A fellow medical researcher was stunned: “For me, it shakes the world I work in and makes me feel less confident in it, and if I were a member of the public I would feel the same,” he said.
  2. Free the radicals:  We have all been taught by health professionals that free radicals in food are to be avoided.  That’s why antioxidants are popular.  Well, then, this headline on Science Daily is sure to raise eyebrows: “Free Radicals May Be Good for You”.  What?
        Sure enough, researchers in Sweden are saying that free radicals do our body good, acting as “signal substances that cause the heart to beat with the correct force.”  Heaping on the disbelief, the article added, “The idea that free radicals are generally dangerous and must be counteracted is, … a myth”.  The researchers do not deny that free radicals can cause damage; they just support the old adage of “everything in moderation.”  Did we need a scientist to reiterate advice from mom and dad?
  3. Rocky theories:  Forget everything you learned about the origin of the Rocky Mountains.  Now PhysOrg has the truth to solve the “enigma” of a major mountain range being pushed up deep inside a tectonic plate without subduction or a collision between plates.  The old theory “didn’t explain the facts,” geologists at University of Colorado are claiming.
        Instead, they presented a theory that sucks: an unusually thick lithosphere that pulled down the region into the fluid mantle, creating a “suction” that formed a basin, conveniently allowing the strange Pierre Shale to flow in, then presto: it “amplified mountain-building forces far inland and forced the formation of the Rockies”.
        Exactly what mountain-building forces they referred to was left unstated, nor how such forces would be amplified by suction.   If you believe their new explanation, then you will probably like their ad: “The hypothesis, if confirmed, could not only unravel the geological origin of the Rockies, but could also illuminate the mechanisms that have led to mountain ranges worldwide,” including “other puzzling mountain belts.”  Exactly how the hypothesis could be confirmed was not explained.
  4. Whoops, eye was wrong:  “Eye evolution questioned” was the headline on a report in The Scientist.  “Invertebrates with vertebrate-like vision challenge the idea that the two groups of organisms have distinctly different visual receptors.”  Will Darwin concede, then?  After all, he’s pressed against the wall: “The standing dogma of eye evolution is challenged with the discovery of an invertebrate that sees light like vertebrates do, rather than like their more closely related cousins, according to a study published today (March 1) in EvoDevo.”  Dogma is a strange bedfellow in a science article, but this one, a “standing dogma,” must have been sleepwalking in the lab.
        One possible Darwinian escape is obfuscation: “Now the story is more complicated than it was before, when we thought there was a clear-cut division between vertebrates and invertebrates.”  One outsider noted that evolutionary expectations had influenced prior work: “No one has looked for opsins in many animals, and this is exactly what we should be doing.”  Should implies moral responsibility.
        Rather than concede the argument to intelligent design, The Scientist offered more ways out for Darwin, such as bluffing: “Now it’s unclear which photoreceptor originally gave animals sight, and which kind evolved to sense light later.  Or, perhaps an ancestor used both receptors to see, and over the millennia, one variety or the other lost its visual function.”  The reporter did not seem to notice this answer only multiplies problems for evolutionary theory.  Instead, Amy Maxmen cheerfully noted that ciliary opsin genes have even been found in sightless brachiopod embryos.  Parrying that surprise into a win for evolution (02/25/2010), she ended, “brachiopods may provide key insights into how vision first evolved.
  5. Too old to be evolved:  Protein remains in a fossil scorpion said to be 417 million years old stunned researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  According to PhysOrg, “Their work upends the conventional view that organic material, such as that found in the outer portion of exoskeleton, doesn’t endure in extremely old fossils because it’s readily broken down by hungry microbes and other natural processes.”
        Now scientists are changing their tune and saying that chitin and other proteins can be saved from “degradation by microorganisms even after 500 million years.”  Would they say this if there was no need to preserve the evolutionary date?  Obviously no one can directly test millions of years on fossil proteins.  Is the commitment to the date driving the explanation?
  6. Gift horse:  Can you tell a fossil horse’s age by its teeth?  Maybe so, but some evolutionists divine even more: horse tooth evolution.  Live Science claimed, “From the Horse’s Mouth: Teeth Reveal Evolution.”  Reporter Wynne Parry was aglow with suggestions from a paper in Science1 that purported to show a “timeline of changing tooth features that matches up with the climate record.”  According to Parry’s summary, horses first “emerged” 55 million years ago, then their teeth “changed noticeably” during a cool spell 33 million years ago, then “changed markedly” 18 million years ago when grasslands took over.  She apparently glossed over several difficulties in the paper.
        The paper in Science was a bit puzzled by time dilation required by their theory: “Some evolutionary changes in equid dentitions seem delayed with respect to the mesowear shifts,” they said.  “The most apparent of these is an early Miocene increase in dietary abrasion among anchitheres at 23 to 19.4 Ma without a notable change in crown height…. The first mesodont equines appear later, about 18.8 to 17.5 Ma.”  A million years is a long time to go without being able to eat.  One would think the poor animals would have gone extinct.  As a way out, the team of four said, “However, most equids demostrate [sic] highly variable mesowear scores, with most samples yielding mesowear scores well below the extreme values (Fig. 1E), suggesting that selection for taller, more durable dentitions may have been episodic.”  While we’re “suggesting,” maybe a few horses got lucky and won proper dentures from Dr. Nature’s mutation store, allowing them to pass on their genes during the tough episodes, till softer food returned the teeth to earlier norms – until the time came for all horses to evolve the tough high-crown dentures.  Is that what they were “suggesting”?
        The authors simply assumed the teeth adapted to changing food supply by “selection pressure,” whatever that is (01/29/2011, 10/03/2010): “The famous ‘Great Transformation’ in molar crown morphology leading to the subfamily Equinae probably originated during intervals of heavy selection pressure due to pronounced increases in dietary abrasion among populations that were pioneering new habitats.”  Presumably selection could have pressured some of them into evolving into forest horses, growing giraffe-like necks and new dentures to eat pine needles off trees, but that didn’t happen.  In evolution, some stuff happens, but not other stuff.  Who knows why?
        For more problems with horse evolution, see 06/30/2005 and 03/18/2005.

Scandals point out the vulnerability of science to human moral failings.  One check on science that we have all been taught is reproducibility – the ability of other scientists to confirm a claim.  These days, though, the complexity of many studies makes reproducing an experiment so difficult as to be rare.  It also goes without saying that claims about the unobservable past are not reproducible even in principle.
    In the wake of the Climategate scandal, Nature2 last month stressed the need for more transparency in published research on research that is reproducible in principle: genomics.  Scientists need to provide, the Editors said, “essential details needed to reproduce the analysis” – often missing in published papers.  The interior of the editorial contained this disturbing line:

If genomics were as politicized as climate science, the authors of studies in which the information trail is missing would probably face catcalls, conspiracy charges and demands for greater transparency and openness.  Instead, many in the field merely shrug their shoulders and insist that is how things are done.

The editorial, titled “Devil in the details,” ended by hoping new software tools will aid transparency, a “laudable goal” (indicating an unreached goal).  Software tools, though, have to be used by people.  Is it “realistic” for scientists to heed the sermon?  Even the Editors were unsure.  After all, scientists, like other sinners, are only human.


1.  Mihlbachler, Rivals, Solounias, and Semprebon, “Dietary Change and Evolution of Horses in North America,” Science (4 March 2011): Vol. 331 no. 6021, pp. 1178-1181, doi: 10.1126/science.1196166.
2.  Editorial, “Devil in the details,” Nature 470 (17 February 2011), pp. 305�306, doi:10.1038/470305b.

With apologies to the late Robert Jastrow, we conclude: For the public who has lived by faith in the reason of scientists, the story ends like a bad dream.  They have followed the science reporters up the mountains of ignorance; they are about to conquer the highest peak; as they pull themselves over the highest rock, they are greeted by a band of sinners who have been sitting there for centuries.

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Comments

  • doug hulstedt says:

    I have been following the saga of Andrew Wakefield. I have also interviewed him. Although He has been struck off by the British medical community I believe he is innocent of wrongdoing. The above case regarding an association of MMR and autism is still simmering in the autism community. the true winner may be the manufacturers of MMR but certainly not the children we are trying to protect.A recent review by an independent pathologist of gut findings on the 12 children show that the kids really did have a nonspecific inflammatory bowel. Brian Deere the journalist who provoked the campaign may be the culpable party.
    Also I work with autistic children and my interviews with families leads me to believe there is an MMR autism connection
    Blessings
    Doug Hulstedt MD

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