The Media, Dr. Obokata & the Curse of Fatal Truth

No one now dies of fatal truths: there are too many antidotes to them.  – Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All Too Human

Philosophers love truth — that’s a truism. What about the rest of us? Do we love truth or falsehood? Truth, we naturally affirm. So why are we swimming in falsehood? Michael Hoffman, Japan Times

Dr. Obokata “..announced the breakthrough in January in two published in the scientific journal Nature, but the discovery was thrown into doubt after researchers elsewhere failed to replicate her work.

 The ruling has not settled the debate over whether her breakthrough was real, though. In a bizarre twist in an already convoluted story, the committee’s ruling against Obokata came moments before an independent researcher claimed to have succeeded in making the cells using a slightly different procedure.

 Much of the scrutiny of Obokata’s claims played out on science websites where researchers pointed several discrepancies in her work, including images that looked manipulated, and text that appeared to have been plagiarised. The doubts led to a split among the authors of the papers, with one, Teruhiko Wakayama, calling for a retraction until the research had been thoroughly checked.

The investigation concluded that Dr. Obokata was guilty of academic wrong-doing and she shall appeal the decision.   As an academic, this entire episode troubles me.  I am an academic philosopher, plagiarism or mis-representing the facts in an academic context, is one of the worst crimes an academic can commit.  Dr. Obokata is rightfully censured, although there are still issues to be worked out.  Science is a slow process, results should remain under constant review with the understanding that a good scientific theory, being one (for some at least) that has yet to be proven wrong, not one that has been given some credence and then left alone.  The best check of any theory is constant testing.  So it shouldn’t surprise that on April 1st 2014, hours after the RIKEN press conference, this was posted, and then on April 3rd, if you view the comments, one commentator suggests a more modest claim is appropriate, given current research.  Further research may indeed yield different results, what that will tell us about STAP cells, remains to be seen.

The way the press dealt with this worries me.  Science is not sexy it’s true, but if it’s a headline you’re after you will not find it in Science. Science is the slow accumulation of results and knowledge in the hope of better understanding the world.  It is not about saying ‘Prof X is wrong and Prof Y is right’, however tempting it is to portray it that way.  It course does not help that Dr. Obokata may  have not acted in the most ethical way as a researcher, and yet the media often misrepresent the academic process, in favour of a sensationalist headline.  I do not necessarily include Michael Hoffman of The Japan Times of being guilty of such a mistake, I always enjoy his articles.  But the entire tone of journalism has been wrong, it looks for wrongdoer and a victim, and academia is rarely that simple.  We are not ‘swimming in falsehood’ rather we are merely wading through numerous, often contradictory and difficult to appreciate research.  It takes time to understand, but the media could help by simply lowering expectations, yes no academic should falsify, but stop looking for some great truth, instead appreciate the more subtle, more modest points of academe.

Science is a slow process, and not always very glamorous, even the idea of a breakthrough seems inaccurate; any good scientific idea has only because one is standing on the shoulders of giants, not because of a flash of inspiration.  Good research, that is, well conducted peer-reviewed research, produces good ideas.

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