Monday, October 30, 2006

Resistance is futile

A blog comment from reader Odette Lussier is perhaps germane. I thought I would repeat it as a full posting. Comments for and against appreciated. Is there any point resisting the forces of obfuscation, or is it a bit like spitting into the mighty sea?


pharmaceutical research misconductOdette writes: Having had some contact with the world of scientific research, I had just assumed that fraud was standard practice and that no scientist would put good money at risk by publicly admitting that his basic assumptions were wrong when he started planning an experiment. You can't just lose money in blind alleys and you can't be at the mercy of your data. Time and again, I have seen researchers replacing missing data cells with the group average, removing outliers until they get the variance they want, doing linear transformations and even using mind-boggling statistical techniques of their own invention to get a p-value worth publishing.

As one student told me, everybody does it and she has worked hard to get her doctorate. She had no control over the experiment or the technicians doing the analysis and there is no degree for work done, just one for results obtained. That science is a corrupt field populated by frauds, psychopaths, hucksters and hustlers is not news. It just surprises me when someone comes out of the woodwork to complain because I wonder how a person could get their degrees and spend years surrounded by such colleagues without noticing something amiss before now. As another student told me, "Why can't you just play the game?"

And why not? I know someone who bucked the system like you and as a result, the researcher he was complaining about colluded with the university rector to falsify results in order to hide the original delinquent data. He was dismissed from his doctoral studies and threatened with a libel suit. Can't blame everyone else for keeping quiet.

My attitude towards research now is you find what you're being paid to find and if ten years from now someone finds something different, no one will take away your diplomas, awards, funding etc. retroactively. Besides, theories go in and out of fashion and even if you take the pains to do ethical research, it doesn't mean that anyone will even consider it relevant by then.

Furthermore, the moral argument that human lives are at risk is getting shakier every day. This is not a position based on reason, but on an ancient moral code involving notions of sacredness and higher power that have been discredited by liberalism for some time now. Inasmuch as liberalism seeks to subsume all aspects of human life to the power of reason, it is to be expected that those who operate from this framework desire to exercise the power they devoted their mental abilities to obtain. The ultimate power, that formerly reserved for the gods, is the power over life and death. Thus, having stripped the gods of their moral authority via reason, why would one hesitate to appropriate their ultimate power over human life as one's own because a few faceless individuals are standing in the way of boundless good fortune, prestige and even more power. This is the final power that religion refused us and that rationalism can confer, that it is not rational to let a few lives matter more than all that can be obtained by possibly putting them at risk. And that's why we have unsafe products, bad meds, pollution and a host of other ills that actuarial bean counters allow to be foisted on the public because in their estimation, a few faceless lives that could be lost are not worth the cost of doing things "right".

It also helps to remember that "In the long run, we'll all be dead." It's not like there's someone waiting on the other side to hold you to account because you colluded with a pharmaceutical firm in putting out a bad product that harmed someone. These companies have enough money to keep people tied up in court for a long time, especially if they are poor or indigent, which is why product testing in the developing world is such a good idea. Thus, you could probably escape the negative moral consequences of your rational course of self-interest completely, whereas your irrational devotion to a moral position that would keep poor people picking through garbage in Brazzaville while you have an obscure career with little fame and even less money seems to no one's advantage.

If you think the game is fun now, wait 'til all those Chinese researchers who were trained in the west start churning out publications back home with a trillion-dollar economy to back them up. They can drown us in normal curves and powerpoint presentations and we'll never be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

As it is, why would we believe any white-coated pharmaceutical/government research apparatchik about anything? These people have secured their position over the rest of us for a hundred years by touting their greater capacity for reason. Problem is, I have lost faith in the power of the white coat and the fancy diploma to know better than me. I just expect them to be more arrogant about it, that's all. So, call me superstitious, call me irrational if you like, but my years in data analysis have taught me that I can demonstrate that astrology works, that homeopathic medecine is a panacea, that aliens communicate with us or any else I want, as long as I am financed by deep pockets who find it in their interest to popularize these beliefs. By the way, you might want to keep all this in mind when you see the bible beaters attacking science. The way I see it, scientists brought it on themselves. Now, if they could only figure out how to get research grants from these people, think what amazing new "facts" they could discover.

Odette Lussier

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Anonymous said...

Suppose I cling to the belief that most research and most researchers are still almost honest. That new president and an apocylptic pharmaceutical disaster should sort out the rest......

The inexorable move of medical research from Universities to the hidden depths of contract research companies and HMO's ends up in China - it's already happening. My recently emerged Chinese students have been taught not to question, to write down my words and regurgitate them. Ultimate pharmaceutical fodder. Mao's final humiliation of capitalism and rational thought through big Pharma?

Anonymous said...

Witnessing a scientific misconduct, blowing the whistle on the fraudster who committed it and experiencing the fury of the dean and his cronies against me for doing the right thing, opened my eyes to see the dark side of science. Nevertheless, I believe that fraud in science, percentage wise, is not greater than fraud in any other domain. To paint the whole of science as a game of fakery is unjust and misleading. Needed are more students, postdocs and peers of fraudsters who dare blowing the whistle on the unethical scientist, just as the courageous students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, did by blowing the whistle on their mentor.

Ginsberg said...

I have just received a manuscript from my last industry job. It is to be submitted to a major journal. I did most of the work but I do not believe any of the conclusions. Senior scientists made them. They also terminated the project and those of us who wore the white lab coats. They offered a severance package or relocation to another research project. I had had enough of their scientific bullying and the disasterous projects they created so I took the money and ran. Now they feel this work is worthy of publication.

I've been asked to verify the names and facts in the paper. It's probably never going to be published. It's mostly bad science as opposed to misconduct. Do you sign off on the paper or do you ask a few questions? I'm thinking the latter. What is science without an open dialogue between white lab coat scientists and the guys who work in the cubicles?

Anonymous said...

I would not sign it if didn't believe it. srivlin is correct about science in general - but a large part of MEDICAL science is corrupt well beyond most other domains. Young honest aspiring scientists will no longer wish to get involved in important medical science at all, and will instead do unimportant things, other science, or leave completely.

Anonymous said...


Can you support your conclusion that a large portion of Medical Science is corrupt in comparison to other scientific domains? How large is 'large'? Could it be that with the greater awareness about scientific misconduct we simply hear more about such cases. I do agree that there is some increase in the number of corrupted scientists in the scientific community. There are several possible reasons for that. The most important one is the tough competition for research dollars compared to the situation 30-40 years ago. Another is fame. Maybe even more than money, fame and reputation always have played an important role in the decision of those scientists who had strayed to commit a fraud. The fraud is not necessarily bad or fake science. Many cases of the past involved stealing others' data, ideas, or a whole project. There were even cases where a Nobel prize was awarded to a guy/gal who did not deserve it.
I am not sure if we'll ever know the exact number of fraudsters in science, just as we have no idea how many criminals within the general population are managed to hide throughout their criminal careers.
Scientists must police themselves better and expose their corrupted peers. Science cannot afford the code of silence that exists among thieves. Unfortunately, such a code does exist and those who stay silent when faced with misconduct should be punished as well.

Anonymous said...

Fraud and its maintenance srivlin is related to money, power, and absence of balls. Pharmaceuticals are associated with all three.

Among the many different animals on the university grounds, two are blind: a rabbit and a snake.

One day they ran into each other. "Pardon me" says the rabbit, "I am blind". "Pardon me, so am I" says the snake. They are both amazed at this coincidence and very happy to realise that there is another blind animal around.

"I actually was born blind and I really do not know what animal I am" says the rabbit. "Could you feel me and tell me your opinion?" "You are hairy with a nice soft fur, you have two very nice ears and tail, ... but you must be a rabbit!", says the snake.

The rabbit is very happy. "I have heard so many nice stories about rabbits! I am so glad I am one!". "I also was born blind" says the snake. "Could you feel me and tell me what animal I am?" "Well, you are slimy, you got no balls, and you crawl on the ground. You must be a senior university manager!" says the rabbit.

Small Voice said...

Not being a professional I don't have the same kind of experience, but I think you're right in a way that its

"a bit like spitting into the mighty sea".

BUT perhaps if enough people from the beginning had cared enough and dared enough to blow the whistle each and every time it was needed, you would only be dealing with a shallow puddle at this stage?

Anonymous said...

I have seen senior people in my field (a medical science) tell the most outrageous lies about the real science, to the point where they were directly and unarguably contradicting what was in the database, (and I certainly KNOW the database in my little area of expertise).

Then they get lavishly rewarded for this fraud with huge 'research' grants, plump academic or government jobs, honours and accolades by the truck load, and extraordinary power over very sick vulnerable innocent humans. All with no justification, often appalling results for large numbers of patients, and essentially no accountability (at least not in the short-medium term, history tends to catch up with them).

They get all this simply because they (deliberately) told the powers that be exactly what they wanted to hear. And the powers that be didn't question it too closely. Even if you tell them directly and formally about the 'incorrect' advice they have received, they just ignore you. They mostly just hear what they want to hear.

My family and friends wonder why I am becoming deeply cynical about the whole business.

I still strongly believe in and support science, I think it is the greatest force for good we humans have. But something has to change in the way science is done, AND in the way it is used by the political class, if science (and medical science in particular) wish to retain serious credibility.

We could start with a serious overhaul of the peer-review journal system.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Blumsohn: Thanks for your recent kind comment on my last blog post. It was this post that drew me to your blog. It is a wonderful distillation of much of what is wrong at the "grass roots" level of Big Pharma. I had planned to refer to it in a future "serious" post of my own. I hope you won't mind.

Odette speculates on what can be done to counter the "do as we want, not what you find" attitude amongst those managing research. I've found that the one thing these dishonest, arrogant children really don't like is being mocked. Hence my blog:

It has no informative content whatsoever (there are a host of other pharma blogs that do that), but I sincerely hope it provides some entertainment.

Regards: Giles