A Degeneration of Trust
The following article is an opinion piece written by Michael S Kinch. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.
Science is paradoxically and simultaneously a source of both purity and tarnish. Even in its most pristine form, the outcomes of the scientific process can be subject to incredible smears. The inquisition that condemned Galileo Galilei for his heliocentric model of the solar system in 1633 rang with a resonance not dissimilar to the prosecution of John Thomas Scopes three centuries later, or indeed, the damage being caused by contemporary vaccine deniers. Such challenging realities are multiplied disproportionately when the damage is self-inflicted.
Recently, an expose article was published revealing a potential fabrication of data by prominent investigators of Alzheimer’s disease. The article leveled accusations that Sylvain Lesne of the University of Minnesota manipulated imaging data to support a favored theory about the potential cause of cerebral plaques of amyloid beta protein – well-known clinical hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
This purported fraud is even more damning as the outcomes of Lesne’s studies had been utilized for years to support the so-called “amyloid hypothesis,” a theory as to the causes of Alzheimer’s. This theory propelled billions of dollars of research and development spending meant to discover treatments for the disease, whose frequency and impact will continue to accelerate as the population of our nation and our planet continues to age.
Most importantly, the possible fraud offered false hope to trial volunteers and their families, as drug after drug failed to demonstrate improved patient outcomes. Indeed, the recent debacle surrounding aducanumab (Aduhelm®), which registered little – if any – efficacy, reflects the desperation that citizens, scientists and even the chief regulator of medicines, the FDA, feels about our present inability treat such an awful disease.
Scientific fraud is not new
The fallout from the potential fraud surrounding amyloid beta will undoubtedly persist for years to come. For one thing, the “amyloid hypothesis” deprived alternative approaches of resources that might otherwise have addressed Alzheimer’s disease. Yet, the damage will not be limited to future generations facing neurodegeneration but will spread much further and faster.
Scientific fraud has particularly insidious implications in the modern era, driven by, in an ironic sense, successful advances in science. The same communication technologies that allow you to read this article online catalyze the dissemination of conspiracies and denials about legitimate scientific findings.
Starting nearly two decades ago, I began teaching a course at Johns Hopkins University on the subject of scientific communication. I began each new semester by asking the students a simple question: Are eggs good for you or bad? This innocent question triggered intense debate as inevitably some students cited high cholesterol as a key contributor to heart disease, while others maintained that eggs were a source of much-needed protein. Looking to the scientific literature, each side could cite published literature to support their views. Indeed, the fundamental question asked about eggs remains largely unresolved. This is an authentic scientific debate based upon unadulterated data.
A far greater danger is that the existence of scientific misconduct can and will be cited by skeptics arguing against legitimate scientific findings. Whereas the views of those hostile to Galileo and Scopes were based upon belief alone, today’s skeptics can utilize real evidence of fraud to justify illegitimate views.
Scientific fraud is not new, nor is a knowing perpetuation of lies. What is new is our ability to police ourselves in a more comprehensive manner. The apparently falsified results revealed by the Science investigation included dozens of peer-reviewed manuscripts. While the system of peer review is necessary, it is not perfect.
Falsified information must be quickly identified
As a scientist, I maintain that the same technologies that gave rise to the false stories on social media can, and indeed must, be deployed to police ourselves. Real scientific breakthroughs require rigorous confirmation and constructive skepticism. Galileo and even Scopes lived in a time where much scientific progress was the result of citizen scientists, including individuals such as William Herschel (the astronomer, who discovered Uranus) and Benjamin Franklin (who helped understand electricity).
The same internet and social media that allows skeptics to transmit their views globally can be used to quiet those same skeptics. We must patrol ourselves to ensure that falsified information is quickly identified, challenged and corrected. In doing so, a community of scientists and non-scientists might also identify outcomes reflecting an innocent misinterpretation of data. Thus, much humility and open-mindedness will be required to patrol ourselves and others.
Scientific journals could devote a portion of their content to address new interpretation of findings, along with concerns about possible misinterpretation or fabrications, as often occurs in countless op-ed articles from mainstream sources of news. Despite the short term damage caused the questionable amyloid beta research, this setback could foster a community-based means to reconsider how we might efficiently create forums to identify questionable outcomes or interpretations and thus accelerate the pace of future advancements.
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