Research results vs. breakthroughs the Scientific Method vs. media hype

I live in Utah the home of cold fusion (which was greatly hyped before its bubble burst) and, as a scientist, I'm always eager to see confirmation of new breakthroughs before I fully believe. Meanwhile, media hype is eager to report the first or the best whatever. The addition of money and politics to the picture has enhanced the conflict.

The latest accusations in the Hwang stem cell controversy are not surprising. Hwang's work has not yet been duplicated by others. One of the key steps of the Scientific Method is confirmation of results by outside sources. While Hwang could be accused of going after the glory before the confirmation, I can't help but wonder what Shatten and the others in the group were doing at the time. Could they have attached their names to a paper without agreeing with the information in the publication?

Science contains "refereed research reports, submitted by their authors for free, with the sole objective of making the research findings available as broadly as possible once they have met Science's rigorous standards of peer review" as well as articles by salaried staff writers and commissioned articles written for a fee. The Hwang article, published in Science 17 June 2005 308:1709 (online in Science Express on 19 May 2005) presumably was peer-reviewed. Could the peer reviewer(s) and the editors (copyeditors, proofreaders, etc.) not note that two figures were identical when they should not have been?

Perhaps the greatest message in the Hwang conflict is that we all have to be critical of information released by scientists to the public. I have worked as a scientist writing peer-reviewed publications, a medical writer for pharmaceutical companies, and now a blogger. Each of these areas is and should be subject to public scrutiny. You, as a reader of this blog, can hold me accountable by challenging anything I write and I really appreciate those who take the time to comment on blog entries, whether the comments are positive or negative. The only comments I do not publish are the obvious spam messages that slip through.

So, view news reports and even scientific articles critically. You do not have to understand the science to be critical of its reporting. In fact, for another publication I write for, we prefer critics who know nothing about the subject in question. We ask them to read an article and tell us whether it is believable and coherent. We can all do the same.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

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