A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Monday, March 12, 2012

Somebody think of the children! How Adi Roche and the Chernobyl children project misrepresent science

 A very short post on my issues with Adi Roche and the Chernobyl Children's project....

Given the main point of this blog is to separate science from pseudoscience, I sometimes have to take unpopular positions; And today I feel it's vital to call Adi Roche and the Chernobyl Children's Project International out for misinforming the public. Adi Roche is the director and co-founder of the CCPI, and even ran for president of Ireland. She very nearly won it too, only allegations that she was a bully by former charity workers, including the co-founder sunk her bid. That is irrelevant here however - what concerns me is her and the CCPI's blatant disregard for science and flagrant misinformation. I've waxed lyrical before about radiophobia hysteria and radiation panic, both for The Journal and in regards to both Fukushima and Chernobyl on this blog before, so I'll endeavour to not repeat myself too much.

Adi Roche is an incredible self-publicist, and anything she says or does will get covered by the press. That may be a good thing for generating donations to her charity but seemingly not for public understanding of science - Just yesterday she visited Fukushima as an invited expert on radiation, and in what may be an  egregious abuse of the word expert, came out with her usual line:
"Japan is a global leader in technology and standards and yet even they have failed to deal with a nuclear reactor explosion. Nuclear energy is just not safe and one wonders how many horrors have to be inflicted on the world by it before governments accept this"

Oh dear. In an opportunistic display, Ms Roche manages to crassly manipulate a great natural disaster to further her own interests. First off, Fukushima was scheduled for decommission as it was over 40 years old. It was only designed to withstand a magnitude 7.9 earthquake and this was one of the reasons it was wound down. State of the art this was not. There was no nuclear explosion, nor could there ever be; there were in fact three partial core meltdowns. Ms Roche is conflating nuclear energy with nuclear weapons either out of genuine ignornance or more cynically, because it suits her to do so. In a rhetorical coup de grace she says nuclear power isn't safe and wrings her hand about the horror. Oh the horror! Yet this horror exists mainly in her imagination; nuclear is by far the safest form of power production with least amount of deaths attributable to it.

The Horror! The Horror!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Stand back - I have a license to science!

Recently I was giving a talk on bad science / medicine journalism to the lovely people of Dublin Skeptics in the Pub, which you can download in PDF format here if you're so inclined. The discussion that came up afterwards was interesting and something popped up that deserves some debate - should there be a scientific license ?

This would be something akin to the medical register rules that GPs are expected to abide by - a document from an independent panel that guarantees both the holder's credentials and more importantly holds the owner to scientific integrity. This independent panel would further have the ability to strike off a scientist who abused their position. Sound outlandish ? Perhaps, but since it generated interesting discussion from the scientists at the talk, let's discuss it further...

A (terrible) artists impression of what a science license might look like....

For the purposes of this argument, let's define two important terms

Scientist : Any person engaged in active research and / or science teaching, including medical researchers / medical doctors. 

Research : Investigation into any scientific / medical phenomena utilising the scientific method.

Scientists are in a strange position - they investigate the world around us, a world that is often contrary to expectation. In some quarters and countries, they rank among the most trusted and are afforded an element of trust - an IPSOS poll found that 71% of respondents thought scientists were likely to tell the truth. A Nature survey also found 84% polled ranked scientists among the most trusted group on the planet, though given it came from Nature readers selection bias may be an issue. Yet if we contrast this with the scorn poured on evolutionary biologists and climate scientists in certain sectors of the ostensibly developed world an interesting dichotomy arises; that apparent trust can turn to overt negativity.  Scientists are then in a delicate position - they do research, and sometimes the findings of that research is at odds with people's personal biases and people may not understand nor like this - That is a huge issue but not one we're interested in right now. Let's assume that over all, scientists are generally a trusted group.

Trust me! I'm a scientist!

Even to other scientists, trust is implicit in the scientific peer review process. We assume that people will not fake data, or twist findings and thankfully the vast, vast majority do not. But it has happened, and when it does, it sets research back. or wastes precious research time by making other groups examine these claims. Here's just a few cases that spring to mind...

  • In 2002 Jan Hendrik Schon was fired from Bell Labs for faking semi-conductor data. At this stage he was publishing about a paper every 8 days in leading scientific journals, a phenomenal amount.
  • In 2005 celebrated Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk was found to have falsified data and engaged in overt deception by claiming he had succeeded in producing a human clone.
  • In 2002, Andrew wakefield wrongly and knowingly claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism for financial gain, prompting mass panic and needless deaths of children.

These were clear cases of scientific deception for career, financial or personal gain. Science is a self-correcting process and these frauds were exposed in due course, but each prompted serious questions over how they manipulated the system and indeed, how much time (and in some cases, lives) they wasted in the process. Worse still is when a renegade scientist manipulates this trust with a non-expert group, attempting to use their status to push nonsense. Sadly, even if the credentials are real, it does not guarantee the veracity of the speaker - Dr. Deepak Chopra, Dr. Joe Mercola and Dr. Mehmet Oz all spring to mind as genuine titles spewing fake information. They are fully aware that too many people view science as something mysterious akin to an arcane religion practiced in Ivory towers by academics, and are all too happy to exploit those very same people who treat their pronouncements with almost religious fervour as if their status as a scientist or doctor means they are beyond reproach. Just look at Gillian McKeith obtaining a fake PhD just so she could hide behind the title of doctor and give her quackery the impression of depth and it becomes apparent that it is possible to abuse one's scientific position.

Could a scientific license maintain a higher standard from those qualified and also rid the world of degree mills and fake PhDs ? Furthermore, could it stop the contempible and intellectually shallow trick of someone holding a PhD in a certain field pretending to a be an authority on a different one, and hoping the public don't notice ? This happened only recently in the shamefull Wall Street Journal letter slamming climate change as a myth, signed by scientists - all of whom were not climatologists or even field experts and had vested interests for doing so.

Ivory Tower - Not nearly as impressive as it sounds. Check and mate.

It's worth reiterating the VAST majority of scientists would never engage in such appalling practice, but never the less we live in an age when science is simultaneously attacked and praised in roughly equal measure. We just have to look at the phenomena of climate change deniers constantly trying to smear scientists publishing on climate change to see but one example. The only recourse left to scientists is to have utter integrity, which the most do uphold, but under massive pressure things can be fudged. A recent BMJ poll reported 13% of researchers knew of colleagues that had fabricated or edited data for a paper. This is likely due to the massive and increasing pressure to publish or perish but of course this isn't an excuse. Predictably, once this poll was released every quack under the sun seized on this as evidence the scientific establishment is hiding the truth from them about Global warming, evolution, alternative medicine, killer bees, Elvis's current location, and presumably why people who comment on Daily Mail articles find their cousins were so damn attractive.

That's rich coming from a source that advocates vitamin D as a cancer cure...

So perhaps if there was a system of scientific integrity that all practicing scientists were sworn to abide by then such problems could be massively reduced ? About this I'm not sure, so let's see the Pros and Cons.

  • Register would clearly demark ethical obligations of scientists.
  • Could dismiss scientists in contempt of charter.
  • Clear guidelines for scientists to operate under.
  • May improve public perception of science.
  • Potentially very cool membership card
  •  Difficult to enforce.
  • May be overkill - academic disgrace usually enough.
  • Potential for abuse and wrongful censure.
  • May foster mistrust among researchers.
  • Yet another bloody document / cost

So my question to scientists and lay people out there is do you think a scientific license would be a good idea, or a bad one ? I have no position on it (though I do like carrying various forms of ID and want to use science as a verb...) but I'd be eager to hear what others think. Feel free to click the poll and give some feedback!

Do you think scientists should have a charter and require a license to practice ?

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