Red Flags: When Adults Act
Like Colorblind, Anosmic Children

By

Leonard Zwelling

         Wouldn’t it be great if you could spend 20 minutes with a
bigot and change his or her mind about the prejudice clouding his or her view
of the world?

         Surprisingly enough, it’s been done.

         In Science Magazine
on December 12, 2014, an article was published by LaCour and Green stating that
a 20-minute conversation about gay marriage could change the minds of a
significant number of people opposed to the idea. This was a “large and sustained
shift in attitudes” unheard of in social science literature. And the research
was probably fraudulent.

         In a radio program (On
the Media
) Brooke Gladstone poked holes in the story that were simple to
understand and big enough to drive a truck through. Essentially, the lead
author (Green) had not seen the primary data and trusted his younger colleague,
who, coincidentally, was job hunting, that what he had “discovered” was
correct.

         I am not really sure who the biggest fools were in this
case. It could be Green, but at least he has requested Science retract the paper (although his co-author seems to be
resisting this move, see http://www.mikelacour.com/rjqb4d0rjgsa309fm84tr6idxg46u8).
It surely was the “peer”-reviewers who were taken in by this nonsense. It was
the journal editor. But fortunately, it was not some grad students who wanted
to but couldn’t believe the results and repeated the study arriving at a
markedly different conclusion.

         In short, the study was doodoo.

         But this is not a blog about research misconduct. I have
seen more than my share of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism (FFP) as
the Research Integrity Officer at MD Anderson for over 10 years.  I have investigated more cases than have been
successfully prosecuted by those leading Anderson to whom I reported. My hands
were often tied by the misplaced benevolence toward the offending faculty
members of the last President despite overwhelming evidence of misconduct on
the part of a very small but not zero percent of the MD Anderson faculty. (But
this is the same guy who trusted Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow and Sam
Waksal, so no surprises there.) By the way, when misconduct was found, when it
occurred at MD Anderson, it was not found just by me. Three peers on the
faculty performed an inquiry and then an investigation into the allegations.
All I did was shuffle the paper, take notes, and book the conference rooms for
meetings.

My
colleague Lee Ellis found the vast majority of seminal basic science findings
in the medical literature upon which Amgen was making decisions with regard to
drug development, could not be reproduced.

(http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v483/n7391/full/483531a.html)

Lee
and I worked with some of his students and post-docs to identify the cause of
this phenomenon among the faculty and students at MD Anderson. We reported this
in PLoS:

(http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.006322)

Over
half of the faculty and trainees responding had had previous experience not
being able to reproduce the data of others. Sloppiness, intimidation by lab
chiefs, and inherent bias were all contributors to our findings.

Again,
I am not writing about misconduct. If misconduct did not exist, there would be
no need for a federal office (The Office of Research Integrity) to oversee allegations
of FFP as ORI is the steward of NIH grant funds (remember, these are taxpayer
dollars) or for each NIH grant recipient institution to have a Research
Integrity Officer (one of my jobs from 1996-2007).

What
I want to discuss is what Dr. Green did during the study and after.

Dr.
Green was way out of line as a senior author not demanding to see the primary
data before publication, but instead trusting his junior colleague. He was
color blind to the red flag in front of him.

I
myself have investigated this exact scenario at MD Anderson when some of our
faculty members were caught up in a similar scam some years ago. They too were
color blind to the red flag of not seeing original data on which papers with
their names on them were based. Once Green (clearly a victim of red-Green color
blindness) was made aware of the doubtful validity of the survey data, he did
ask to have the paper retracted. This retraction is being resisted by his
co-author (see url above) and we will see what happens.

As
usual, where were the adults? That’s the question I want answered.

According
to Brooke Gladstone’s post-mortem on the radio, no social science study ever
detects a 90% permanent reversal in attitudes based on 20-minute interviews.
All the antennae of skepticism from peer-reviewers to publishers to editors to a
senior author should have gone straight up and demanded absolute rock solid
data. The senior author did not even demand any data at all.

I
am writing this in response to the following issues:

1.               
Where were
the adults at the State Department when Mrs. Clinton decided to by-pass
government rules and use her own email server and now we probably have no
records of what her actual response to Benghazi was because they have been
destroyed?

2.               
Where were
the adults at the Clinton Foundation when Bill was making all that money from
foreign governments while his wife was negotiating with those same governments
while representing ours?

3.               
Where were
the adults in Austin when Dr. DePinho wanted waivers of the conflict of
interest rules regarding his private holdings upon assuming the Presidency of a
state- run institution?

4.               
Where were
the adults whispering in John Mendelsohn’s ear, stay away from an oil and gas
trading company’s board—you don’t know anything about that business?

5.               
Where were
the adults when the Ziopharm deal was first proposed for a tax exempt state
cancer center to accept stock from the private sector, potentially pump up the
value of that stock through its actions as a putative arbiter of truth when
doing clinical research, and then donating the lead faculty member to the
company as their next CEO while the now putative “visiting scientist” maintains
a lab presence at Anderson?

6.               
Where were
the adults when an Arabian sheikh with close ties to an anti-Semitc,
anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda think tank donated $150M out of the
goodness of his cancer-ridden heart for a building bearing the family name?

Where
the hell are the adults any more? Red means STOP, not go! Then again, you
cannot be color blind in a position of leadership. Or can you?

I
guess if your eyes don’t work, your nose doesn’t either. None of this stuff
passes the smell test!

Leonard Zwelling