Monday, January 16, 2006

Hwang Woo Suk

Dang it's been awhile since I posted here. Sorry about the lag. Stupid life getting in the way.

I just posted a comment over at Chris Mooney's blog over at (new to the links tab, by the way) about some of this, but thought I would also summarize some thoughts about the Korean Stem Cell Scandal. OK, maybe it's not a scandal, but I think it at the very least approaches debacle or fiasco level. Which of those is worse, by the way?

My first impulse, much like Derek Lowe's, is that this is just proof that the system works. And it worked rather rapidly, if you consider when the recently retracted stem cell papers came out. Often, it is years and years before faked data is discovered and outed. But the journal-mediated peer-review process is only one part of a systemic review process that is inherent to science.

It is probably true that some journals are more rigorous than others with their review process. It's also likely true that more care is taken to review papers which claim results that others have previously tried to repeat and failed...'landmark' papers, if you will. But it also likely true that if you had the most rigorous review process in the world, some faked data would still fall through the cracks. The system (all systems?) is not foolproof. But there are other levels of control too, like your weekly lab meetings with advisors/bosses/peers, your lab notebook, others on your floor peering over your shoulder, etc.... There are hundreds and hundreds of checks and balances like this, that are not immediately obvious, but contribute to the "validity" of your work as a scientist. It's the "silent review process". And people tend to notice when there is smoke, and suspect there is fire.

In addition, the great thing about hard science, unlike philosophy or more social sciences, is that it is driven by primary data. Therefore, the data is always the final word. And where that data has been faked, even this can be overcome, because ultimately the ground breaking discovery you just made is only truly groundbreaking if it lives up to its potential by being repeated by yourself and others down the road.


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