Sub-module 4C, page 1

Learning Goals:

Explore some issues related to ethics, scientific literature, and the internet.

Last lesson we talked a little about use of scientific literature. Here is a site with the ethical obligations of authors, reviewers, and editors. ASCE. Read Ethical Standards for Publication, then: Obligation of Editors, Obligation of Authors, and Obligation of Reviewers. Bookmark that site.

So things are tough for alligators. Alligators. Although the science is sketchy, there is a plausible theory that certain chemicals in the environment can mimic hormones and disrupt sexual development. There are other explanations for such phenomena. For example, the February 2003 issue of Scientific American had an article, Explaining Frog Deformities: An eight-year investigation into the cause of a shocking increase in deformed amphibians has sorted out the roles of three prime suspects. You should look at the article, which is in your Course Documents folder. But you don't need to read the whole article, unless you want to.

Now one of the scientific issues involved in these is the fact that the chemicals in the environment are of both a low concentration and of low potency. It seems unlikely that most chemicals that mimic hormones could be responsible for the effects seen. There is, however, the concept of synergy. That is, some combination of chemicals can cause effects much greater than the sum of their individual effects. So look at this brief synopsis of an article by Dr. Arnold and some others in 1996. He wrote an article with a similar title for the prestigious journal Science in 1997.

So, the articles by Arnold were hard science - they appeared in peer reviewed journals. The article is used in book that is promoted on the web, see Our Stolen Future, and Dr. Arnold's work is listed as a reference.

What happened next is worth reading. Arnold retracts. But then things got worse for Dr. Arnold. Note the timing, the years between the initial article and the Tulane report and the finding of scientific misconduct [ five years after the article]. So it appears the scientific community was able to ferret out some misconduct and publish corrections, but web-based interest groups can continue to use the information, if it suits their purposes. Note that the problem with Arnold's work was that " [Arnold] admitted to scientific misconduct, and conceded that there were no original data or other corroborating evidence to support the conclusions reported in the Science paper." That is, the data cited did not exist. Apparently, he used the Science article to get funding for a grant.

My impression is that such gross misconduct - inventing data - is very rare. I have seen one other instance of such and read of one other. Peer review journal articles are still the gold standard of science. Bad or sloppy science is generally caught by the reviewers and never sees the light of day. Complete fraud has a better chance of getting through the system, but will eventually be found out. The take home message is that you must be wary when using data from the web and use a weight-of-evidence judgment. Do not take one article that seems to say what you want and rely on it. Examine other articles on the subject.

Homework. Assuming the NIH judgment of Arnold is correct, which of the ASCE ethical obligations of authors did he violate? Do you suppose the editors and reviewers did something unethical? First one up posts their ideas, the later comment. Early contributors should comment or rebut at least one of the later contributors.

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