In the Spectator this week Matt Ridley has an excellent piece looking at fraud in science and how the pandemic highlighted just how prevalent this is and the insidious ways it operates, bending conclusions to a preferred narrative and suppressing debate. Here’s an excerpt.
An alarming recent example is the case of the ‘pangolin papers’, four studies hurriedly published in February 2020 conveniently purporting to show that a handful of smuggled pangolins were infected with coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 in 2019. My co-author Dr. Alina Chan of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard soon spotted that all four relied on data that had already been published the previous year, and one paper had simply re-described four biological samples under new names.
It took the journal Nature six months to print a correction to that paper, in which the authors confessed to multiple errors. By then, the pangolins had done their job through the media to get the public thinking a natural source of the virus had been found – when it had not. (A couple of pangolins might have been infected somehow, but with a different virus.) The editors at Nature were either not bothered, or realised that the longer they stalled, the less attention there would be on how they had mismanaged the papers.
As this example shows, the real scandal in science is not the criminal frauds, of which there are always a small number, nor the data dredging and fire-hose publishing, but the gate-keeping, groupthink and bias that politicises some fields of science, turning it into the dogma known as ‘the science’. The pandemic provided a glimpse of just how far senior scientists will go to bend conclusions to a preferred narrative and suppress debate.
On the efficacy of masks, whether the Covid vaccines prevented transmission, the effectiveness of lockdowns and the accuracy of epidemiological models and other issues, the scientific establishment proved willing to suppress alternative views. The sceptics on these points were not necessarily all right, but they deserved to be heard.
“In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t so smart to hand the keys of public health over to mad-scientist virologists, hypochondriacal epidemiologists and megalomaniacal science bureaucrats,” tweeted Professor Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford Medical School recently. He was one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, calling for focused protection rather than society-wide lockdowns. Regarding that declaration, “There needs to be a quick and devastating published take down of its premises,” wrote Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, to Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in October 2020. “Is it under way?” It was.