One attribute of science that makes it powerful is the ability to correct its own course. That’s crucial because individual scientists can be delusional, crazy, or even outright dishonest. A perfect illustration of scientific course-correction has been playing itself out over the last several years. Yesterday, it hit a milestone when a study that brought hope to victims of chronic fatigue syndrome was officially retracted by the journal Science.
When it was first published in 2009, the study raised hopes because it connected a virus, called XMRV, to chronic fatigue. Sufferers thought that once the cause was nailed down, treatments would follow. It came out in Science, which is a high-prestige journal, so the world took notice.
Soon, people with chronic fatigue began taking antiviral drugs, according to this fascinating story in the Chicago Tribune. It was just one study and even if the virus had been associated with the disease, that wouldn’t necessarily mean it was the cause. But there’s always someone ready to capitalize on the desperation of others.
As is standard practice in science, other researchers tried to replicate the finding. They couldn’t, and it started to look like the virus was a contaminant, and had nothing to do with the disease at all. But was it a mistake or true misconduct? Science blogger Abbie Smith wrote a post exposing what looks like the latter, detailing how a graph in the original paper is not what it was claimed to be. This is very serious and should have prompted an investigation. There’s a big difference between being wrong in science and being dishonest, and it’s important for the ultimate truth of this matter to come to light.
More great investigative stories appeared in the Chicago Tribune, documenting the way the scientific community came to doubt the findings and eventually weeded out this piece of rotten science. A Tribune blog post accused other news outlets of hyping the original announcement. I searched through our archives and found no such hype in the Inquirer, as I expected since our medical writers are savvy about science.
The journal issued a partial retraction this fall and a full one yesterday. The lead researcher, Judy Mikovits, has been fired from her institution, the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease(WPI). Read more at Science Insider, which is produced by the journal. As an additional note to climate “skeptics”, this individual case does not show that biology is a hoax. No sane person would try to use one bad study to discredit the entire field. The fact that it was retracted shows the system works, albeit slowly.
Once the journal recovers from this embarrassment, Science’s editors can start thinking about retracting the paper published last year on arsenic-based life. That stank from the moment it was unleashed on the public.