Understanding Scientific Fraud (Part 1)


Major scientific fraud happens.  Sometimes the results of fraud do not have tremendous impacts to public health and safety.  Sometimes they do.  Significant and intentional fraud are the ones that get the most attention, but there are many other problems that arise in research that will also skew the results in the ways that cause preconceived results, even if it is only by not being careful enough.

Woo Suk Hwang

In the past decade there have been several major instances of scientific fraud.  The first one I would like to discuss is the case of Woo Suk Hwang from the Seoul National University.  He led a team of researchers in South Korea and the United States that were working on stem cell research.   In 2004-2005 he published a series of articles in highly respected journals that showed remarkable progress in the ability to to create specific cells for patients.  The progress was amazing and the potential benefits would have changed medical research, but it was all a fabricated lie.  They were able to completely fool the 5 scientists and the editor of Science and Nature magazine.  Despite the high profile nature of Woo Suk Hwang‘s fraud, he is still performing research with his latest major announcement being in 2009.  The motive seems to be a mix of celebrity and grant money.  While this fraud may have gotten the most attention, it had the least impact to actual people.  It was more of a false hope fraud.

This next major fraud has impacted millions of lives.  It is the case of Eric Poehlman.  His research was into hormone replacement therapy for post menopausal women.  His theory has resulted in millions or women receiving hormone replacement therapy that science has now found provides no benefit, but has real health risks.  His fraud was not for fame as much as it was to make the results fit the theory.  His theory was that hormones after menopause would help women.  When the data showed health benefits without the hormone replacement, he faked the data to make the results fit his theory.  Once again millions of dollars flowed into this research.  His results helped secure more money for future research.  When one of the staff reported the faked data to the University, they realized it was not the first time he had faked the data.  He is the first researcher to be thrown in prison for fraudulent research.

The last one is the one I consider the greatest of the three frauds I have chosen.  It is the one that is currently in the news a great deal.  It is the false connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.  Andrew Wakefield was a doctor that that launched the fear of vaccines’ back in 1998.  Untold lawsuits against the companies that make the vaccine have been made in the past 12 years and there are still websites from lawyers up looking for clients.  The British Medical Journal finally stated outright that the research was false.  It was not the scientists that caught the fraud though.  It was a journalist by the name of Brian Deer that finally brought this to light.  The medical community protected Wakefield for years, even as evidence mounted that there was no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.  Aside from the frivolous lawsuits, parents stopped giving their children the potentially life saving vaccine as a result of this peer-reviewed research.

Andrew Wakefield

The case of Andrew Wakefield is even more about money than the other cases.  He was hired by a group of lawyers to make a case against the 3-in-1 shot.  Lawyers were able to hire this doctor for a little more than half a million dollars to falsify a study that showed a link between autism and the shot.  The group of patients were selected ahead of time to ensure that the results were as expected.   Perhaps billions of dollars over the course of the past decade were made over this single, intentionally false peer-reviewed article.  In a bit of irony to many climate skeptics, the results were based on only 12 carefully selected patients.

Most disturbing in the Wakefield case is how difficult it was to get support to investigate that the paper was a fraud.  Other researchers say it doesn’t matter than he committed fraud, it only matters that he was wrong in his results.  Mr. Deer who spent years as a journalist into the story was stymied.  Medical researchers indicated to him that this was a research issue and not one for people that were not medical researchers.  Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick called the entire investigation a witch-hunt.  Dr. Fitzpatrick makes good points about the corrupt lawyers and raises other valid points, but he continues to defend Dr. Wakefield.

Money, fame and power.  The researchers in all of these cases of fraud benefitted financially and perhaps more importantly, they gained prestige as a result of their fraud.  In these cases there was intentional fraud.  In these cases there should be severe consequences, especially when there is real impact to people or the environment.  However, only when there was deliberate falsifying of data should there be a serious consequence.  In other cases, merely having to retract a major article is embarrassing enough to keep many researchers in line.

Posted in Bad Science by inconvenientskeptic on January 19th, 2011 at 1:17 am.

5 comments

This post has 5 comments

  1. intrepid_wanders Jan 19th 2011

    While I have no issues with the MMR and any other childhood booster shots, I do take exception to the Influenza Vaccines.

    I have only had one in my lifetime, with a mild reaction that was to be expected after inoculation. Within a month, I did contract the standard influenza with all of the symptoms and intensity that I recalled from all other infections with Influenza (usually on a frequency of once every 5 years). So I stopped taking the vaccine.

    Over quite a few years, I observed fellow co-workers that took advantage of the free flu vaccinces, and had received that silly sticker indicating that they received the vaccine. I kept a small spreadsheet for use while on hold with vendors or field service technicians and tracked the data.

    Results were similar up to 70%. First, half of the identified participants had the mild reaction to the inoculation and missed at least one day in the first week. 5-8 weeks out, 40% missed work. Of that 40%, one quarter missed work for more than 1 week (That I characterized as a flu), while the rest missed the 2-3 days (Which I characterized as a common cold or “benefits” of the vaccine).

    All but one of other “non-vaccinated” missed any days that year. The percentage may fluctuate from year to year, but the pattern remains. The only other interesting note is that this was in a cleanroom environment (class 10 for those that care), which are notorious for recycling viruses (I think the transition air-showers, but not sure).

    Obviously, I do not think all vaccines are bad, but I think the Influenza Vaccine needs a lot of work.

  2. Richard Sharpe Jan 20th 2011

    Hmmm, why three medicine-related frauds? What’s wrong with Piltdown man?

  3. inconvenientskeptic Jan 21st 2011

    I don’t think that fits as peer-reviewed modern fraud. The ones I picked are modern fraud by what should be respected scientists.

    Piltdown is more prankish in nature. 😀

  4. jorgekafkazar Jan 23rd 2011

    Intrepid: Please parse “All but one of other ‘non-vaccinated’ missed any days that year.” Does it say what you really intended?

  5. intrepid_wanders Jan 25th 2011

    Opps… lets try that again…

    “Only one person of the ‘non-vaccinated group’ had an ‘unscheduled-vacation period’ that year.” 😉

    Got to get back into the proof reading…

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