News this Week

Science  11 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5984, pp. 1336

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  1. Science and The Law

    fMRI Lie Detection Fails a Legal Test

    1. Greg Miller

    Lie-detection technology that uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of brain activity is not yet ready for use in the courtroom, a federal magistrate judge in Tennessee decided last week. Defense attorneys for Lorne Semrau, a psychologist accused of defrauding Medicare and other health-benefit providers, had sought to introduce fMRI brain scans to show that their client had no intention of cheating the government and other insurers. But after a pretrial hearing in mid-May that featured testimony from scientists on both sides of the issue, Magistrate Judge Tu Pham concluded that the scans don't measure up to the federal courts' standards for scientific evidence. Pham's 39-page report is the most formal legal opinion yet on this controversial technology, and although other courts don't have to follow suit, legal experts say it is likely to be influential.

    “I think Judge Pham got it right,” says Owen Jones, a law professor at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville who attended the pretrial hearing. “He did a very thorough job, which will be useful for the courts that will have to confront similar issues in the future.” Pham stopped well short of saying fMRI lie detection should never be admitted in court, however. In fact, says Jones, the report may give the companies developing this technology valuable guidance on the kinds of research that would improve their chances of getting it admitted in the future.

    The government alleges that between 1999 and 2005, Semrau directed staff at two nursing homes he owned to submit fraudulent claims totaling about $3 million. To convict Semrau, the government must show that he intended to cheat insurers. Defense attorneys assert that Semrau had no such intent, but was confused by unclear rules on reimbursement. They hoped to introduce fMRI scans performed by Cephos, a Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, company, that purportedly show that Semrau is telling the truth.


    fMRI scans may detect a neural signature of lying in the lab, but a federal judge says they're not ready for use in court.


    But prosecutors requested a so-called Daubert hearing, named after a 1993 Supreme Court case that established guidelines used by most federal courts to weigh the admissibility of scientific evidence. These guidelines suggest that a given technology should meet four criteria: It should be subject to empirical testing, published in the peer-reviewed literature, have a known error rate, and be generally accepted in the scientific community. The Semrau case provided the first Daubert hearing for fMRI lie detection. “To me it's very exciting,” says Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania who flew to Memphis to observe the hearing. “I mean, talk about the interface between neuroscience and society, this is it.”

    Farah, like many neuroscientists, is deeply skeptical about using fMRI lie detection in legal cases, and she says she went into the hearing thinking there was no chance the judge would allow it as evidence. But after a day and a half of testimony, she wasn't so sure. Cephos CEO Steven Laken “spoke in very strong and confident terms” about published research finding that certain regions of the brain become more active when a person lies, Farah said. (For her play-by-play of the hearing, see ScienceInsider Laken also described the procedure Semrau underwent. In short, Cephos scanned Semrau's brain as he answered questions about details of his case and compared those scans with others taken as he answered questions unrelated to the case, after being instructed to intentionally lie on certain questions and respond truthfully to others.

    Judge Pham concluded that fMRI detection appears to meet the first two Daubert criteria—that is, it is testable and has been described in several peer-reviewed articles—but falls short on the criteria regarding error rates and acceptance by the scientific community.

    At the Daubert hearing, Peter Imrey, a biostatistician at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, provided a detailed critique of the impressively low error rates cited in Cephos's promotional materials and in papers published by Laken and colleagues. Pham took note of this and also expressed concern that the available error rates come from carefully controlled laboratory experiments. “There are no known error rates for fMRI-based lie detection outside the laboratory setting, i.e. in the ‘real-world,’” he wrote.

    As for acceptance of the method by the scientific community of fMRI-based lie-detection technology, Pham noted that even a 2008 paper in Directions in Psychiatry coauthored by two members of Cephos's scientific advisory board had stated that the method wasn't ready for prime time: “The authors conclude by stating ‘Functional MRI is currently not ready to be used in real-world lie detection,’” Pham wrote.

    Pham's report emphasizes the disconnect between the published work on fMRI lie detection, which generally involves scans performed on college undergraduates instructed to lie about a mock crime, and Semrau's case. Semrau was 63 at the time of his first scan, his alleged crimes happened several years earlier, and he faces serious consequences if convicted. More naturalistic experiments that try to account for such factors might help proponents of fMRI lie detection make a stronger case, say Jones and Farah.

    Laken declined to comment specifically on Judge Pham's ruling or what it means for Cephos's plans to develop its technology. “This is just one ruling,” he says, noting that it doesn't necessarily apply to other jurisdictions. In the week since the court decision was released, Laken claims Cephos has received an uptick in queries about its services.

  2. Newsmaker Interview: Yoon Duk Yong

    Crime Scene Investigation: The Sinking of the Cheonan

    1. Dennis Normile

    Simmering tensions on the Korean Peninsula are threatening to boil over following the South's accusation last month that a North Korean submarine torpedoed and sank one of its naval ships, killing 46 sailors. The North has angrily denied the charge. But “there is no other plausible explanation,” contends Yoon Duk Yong, former president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, who co-led an investigation into the incident.

    The 1200-ton Cheonan was ripped in two by an explosion near disputed waters in the Yellow Sea on 26 March. The two Koreas have had several naval clashes in the area since a 1953 armistice halted hostilities; technically they are still at war. But the latest incident may be the gravest. To determine what happened, the South Korean government assembled an international team of experts led by Yoon and a military investigator.

    A native Korean, Yoon, 70, earned a bachelor's degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard University, both in Cambridge. He was on the faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, until joining KAIST in 1972. He served as KAIST president from 1995 to 1998 and now chairs the University Advisory Council at Pohang University of Science and Technology.

    Yoon, a materials scientist, is not sure why he was tapped to head the investigation. Visual inspections, simulations, chemical analyses, and explosives testing all indicated that a torpedo exploded beneath the Cheonan, creating a massive bubble jet that burst through the hull. Then on 15 May, dredging crews found torpedo fragments at the site. “We have reached the clear conclusion that the Cheonan was sunk as the result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea,” Yoon reported at a press briefing in Seoul on 20 May.

    According to news reports, South Korea plans to take the case to the U.N. Security Council, though as Science went to press it was not yet clear what action it would request. North Korea has said that punitive actions could lead to war. With the stakes so high, Russia last week sent a delegation to South Korea to examine the evidence. Yoon says experts from China would also be welcome.

    In an interview with Science, Yoon laid out the case against the North.

    Q: How did the investigation proceed?

    Y.D.Y.: We considered all possible causes, including grounding, collision, internal explosion, fatigue failure, and accidental attack by a friendly force. But these were ruled out one by one. The possibility of an explosion under the ship was supported by the deformation and fracture of the ship's hull.

    In addition, there were traces of explosive chemicals and amorphous aluminum oxide formed from aluminum powder in the explosive. Aluminum powder is added to torpedo or mine explosives to increase the explosive and bubble effects. An acoustic signal detected at the moment of the incident indicated an explosion equivalent to about 260 kilograms of TNT. And a computer simulation showed an explosive effect of about 200 to 300 kilograms of TNT detonated at a point below the ship.

    But the smoking gun was the torpedo [debris], consisting of two propellers, a motor, and steering wings. They were found close to the explosion point along with debris from the sunken ship. Furthermore, the oxidation of the steel pieces [of the torpedo] was roughly the same as that found on the fractured bow of the ship, and the same amorphous aluminum oxide produced by the explosive was found on the propellers and motor. The estimated explosive strength of the torpedo agreed with that expected to have caused the damage to the ship. The recovered parts agree exactly in size and shape with detailed drawings prepared by North Korea to export these torpedoes. Additional evidence was the writing of “No. 1” in Hangul, the Korean alphabet, on a metal plate near the screws. We concluded that these propulsion parts came from the torpedo that was made by North Korea and used to attack the Cheonan.

    Smoking gun.

    Materials scientist Yoon Duk Yong gestures toward the remains of a torpedo, apparently made in North Korea, that was found in the area where the Cheonan went down.


    Q: Without that smoking gun, how strong would your evidence have been?

    Y.D.Y.: I think our conclusions would have been less definitive and convincing. We would have had to draw our conclusion on the basis of circumstantial and indirect evidence, which was still quite substantial.

    Q: What did international experts bring to the investigation?

    Y.D.Y.: They were invited to enhance the objectivity and credibility. Korea had never had a naval incident like this before. But these countries [Australia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States] had similar incidents dating back to the Second World War. Some members of the international team had investigated recent incidents involving their ships and those of other countries. Some are also knowledgeable of tests in which old ships were sunk by torpedoes. They contributed a great deal to setting the direction of the investigation for the Cheonan incident and reaching a unanimous conclusion.

    Q: Have outside experts raised any questions about your methods or conclusions?

    Y.D.Y.: There were no really serious objections about the methods. I think the physical evidence is so clear and definitive that any experts will agree with our conclusion.

  3. U.S.-Indonesia Agreement

    U.S. Effort to Reach Out to Muslim-Majority Nations Begins to Bear Fruit

    1. Richard Stone
    Deep relationship.

    The U.S.'s Okeanos Explorer (inset) and an Indonesian ship are joining forces this summer to explore the diverse ecology of the Coral Triangle.


    JAKARTA—Crisscrossed with fissures and vents, the sea floor off Java Island's northern coast is a patchwork of unusual ecosystems. In its first international mission, the U.S. research vessel Okeanos Explorer early this summer will team up with an Indonesian vessel, the Baruna Jaya IV, to probe the ecological hotbed.

    The expedition ushers in a new era in science cooperation between Indonesia and the United States. The two countries have just inked their first S&T agreement, which is now awaiting ratification by Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. And two high-profile initiatives are in the works. In the coming weeks, the United States is expected to unveil an extensive education package, including university partnerships and dedicated funds for S&T collaboration; funding for the package could top $150 million. It will also tap Indonesia to host a regional center for climate change, one of the centers of excellence for the Muslim world that U.S. President Barack Obama promised to establish in a landmark speech in Cairo last year. (Both initiatives were to be announced this month during Obama's planned visit to Indonesia, which was postponed.)

    Other signs of a closer relationship include an annual Frontiers of Science meeting that the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI) and the U.S. National Academies intend to launch next year to spark collaborations between top young scientists. And an Indonesian-U.S. team is now drilling ice cores from a tropical glacier (Science, 28 May, p. 1084). “This whole spectrum of activities will strengthen ties between our two countries,” says Jason Rao, a senior policy analyst at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    Yudhoyono spoke of Indonesia's own efforts to bolster science in a January speech to AIPI, urging researchers to take risks and “be much more open-minded and more progressive” than in the past. He returned to the theme in a meeting in Jakarta last month with Bruce Alberts, Science's editor-in-chief and one of three science envoys appointed by Obama to explore collaborations with Muslim-majority countries. Discussions are also under way on creating a merit-based agency similar to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). After years of stagnation, researchers here sense “the beginning of a renaissance,” says medicinal chemist Umar Anggara Jenie, chair of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta.

    The United States is playing a critical supporting role in this revival. In his speech, Yudhoyono cited cooperation in technology and education as key elements of a “new strategic partnership” between the two countries. Another impetus is Indonesia's problem with homegrown terrorists. In Cairo, Obama vowed to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries. “We understand his intention to bridge Islamic civilization and the West. Science is the best way to do this,” says AIPI President Sangkot Marzuki, director of the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology (EIMB).

    Indonesia's first biosafety level-3 lab—capable of handling the most dangerous pathogens—opened here recently at EIMB. Eijkman's forensics lab, meanwhile, has aided the government's antiterrorism efforts. “Indonesia has made tremendous strides in science since I first began working here in 1987,” says J. Kevin Baird, director of the Eijkman-Oxford Clinical Research Unit. “There are definite new signs of scientific vibrancy.” Another bright spot is Universitas Pelita Harapan, which is building a nanotechnology research center. And in Bogor, LIPI has just opened an International Center for Interdisciplinary and Advanced Research. The center, which aims to hire several hundred young research staff members, will focus on hot issues such as climate change, food security, green technology, and crisis management.

    To stimulate innovation, Yudhoyono is expected to announce a national oversight committee chaired by Zuhal (who uses one name), rector of Universitas Al-Azhar and a former science minister. Also, a program soon to be launched will give block grants to industry for R&D. The idea is to “shift the mindset” that innovation only occurs in research institutions, says Teguh Rahardjo of the State Ministry of Research and Technology. The private sector, Rahardjo says, will be expected to contribute a rising share of the nation's R&D spending.

    Huge challenges remain. Since Yudhoyono took office in 2004, the government's R&D budget has doubled to roughly $200 million. Still, that's a paltry 0.06% of GDP. “How can you do excellent science on such little money? If you want to be an innovative nation, you can't do it on 0.06%,” says LIPI materials scientist Sunit Hendrana. That has meant scant resources for merit-based grants. “I heard this over and over from young scientists,” says Alberts, who spent 11 days in Indonesia last month. “Our most important need is a foundation like the NSF,” says Marzuki, who says AIPI may try to set one up with private sources and matching U.S. funds.

    A more fundamental concern is science education. The government intends to triple university enrollment in natural sciences to 12% by 2014. But students are ill-prepared: Primary school science education is woeful, researchers contend. Plans are under way to bring Indonesian educators to a workshop on inquiry science for children next month at the National Science Resource Center in Washington, D.C., run by the National Academies and the Smithsonian Institution. “The hope is to initiate an impressive program of science education in one or two carefully selected Indonesian school districts,” says Alberts.

    If the pilot project succeeds, Alberts says, “this would support Indonesian hopes to become an enlightened model for other Muslim-majority nations and beyond.” To Rao, that's exactly what the enhanced S&T collaboration with Indonesia is meant to achieve.

  4. U.S. Science Policy

    Obama's Nominee to Lead NSF Lauded for Science and Management Skills

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Intense but relaxed. Driven but calm. Supremely confident, yet self-effacing enough to gain the trust of those who might disagree with him.

    A portrait of President Barack Obama? Some may think so. But the description comes from colleagues asked about the president's latest scientific appointment: Subra Suresh, dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was nominated last week to become the next director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

    The 54-year-old Suresh isn't well known in Washington, D.C., science policy circles. But his ability to maintain a cutting-edge lab even as he ascended the administrative ranks at MIT—hired as a professor in 1993, he became head of the department of materials science and engineering in 2000 and dean in 2007—is thought to have put him at the top of the list of candidates compiled by John Holdren, the president's science adviser (Science, 19 March, p. 1438).

    Suresh stood out even at elite institutions like MIT, where he finished his doctorate in mechanical engineering in 2 years, and at the University of California, Berkeley, where he did a postdoc, says Robert Ritchie, his advisor at MIT, who brought Suresh with him when he moved to UC Berkeley. “The thing about Subra is that, while he'll take on tasks that are quite complex, you know from the start that he'll succeed,” says Ritchie. “And he'll make sure that his other duties don't suffer. I think he's the perfect candidate for the [NSF] job.”

    Born in India and educated at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Suresh has moved into new research fields without missing a beat. It's allowed him to go from studying fatigue in large structures such as airplane wings to probing the characteristics of microelectronic materials to understanding the biomechanics of malaria-infected human red blood cells. “It's not interdisciplinary research,” explains Ben Freund, an engineering professor at Brown University and a former dean who hired Suresh for his first faculty position and who later co-authored a popular textbook with him on thin films. “It's moving from the interface of two disciplines to the interface of two other disciplines.”

    Lucky 13?

    Subra Suresh would be NSF's 13th director.


    Suresh's career is studded with such collaborations. Ares Rosakis, chair of the division of engineering and applied sciences at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, savors a 25-year research partnership that began when Suresh was an assistant professor at Brown and includes a shortlived start-up company to provide diagnostic tools for the semiconductor industry. “That can put a strain on any relationship,” says Rosakis about the company, Oraxion Diagnostics, he and Suresh launched in 2003 and sold 3 years later to a private company. “But he's such a delightful partner even that experience went smoothly.”

    Those interpersonal skills have also served him well as an academic administrator. Freund says Suresh's efforts to strengthen course offerings within MIT's materials science department, for example, “would have caused a revolt among most faculty.” But Suresh “got people to buy into the changes.” And David Parks, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT who has known Suresh for 30 years, says “I don't think I've ever seen him in anything other than good humor. His attitude is, ‘Let's get this done.’ He's very confident. And his presentations are so clear and well done that after hearing them, you just want to go along.”

    Ritchie and others are betting that Suresh will continue to do science even as he runs the $7 billion NSF, which supports fundamental research across all scientific and engineering disciplines. “I think he'll find a way,” says Ritchie. If so, he would be possibly the first NSF director to continue an active research program. Confirmation by the U.S. Senate would make Suresh the 13th director of the 60-year-old agency, the fifth engineer, and the first of Asian descent. Acting Deputy NSF Director Cora Marrett has succeeded Arden Bement, who returned to Purdue University last week to lead a new global science policy institute.

  5. Science Funding

    Merger to Create New Voice for European Science

    1. Daniel Clery

    In an effort to simplify the alphabet soup of the continent's research landscape, two pan-European bodies have begun planning a merger. The aim is to create a single, and more powerful, voice for the national science funding agencies that control some €25 billion annually—by far the largest slice of public money available to the region's scientists (see chart). The heads of Europe's national research councils, who gather regularly under the soubriquet EUROHORCS, look set to join forces with the European Science Foundation (ESF), which funds research, backs research networks and conferences, and develops science policy, mostly with money from EUROHORCS members. “We will try to combine the best things that characterized the two organizations in the past and have the courage to leave out others, ” says Dieter Imboden, current EUROHORCS president. The new body, which could begin work next year, has been given the tentative working title of the European Research Organization (ERO).

    Big slice.

    A new European organization formed by a merger will represent some €25 billion in science funding.


    The move has been prompted in part by the growing influence of the European Union over the continent's research policies, in particular its efforts to harmonize national science career structures and funding systems so that researchers can move freely from country to country—a goal known as the European Research Area (ERA). “Europe has to be a little bit like the U.S. and get this very fluid movement of people and money, ” says Arnold Migus, former director general of France's research agency, CNRS.

    The national funding bodies of EUROHORCS, which also includes ones from non-E.U. states such as Norway and Turkey, came late to the ERA bandwagon. After the European Union published a discussion document on the ERA in 2007, EUROHORCS decided to support the process and wanted to influence it. EUROHORCS teamed up with ESF to draw on its policymaking expertise, and the two bodies produced their own road map of actions to achieve an ERA. These include allowing researchers to take funding with them if they move to an institution in another country, harmonizing peer review and career structures, promoting open access to results, and making it easier to create cross-border infrastructures.

    The problem was that, although EUROHORCS members provide about 85% of Europe's public research funding, they were not getting their collective message across. “We realized that the voice from EUROHORCS and ESF was not very clear, ” says Pär Omling, head of the Swedish Research Council and a former EUROHORCS president. From the outside, and particularly from the E.U. government's point of view, it wasn't clear why there are two organizations.

    ESF was created in the 1970s by a few funders that wanted to collaborate on certain projects. Since then it has grown to include 79 organizations, including bodies that fund research and bodies that carry it out, as well as Western-style science academies, which are essentially learned societies. With its modest annual budget of about €50 million, ESF has never carved out a role as the preeminent European funding body. “It's been kept on a short leash by its members, ” says Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, an E.U. funding agency. “It's had a hard time looking for a profile.”

    “European science is badly served.”

    ESF's Ian Halliday.


    The members of EUROHORCS, on the other hand, control large budgets, but the organization has no headquarters or staff. “EUROHORCS has gained momentum. It's now a partner with [the E.U.], but it's a bunch of generals without soldiers, ” says Imboden, who also heads the National Research Council in Switzerland. “Faced with this situation, we could either found our own secretariat or use the ESF.”

    The current plan of taking the latter course will not be simple. EUROHORCS would like an office in Brussels and ESF is headquartered in Strasbourg with some 125 staff. In addition, ESF includes academies that are learned societies, but “EUROHORCS really wants an organization of funding agencies,” says ESF President Ian Halliday. Working groups are hammering out the details of the merger for approval by EUROHORCS and ESF's assembly in the autumn.

    One major change is that ESF's grant-giving function will cease. According to Halliday, the new body will be much stronger in policy advice, in foresight—setting the agenda for European science—and in joint programming. ERO will coordinate the efforts of different national agencies in key areas to avoid duplication. For example, in energy research, Halliday says, there's no strategic plan across the region: “European science is badly served.”

    After a meeting of ESF's governing council last month, the two bodies have a mandate to move the merger forward. “We are in a process. A year ago it looked like mission impossible, and the situation is not solved yet, ” says Imboden. “I'd be extremely surprised if it's not successful, ” says Omling. “The momentum is there.”


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Learning the Mongoose Ways The select club of brainy critters known for carrying on traditions—among them humans, primates, whales, and dolphins—has an unlikely new member: the banded mongoose. Researchers have found that the furry African carnivore learns by imitation as well and carries what it learns well into adulthood. Experts say the discovery offers the first direct observation of animals passing down traditions in the wild.


    Crocodiles Know How to Ride the Tides The giant crocodiles that ply Australia's rivers and bays are also savvy ocean voyagers: The 5-meter-long reptiles make good use of ocean and river currents to travel hundreds of kilometers, according to one of the most extensive monitoring studies of the animals ever attempted. And like experienced sailors, they prefer to navigate when the tides are in their favor.

    Elusive Particle Caught in Strange Appearing Act Like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, an international team of physicists has made one kind of neutrino appear from the beam of another type of neutrino. Their odd observation clinches the case that these elusive particles can transform into another in a process called neutrino oscillations, an idea that had gained wide acceptance in recent years but had not been directly observed.

    Tracking Disease Through Mosquito Slobber This is nothing to spit at: Scientists say they may be able to track deadly mosquito-borne diseases by studying the saliva the insects leave behind when they feed on sugary bait.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more at

  7. Human Genetics

    Who Are the Jews? Genetic Studies Spark Identity Debate

    1. Michael Balter
    Far-flung family.

    Ethiopian Jews (left) are genetically distant from others but observe Jewish customs.


    The world's 13 million Jews are strongly linked by religion and culture. But do they share a common genetic heritage? Two new studies conclude that most members of the far-flung Jewish Diaspora can trace their roots to ancestors who lived in the Middle East more than 2000 years ago. The new research, based on recent advances in genome technology, apparently refutes controversial claims that most of today's Jews descend from more recent converts. And it finds that Jews in Ethiopia and India who also claim origins in ancient Israel are more distantly related to other Jewish groups. Yet some researchers argue that although science can track Jewish ancestry, it has little to say about who is a Jew today.

    The studies “clearly show a genetic common ancestry” of most Jewish populations, says Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, thus indicating a distinct Jewish people through history. Indeed, says Harry Ostrer, a geneticist at New York University Medical School and leader of one of the teams, the genomewide scans used in the studies can detect Jewish ancestry in anonymous DNA samples. But Doron Behar, a geneticist at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Israel, and lead author of the second report, argues that genes do not necessarily make the Jew. There is no “metaphysical” difference between someone born Jewish and a convert to Judaism, Behar says.

    The two studies—one led by Behar and published online this week in Nature, and Ostrer's, published last week in The American Journal of Human Genetics—speak to a current debate about Jewish origins, including that of the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe, who make up 90% of American Jews and nearly 50% of Israeli Jews. Tel Aviv University historian Shlomo Sand's 2008 book The Invention of the Jewish People argued that few modern Jews can trace their heritage to ancient Israel. He in part resurrects a thesis, made famous by writer Arthur Koestler in the 1970s, that Ashkenazi Jews are actually descended from a Turkic people in Central Asia whose rulers converted to Judaism in the 8th century C.E.

    The new studies contradict that conclusion. Both teams used DNA microarrays to examine variation within Jewish groups worldwide and between those groups and non-Jewish populations. Microarrays allow comparisons of thousands of genetic differences, from single nucleotide pairs to longer stretches of DNA, between different individuals (Science, 21 December 2007, p. 1842). This genomewide approach is much more powerful than previous analyses of Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA, which were often inconclusive.

    The Ostrer team analyzed nuclear DNA from 237 Jews representing the three main Diaspora groups: Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal; and Middle Eastern, or Oriental, Jews. Their DNA was compared with that of about 2800 presumably non-Jewish people from around the world. The Behar study employed smaller sample sizes—121 Jews and 1166 non-Jews—but from more population groups and also analyzed 8000 non-Jewish Y chromosomes and 14,000 mtDNA genomes.

    The studies came up with very similar results: Jews from the three Diaspora groups were closer to each other genetically than to non-Jews from the same geographic region. Indeed, the Ostrer study found that Ashkenazi Jews were as closely related to each other as fourth or fifth cousins, even though their genetic profiles indicated between 30% and 60% admixture with non-Jewish Europeans. Jewish groups also clustered tightly with non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations such as the Druze and the Cypriots, strongly suggesting an origin in that geographic region. “I would hope that these observations would put the idea that Jewishness is just a cultural construct to rest,” Ostrer says.

    The Behar study also included three Jewish groups whose ancestry has been uncertain: the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia, the Cochin Jews of southern India, and the Bene Israel Jews of northern India. It found that all three groups genetically clustered with non-Jewish Ethiopians and Indians rather than with the Diaspora groups. However, analysis of the Y chromosomes of the Bene Israel Jews showed paternal links to the Middle East, suggesting that they might share ancient roots with Jews from that region. So it's possible, Behar and other researchers say, that the Ethiopian and Indian Jewish groups were founded by Jews from other regions who then intermarried and/or converted many local non-Jews to Judaism, thus expanding their numbers but diluting their Jewish genetic signatures.

    Overall, “these results confirm the common wisdom that Jews have always held,” that they stem from a common Middle Eastern origin and heritage, says historian Anita Shapira, also from Tel Aviv University. “It is nice to get support from modern genetics, which refutes [Sand's] assertions,” she says.

    Sand counters that the whole concept of identifying Jews genetically is fallacious. “No study … has succeeded in identifying a genetic marker specific to Jews,” he insists. He adds, “It is a bitter irony to see the descendants of Holocaust survivors set out to find a biological Jewish identity. Hitler would certainly have been very pleased.” But Ostrer says that Sand has not kept up with advances in genetic research: “We can tell who the Jews are genetically.”

  8. Psychology

    The Prickly Side of Oxytocin

    1. Greg Miller

    Oxytocin has a touchy-feely reputation, thanks to research showing that it promotes social bonding in a wide range of animals, including humans. Sold on the Internet in a formulation called “Liquid Trust,” the peptide hormone is marketed as a romance enhancer and sure ticket to business success. Australian therapists are trying it alongside counseling for couples with ailing marriages. And police and military forces reportedly are interested in its potential to elicit cooperation from crime suspects or enemy agents.

    But a study published on page 1408 hints that the hormone has a prickly side as well. In experiments with groups of people playing an economic game, those who received a dose of oxytocin behaved more altruistically toward members of their own group. Yet they also displayed more “defensive aggression” toward outsiders, preemptively punishing members of a competing group when their own group was in danger of suffering a heavy financial loss. “The important message here is that oxytocin is not just promoting generosity and benevolence and trust,” says lead author Carsten De Dreu, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “It's a double-edged sword.”

    Not so cuddly?

    Oxytocin (below) may help mothers bond with their young—and defend them in times of danger.


    De Dreu and colleagues recruited dozens of undergraduate men to play a version of the prisoner's dilemma game that's often used in behavioral economics research. Half an hour before the game, all participants inhaled three puffs from a bottle of nasal spray containing either oxytocin or a placebo. (Neither they nor the researchers guiding them through the experiment knew which.) When the game began, participants were assigned to groups of three and told that another group of three would be playing at the same time. Each individual received €10 (about $13) and had to pick from several options for distributing his money. Compared with men who got the placebo, those who'd taken oxytocin behaved more altruistically, keeping less money for themselves and donating about twice as much to a pool that benefited all members of their own group.

    However, a more complicated version of the game revealed oxytocin's darker side. De Dreu's team tested 75 men in a game in which groups of three sometimes faced the possibility of a substantial financial loss to their group if the other group decided not to cooperate with their group by giving them money. This threat didn't faze men who'd taken the placebo, but the oxytocin-sniffers tended to get defensive, selecting an option that took money from the outsiders and minimized their group's potential losses instead of playing nice and hoping the others did the same. Oxytocin had this effect only when men faced a significant financial threat to their group; otherwise, those who took the hormone behaved no differently toward outsiders.

    The findings hint at a biological basis for thinking that altruism and aggression are more closely related than is usually acknowledged, says Holly Arrow of the University of Oregon, Eugene, who studies group dynamics and the psychology of war. “It's morally simple to say that altruism is good and aggression is bad,” Arrow says. But in the context of war, for example, harming others to protect one's own group can be considered heroic. “Oxytocin is perhaps an important pathway that bonds men together and makes them ready to defend the group.” Arrow would like to see the work repeated in women to see if they respond the same way.

    Oxytocin regulates mother-infant bonding in sheep and rodents, pair bonding in voles, and flock size in zebra finches (Science, 14 August 2009, p. 862), and Larry Young, a neurobiologist at Emory University in Atlanta, says De Dreu's study suggests that the molecule plays a similarly important role in maintaining the more complex social groups formed by humans. “It probably does have a big role in our everyday relationships and how we fit into groups and contribute to the success of our own group,” Young concludes.

  9. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Italian researchers are worried that their successful protests against budget cuts proposed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may be only a temporary victory.

    A scientific meeting last week in Washington, D.C., is the latest sign that the National Football League has reversed its longtime resistance to acknowledging a link between the sport and brain injuries.

    As part of our team coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (see, we reported:

    • A story on how scientists are stunned by a rush analysis of a hand-drawn engineering plan;

    • How scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's toxics lab in Seattle, Washington, are looking for oil in seafood samples and also shifting their strategy to begin sampling in oiled areas as well as clean areas;

    • The recent discovery of pancake batfish 400 meters below the surface illustrates how little scientists know about species abundance on the sea floor—and just what might be at risk from the oil.

    • NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco is calling for a halt to missions to find oil plumes in the gulf until coordinated research can be planned in a “careful, thoughtful, and quantifiable manner”;

    • One oceanographer who uses undersea robots to study jellyfish and other sea life says that the moratorium on deep-sea drilling in the gulf has cut off his flow of data. He collects images from undersea ameras connected to the robots that work below the drill platforms;

    • And new modeling supports previous predictions that the oil will likely move around Florida and enter the Gulf Stream.

    See the full postings and more at

  10. Beyond Kon-Tiki: Did Polynesians Sail to South America?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    After decades of taboo and controversy, Pacific Rim archaeologists are finding new evidence that Polynesians reached South America before Europeans did, voyaging across the world's largest ocean around 1200 C.E.


    The reach of Polynesians, shown here in this 18th century engraving, may have extended as far east as South America.


    It was late in the day in December 2007 when the curator pulled out a half-dozen ancient human skulls from dusty drawers in the museum in Concepción, Chile. The skulls, of varying ages, had been found during the past century by locals as well as scientists on the windswept island of Mocha, 30 kilometers off the southern Chilean coast. “I nearly dropped to the floor,” recalls Lisa Matisoo-Smith, a biological anthropologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand. She immediately noticed that some crania had characteristics hinting at a Polynesian origin, such as a pentagonal shape when viewed from behind.

    Mocha is 3700 kilometers east of Easter Island, the closest known prehistoric Polynesian settlement. Matisoo-Smith was in Chile on a hunt for rat bones that might show Polynesian contact with South America; she hadn't imagined stumbling on human remains that might bolster that case. She and Chilean colleague José-Miguel Ramírez- of the Universidad de Valparaiso hope to win agreement from local peoples and the Chilean government for an excavation on Mocha to seek signs of Polynesian settlement, artifacts, and human and animal remains.

    Their effort is one part of an ambitious drive to settle a long-standing controversy among archaeologists and anthropologists. Considered the realm of crackpot theorists until recently, the idea of prehistoric contact between Polynesians and South Americans has gone mainstream. A new generation of researchers is using DNA analysis of varied organisms such as humans, chickens, and sweet potatoes to add compelling data to a case previously based on more nebulous linguistic and artifact similarities. Given current views of Polynesian expansion (see sidebar, p. 1346), many researchers now think it likely that Polynesians reached South America by about 1200 C.E., after the settlement of Easter Island, and several centuries before Europeans arrived around 1500 C.E.

    “This is a watershed moment,” archaeologist James Bayman of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, told participants at a session on the topic at the meeting of the Society for American Archaeologists (SAA) in St. Louis, Missouri, in April. “New methods no longer give us an excuse to ignore the issue.” Some skeptics point out that there is still no incontrovertible evidence that Polynesians went to South America and then returned to Pacific islands, and contact with North America remains questionable (see sidebar, p. 1347). Bayman admits that the research “is still a work in progress.” But he and many colleagues agree that resistance to the idea of prehistoric contact is starting to crumble, giving archaeologists a chance to rethink the way technology and innovations spread in prehistory.

    Heyerdahl's ghost

    The idea that Polynesians and South Americans were in touch more than 500 years ago is as old as archaeology itself. In 1837, a French writer noted that plank boats used by locals on the west coast of Chile were remarkably similar to those found in Tahiti. Two years later, a British sea captain pointed out that the Patagonian and Polynesian words for canoes—kialu and kialoa, respectively—were nearly the same, notes Kathryn Klar, a linguist at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. An archaeologist suggested in the 1930s that the sweet potato diffused from its home in the Andes to the Pacific before Columbus. And researchers at a 1968 conference concluded that the pre-Columbian presence in Polynesia of indigenous South American plants like the sweet potato were likely signs of prehistoric contact.


    There is no question that the Polynesians were the great premodern seafarers, spreading east from Asia and Melanesia in outrigger canoes and arriving on the shores of Fiji by 1000 B.C.E. (Science, 2 March 2001, p. 1735). By 1200 C.E., using sails and sophisticated navigation techniques, they had peopled most South Pacific islands, including Hawaii and Easter Island on the eastern edge of the Pacific. But did they go all the way to South America?

    Scientists largely blame Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian writer and adventurer, for souring academia on that idea. In 1947, Heyerdahl and a crew of five sailed nearly 7000 kilometers from Peru to French Polynesia on a balsa-wood raft dubbed the Kon-Tiki to prove that ancient Americans could have sailed east to colonize the Pacific. The trip and resulting book made him a worldwide celebrity. Heyerdahl thought that the original seafarers came from the Middle East via South America, where they bestowed civilization on dark-skinned peoples before setting off across the world's largest ocean.

    Such racist assumptions and a lack of scientific rigor horrified many anthropologists and tarred researchers who wanted to examine such prehistoric long-distance connections more thoroughly. “People asked me if I wanted to ruin my career and be considered a fool,” recalls Terry Jones, now a professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The topic is still controversial, though no longer taboo. “We have to tiptoe back and reexamine just what the connections are,” says archaeologist Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

    The most compelling evidence, scholars say, centers on the humble sweet potato. That tuber is widely recognized to have been domesticated only once, about 6000 B.C.E. in the uplands of Peru, where it became an important staple, according to Andrew Clarke, a molecular biologist at the University of Otago. Unlike the coconut or the gourd, which can naturally float from island to island, “the sweet potato needs people” to spread, he says. Some scholars in the past argued that the sweet potato was exported to Southeast Asia by the Spanish and Portuguese in post-Columbian times, then spread east across the Pacific. But the tuber, still a mainstay of the Polynesian diet, has shown up frequently in much earlier Pacific sites. Patrick Kirch of UC Berkeley, for example, dated a carbonized sample from the Cook Islands northeast of New Zealand at about 1000 C.E.

    Stone age.

    Ramírez- (right) notes that Māori hand clubs (top row) resemble Mapuche versions from Chile.


    Such ancient samples have been known for decades but received little attention. Now genetic tools are clinching the argument that sweet potatoes were brought to Pacific islands before the advent of Europeans. “It is easy to spot changes in the sweet potato genome over time,” explains Clarke, who presented some of his data at the SAA meeting. That's because his team of researchers from New Zealand and Japan is using a high-resolution molecular marker technique to illuminate the large amount of genetic variation found in the plant. They examined 300 samples collected from around Oceania, South America, and Southeast Asia and found that the varieties common in Polynesia differ from those brought by Europeans to Southeast Asia; the Polynesian varieties are more directly related to the South American ones, Clarke says, strongly suggesting prehistoric contact.

    Chicken feed

    Just how a highland Andes crop appeared in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times remains controversial. “The sweet potato shows movement from South America to Polynesia, but not how it happened or who was involved,” says Atholl Anderson, an archaeologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. Given the crop's highland origin and the prevailing winds, he argues that it is more likely that Amerindians dispersed the tuber to Pacific islands, moving west as Heyerdahl had proposed.

    But most researchers see few signs of Amerindian excursions into the Pacific. Cultural anthropologist Richard Scaglion of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania instead argues that Polynesians may have arrived at the southern coast of South America and sailed north using the prevailing current to the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil, the only sheltered port in South America north of the rocky southern coast of Chile. The Canara people once lived from this area of the coast into the Andes highlands, making the sweet potato accessible to coastal visitors. And here the current veers sharply west. Computer simulations show that “the most successful return [westward] from the coast would be from Guayaquil to Polynesia,” Scaglion adds, making this area “a possible locus of trans-Pacific contact.”

    Climate change may also have played a role in prehistoric contact. Heyerdahl argued that South Americans went west to colonize Polynesia in part because the winds at mid-latitudes blow from east to west. But paleoclimatic data from a 2002 study suggest that prolonged El Niño events reversed those winds around 1000 C.E., providing a window for Polynesians to voyage more easily to the South American coast. “The change in winds enabled them to go in new directions,” says Hunt.

    Archaeological evidence for Polynesians in the area around Guayaquil—or anywhere else in South America—remains elusive. But researchers note intriguing similarities between objects found along the coast and those of a similar vintage common on distant Pacific islands. Some, such as stone fish weirs or fish hooks, could have evolved similar shapes independently, says Ramírez-. But other artifacts from the Mapuche culture, centered on south-central Chile and including the area near Mocha Island, are strongly reminiscent of Polynesia. Polished stone hand clubs, wide at one end with a rounded short handle, look like wooden clubs used by the Maāori people of New Zealand, who are of Polynesian descent. Stone clubs from the Chatham Islands off New Zealand's eastern coast also look similar to another Mapuche type; both resemble stylized birds. And a Mapuche stone ax called a toki—the same word is used in Polynesia—resembles adzes used in Polynesia.

    Land ho.

    Mocha Island is drawing the interest of archaeologists seeking Polynesian remains in South America.


    Some cultural traditions are also surprisingly similar. Both the Mapuche and the Polynesians celebrated the New Year with the rising of the Pleiades after the winter solstice and used a magic toki to cut trees. Both play a game similar to field hockey, pai pai in the Austral Islands and palin in Mapuche.

    Despite the sweet potato's strong evidence, so far there is no evidence for other common Polynesian animals, like the dog and rat, in South America. But there are signs of pre-Columbian chickens. Domesticated in Southeast Asia, the chicken spread to Europe and was thought to have arrived in the Americas with Columbus. Then in 2007, a team led by Alice Storey of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, dated three chicken bones from El Arenal in Chile, about 100 kilometers from Mocha Island, to between 1300 C.E. and 1450 C.E. The claim grabbed headlines around the world.

    But geneticist Jaime Gongora of the University of Sydney in Australia isn't convinced by those few bones, saying that “a large number of specimens” need to be found and dated in independent laboratories to ensure reliable radiocarbon results. Storey says that she has new data that will soon be ready for publication.

    Contact clues.

    This Araucana chicken and these New Zealand sweet potatoes (below) may be legacies of Polynesian contact with South America.


    Fiction to fact?

    Sweet potato and chicken data will likely not be enough to convince skeptics. “We should be pursuing other lines of evidence,” such as Polynesian settlements in South America and ancient DNA, says Hawaii's Hunt. “Human evidence would be the key.”

    The skulls that Matisoo-Smith examined in Concepción provide intriguing hints of Polynesian ancestry. But DNA data would be more conclusive, and to date, few studies have sought Polynesian genetic markers in modern South Americans. Analyses of mitochondrial DNA in indigenous South Americans so far show no sign of a Polynesian incursion, says Matisoo-Smith. If contacts were minimal, those markers may be hard to find in living people. And because people of Polynesian ancestry settled in South America after Europeans arrived, researchers will need to look at DNA from ancient South Americans. Given that most prehistoric voyagers were likely male, scientists say they need uncontaminated nuclear DNA from an archaeological site in order to pinpoint the Y chromosomes of a Polynesian.

    Mocha so far is the best candidate for such evidence and for signs of a Polynesian settlement on the continent. “A wider excavation will allow us to look for the settlement pattern, more burials, and of course more artifacts” from any Polynesian colony, says Hunt. But first the team is working with Mapuche leaders, the New Zealand embassy, and the Chilean government to take into account sensitivities among indigenous peoples in the Americas about archaeological digs.

    The work by young researchers like Clarke, Storey, and Matisoo-Smith is a sign that the taboo put in place a half-century ago in the wake of Kon-Tiki has lost its power. Clarke, for example, is eager to push on to study the bottle gourd, the tomato, soapberry, the coconut, and other plants that may have moved across the Pacific before European ships arrived. But that work still holds little interest to most scholars who focus on the Americas. “There's been a glass wall separating the two regions,” says Hawaii's Bayman.

    That is changing, says Ramírez-, who experiences less resistance among his South American colleagues to the idea of contact than in the past. Trade clearly was a two-way street, “so this takes nothing away from native American groups,” says Matisoo-Smith.

    Skeptics like Anderson and Gongora insist that much more data is necessary before they will accept the idea of seafaring Polynesians trading with ancient South Americans, and that scenario remains for now absent from world-history textbooks. Bayman cautions that overthrowing entrenched views will require additional lines of decisive evidence. But many Pacific Rim scientists say it is only a matter of time before a once-heretical notion becomes accepted wisdom. “When you put all of it together, I don't see how you can interpret this any other way,” says Jones. “This is moving from compelling to accepted truth.”

  11. Changing Time in the South Pacific

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Archaeologists are deeply at odds over when Polynesians fanned out across the vast northern, central, and eastern Pacific Ocean. For the moment, those who argue for a swift and late settlement seem to have the upper hand.

    “When this comes to be prov'd we Shall be no longer at a loss to know how the Islands lying in those seas came to be people'd … so we may trace them from Island to Island quite to the East Indias.”

    —James Cook, 1769

    Little did British explorer James Cook know that the question of when and how the Polynesians peopled the Pacific would still be a hot topic more than 2 centuries later. Most archaeologists now agree that Polynesians can trace their origins to the Lapita Culture, a fusion of Melanesian and Austronesian peoples that had spread as far east as Fiji by 1000 B.C.E. But archaeologists are deeply at odds over when Polynesians fanned out across the vast northern, central, and eastern Pacific Ocean.

    One group favors a slower and earlier settlement that puts them on Hawaii as early as 500 C.E., while another argues that it wasn't until 1200 C.E. that most of the far-flung islands were colonized. For the moment, those who argue for a swift and late settlement seem to have the upper hand. “But this is going to be a hard issue to resolve,” says archaeologist Terry Jones of the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

    Many of the early radiocarbon dating samples collected during the past 6 decades are suspect, says Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and the reliable dates are all later. Hunt argues that a host of early dates depend on carbonized remains found in sediment cores that could be the result of natural rather than humanmade fires or were done on driftwood, which could be centuries earlier than the people who used it. After carefully examining more than 1000 radiocarbon dates, Hunt believes that Polynesians may have reached East Polynesia sometime after 1000 C.E., in “an explosive dispersal” that extended to Easter Island, Hawaii, and possibly the coast of South America (see main text, p. 1344). It was “the most rapid phase of human expansion in world prehistory,” he says.

    Not everyone is willing to let go of the longer chronology. Marshall Weisler, an archaeologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, complains that “there are pre—1200 C.E. dates for several island groups that are routinely ignored or dismissed by the short-chronology folks.” Many scientists, however, seem to be drifting in Hunt's direction. “Increasingly, there is evidence for a rapid radiation around 1000 C.E.,” says Patrick Kirch of the University of California, Berkeley.

    The key may lie in the Society Islands, which likely were an important point for Polynesian dispersal north to Hawaii and east as far as Easter Island and possibly South America. Two domesticated coconuts from the islands date to 600 C.E., but the earliest settlement appears to be centuries later. That ambiguity is a sign that archaeologists have more work to do before Cook's musing can be definitively answered.

  12. Northern Exposure in Doubt

    1. Andrew Lawler

    While researchers are making strides in demonstrating a connection between South America and Polynesia, the idea that California Indians learned from Hawaiians faces an uphill struggle. Questions about timing make many archaeologists skeptical.

    In the 1930s, famed anthropologist Alfred Kroeber noted that the Chumash Indians of Southern California made sophisticated sewn-plank boats remarkably like those constructed in Hawaii more than 4000 kilometers to the west. He suggested prehistoric Polynesian contact as the source of the Chumash technique. Now an archaeologist and a linguist are seeking to prove that old theory. But while researchers are making strides in demonstrating a connection between South America and Polynesia (see main text, p. 1344), the idea that California Indians learned from Hawaiians faces an uphill struggle. Questions about timing make many archaeologists skeptical.

    The sewn-plank boats built by the Chumash reached more than 8 meters in length and could carry a dozen people, shuttling between the California coast and the Channel Islands, 30 kilometers offshore. Although smaller than the oceangoing boats built by Polynesians, they surpassed the technology of all other natives along the North American coast prior to the arrival of Europeans. The first hard evidence for the Chumash vessels appears circa 700 C.E., around the time that some say Polynesians were settling the central and eastern Pacific.

    Terry Jones, an archaeologist at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, believes that the appearance of the boats as well as Polynesian-style fishhooks in the same era provides convincing evidence for contact. And some linguistic evidence backs up that view. His collaborator Kathryn Klar, a linguist at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, has cataloged several Chumash words, including tomolo—the word for canoe—that appear to be closely related to Polynesian languages. Woodworking terms are also similar.

    Tech transfer?

    Researchers debate whether this ancient sewn-plank canoe design from California is the result of Polynesian influence.


    But others aren't yet convinced. For example, it's possible those words are not ancient and arrived with Europeans who had traveled in the Pacific in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Corned beef in a can has an indigenous Polynesian name,” archaeologist Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, points out. And an increasingly influential group argues that Polynesians didn't arrive in the eastern Pacific until 1000 C.E. (see sidebar, p. 1346), which would make the earlier Chumash innovation necessarily indigenous. “If they don't arrive by 700 A.D., then it doesn't fit,” says Patrick Kirch of UC Berkeley. Jeanne Arnold of UC Los Angeles adds that there is “zero archaeology for a Polynesian incursion” in North America. Finding Polynesian artifacts “would be wonderful,” Arnold says. “But I want to see the evidence.”

  13. Scientific Publishing

    A Chilling Effect?

    1. Tim Wogan

    There are calls for reforms to British libel laws after researchers were sued in the United Kingdom for discussing or writing about controversial matters.

    Staged protest.

    In London, celebrities such as Dara O'Briain (left) and Ariane Sherine (right) participated in the Big Libel Gig, which was prompted by recent British lawsuits, including ones against scientists and science writer Simon Singh.


    When Peter Wilmshurst boarded his flight to Washington, D.C., in October 2007, the British cardiologist could have had no idea that the lecture he was about to give would provoke a libel suit—or that 3 years later he would be sharing a London stage with British celebrities and comedians, seeking political reforms to defend freedom of expression.

    Once in D.C., Wilmshurst spoke at a major cardiology meeting. His topic: the results of a clinical trial to test his hypothesis that a structural heart defect called a patent foramen ovale (PFO) causes a severe type of migraine. The trial, for which Wilmshurst had originally been the senior cardiologist, involved the use of a device called STARFlex to seal PFOs without open heart surgery. It appeared to show that PFO closure did not offer significant benefit to migraine sufferers.

    But during his talk, Wilmshurst, who had withdrawn from the trial, alleged that STARFlex's manufacturer—a U.S. medical devices company called NMT Medical, which had funded the trial—had presented the results in a way that masked a disturbing possibility: that the migraines hadn't stopped because STARFlex had failed to close the PFO properly in about one-third of cases. PFOs are principally closed to prevent blood clots from crossing the heart, so failure to do so could prove fatal.

    Wilmshurst's comments were picked up by Shelley Wood, a reporter for the specialist cardiology Web site Heartwire based in Montreal, Canada. After the meeting, Wood published an article on the STARFlex trial that included quotes from Wilmshurst and others. In December 2007, NMT sued Wilmshurst in the United Kingdom for libel, alleging that he had made claims about STARFlex that he knew were false to prevent his migraine hypothesis from being discredited.

    Libel Lawsuits

    Defendant: Simon Singh

    Plaintiff: British Chiropractic Association

    Dispute: BCA objected to a newspaper column by Singh that used the word “bogus” to describe chiropractic claims.

    Status: Withdrawn by BCA


    Because of that lawsuit, Wilmshurst has become part of a raging debate in the United Kingdom about whether the nation's libel laws should be reformed. In March, the cardiologist appeared with some of Britain's leading comedians at the Big Libel Gig, an event with the slogan “England's libel laws have become a dangerous joke.” Also on stage was journalist Simon Singh, who was then being sued in the United Kingdom for his use of the word “bogus” in a newspaper column about claims made by the British Chiropractic Association. Another recent libel action against Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen prompted the scientist to vow never to give lectures in the United Kingdom again. In a fourth case involving science, a threat of a defamation suit by the Israeli company Nemesysco Ltd. caused a United Kingdom publisher to pull from its Web site a published paper titled “Charlatanry in forensic speech science” that challenged the science behind the company's lie-detector test. The publisher's action was taken despite the objections of the paper's Swedish authors (Science, 13 February 2009, p. 863).

    These cases have prompted prominent researchers and U.K. groups such as Index on Censorship and Sense about Science to complain that U.K. libel laws—and the high costs of defending a libel action—are forcing researchers and scientific journals to censor or edit academic material. So far, there's little evidence that scientific publishers have been seriously affected: None of 22 journals or journal publishers contacted by Science has rejected a research paper solely because of libel concerns, for example. But the publicity surrounding the scientists being sued and several other recent cases involving nonresearchers has led the U.K. government to take a hard look at the nation's libel laws.

    Last year, then–Justice Secretary Jack Straw set up a libel working group whose members included the head of the U.K.'s Medical Research Council. The group's report, delivered at the end of March, recommended major changes to the U.K.'s libel laws, several of which could give researchers more protection from lawsuits. Voters in the 6 May U.K. election kicked out Straw's Labour Party, however. The new Conservative–Liberal Democrat ruling coalition has also promised a “review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech,” but it is as yet unclear what this will mean in practice.

    Libel tourism

    Critics of U.K. libel laws point out that, although NMT Medical is an American company, Heartwire is a Canadian Web site, and Wilmshurst's comments were made in the United States, Wilmshurst is being sued in Britain. (Neither Heartwire nor Wood is being sued.) NMT can go after Wilmshurst in the United Kingdom because the Heartwire article, like almost any online publication, can be accessed from computers in the nation, and so the comments could affect the reputation of the company there.

    Libel Lawsuits

    Defendant: Peter Wilmshurst

    Plaintiff: NMT Medical

    Dispute: Firm alleges Wilmshurst knowingly made false claims about a medical device it makes and he tested.

    Status: Suit active, no court date set


    NMT's suit is an example of what has become known as “libel tourism”: filing libel suits in countries other than where the alleged offenses occurred. The United Kingdom is viewed by many as a hot spot of libel tourism because the country arguably has some of the most plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the developed world. In the United States, a plaintiff in a libel case must prove that a contested statement is false. If the plaintiff is a figure in the public eye or a corporation, he or she must also prove that the defendant knew the statement was false or had serious doubts that it was true. Conversely, in the United Kingdom, it is the defendant who bears the burden of proof that a statement is true. In fact, the strong presumption in favor of freedom of speech that exists in U.S. law is found in few other countries; in France and other parts of Europe, libel remains a criminal offense. Still, almost all the recent libel cases involving scientists have been filed in the United Kingdom.

    Thomsen learned about the U.K. libel laws the hard way. His unusual case arose from a 15-minute presentation at a radiology conference in Oxford in 2007 in which he detailed his experience at Copenhagen University Hospital with a contrast agent injected to enhance the clarity of MRI scans. Thomsen said at the conference that he noticed that 30 to 40 patients at his hospital with preexisting kidney problems had suffered serious side effects after being injected with the agent, known as Omniscan. Several had been permanently confined to wheelchairs and at least one had died. Thomsen's observations, together with those of other doctors from Denmark and elsewhere in the world, led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2007 to recommend that patients with decreased renal function not be injected with Omniscan or other contrast agents containing the heavy metal gadolinium unless absolutely necessary.

    Thomsen's reward was to be sued for libel by GE Healthcare, based in Buckinghamshire, U.K., the manufacturer of Omniscan. In a suit filed in October 2008 in the United Kingdom, the company claimed that Thomsen's Oxford presentation implied that it was knowingly selling a potentially lethal substance and thus his words constituted defamation “by way of innuendo.” Earlier this year, in February, GE dropped the suit, 2 days after Thomsen's lawyer told British media that he would file a libel counterclaim against the company. The two parties have now reached a settlement in which GE conceded that Thomsen's presentation did not impute malice to the company's actions. Other settlement details, such as whether GE Healthcare will pay Thomsen's legal costs, have not been made public.

    Still, Thomsen has vowed to refuse further speaking engagements in the United Kingdom, where, he says, “it seems you can be sued for telling the truth”—a promise he intends to stand by as long as current U.K. libel laws remain in force.

    Libel Lawsuits

    Defendant: Henrik Thomsen

    Plaintiff: GE Healthcare

    Dispute: Company claimed Thomsen defamed it by suggesting that it sold a contrast agent called Omniscan knowing it was dangerous.

    Status: Withdrawn by GE


    Costly court cases

    Mark Lewis, lawyer for Wilmshurst, argues that U.K. libel laws have a “chilling effect” on research into controversial issues, causing scientist-written articles to be modified or withdrawn in response to a lawsuit threat. Indeed, concern about U.K. laws may have been a factor in a forensic psychology journal article whose publication has been delayed after threat of litigation from another researcher and a company he founded (see sidebar).

    Nemesysco, GE Healthcare, and NMT Medical have all insisted that they simply objected to being accused of dishonest conduct and never intended to stifle scientific debate about the effectiveness or safety of their products. (Nemesysco's letter to Equinox, the publisher of the journal article challenging the basis of the company's lie-detector test, did, however, demand that Equinox admit that the scientific claims in the paper were “largely unfounded”—something Equinox refused to do.) But, citing the Thomsen case as an example, Lewis says, “the point is that whether intended or not, [GE Healthcare] did stifle [scientific debate].”

    Thomsen claims that individual researchers are now reluctant to ask provocative questions at academic conferences. “It is my impression that during the last 2 years, the number of questions regarding, for example, contrast agents from the audience in the auditorium is decreasing. [Instead], you get them in the corridors. This means that instead of being able to benefit everyone, communication is just one to one.”

    Science asked 22 leading scientific and medical journals and journal publishers whether Britain's libel laws are having the chilling effect Lewis claims. The responses varied widely, with some journals having had no experience with libel whatsoever and others having regular contact with a legal team. For example, American Psychological Association Publisher Gary VandenBos says that prepublication legal threats “are rare, but they occur frequently enough that they are not in any way ‘extraordinary’ to me, although they would be to the average scholarly author. [In 25 years] I have had to deal [with] about 20 to 30 threats of lawsuits related to manuscripts in prepublication status.”

    Several journals reported rejecting papers that were “clearly libelous” or removing material that might have attracted libel action, but they insisted that this had been done on editorial grounds. VandenBos notes that APA has published all articles challenged so far, although some may have been legally evaluated and modified. Another publisher noted: “We know that on occasion academics may make assertions they can't then support; the legal advice we obtain often helps them to clarify their thinking and so we end up with a better paper, as well as one that should stand up in any court.” No scientific journals reported removing material on legal grounds that they would not have removed on academic grounds.

    The medical journals reported more concerns: The Lancet, for example, sends editorial material for review by publisher Elsevier's in-house legal team “about once a month.” Compared with commentaries or reviews, research papers are far less likely to require checking by libel lawyers, says British Medical Journal Editor Fiona Godlee, although she notes that “even a research paper can have a discussion section” that could raise problems.

    “The working group very strongly recommended that a public-interest defense needs to be considered, and that clearly has major implications for scientists.” —LESZEK BORYSIEWICZ, MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL


    Godlee, who has been an outspoken proponent of reform of U.K. libel laws, says science journals need legal advisers—but not all get such advice or can afford it. “I think to make sure you get your story right is exactly what the very best kind of lawyer will help you to do. But then we're a well-resourced journal,” she says. “I think the risk is for the individuals who want to speak out or the smaller bodies who may well find themselves unwilling to do so.”

    One reason academics and some publishers may be nervous is that defending a libel action in the United Kingdom is usually extremely expensive. According to a 2008 report by the University of Oxford's Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, those costs are 140 times the European average and can often exceed £1 million (about $1.5 million). Singh estimates he has spent £200,000 of his own money to defend his libel action against the British Chiropractic Association. Although the association dropped the suit on 15 April, after an appeals court ruling gave Singh greater leeway in defending his comments, there has been no clear statement by the parties about how much of those costs the association will cover, apparently because that's still in negotiation. “However well this process goes, Simon is likely to be out of pocket by about £20,000,” Singh's solicitor Robert Dougans estimates.

    Even when a defendant wins a libel action and is awarded costs, the amount rarely covers all legal bills. And the difference can be higher than the claimed damages. Wilmshurst's lawyer says this is a strong incentive for those accused of libel to settle rather than attempt to clear their name: “The general rule of thumb is that you recover two-thirds of your costs,” says Lewis. “If a claim costs £500,000 to defend, winning and recovering still costs £166,000—whereas giving in straightaway might only cost £25,000—so there is a cost of sticking up for your right to say something.”

    Prescription for reform

    Attacks on U.K. libel laws are coming from both outside and inside the country. After a Saudi sheik won a libel judgment in the United Kingdom against New York–based criminologist Rachel Ehrenfeld over a book that had never been officially published in Britain, the New York legislature in February 2008 passed the Libel Terrorism Protection Act. (The act's name came from the argument that such libe cases are an attack on America's freedom of speech.) The law states that the libel judgments of foreign courts are not enforceable in New York unless the laws under which those courts operate are consistent with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    In the United Kingdom, a coalition of groups called the Campaign for Libel Reform issued a report in November 2009 that contained 10 recommendations. They include placing the burden of proof on plaintiffs to demonstrate that contested statements are false, capping costs and damages, and introducing a statutory public interest defense to protect defendants who shared concerns they had good reason to believe were valid even if they later turned out to be mistaken. A petition for libel law reform launched by the campaign has so far attracted more than 50,000 signatures.

    This report prompted Straw to form the working group on libel, a 17-strong committee that included several people from the media and media law (including Thomsen's lawyer Andrew Stephenson), and the directors of the three groups behind the Campaign for Libel Reform. Leszek Borysiewicz, chair of the U.K. Medical Research Council, was the only scientist on the committee, but he says the concerns of scientists were taken seriously: “They certainly made every effort to try to understand the nature of the problems that [scientists] were experiencing, and throughout they took great care to recognize the issues that scientists have raised.”

    Some, such as Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesperson, have argued that scientists and physicians, or at least their peer-reviewed academic publications, should receive special protections, known as “qualified privilege,” that make libel actions more difficult. But the libel working group didn't endorse that concept in its final report, released on 23 March. “Qualified privilege was discussed,” explains Borysiewicz, “but if you start allowing qualified privilege for scientific meetings, at what point does that meeting stop being scientific, and when does qualified privilege stop?”

    The report recorded more points of disagreement than agreement among its members, which is perhaps not surprising given the varied backgrounds of the committee members. There was, however, some consensus among the working group on the need to codify a strong public interest defense so that publishers, including those producing science journals, can more safely predict the results of legal challenges and need not fear fighting claims unnecessarily. “That clearly has major implications for scientists,” says Borysiewicz. The working group was not asked to examine the issue of costs in detail, but the report also noted that “it is important to ensure that costs of libel proceedings are minimised so far as possible.”

    May's U.K. government switch has left the future of libel reforms uncertain. The only new libel legislation introduced since the working group report came in late May when Anthony Lester, a member of the U.K. House of Lords, submitted a draft bill offering amendments to the existing libel law that would clarify the public interest defense, as well as shorten court proceedings and reduce their cost; a judge would hear cases, for example, unless there are compelling reasons a jury is needed. Lester also proposes that plaintiffs should, instead of justifying a libel case based on potential harm, have to show that a statement has caused or is likely to cause substantial actual harm and, in the case of a corporation, financial loss.

    Others bills or amendments may be put forth, however. “It now becomes even more important that we actually keep a close eye on the reforms that are being proposed because the devil, as always, will be in the detail,” says Borysiewicz.

  14. After Legal Threat and 3-Year Delay, Paper on Psychopathy to Appear—Maybe

    1. John Travis

    Have fears of "libel tourism" kept a controversial psychology paper on psychopaths from seeing the light of day for more than 3 years after its acceptance by a journal? One of the authors believes that's the case.

    Have fears of “libel tourism” (see main text, p. 1348) kept a controversial psychology paper on psychopaths from seeing the light of day for more than 3 years after its acceptance by a journal? One of the authors believes that's the case, citing a 2007 threat of a defamation lawsuit by forensic psychologist Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. “One of the major issues in this case was that the U.K. (where my coauthor resides) and Canada (where Dr. Hare resides) have much more lax libel laws than those in the U.S. (where I reside),” Jennifer Skeem, a forensic psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, writes in an e-mail to Science. “My understanding was that Hare could file anywhere he wished. My coauthor's university in Glasgow was more concerned than mine, but [agreed to the article going] ahead after months and months of deliberation.”

    The disputed paper, which addresses Hare's views on how to diagnose psychopathy and whether past criminal behavior is central to the condition, will be published in the June issue of Psychological Assessment, according to its publisher, the American Psychological Association (APA). Hare argues that he wasn't responsible for the extended delay, saying he agreed in 2008 to write a response for publication at the same time. Indeed, he's “frustrated” because the original paper was widely circulated, and he hasn't had an opportunity to correct what he considers major flaws and misrepresentations of his writings on the connections between criminality and psychopathy. “In 40 years I've engaged in some heated academic debates, but in the journals. This time was different because it had little to do with scientific/academic discourse, and everything with taking unwarranted shots at me as a straw man,” Hare says.

    Time out.

    Psychological Assessment is planning to publish a paper by Jennifer Skeem and a co-author, along with a critical response, 3 years after the paper was first accepted.


    Back in 2006, Skeem and psychologist David Cooke of Glasgow Caledonian University submitted a paper to Psychological Assessment entitled “Is Criminal Behavior a Central Component of Psychopathy? Conceptual Directions for Resolving the Debate.” Much of the article centers on criticism of the clinical and research tool Hare developed, known as the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), which is used worldwide to diagnose psychopathy and whose results have been shown to predict future violent behavior (Science, 5 September 2008, p. 1284).

    PCL-R evaluations are often considered by judges handing out criminal sentences and parole officers debating whether to free prisoners. Hare has founded a company to train people in the use of PCL-R and is paid a royalty when the official checklist is used, but he says the income generated is “modest” and far less than he could earn by testifying as an expert witness, as many in his field do. Hare says he discloses his conflict of interest, but adds that others in his field, including Cooke, who is developing an alternative measure of psychopathy, also have possible conflicts.

    Psychological Assessment peer reviewed, accepted, and scheduled Skeem and Cooke's article for publication in September 2007, but a colleague provided a copy to Hare before then. Hare says he demanded revisions and simultaneous publication of a response. The quarterly journal agreed to a published response, but according to Hare, only “cosmetic” changes were made to the original manuscript. After consulting lawyers who indicated the article could meet Canada's definition of defamation, Hare had legal counsel send a letter to APA and the authors demanding that the publication be pulled.

    According to an e-mail Science has obtained, Hare's lawyers wrote on 8 November 2007 that “publication of the article would be detrimental to Dr. Hare professionally and financially” and that “it is our position that the authors deliberately fabricated or altered quotes of Dr. Hare.” If publication went ahead, the e-mail said, Hare and his company would “have no choice but to seek financial damages from your publication and from the authors of the article, as well as a public retraction.”

    Skeem and Cooke have rejected the charges in the e-mail. After the legal threat, APA conducted another review of their paper and asked the authors for additional changes. “We have pored through the entire manuscript again … and have found no wrong quotes or citations,” Skeem responded in a 2008 letter to APA. In that letter, Skeem and Cooke agreed to new revisions but demanded that APA publish the paper.

    This fracas has only now come to light after psychologist Norman Poythress and attorney John P. Petrila, both of the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, noted it in a commentary published online on 13 May in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. They wrote that the litigation threat had impeded psychopathy research and could allow lawyers challenging PCL-R to claim that its flaws were being suppressed. They further asserted that such threats “strike at the heart of the peer review process, may have a chilling effect on the values at the core of academic freedom, and may potentially impede the scientific testing of various theories, models and products.”

    Hare counters that he expected and hoped that the original paper and his response would be published in 2008. The lawsuit threat was meant only to get the “attention” of APA, Skeem, and Cooke and force changes to the article. “We haven't considered legal action in over two years,” he says. Hare says he's upset colleagues are suggesting he squelched debate and says the lawsuit threat may not have been “judicious.” “Maybe I went off half-cocked.”

    Hare and Skeem both criticize APA about the long publishing delay. Asked about the episode, APA Publisher Gary VandenBos comments: “APA has never refused to publish an article because of a threatened defamation lawsuit, but if confronted with a claim of defamation before publication, APA would, of course, take reasonable steps to assure that the material APA is about to publish is accurate.” The APA journal will now publish Skeem and Cooke's paper, a response from Hare and a colleague, and a reply from Skeem and Cooke, says VandenBos. “Nothing involved in this involves a legal negotiation or legal agreement with Dr. Hare,” he adds.

    Hare and Skeem both remain skeptical. “I am not confident the papers will be published this month,” says Skeem. “I'm still not convinced these articles will come out,” says Hare. At least they agree on something.