Friday, June 27, 2008

Faked research data surprisingly common, survey suggests

It's the logical extension of all the dishonest interpretation of results that we constantly see. If you are determined to come to certain conclusions no matter what, why not make up the data altogether? There is a zero tolerance policy badly needed here. Stop the "broken windows" of biased interpretations and you might reduce reporting that is totally false

Scientific misconduct, notably including falsification of data, may be far more common than suspected, according to the authors of a new survey of more than 2,000 scientists.

Sandra L. Titus and colleagues at the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville, Md., surveyed 2,212 scientists at 605 institutions. They found that nearly 9 percent believed they had seen potential research misconduct in the previous three years. The findings are published in a commentary in June 19 issue of the research journal Nature.

The results suggest as many as 2,300 observations of misconduct, 1,000 of them unreported, occur each year in the larger research community funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Titus and colleagues wrote. They added that it's unlikely such behavior is confined to the United States.

Survey participants described misbehavior ranging from scientists' changing numbers to make results look more definite than they really were, to more creative fabrications. One participant told of a colleague using Photoshop to tweak results of chemical tests that appear as blots on sheets of paper.

Suspected misconduct was seen "at all scientific ranks including postdocs, students, and tenured faculty members," the authors wrote. Sixty percent of the cases involved fabrication or falsification, and 36 percent plagiarism "only," Titus and colleagues added.

The authors wrote that the problem arises partly because scientists are reluctant to turn in cheating colleagues, and commonly face ill consequences for doing so. They cited evidence that institutions often encourage whistleblowers to drop allegations. "Institutions must establish the culture that promotes safeguards for whistleblowers and establishes zero tolerance both for those who commit misconduct and for those who turn a blind eye to it," Titus and colleagues wrote. Institutions may also want to consider auditing research records as part of renewed efforts to root out misconduct, they added.

The number of cases reported to the Office of Research Misconduct is very lowabout 24 investigations per year from institutions for cases that involve National Institutes of Health funding, Titus and colleagues wrote.


So now Britain will have degrees in quackery

It's hard to grade nonsense on a scale, but of all forms of medical quackery, psychic surgery must be judged one of the least scrupulous. You might recall the odd television expose of its practitioners - so-called 'surgeons' who appear to be operating on patients with their bare hands, and who seem to be able to remove allegedly diseased tissue without making any incisions. Despite being exposed as hoaxers, 'psychic surgeons' continue to cast their spell over the gullible and desperate – mostly in Brazil and the Philippines. The odd case still crops up in the supposedly less superstitious United Kingdom.

About a year ago the Conservative MP Robert Key wrote to the Department of Health following a complaint by one of his constituents, who had been a victim of such fraudulent "healing." I have the full ministerial reply in front of me. Lord Hunt of Kings Heath told Mr Key: "We are currently working towards extending the scope of statutory regulation by introducing regulation of herbal medicine, acupuncture practitioners and Chinese medicine. However, there are no plans to extend statutory regulation to other professions such as psychic surgery. "We expect these professions to develop their own unified systems of voluntary self-regulation. If they then wish to pursue statutory regulation, they will need to demonstrate that there are risks to patients and the public that voluntary regulation cannot address. I hope this clarifies the current position."

Indeed, it does. It makes it clear that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. For a start, how could Philip Hunt, previously director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, possibly have thought that "psychic healing" constituted a "profession" – let alone one which would "develop its own system of voluntary self-regulation? What might this involve? A code which declares that members must never perform genuine surgery, lest it brings the "profession" into disrepute?

Last week, in fact, the Department of Health published the report which outlines the regulation hinted at by Lord Hunt. It is called the Report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and other Traditional Medicine Systems Practiced in the United Kingdom.

It is a scary document, and not just because many of its recommendations stem from something called the "Acupuncture Stakeholder Group". You thought they just used needles, didn't you?

Acupuncture is at the most respectable end of the alternative health spectrum – its practitioners would be affronted to be lumped in with psychic surgeons. Yet what, really, is the difference? There are many "patients" in the Philippines and Brazil who will insist that psychic surgery has cured chronic ailments which conventional medicine failed to alleviate. Such is the power of placebo – the driving force of all unconventional medical treatments, including acupuncture.

A few months ago an investigation into acupuncture, involving 1,162 patients with lower back pain, made a splash in newspapers across the world. The researchers at Regensburg University declared that just 27.4 per cent of those who had only conventional treatments such as physiotherapy felt able to report an improvement in their condition. However, of those who also underwent acupuncture, 47.6 per cent reported an improvement. So all that stuff about "different levels of Qi", "meridians", "major acupuncture points" and "extraordinary fu" is scientifically validated, then? Well, not quite, despite what some of the news reports said.

You see, the cunning researchers of Regensburg had one control group of back-pain sufferers who were told that they were undergoing traditional acupuncture – whereas in fact the needles were inserted entirely at random; and instead being put in to a depth of up to 40mm (as required by the acupuncture textbooks) were merely inserted just below the skin. This was sham acupuncture. And guess what? It worked – within the statistical margin of error – just as well as the "real" acupuncture: 44.2 per cent of the recipients of the sham treatment said that their back pain had been alleviated in a way which they had not experienced through conventional medicine.

Now here's another remarkable thing: the main body of the report produced for the Government last week does not contain the word "placebo" – and it crops up only twice in the appendices. One can understand why the various "stakeholders" who were consulted might have wanted to steer away from this fundamental question, but it's surprising that the chairman of the report, Professor Michael Pittilo, principal of Robert Gordon University, didn't insist upon it.

After all, Professor Pittilo claims that his report was an "echo" of the House of Lords' Science and Technology Committee report on the same subject – which had declared that the single most important question that any such investigation must address is: "Does the treatment offer therapeutic benefits greater than placebo?"

That indefatigable quackbuster, Professor David Colquhoun of University College London is on the case, however. His indispensable blog points out that Professor Pittilo is a trustee of the Prince of Wales's Foundation for Integrated Health, which advocates exactly the sort of therapies that this committee is supposed to be regulating.

Pittilo and his band of "stakeholders" have come up with their own way of "regulating" the alternative health industry – which the Government has welcomed. It is to suggest that practitioners gain university degrees in complementary or alternative medicine. Pittilo's own university just happens to offer such courses, which Professor Colquhoun has long campaigned against as "science degrees without the science."

It will be a particular boon to the University of Westminster, whose "Department of Complementary Therapies", teaches students all about such practices as homeopathy, McTimoney chiropractic, crystals, and 'vibrational medicine'.

One can see how this might fit in with the Government's "never mind the quality, feel the width" approach to university education. One can also see how established practitioners of such therapies might see this as a future source of income – how pleasant it might be to become Visiting Professor of Vibrational Medicine at the University of Westminster.

Thus garlanded with the laurels of academic pseudo-science, the newly professionalised practitioners of "alternative medicine" can look down on such riff-raff as the "psychic surgeons". Yet in one way those charlatans are less objectionable than Harley Street homeopaths: they openly admit that they are faith-healers, rather than pretend to academic status; and while they have made fools of their patients they haven't-yet-made a fool of the Government.


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