Scientific (mis)Results and (mis)Reporting

This week’s blog was going to be on “Business and Nanomaterials”.  However, there have been several publications that passed through my readings that addressed the same issue and the same person.  It goes back to a 1998 publication in the Lancer, which is a respected British Medical Journal. Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a medical researcher issues the results of a study where he claimed that the common vaccine for Measles, mumps, and rubella had a direct link to autism.  It appears that Wakefield manipulated the testing protocols, which gave the results he was after.  There are a number of highly questionable parts of this effort including that his sample population for the testing was very small, the testing was focused on getting the results desired, and some of the funding was supplied by parties interesting in having these type of results for litigation.  The “experiment” was not replicated by an uninterested party.  [1]

Today’s news business is focused on getting a story out first and the more controversy that it raises the better it is.  The news media picked up the results of Wakefield’s “study” and resulted in a significant number of people who took a stand against subjecting their children to the stated “dangers” of vaccine.  In her 2010 blog [2], Susan Watts writes that this case is not the only issue that exists with “scientific studies” that are quickly publicized by the news.  She talks about how studies currently in the news conveniently omit data that might change the preconception the researcher started with.  The key question that is being raised is how accurate are scientific studies.  Susan asks the question: “How rigorous are ethical checks on medical research?”

I’ve pointed out in a past blog that governmental agencies do release conflicting and contradictory directives.  This raises the question of what can one believe and how does one find out what is actually truthful.  First, one needs to find sources that appear to be factual and then check these sources.  If someone indicates there is no need to check sources, you had better check them thoroughly.  From [1], Catherine Shoults points out that 2% of scientists admit to fabricating falsifying, or modifying data or results?

So the question is: “How does this fit into nanotechnology?”  The issue is that results are published and taken as absolute fact before there is any real opportunity for others to evaluate the procedures and replicate the results.  We need researchers to do experimental and theoretical work and provide  their conclusions and permit other, unaffiliated researchers to review the procedures and conclusions.  To determine what is safe and what needs to be further investigated, we need real results.  Accurate results come from conducting experiments with a stated hypothesis and then evaluating the results to prove or disprove the hypothesis.  Nanomaterials are interesting in that they can change over time.  If one takes graphene, a conductor, and attaches hydrogen to it, it becomes graphene, an insulator.  There is so much that needs to be learned about nanomaterials, that erroneous results will cause delays in good applications of the technology.

References:

[1] “Breaking the Rules of Scientific Integrity”. Catherine C. Shoults. Phi Kappa Phi Forum. Fall 2013. P.26.

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/susanwatts/2010/01/judgement_day_for_public_trust.html

About Walt

I have been involved in various aspects of nanotechnology since the late 1970s. My interest in promoting nano-safety began in 2006 and produced a white paper in 2007 explaining the four pillars of nano-safety. I am a technology futurist and is currently focused on nanoelectronics, single digit nanomaterials, and 3D printing at the nanoscale. My experience includes three startups, two of which I founded, 13 years at SEMATECH, where I was a Senior Fellow of the technical staff when I left, and 12 years at General Electric with nine of them on corporate staff. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from James Madison University, and a B.S. in Physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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