15 January 2006

Unweaving a tangled web

Two of the biggest stories of recent times in science and politics share a common theme: deception. How society deals with the offenders in each case could hardly be more different, and that disparity has got me thinking.

For perpetrators of laboratory fraud, there can be no redemption, even though no lives have been lost and the only careers to be ruined are those of the liars themselves. In the political sphere, however, the reverse is true -- though the consequences of the lie involve death tolls in the tens of thousands, those responsible remain in power and, to a large portion of the public, remain beyond reproach.

I am comparing the phony clones of Hwang Woo Suk with the war in Iraq. The scientific community was sold a bill of goods when the South Korean biologist claimed to have made a major breakthrough by cloning embryonic stem cells, an accomplishment that, if true, heralded a new era for medical research. The American and British public, meanwhile, were sold a far more consequential tale involving the threat of mass destruction and terrorist conspiracies that, if true, implied very bad things to come.

Both lies employed ostensibly incontrovertible photographic evidence that had been deliberately mislabeled and misinterpreted. Both were also based on the naiveté of their respective audiences, each of which demonstrated an astounding willingness to suspend disbelief in the face of compelling and growing cause for doubt.

First, George W. Bush's Big Lie. By November 2004, it was clear to all but the most loyal members of the Ann Coulter fan club that the Bush and Blair administrations had "cooked the books" on the threat posed by Iraq and terrorists in general. The New York Times and the Washington Post had published lengthy apologies that essentially accused government officials of lying to reporters about weapons of mass destruction, ties between Al-qaeda and Iraq, and all sorts of related slander.

The only scientific estimate of the number of Iraqi civilians sacrificed in the current war topped 100,000. The U.S. death toll is about 2,200, the federal deficit and debt continue to set records, and Iraq now looks like it's heading for a civil war. An honorable retreat from Vietnam now looks like a cakewalk compared with the challenge of how to extract ourselves with dignity from Iraq.

Yet approximately half of American voters returned Bush for a second term and Tony Blair is also still in office (although his future is less certain). If I live half as long as Ray Kurzweil says I could, I'll never figure that one out.

Dr. Hwang and his clone-factory colleagues, on the other hand, have not fared nearly so well. Recent reviews of his research have concluded that he probably did clone Snuppy the dog, but made up the rest. As a result, his status as national hero in South Korea has been, shall we say, downgraded a notch or nine. He might be able to find a job cleaning test tubes, but even that's a long shot considering how desperate undergrad biologists can be for the honor of polishing their mentors' glassware.

It has been suggested that Hwang thought he could get away with his story of successfully cloning human embryonic stem cells because the basic idea was sound. Sooner or later, someone else would do it for real, and then no one would bother examining his faked data and photos. He'd be remembered as the guy who did it first.

It probably seemed like a clever plan. Everyone in South Korea certainly was rooting for him. But he underestimated how jealous scientific competitors could be. It only took about seven months for his crime to be revealed. (One might argue that it would have been exposed faster if more American biologists had access to human ESCs, a restriction imposed by Bush on the false contention that enough existing ESC lines are available and the even more dishonest claim that adult stem cells offer more promising avenues of research, but I digress.) And other than some embarrassed journal editors who with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight should have realized that it was Hwang's photos that had been cloned, instead of the ESCs, the damage was limited to one man's lab.

As the Washington Post's science writer Rick Weiss writes today, ESC research continues uninterrupted. Everyone has learned to be a little more vigilant, and the chances of future opportunities for similar dishonest tactics are that much slighter. The error-correction algorithm built into the scientific method, peer review, appears to be operating quite well, thank you very much.

Of course, scientific fraud will never go away. According to Weiss,
Several scientists and ethicists said it is becoming clear that, if anything, Hwang Woo Suk was a rather typical faker. What made the case big was not the scope or creativeness of his lies, but the extremely high profile of the scientific field in which he chose to perpetrate his charade.
Just this weekend, for example, we learned of a Norwegian researcher who fabricated data on oral cancer. But the lag time between publication and unmasking was only three months this time. The fact remains that the need to replicate any scientific finding means that sooner or later, the truth will out, and the acceleration of the information society means that it will probably be ever more sooner than later.

So what happened to democracy's error-correction algorithms, otherwise known as a well-informed citizenry and free and fair elections? It would seem that too many of us were asleep at the switch.

Obviously the political sphere is far more complicated than the scientific community -- more complex, perhaps, but with more competing motives and conflicting demands. Are there no elements of the scientific approach that we can apply to politics? What about peer review? In a way, the press is supposed to fill this role, by turning to independent experts to evaluate administration claims. But when it comes to national security, independent experts by definition don't have access to all the data. Unfortunately, that leaves us with nothing more than the skeptic's toolbox, one that requires extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

In his book, the Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan offered a "Baloney Detection Kit" to battle paranormal and other pseudo-scientific claims. It might not be a perfect fit for politics, but I think we could do a lot worse:
  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").
  • Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?
  • I humbly suggest that if Colin Powell's case for war, as offered to the U.N., had been subject to the Baloney Detection Kit, it would not have survived long. That's the best I am come up with, anyway. Anyone got a better idea?


    Blogger Dale said...

    Good post, James. But:

    "...the damage was limited to one man's lab...."

    I was originally thinking this, too. My girlfriend is Korean, and has kept me aware of the goings-on. She compares it all to the movie "The Usual Suspects", since it's all rather complicated, and difficult to tell who's who, and who did what.

    Anyway, this morning on the CBC Michael Enright made some passing comment about the difference between this discovery having come out of Seoul National University (the Harvard of Korea) as opposed to 'some more reputable institution' (paraphrased, not directly quoted). The implication was almost that we should expect this kind of fraud from scientists anywhere but in Europe or North America. I realized that from here on in major breakthroughs in Korea are probably likely to receive very heavy scrutiny indeed. Probably heavier and more skeptical scrutiny than they deserve.

    1:31 AM  

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