Monday, June 23, 2014

Why is everyone STILL piling on that STAP woman?

[Update, 6/30: follow up post]

There is something weird about the STAP “scandal”. I still have no idea why there is such a hardcore investigation into these papers, now with talk of it shutting down the entire institute. Much of the inquiry seems to circulate around some apparently duplicated lanes of a gel and “plagiarism” of materials and methods (seriously?!?). Umm, well, the plagiarism of materials and methods stuff is just a stupid criticism. The duplicated lanes in a figure? Potentially more serious, but I’m inclined to say it’s just sloppy. Why? Because NOBODY in their right mind would publish this work without truly believing that the protocol worked. The only other logical option is that this woman is a pathological liar, because she must have known that everyone in the world will be angling to replicate this result immediately–there is nowhere to hide. And, admittedly from afar, I don’t think she’s seems like a liar. Rather, I think that either she made an honest mistake and got fooled by biology–wouldn’t be the first, won’t be the last–or the result is actually valid and just requires more time for others to replicate. I think it would be wrong to dismiss this latter possibility, by the way.

And what if the papers end up being wrong? So what. Papers are wrong all the time. I personally know of several papers that are wrong in high profile journals, ones that we and others have wasted time and treasure on following up. I’m sure you do, too. (Buy me a beer and we can trade stories.) In fact, there are entire subfields that I strongly suspect are bogus. Nobody is hunting these people down and debating whether they should close MIT or Stanford or Harvard, even if everyone in the room quietly agrees the work is bogus. Perhaps some of this work is not quite as high profile as STAP, but I don’t think that should matter. It’s all still in the record, helping the careers of those who write it and fooling those who read it. I’m not saying that it’s a good thing, I’m just saying there’s a serious double standard here.

I think it’s worth comparing the fallout here to that of two recent high profile physics “mistakes”. One was the faster than light neutrinos. The overall reception was “Well, it’s probably wrong, let’s just wait until they figure out what happened.” And it turned out to be a not fully plugged in USB cable or something. Fine. I don’t think there was any huge fallout calling for people to shut down OPERA, although the lead investigator did somewhat mysteriously step down from his post. But still, not as crazy as the firestorm surrounding Obokata. Then consider the very recent discovery of gravitational wave signatures of inflation shortly after the big bang. Turns out it might just be a bunch of dust. Oops! Still, nobody’s losing their job or shutting down an institute or being investigated like a criminal. And, with all due respect to STAP, finding particles that move faster than light or seeing signatures of inflation in the early universe are some pretty big results. So why this crazy witch hunt? Is it because she is a woman? I feel like maybe everyone is focusing all their “the biomedical research system is broken!” energy onto this one particular case, as though that will solve anything.

Whatever, all I’m saying is that you better hope you’ve got someone who believes in you when the science gestapo comes looking for blood. Because, in a slight bastardization of JFK, while success has a dozen coauthors, retraction just needs one scapegoat.

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