Not long ago, a new technology that could revolutionise stem cells-based therapies was in the news. The reporting may have escaped many but the media was not to blame; this time it gave it as much attention as basic science can get. On the stem cells field the study was a blast: “People rushing to start new experiments! I think it is fair to say that I have never seen such a level of excitement in a scientific department…” I commented early this year. Well, all the young scientists who ran to reproduce the work failed confirming the suspicion of the most sceptics among us: it was bollocks.
In Japan, the country where the research was carried out, the backlash was so big that one of the senior scientists on the study –manager of an astronomical budget- committed suicide. This happened even when senior scientists never step in the lab -unless there is a photo shoot or something- and can always plead innocence claiming that they have been cheated by an unscrupulous minion.
The discredited results are now abandoned and soon to be forgotten. The importance of this episode rest not on the disgraced piece of research itself but on it showing that experimental science’s claims are not a social construction –in the sense that claims are not a mere collection of accepted beliefs. Beliefs and authority –as important as they may be- are not the base rock of science. Science is based on evidence and reproducibility, whatever is not, is not science.
When left to its own devices, the scientific system works; it purges itself from false claims. Not very popular fields, such as stem cell research, are an excellent proof of that. Unfortunately, some research areas such as vaccination, GM foods and chemicals have been taken over by scientifically illiterate campaigners with little interest on science and much on the way of pseudo-religious agendas. In all those fields, disgraced papers -scoffed out of court by scientists- will hang on for ever in the blogosphere and facebooksphere as a scientific validation of bollockness.