Good News--and Bad

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Science  13 Jan 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5758, pp. 145
DOI: 10.1126/science.1124498

This year, for the first time in half a century, the first day of hanukah and christmas day converged—good news for my family mix. But just before that day, the Science family found itself absorbed in a different temporal convergence, one that brought both good news and bad to us and to our readers in the scientific community. The troubling story of Professor Woo Suk Hwang and his colleagues appeared everywhere, as questions about a paper they had published in this journal unfolded amid a welter of charges, countercharges, proposed retractions, and two investigations. At about the same time, on the front page above the fold in the New York Times, appeared Judge John Jones' opinion in the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board case.

For most of the scientific community, this second story relieved a longstanding concern. Some school boards (famously in Kansas and Pennsylvania, but also in many other U.S. states) had voted either to limit the teaching of evolution in science classes or to introduce it along with alternative explanations that were essentially religious in character. The rising tide of evangelical Christianity and its alliance with a conservative political movement seemed to foreshadow a national suspicion of science or a deep confusion about what science is or isn't, or possibly both.

The Dover decision was a decisive, elegantly crafted resolution of the question before the court. Was intelligent design (ID) a new proposal, generated by the school board for consideration by students and teachers as an alternative to evolution, based on scientific grounds? Or was it instead a Trojan Horse proxy for the older notion of creationism? Judge Jones said, in no uncertain terms, that ID was not science, but rather creationism redux, and that it did not belong in a science classroom. He added that its advocates, “who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie … to disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.” The decision, in which the losers were charged attorneys' fees, can be found at http://www2.ncseweb.org/wp/. It's worth reading.

The other story is a deeply disappointing one: for the scientists who did the work; for the scientific community (and especially those who have been excited by the therapeutic prospects of stem cell science); and for this journal. At this writing, we don't have a final report from an investigation now underway at Seoul National University. But preliminary findings and admissions by Hwang point to considerable fraud, leaving open only the question of whether some of the findings published in Science and other journals by Hwang's research group may survive.

A journal cannot go into authors' laboratories in search of fraud. But we can and do encourage appropriate authorities to conduct investigations, and we supply information freely as investigations proceed. More actively, we are committed to examining our processes and ourselves in an effort to extract lessons for the future. In examining the reports by reviewers of the Hwang papers, we saw no reason to lack confidence in the authenticity of the data. But there is more to do, and at the end of this process we will be able to report to our readers and others what we have learned about how we might modify our treatment of papers with unusual potential impact.

One question we have been asked by mainstream journalists is whether this is an indictment of the peer review system. Not at all; we believe strongly in the peer review system, but we have never thought it infallible. Carefully reviewed studies sometimes turn out to be wrong because later attempts at repetition fail. But peer review requires authors to provide more data and more confirming material, making it likelier that careful efforts at confirmation will follow.

Fraud is something quite different, and very hard to detect. Of course, reviewers or editors might be sent to the authors' labs to look at the notebooks, imposing costly and offensive oversight on the vast majority of scientists in order to catch the occasional cheater. That's a bad idea. The reporting of scientific results is based on trust. It's better to trust our colleagues, despite the fact that on rare occasions one of them might disappoint other scientists and those hoping for cures.

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