Assorted Links

  • You can major in Fermentation Science. No joke. When I was eight, I learned the concept of college major. I asked my mom, “What did you major in?” “Extracurricular activities,” she said. I failed to get the joke. She later explained she had spent more time working on the school paper than on her classes.
  • In a famous paper, the statistician Ronald Fisher accused Mendel of faking his data. Fisher wrote: “the data of most, if not all, of the experiments have been falsified so as to agree closely with Mendel’s expectations.” This is not terribly consistent with the fact that Mendel’s highly improbable conclusions were correct. It’s as if Fisher had said “Person X used false info to claim he is worth $10 billion” and (b) in fact Person X is worth $10 billion. You can see that (a) and (b) may both be literally correct but that the term “false info” (Fisher’s “falsified”) probably conveys the wrong impression. This paper (“A Statistical Model to Explain the Mendel–Fisher Controversy”) has a more plausible explanation of the pattern in the data that Fisher noticed.
  • Conflict of interest in the Nobel Prize in Literature. The conflicts of interest underlying the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine — which are given out for “pure” science, thus  justifying more funding — remain unnoticed by journalists.

Thanks to Bryan Castañeda.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Anne Weiss.

How Common is Dishonesty in Medical Research?

Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, writes about Peter Wilmshurst, a British cardiologist, an unusually brave and honest man:

He was the coprincipal investigator on a trial funded by NMT, an American company, to see whether closing a hole in the heart of patients with migraine would cure their migraine. It didn’t. He refused to agree to be an author on a paper published in the journal Circulation because the paper was misleading, and he gave an interview to a journalist in the US pointing out the problems in the study. NMT sued him for libel, not in the US, where proving libel is difficult, but in England, where the onus is on the defendant to prove his innocence.  NMT probably assumed (rightly in the case of most people) that the financial risk would cause Wilmshurst to cave in. They were wrong, and the case collapsed when NMT went bust.

The interesting thing about the stories Smith tells about Wilmshurst is the high rate of misconduct they imply:

[In 1996] we invited him to come to the BMJ and give a talk—behind closed doors—to our staff and advisers and colleagues from the Lancet. He reeled off case after case of misconduct, many of them involving prominent people. The audience listed intently, but I was unsure of the reaction. Might somebody leap up and say “How dare you accuse x of misconduct. He is one of the great men of British medicine”? In fact in my memory the reaction was the opposite. People said things like “Actually, it’s worse than you know…” . . .

Many of [Wilmshurst’s stories] involve doctors who are guilty of misdemeanours but who sit in judgement on others. He told the story of Peter Richards who decided to bury the fact that Clive Handler, a doctor, at Northwick Park Hospital, was found guilty of using NHS research funds to subsidise his private practice at a time when Richards was medical director of the hospital and chair of the professional conduct committee of the GMC. Previously he had been dean of St Mary’s Medical School, prorector for medical education at Imperial College, and chair of the Council of Deans of UK Medical School and Faculties. When Handler eventually appeared before the GMC, the GMC’s lawyers ask that Richards stand down from chairing the committee. As Wilmshurst said, it’s as if a judge at the Old Bailey were to say “I’ll have to excuse myself from hearing this case as I helped the accused bury the body.” After having to stand down from this committee Richards continued to chair other conduct committees. Wilmshurst told several stories of doctors who had been found guilty of research misconduct but [had] gone on to be deans and others in charge of researchers.

Smith does not point out what this means. Doctor X is found guilty of research misconduct. Everyone knows this. Doctor X is still appointed dean or whatever. Maybe the people who make these appointments don’t care. Or maybe research misconduct is so common it cannot be a disqualification.

At the end of the article Smith points out his long friendship with Wilmshurst:

RS has known Wilmshurst for 16 years . . . the BMJ was sued for libel over an article by Wilmshurst that was published when RS was editor of the journal. The article has not been retracted but is not available on the BMJ website.

Presumably Smith was forced by BMJ lawyers to be this vague. I have not been able to locate the article. From  a talk by Wilmshurst. “Eventually Rubin got his report published in [The New England Journal of Medicine, under the editorship of Dr. Arnold Relman], because he threatened that unless his report was published he would go to the press and point out the collusion between the journal and Sterling-Winthrop.”

Wilmshurst’s conclusion: “Dishonesty is common in medical research.”

Thanks to dearime.

Kahneman Criticizes Social Psychologists For Replication Difficulties

In a letter linked to by Nature, Daniel Kahneman told social psychologists that they should worry about the repeatability of what are called “social priming effects”. For example, after you see words associated with old age you walk more slowly. John Bargh of New York University is the most prominent researcher in the study of these effects. Many people first heard about them in Malcolm Gladwell’s  Blink. Continue reading “Kahneman Criticizes Social Psychologists For Replication Difficulties”

Assorted Links


The Terry Deacon Affair

Terrence Deacon is a professor of anthropology at the University of California Berkeley — at the moment, chair of the anthropology department. (Deacon, like me, is interested in the evolution of language.) How unfortunate for the department, especially his graduate students, that he has recently been accused of using vast amounts of another person’s work without giving her credit. It isn’t easy to see the overlap, maybe because Deacon is a terrible writer (“by far the most unreadable book I have ever encountered” said a reviewer of one of his books), but there appears to be no doubt of the similarity and Deacon’s exposure to the work he is accused of not citing. Deacon says he doesn’t remember it.

When I brought unquestionable examples of plagiarism by Leslie Iversen, an Oxford professor, to the attention of Julie Maxton, the Registrar of Oxford University, she dismissed them (“honest error” — appearing to say that Iversen didn’t know that word-by-word copying is wrong). In this case there is no word-by-word copying but the failure to cite is far more upsetting to the persons not cited. What may have been copied is more abstract (“deeper”, you could say) and therefore more important.

At first, the complaint was dismissed. “I have concluded that the information available to me does not warrant appointment of an Investigative Officer under our campus faculty disciplinary procedures. The conduct you have alleged would not constitute a violation of the University of California’s Faculty Code of Conduct,” wrote Janet Broughton, Vice Provost, on May 27, 2011.

Later (December 12, 2011), Robert Price, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, responded, ” The fact that certain concepts or phrases used by Dr. Deacon in the article you provided are the same or similar to concepts that appear in chapters from your book is not evidence of plagiarism, as these concepts may not be unique to your work. Perhaps the way you use these concepts is unique, which then would constitute plagiarism.” This understates the evidence, which is a long series of similarities.

Finally, the fact that outsiders find the claims (of failure to give credit) credible appears to have convinced Price that something must be done. “The continuing public dispute that your claims have generated lead me to believe that such an investigation [of the claims] is necessary in order to “clear the air””, wrote Price. After being successfully pressured to investigate, Price, a political science professor, in a September 3, 2012 letter reveals a lack of understanding of social pressure:

I wish to make crystal clear to you, your associates, and to all those to whom you are communicating that the University of California, Berkeley has not found that Professor Deacon has engaged in any form of research misconduct. The sole reason for undertaking an investigation are the claims made by you and your associates. [Contradicting what he said earlier — that the “continuing public dispute” led to the investigation.] . . . The idea that you would use my communications with you [“use” in the sense of posting on a website] and the ongoing examination of your allegations by UC Berkeley as part of what increasing strikes me as a vendetta against Professor Deacon is reprehensible.

My letter to Alicia Juarrero [who complained] ends with this paragraph: “Our University policy on research misconduct, as well as the federal regulation on which it is based, require that all stages in the research misconduct investigation procedure are treated as strictly confidential. (UCB “Research Misconduct: Policies, Definitions and Procedures,” item IC and Federal Regulation 45CFR93.108). I expect that you will adhere to this requirement.” Rather than adhere to the stated requirement of confidentiality, Dr. Juarrero shared the letter with you and you, in turn, posted it on your website. What purpose is being served other than to make it appear that Deacon is guilty of something before even a single one of your claims has been validated? This sort of tactic will be familiar to those who remember the history of Joe McCarthy.

“What purpose is being served”? Uh, making the accusations harder to ignore? As for McCarthy, he made accusations without supplying evidence (“In this envelope [which he didn’t open] I have the names of 80 Communists in the State Department”). That is not happening here.

Why Alicia Juarrero Got Mad at Terry Deacon. New Terry Deacon Website.

Acne: Reality is Not a Morality Tale

Someone named Red Fury made an interesting comment on my Boing Boing article about acne:

I had acne on/off for years. . . . In my mid-thirties, I tried the Retin-A at night, antibiotic gel for day regimen for about 2 years – no effect. . . . Then, I was talking to a co-worker whose daughter was taking ‘modeling classes’ to become a teen model. She casually mentioned her acned daughter had to give up rice, potato chips, and bread, all of which are high-glycemic index foods. My quack-radar went off, and I looked around for something scientific behind that advice.…

Huh. I guess those  nutrition-bashing dermatologists actually did a study and published the scientific results in a peer-reviewed journal. . . . My acne disappeared completely as soon as I eliminated rice and potatoes.

He finds a study that supports the casual advice, he follows the advice, his acne disappears. By convincing him to follow the advice, the scientific study helped him get rid of his acne. Which is impressive.

The interesting twist is that the study was published twice, clearly breaking the rules. Bad scientists! Who did something really good.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Anne Weiss.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Hal Pashler and Robin Barooah.

Prize Fight: The Race and Rivalry to be First in Science by Morton Meyers

Prize Fight: The Race and Rivalry to be First in Science (2012) by Morton Meyers (copy sent me by publisher) is about battles/disagreements over credit, often within a lab. Jocelyn Bell noticed the first quasar — how much credit does she deserve relative to her advisor, Anthony Hewish, who built the structure within which she worked? (Not much, said Bell. “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were given to research students.”) The structure and subtitle of the book make little sense — there is a chapter about how science resembles art and a chapter about data fabrication, for instance, and nothing about races or being first. The core of the book is two stories about credit: for the discovery of streptomycin, the first drug effective against tuberculosis, and for the invention of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Meyers is a radiology professor and a colleague of one of the inventors of MRI.

I liked both stories. I find it hard to learn anything unless there is emotion involved. Both stories are emotional — people got angry — which made it easy to learn the science. Streptomycin was found by screening dirt. It was already known that dirt kills microbes. The graduate student who made the discovery was indeed a cog in a machine but later he was mistreated and got angry and sued. The first MRI-like machine was built by a doctor named Raymond Damadian, who was not one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize given out for its invention. He had good cause to be furious. The otherwise good science writer Horace Freeland Judson wrote an op-ed piece about it (“No Nobel Prize for Whining”) that ended “His behavior stands in stark and elegant contrast to the noisy complaining of Raymond Damadian”. To name-call (“whining”, “noisy”) in a New York Times op-ed is to suggest your case is weak.

I have had a related experience. When I was a graduate student, at Brown University, I did experiments about cross-model use of an internal clock. Do rats use the same clock to measure the duration of sound and the duration of light? (Yes.) I got the idea from human experiments about cross-modal transfer. By the time my paper (“Cross-Modal Use of an Internal Clock”) appeared, I was an assistant professor. A few months after it was published, I went back to Brown to visit my advisor, Russell Church. On the day of my visit, he had just received a new issue of the main journal in our field (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal  Behavior Processes — where my article appeared). It was in a brown wrapper on his desk. I opened it. The second article was “Abstraction of Temporal Attributes” by Warren Meck and Russell Church. (Meck was a graduate student with Church.) I didn’t know about it. It was based on my work. The first experiment was the same (except for trivial details) as the first experiment of my article. The introduction did not mention me. I leafed through it. Buried in the middle it said “This result replicates previous reports from our laboratory (Meck & Church, in press; Roberts, 1982).”

I was angry. Why did you do this? I asked Church. “To make it seem more important,” he said. I consoled myself by thinking how bad it looked (on Church’s record). I never visited him, and almost never spoke to him, again. Years later I was asked to speak at a conference session honoring him. I declined. What he did amounted to rich (well-established) stealing from poor (not established) and jeopardized my career. When my article appeared, I didn’t have tenure. It was far from certain I would get it. I hadn’t written many papers. If you read both papers (Meck and Church, and mine), you could easily be confused: Who copied who?  This confusion reduced the credit I got for my work and reduced my chance of getting tenure. Church surely knew this. Failure to get tenure could have ended my career.



What Motivates Scientists? Evidence From Cancer Research

A friend of mine who worked in a biology lab said the grad students and post-docs joked about the clinical-relevance statements included at the end of papers and grant proposals: how the research would help cure cancer, retard aging, and so on. It was nonsense, they knew, but had to be included to help funding agencies justify their spending.

Principal investigators never say such things. Are they wiser than grad students and post-docs? Fortunately for the rest of us, actions speak louder than words. An action — actually, a lack of action — that suggests that P.I.’s know their research has little connection to curing cancer, etc., is 50 years of  widespread indifference by cancer researchers to the possibility that their research uses a mislabeled cell line. For example, you think you are studying breast cancer cells but you are actually studying melanoma cells. A recent WSJ article says that the problem was brought to the attention of cancer researchers in 1966 but they have been “slow” to do anything about it:

University of Washington scientist Stanley Gartler warned about the practice [of using mislabelled cells] in 1966. He had developed a pioneering technique using genetic markers that would distinguish one person’s cells from another. Using the process, he tested 20 of the most widely used cancer cell lines of the era. He found 18 of the lines weren’t unique: They were Ms. Lacks’ cervical cancer. . . . A decade after publication of his findings Gartler attended a conference and introduced himself to a scientist. Dr. Gartler recalled the man told him, “‘I heard your talk on contamination. I didn’t believe what you said then and I don’t believe what you said now.’ “

What he meant was: I ignored what you said. Yet it costs only $200 to check your cell line. Fifty-plus years later, mislabeled cell lines remain a big problem. “Cell repositories in the U.S., U.K., Germany and Japan have estimated that 18% to 36% of cancer cell lines are incorrectly identified,” says the article. This indicates considerable indifference to the possibility of mislabeling.

If you truly wanted to cure breast cancer, would you spend $200 (out of a grant that might be $100,000/year) to make sure you were using a relevant cell line? Of course. If you were trying to cure your daughter’s breast cancer or your mother’s melanoma, would you make absolutely sure you were using the most relevant cell line? Of course. I conclude that a large fraction of cancer researchers care little about the practical value of their research.

I believe that one reason my personal science found new solutions to common problems (obesity, insomnia, etc.) is that my overwhelming goal was to find something of practical value. I wasn’t trying to publish papers, impress my colleagues, renew a grant, win awards, and so on. No doubt many cancer researchers want to cure cancer. But this 50-year-and-not-over chapter in the history of their field suggests that many of them have other more powerful motivations that conflict with curing cancer.

Thanks to Hal Pashler. Hal’s work on “voodoo neuroscience” is another instance where the guilty parties, I believe, knew they might be doing something wrong but didn’t care.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Peter Spero and Hal Pashler.

Assorted Links

  • Kombucha news: new scientific studies. Plus an expert says: ““When diets are fads, they never seem to last long.”
  • University of Pennsylvania clears medical school professors of ghost-writing. “‘It’s important to note,” [said the Penn report,]  ‘that the results of the study were negative to the sponsor’s product [and] were so characterized in the publication’ . . . But Lisa Lehmann, the director of the Center for Bioethics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, notes that the study’s findings were not unequivocally negative. ‘Penn noted that the study was negative and seems to imply that diminishes concerns about bias, but this is not entirely true. There is a segment of the population, those with low serum lithium levels, for whom the study recommends the medication.’ “
  • Jeffrey Sachs apparently believes in AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming). He also believes, according to Felix Salmon, “that development is easy, we know how to do it, and that given enough money, it’s relatively trivial to spend that money in an effective way to reduce poverty around the world.” Results from the Millennium Project do not support his beliefs.
  • 5 years of success with the Shangri-La Diet

Thanks to Alex Chernavsky.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Allen Carl Jackson, Phil Alexander and Navanit Arakeri.

Law Schools Sued For Lying About Post-Grad Employment

If it isn’t clear for whom law schools exist, now it is clearer:

The saga began last year, when Strauss and Anziska, both veterans of corporate legal work, filed lawsuits against New York Law School and Thomas M. Cooley Law School, in Michigan. The allegation: That Cooley and NYLS, by allegedly inflating post-graduate employment numbers, had committed fraud and violated local consumer protection acts. . . . The job market for lawyers has been contracting for years; hiring is down across the board. At the same time, law schools have continued to crank out young lawyers at an alarming rate.

This is the legal version of the joke that people go to law school because they aren’t good at math. So far twelve schools have been sued. I look forward to learning how the teachers at those schools react. Which side will they take? .

More about the lawsuits. I blogged about the deception a year ago. The California Culinary Academy in San Francisco was successfully sued for similar deception a few years ago. Inside the Law School Scam, a blog.

Assorted Links

  • Edward Jay Epstein on The Lessons of Le Carre (the spy novelist)
  • Gary Taubes recommends five excellent books, including Weston Price.
  • This article about the Marc Hauser case tells a brief story about a Harvard coverup in the 1960s. “In the late 1960s I was eating lunch in William James Hall with a few fellow assistant professors in the Harvard psychology department when a woman named Patricia Woolf sat down at our table. . . . She asked whether we had heard anything about the fabrication of data by one of our colleagues.”
  • This sad and fascinating post tells how pediatricians encourage Vitamin D deficiency by warning parents to keep children out of the sun.  Then, making things even worse, children with broken bones due to Vitamin D deficiency are assumed by pediatricians to be victims of child abuse. “Dr. Carole Jenny, head of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Child Abuse, implies such tragic miscarriages of justice simply don’t happen. She then claims, “We have been checking every child with multiple fractures for metabolic bone diseases for several years and have not identified a single child with vitamin D deficiency.” How can that statement be true if every other researcher is reporting infantile and early childhood vitamin D deficiency to be rampant in normal children? Furthermore, how can an infant beaten severely enough to cause multiple fractures not be bruised or in distress? Dr. Jenny cleverly avoids the question.”

Assorted Links

Thanks to Tim Beneke.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Alex Chernavsky and Casey Manion.

Assorted Links

  • Harvard professors behaving badly: Alan Dershowitz. “In a phone interview Dershowitz denied writing to the Governor [of California], declaring, “My letter to the Governor doesn’t exist.” But when pressed on the issue, he said, “It was not a letter. It was a polite note.”” Dershowitz wrote the Governor of California to try to keep the University of California Press from publishing Beyond Chutzpah by Norman Finkelstein, which calls The Case for Israel by Dershowitz “among the most spectacular academic frauds ever published on the Israel-Palestine conflict”. Finkelstein’s book says nothing about whether Dershowitz actually wrote it. According to a statement from the UC Press, “[Finkelstein] wondered why Alan Dershowitz, in recorded appearances after [The Case For Israel] was published, seemed to know so little about the contents of his own book.”
  • Umami Burger takes Manhattan.
  • The trouble with measuring students on only one dimension: South Korea
  • Why do twins differ? Both twins have autism spectrum disorder, but one has the disorder much more than the other. Guess which one  was “given powerful drugs to battle an infection”?