Human Exceptionalism

Red Wine Fraud Charge Illuminates Peer Review Failures

Once again fraudulent scientific research has made the headlines–this time regarding the supposed health benefits of drinking red wine.  From the Reuters story:

A University of Connecticut researcher who studied the link between aging and a substance found in red wine has committed more than 100 acts of data fabrication and falsification, the university said Wednesday, throwing much of his work into doubt. Dipak K. Das, who directed the university’s Cardiovascular Research Center, studied resveratrol, touted by a number of scientists and companies as a way to slow aging or remain healthy as people get older. Among his findings, according to a work promoted by the University of Connecticut in 2007, was that “the pulp of grapes is as heart-healthy as the skin, even though the antioxidant properties differ.”

“We have a responsibility to correct the scientific record and inform peer researchers across the country,” Philip Austin, the university’s interim vice president for health affairs, said in a statement. The university said an anonymous tip led to an investigation that began in 2008. A 60,000-page report — the summary of which is available at bit.ly/xkyS4A — resulted, outlining 145 counts of fabrication and falsification of data. Other members of Das’ laboratory may have been involved, and are being investigated, the report continues.

This kind of story, while not concerning a major matter as these things go, is becoming all too common.  Off the top of my head: The Hwang Woo-suk human cloning fraud (for which he was never adequately punished); the potential polar bears are drowning from melted ice distortion that was used to promote global warming fears, and the Dutch scientist who faked data throughout his career. Perhaps most damagingly, the childhood vaccines cause autism fiasco that harmed children’s health and fed paranoia conspiracy theories. Alas, the list could go on and on.

This doesn’t only hurt trust in science but impacts public policy and people’s behavior. How often do media and blogs tout peer reviewed studies as the bases for favored public policies?  How often do legislators reflexively push legislation?  How many people change their behavior based on these stories?

It isn’t enough to say that science is self correcting.  That is generally true but can take years. The problem clearly seems to be in the peer review system itself–which I think is worsened when the subject has political ramifications–as demonstrated by the many Climategate e-mails.  Some scientists are saying the same thing.

We need a trustworthy science sector.  And we need to stop reflexively reacting to every scientific study that comes along.  We also need to stop  looking at science as akin to religion, as some do. Science is a human endeavor and will therefore always be imperfect. Let’s keep that in mind the next time we hear, “The scientists say…”

Oh, and get this:

UConn has “declined to accept $890,000 in federal grants awarded to” Das, according to the statement, and has begun dismissal proceedings.

Good for the university, but is studying the health effects of red wine really a productive use of scarce federal resource dollars?  If red wine is so good for us–and I love a good Cabernet regardless of whether it prevents heart disease–let the wine industry or companies that would seek to use the knowledge to create supplements foot the research bill.

The time has come to audit what the federal government funds to make sure the money is invested only in the most important work. In this regard, Eisenhower’s warning that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite,” made in the same speech as he warned about the “military industrial complex,” remains worth contemplating.

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