Some of the responsibilities of a science writer – Part II

Note added in Feb 2015: I am psychic! I kid. I am just saying that I wrote this post a couple of years ago and the vaccines issue is a hot one today, with actual outbreaks directly attributable to anti-vaccination attitudes…


Note: I am still struggling to articulate my thoughts on cases of misinformation that range from slight embellishment to blatant fabrication published on purpose.  Therefore, I know that whatever I write will be incomplete.  I also want to apologize because this is not one of my best posts, but I am still posting it, because I think that this matter is very important…

It is important to point out that what I will not talk about honest mistakes, when an author “commits” one of those, as long as she/he is willing to own it up and fix it, it is perfectly fine.  In fact, this would be something that should be (and has been) praised.  Mistakes are made by literally EVERYONE; it is that simple.

An altogether different matter is to make up things. Sadly, this has happened, still happens and I am sure that it will happen for as long as there are writers. It is up to us alert readers to spot these cases.  As I said in Part I, many of us, including yours truly, are avid nitpickers; it is not a big leap to extend this to bigger and worse “nits”.

That said, in order to be able of spotting made-up things, some knowledge or at least some familiarity with the subject at hand is an indispensable requirement.  The thing is that for many people, popular science writing is the main and sometimes only source of information.  This presents a problem, because this may help perpetuate falsehoods.  Please note that this is the WRITER’S problem, not the reader’s.  In other words, if you buy a non-fiction book, you are entitled to well, non fiction; in other words, facts, plain and simple.

There are several cases that we can use as an example, but I will only talk about three cases.  The first case involves a journalist writing popular science, the second case is about a scientist and popular science writer who allegedly committed scientific fraud and lastly, a medical researcher who most likely, according to an extensive investigation, committed fraud / fabrication of medically-relevant “information”.

Jonah Lehrer was a rather popular and successful science journalist who also had formal training in neuroscience at Columbia University and had further training in Literature and Philosophy at Oxford University.  He even worked with one of the top neuroscientists of the 20th Century, Dr. Eric Kandel, who I met once (and asked him to sign one of his books for me… (:-)… very nice guy!).

The links at the end of this post describe in much more detail the kind of things that Lehrer did in his books and other publications, including making up material, making up quotes and apparently on purpose, self-plagiarizing, essentially republishing material of his own as new material without proper attribution.  He’s written three books: Proust was a Neuroscientist, Imagine: How creativity works and How we decideImagine was pulled off the market by the publishers and it seems that How we decide is going the same way; I am not sure about this last one.  I’ll let you read about the details in the links I mentioned if you are interested.

Now it is time for the stupid question of the day! (Drumroll, please!)

Do you think that I’d be interested on reading anything of his, let alone trust anything that he writes from now on?

In an appalling epilogue (so far?) to this story, the Knight Foundation paid Lehrer $20,000 for a speech where he essentially confessed to what everybody knew he did.

Huh?  O_o

The second case is about Dr. Marc Hauser, formerly of Harvard University.  After an extensive investigation, in 2012 the Office of Research Integrity of the Department of Health and Human Services reported that Hauser fabricated and falsified data in published scientific papers.  Some of that data was published in a paper, that was retracted.

A retraction of a scientific paper is not necessarily a bad thing.  It happens with certain frequency when the researchers themselves find mistakes in the data itself or on its interpretation and analysis.  Again, this kind of honesty is something to be praised.

That said, sometimes a paper needs to be retracted because of misconduct as described above.  In most cases, the authors themselves “withdraw” the paper; the retraction is then announced or published in a subsequent issue of the journal.  In some other cases, as we will see below, the journal itself withdraws the publication.  Remember when we talked about peer review?  Well, this is an example of the imperfection of the peer-review method; sometimes things squeeze through. However, I still think that this is the best way to do it so far.

By the way, would you like to know the title of one of Dr. Hauser’s popular science books?

Moral minds.

Talk about irony.  Please now kindly refer to the “Stupid question of the day” (above).

Remember when in Part I of this post I described some aspects of scientific publishing? One of the points I talked about is the kind of meticulous (is this a real word?) proofreading that should be done before sending a paper to a journal.  We scientists do that because we are supposed to do it, period.  This is one of the not-so-implicit rules of the scientific world.

Amazingly, some researchers seem to think that to paraphrase Captain Jack Sparrow, these are mere “guidelines“.  I am sorry for trying to put some humor here, because as you will see soon enough, this is no laughing matter.

The last example, even though is not directly related to a popular science book, without a doubt has influenced popular science writing in a rather hotly debated issue not only at the scientific level; this most likely harmed people.

The issue is the relationship between vaccines and autism.

Again, dear readers, if you know me, you know how I feel about autism and why.  If this is your first time reading me, welcome!  Some of my thoughts and experiences about autism can be found here, here, here, and here (I have some more posts on that…).

In 1998 Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a former British surgeon (he is no longer licensed to practice medicine in the U.K.) alongside about a dozen additional co-authors, published the following paper in The Lancet, a premier medical journal:

Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.  Lancet. 1998 Feb 28;351(9103):637-41.

One of the main messages implied in this paper was that there was a relationship between vaccinations and autism.  This is a topic that has been around for a while, and to say that there is much confusion about the matter is a vast understatement.  There are a lot of anecdotes, but very little hard, reliable data.

To make the long story short…

(I kind of passed the roughly 1,000 word limit that I impose on myself to avoid boring my wonderful, discerning readers, who have great taste in their blog choices. Please bear with me for a little longer)


…after a long and particularly intense inquiry, it was found that a rather significant fraction of Wakefield’s paper was fabricated, falsified, misconstrued, you name it; the works.  Over time, 10 of the co-authors withdrew themselves from the paper and The Lancet eventually retracted the paper in 2010 (12 years later!).  Some people, including Wakefield himself still stand by the paper and still argue for its basic premise to be correct (see the links below).

In the former two cases (Lehrer and Hauser), deliberate falsehoods in a popular neuroscience book or in a psychology journal are bad enough, but they are unlikely that they will result in immediate physical harm.

The Wakefield case, on the other hand is an entirely different story, especially troubling because one of the consequences of this matter is that understandably, many parents became reluctant to vaccinate their children in light of this wrong information.  Now, I am not aware of any statistics about this, but it stands to reason that at least a fraction of recent children fatalities caused by vaccine-preventable diseases could be attributed to the confusion that this paper caused.

Note that I am not even going to elaborate on the many, many people whose only claim to fame is to have money or being “famous” for any trivial reason who have written books about this matter, advocating simple and fast solutions to autism. There are experts on nothing, yet they have access to easy publicity, which misinforms people.  Trust me, as a parent, I would love to have easy answers. Don’t you think that I would jump at the mere chance of helping my boy? Alas, nothing related to autism is simple.

To make this perfectly clear, all the best, reliable research tells us that there is no link between vaccines and autism, but this does not means that there is none.  Autism is a spectrum disorder; this means that it comes in many “versions” that differ on how they are manifested and on their severity. I have compared autism with cancer, in the sense that an approach that may work to treat a certain type of cancer may not work with another type. It may be the same thing with autism.

Which brings to mind another aftereffect of this discredited research.  Do you think that after this, there will be many qualified doctors that will touch this topic with a 10-foot stick?  All the possible good, even great research that could actually throw some light on the matter will be significantly delayed to say the least.

Going back to the main topic of this post, the main question that can be asked is:

What were these guys thinking?

Scientific fraud and plagiarism have been around ever since there has been science and writing, respectively, that is not the issue.  The thing is that nowadays is easier than ever to find out about it!  For good, bad or worst, there is a quite unimaginable amount of information online.  Heck, even at my job, I can ask my students to upload their assignments in a system that will give me a % of similarity on whatever work they submit, cross-referenced with internet sources! I have caught a couple of students plagiarizing work, with “grade harming consequences”.

In other words, now anything can be easily researched and verified.  This is one of the points that are essential to understand why I find so puzzling that some people still engage in this kind of practice and think they will not get caught.

Arrogance? Greed?  I have no idea, however, in the end, I believe that one of the benefits of the easy availability of information that allow us to verify practically everything is to enforce honesty.

Why does it have to be this way?



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  1. Yes indeed. By the way, do not be so hard on yourself. That’s all we can do, be honest. If there is a mistake all we have to do is acknowledge it and fix it. As for why the lies, etc., it is also a mystery to me, especially in this time and age. It is like the way I finished the post; in our times technology will tend to enforce honesty. Now, that makes me a little sad, but it is what it is. It may not be a bad thing after all.

  2. As I’ve mentioned, I think this is an important subject and I’m glad you’re writing about it. A few weeks ago a podcast I follow recommended Imagine: How creativity works. Their description made the book sound really exciting, so I was looking forward to buying it; imagine my disappointment when I realized that it was by Jonah Lehrer. I’d heard about his wrongdoings and simply didn’t trust his writing — a death knell for a science writer. One of the things that bothered me at the time was the idea that other people might buy the books without having heard about what happened, so I’m really glad to hear that the publisher is withdrawing them; hopefully that, in combination with the press coverage, will limit the damage.

    Of course, the situation is a bit different with the autism-vaccination story. The misinformation spread by a story like that remains in the public’s awareness and poisons discussion about a subject long after the original paper has been retracted. In this sort of case, it’s not as simple as removing the original source; science communicators also have to make a continued, concerted effort to set the record straight.

    I don’t know what people are thinking when they do something like this. I recently got called out for oversimplifying something on Inspiring Science; even though that was an honest mistake, it hit me like a physical blow. I work hard to make my writing correct as well as clear. It’s very hard for me to understand the motivation to lie, fabricate, and cheat in this line of work, but clearly it exists.

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