It might come as a surprise to you both that I have a page on Wikipedia. I didn’t create this page. Nobody told me it was being created, nor did they ask me for any input. They could have had the decency of waiting until I was dead.
But that’s OK, because we live in a freewheelin’ Web 2.0 society where I can edit the page without restraint, or so I thought. After my last ebullition on this subject, notwithstanding inasmuch as which I might possibly have suggested that people should feel free to edit my page in amusing and creative ways, Wikipedia blocked all further edits citing ‘vandalism’. I complained, saying that as it was a page all about me, with information about me on it, I was the best authority to judge the contents, irrespective of their verifiability. This cut no ice.
So I resorted to a more surreptitious strategy, just going in every now and then and altering a few items, all innocuous like, with the aim, eventually, of creating a complete work of fantasy (Dr R. P. G. of Rotherhithe did manage to get away with changing the picture.) But today on Facebook I invited the throng to let rip, and so they have. It’s all very satisfactory, though I have to admit, it’s a work in progress. Rather like life, in fact.
But enough of such japery.
As a journalist and as an editor at Your Favourite Weekly Etcetera Etcetera, I have long known that truth is a moving target, and in the science biz, we have to take everything we are given on trust. What do I mean by this? Well, when Professor Branestawm writes in with a manuscript about the release of calcium from intracellular stores (and, by the way, you can buy this on a T-shirt in the new cromercrox geekwear range), we – the editors – have to assume that the paper is submitted in good faith, and that the good Prof has indeed performed the experiments and obtained the results as described. The referees, too, labour under the same assumption.
To be sure, manuscripts can have tell-tale signs that all in the laboratory might not be rosy. An excessive use of autocitation often causes eyebrows to raise. We are particularly enjoined to look for the joins in gels. And we are preternaturally good at detecting plagiarism, duplicate submission and other such naughtinesses. Heavens to Betsy, we even look to see if the good Prof has done the appropriate controls (you don’t always need a referee to spot such things) and check if various methods, protocols, data repositories and so on are available for scrutiny.
But we are not a police force. We cannot afford to visit every laboratory and see the experiments for ourselves. This is why – especially for
DrAust the more seasoned reader – the Benveniste Affair was so salutary, for that included the one occasion of which I am aware that an editorial team visited a laboratory in order to try and replicate unusual results. Some might say that the business was just showboating by my former boss, the late, great John Maddox – but I think differently.
Benveniste’s paper, in which he showed the degranulation of neutrophils when exposed to a bioactive agent diluted to beyond the Avogadro limit [are you sure you've got that right? -- Ed] – represented a result which, if true, was the sort of spectacular news that we at Your Favourite Etcetera are in the business of publishing, provided that in the opinion of our panel of referees the data supported the conclusions.
And there’s the rub. From what they were shown on paper, the referees had no qualms with the experimental protocols – yet they still could not believe the results. Something was clearly missing, or poorly explained, which prompted the inquiry.
Those of us at Your Favourite Etcetera, and other journals in which competition for space is especially fierce, are daily exposed to a rather nice problem, and that is this: we are presented with missives describing experiments or observations that teeter at the very edge of resolution, where the problems or wishful thinking or self-deception are magnified. We have to decide, given finite time and resources, and on the basis of insufficient information, whether the claim before us is either complete nonsense or the greatest advance since breakfast time. We do not have the luxury of apocryphal FBI slogan that said ‘In God We Trust – Everyone Else We Check Out’. But to question everything to such a degree – to look for fraud in every evasion, malfeasance in every sloppy protocol – is to invite madness.
We have to trust.
We have to have faith in the fundamental honesty of scientists.
And the fact is that scientists are honest. They are faithful, and they are trusting. Yes, there are occasional high-profile cases of fraud, leading to embarrassing retractions and ruined careers. I remain in a state of perpetual wonderment – and gratitude – that such cases are so few.