I am concerned that Western society is threatened with two metastasizing twin crises of competence and character. Science is not immune from larger cultural forces, and thus two recent stories worry me that the dual afflictions have spread to science too.
First, it appears many researchers have been working with wrongly labeled cell lines. From the Atlantic story:
Retractions of published work are regrettable, but they happen. Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health, highlights one involving a German researcher, Robert Mandic, who’s in the business of studying head and neck cancer. Mandic’s lab results were invalidated last year when he discovered that the cancer cells he’d been working on were actually descended from a cervical tumor — not the rare head and neck cancer he thought he was studying.
Well, one snafu doesn’t prove anything. Oh, there are others:
This is a costly business. The worst part is, nobody can say for certain how many studies have been affected by misidentified cell cultures, or how much money has gone down the drain because of them. We can only guess at it. Some believe that as much as 20 percent (!) of all published work involving human cells may have used bad cell lines. And it’s not talked about, both because of the strong industry pressure to publish and because of a simple human reluctance to admit failure.
Second, a British Medical Journal article says that many Dutch doctors report having seen studies with faked or hyped results. From the Abstract:
A Dutch survey claims that one in seven doctors have seen scientific research results that have been invented. In addition, nearly a quarter have seen data that have been massaged to achieve significant results. However, the survey has attracted criticism from researchers, who argue that it is based on “hearsay” and “undefined criteria.”
Causes for real concern.