IN early 20th century Berlin, crowds were entranced by a horse that could count, do arithmetic, read the time and identify playing cards, tapping out the answers to questions with his hooves.

So famous was Hans the horse that the German board of education set up a special 18-month inquiry to determine if the claims made about him were genuine. No evidence of fraud was found.

Sadly, it eventually emerged that the horse was actually reading microscopic signals unconsciously emitted by his human interrogators. Minute changes in their expression or body language allowed him to identify the correct answer, the one that would earn him a reward.

Mind you, that’s pretty clever in itself and well beyond the capabilities of most of us humans.

Another thing we humans are not all that good at is being sceptical about things we really want to be true, whether it’s a talking horse or a breakthrough cure for cancer.

Too many scientific miracle workers have flared across the horizon, a shining comet of hope, only to disintegrate into a debris of disappointment and damaged reputations. In the case of medicine, they can also leave a trail of damaged patients behind them.

The most recent fall from grace is that of Italian surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, a superstar of regenerative medicine, whose downfall is sending reverberations through some of the world’s most prestigious medical organisations.

The charismatic Macchiarini achieved fame in 2008 after he created a new airway for a young Colombian woman whose bronchus had collapsed as a result of tuberculosis.

The revolutionary procedure used the patient’s own stem cells on a scaffold of the stripped-back trachea from a deceased donor.

New Scientist was just one of the media outlets excited by the breakthrough at the time.

Five years on, Macchiarini and colleagues reported in the Lancet that the transplanted airway was going strong, with the patient enjoying good lung function, no immunological complications and “a normal social and working life”.

Was it too good to be true?

According to media reports, the patient actually suffered extensive complications, culminating in the removal of a lung in 2016.

Macchiarini went on, in 2011, to perform the world’s first synthetic trachea transplant at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, home of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, this time using a plastic scaffold rather than donor tissue.

Over the next 3 years, he repeated the experimental surgery to considerable acclaim at different clinical centres around the world.

However, once again, all was not quite as it seemed.

Confronted in late 2016 by evidence that normal research and clinical procedures had been ignored and at least six patients had died following the surgery, Macchiarini remained defiant, accusing detractors of plagiarism and misrepresentation.

After initially exonerating the surgeon in the face of questions about the accuracy of his published papers and an apparently reckless disregard for the risks faced by patients, in late 2016, the Karolinska Institute found him guilty of scientific misconduct and declined to renew his contract.

The Macchiarini case shares many attributes with other scientific frauds: a high-profile, charismatic researcher makes extraordinary claims, scientific journals and the general media buy the hype, and whistleblowers are disbelieved or punished.

Other stand-out cases from recent decades include Japanese stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata, the alleged successful re-implantation of an ectopic pregnancy by Britain’s Malcolm Pearce, or the human cloning experiments of South Korea’s Hwang Woo-Suk.

Not to mention our own William McBride, who was revealed to have falsified his research claiming a link between the drug debendox and birth defects.

Like so many others who succumb to the temptations of fraud, McBride’s belief in himself appeared unshaken. When he eventually admitted to falsifying data, he said he had done it “in the interests of humanity”.

The fraudster who believes in his own hype is a dangerous thing. Disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield continues to put children at risk by peddling his disproven theories about a link between vaccines and autism.

As 19th century Russian doctor and writer Anton Chekhov put it in one of his stories: “It would not have been so bad if he had simply been a quack, of whom there were plenty, but no – he was a quack who believed in himself …”

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer.


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6 thoughts on “Beware the researcher who believes their own hype

  1. Dr. Elliot Rubinstein says:

    Thank you for that article and most particularly for the intelligent discussion.
    I have nothing to add to it but want to tell you how tickled I was by your phrase “the debris of disappointment” which seems unfortunately to not really apply to these false prophets who continue to hold their beliefs despite the contrary evidence.

  2. Ian Hargreaves says:

    We were taught the basic rule that you never trust anyone who has a financial stake in the research, e.g. tobacco and cancer research funded by tobacco companies. The issue of an emotional attachment is more difficult, such as Bill McBride who did not have any financial stake in trying to ban a particular drug, just a sincerely-held false belief.

    It is amusing to apply this approach to a field like climate change, where one must discount any research by anyone employed by a climate change institute or faculty, or anyone who has ‘done it “in the interests of humanity” ‘. I suspect very few impartial papers would remain.

  3. Sue Ieraci says:

    I agree with Randall Williams. The spin that comes from eager promotion of the findings of a new study can be overly optimistic – especially since, we know, findings need to be replicated, and an informed readership needs to be able to read the details of the methodology. That’s what publication is for – to allow public scrutiny.

  4. Max Kamien says:

    If this is not unadulterated conscious self promotion it is a psychiatric condition called an idée fixe.
    It is common in medicine, politics and religion. It is often contagious but is endemic rather than epidemic.
    As Randall Williams has already said, the contagion is spread through newspapers and commercial media.
    the condition often responds to low dose antipsychotics. But if the afflicted has a medical degree they will not take it.

  5. Randal Williams says:

    My beef is with researchers who release their ” breakthroughs” to the media before publication in peer reviewed journals. Doctors are then disadvantaged when patients come to them expecting they will know all about it.
    The media will report a ‘major breakthrough’ in diagnosis or treatment of a particular condition,( eg multiple sclerosis) because it is good story but will usually fail to mention that clinical application, even if this comes to fruition, is years away. I can understand researchers wanting to get publicity to help secure funding, but they need to wait until their work has been peer reviewed and published.

  6. James Leyden says:

    This article may be being a little unkind to the researcher. It takes enormous effort to drive a research project and it is impossible for any human being to be so disconnected as to simultaneously devote years of their life to an hypothesis and remain objectively detached. Kepler, often described as a founder of modern science, very likely falsified his data! He wasn’t wrong, just so convinced in his idea that he mistook his own formula for independent observation! Self delusion is a risk with catastrophic consequences in science. We owe it to each other not to vilify the researcher but rather to ensure our systems are robust enough to identify and help the deluded while also being open minded enough to allow for discovery. Every human being has a delusion of one sort or another. Whilst we must strive to prevent the deluded causing harm, I am not sure the terms fraudster or quack are that helpful. Perhaps scientific delusions should be better considered a functional neurological disorder. There is a risk for everyone in the unfriendly and often vicious scientific community. Is anyone immune to delusions and if not, how do we know when we are deluded?

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