Sunday, 5 July 2015

Integrity - The Difference Between Science & Religion

Dong-Pyou Han, faked results.
Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP
Scientist behind fake HIV breakthrough sentenced to prison after spiking results | Society | The Guardian

News that Dong-Pyou Han, a former scientist working at ISU, has been sentenced to four and a half years in prison for making a fraudulent misstatement so obtaining millions of dollars of government funding, should be a matter of pride for the scientific community because it shows how scientific fraud is exposed by the scientific method. In the long run, results which are not reproducible by other teams and which begin to stand out as outliers, come under closer and closer scrutiny and will eventually be discarded.

In this case, one such investigation by another team showed that the results were not only outliers which could not be reproduced, but were actually faked.

Dong-Pyou Han had worked at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland under Professor Michael Cho, researching a cure for HIV. He obtained a set of results for one experiment which appeared to show an increase in antibodies against HIV from an experimental vaccine being tested on rabbits. However, the rabbit blood had been accidentally contaminated with human blood containing antibodies. By the time Dong-Pyou realised his mistake, the results had been published and had caused great excitement, being considered a major breakthrough in HIV research and more government finance was on its way from the NIH.

Unable to admit his mistake, Dong-Pyou continued to falsify his results and, when Cho was head-hunted by Iowa State University, his team, including Dong-Pyou, went with him.

Suspicions were raised when other research teams were unable to replicate the ISU results, raising high-level concerns about the original research. As a result, ISU asked for an independent examination of the original samples. In January 2013 a group of researchers from Harvard found that the results had been falsified and showed how the rabbit blood had been spiked with human antibodies to give false positives. Confronted by the evidence, Dong-Pyou admitted his crime and resigned his position.

In addition to the prison sentence Dong-Pyou has been order to pay $7.2 million in restitution to NIH and faces deportation back to his native South Korea.

The reason this sad tale is important is because it shows how, in the long run, science will discover the inevitable occasional results of human frailty, whether it is simple error, carelessness or deliberate deception motivated by greed, a desire for notoriety, or pride and an inability to admit to a mistake. The scientific method includes constant checking and re-evaluation, including independent review. A single 'exciting' result, while it may generate research funding, is never considered definitive until it has been replicated by other teams. In this case, the fact that no-one else could replicate what should have been easy to replicate was sufficient for a major research institute to request an independent investigation.

The result is a criminal record and career in tatters. Dong-Pyou is unlikely ever to be allowed to work in this field again and, most importantly for an academic in science, he has lost the confidence and trust of his peers.

Contrast this to a career as a religious academic.

In Britain we used to have a saying about the upper classes: the clever son went into business and took over the family firm; the next cleverest went into the army; the stupid one went into the church. Theologians were not expected to be academics or original thinkers so long as they could learn the dogma. No thinking required.

What testable, reproducible experiments are ever conducted by way of religious investigation when everything is a matter of opinion or faith and where 'divine inspiration' is often regarded as good, even the best, evidence.

Religious academics can, in effect, make any absurd claims about the authenticity of this evidence or that ancient document and quoting the opinions of others is regarded as good scholarship. If St Augustine said so, then that's good enough, no matter that St Augustine also wrote a lot of demonstrable nonsense which can be seen as such now we know better. If St Augustine agrees with the current dogma than St Augustine was right, and if St Augustine was right, that conforms the current dogma.

Religion can get away with this because faith gives them a get out, opinions are regarded as good without evidence, and definitions, where there are any, are nebulous and changeable to suit the moment.

'God' for example, can have whatever definition you need, or none. It can literally be an old, wise, all-loving, protective father figure with a long white beard who lives above the sky; it can be a cantankerous, capricious ever-watching force to be feared, able to inflict pain and suffering at will even on the most devoted of followers as a 'test'; it can be some nebulous, organising intelligence - something out there; it can be an obsessive designer with a thing about beetles and arms races and indifferent to suffering, or it can be an invisible friend who made everything just for you to make you feel important, or so you have something to blame for your behaviour.

The right to be offended is paramount in religion as is the right to demand freedom from offense. With no fixed definitions, and no requirements for evidence, religious academics can make whatever claims they want and no-one can question them for fear of offending religious sensibilities. How dare you show disrespect by questioning my faith? That's persecution!

And so frauds abound in religious apologetics and religion in general. No one is ever prosecuted for avoiding tax liability on the grounds that their opinions are religious or that they are 'ministering' to the spiritual needs of a congregation of believers. No one is ever prosecuted for selling the false idea that a large donation will ensure wishes come true or that undreamt of wealth will surely follow. No religious fraud is ever prosecuted for soliciting donations for 'curing' psychosomatic, imaginary, or faked illness or disability and no fake academic is ever taken to task for delving into the holy books and coming up with whatever 'divinely inspired' justification for this or that extremist political agenda that they've been paid to justify.

Even apologists for genocide, infanticide, misogyny, homophobia, racism, disability discrimination or witch-hunting are allowed to get away with it on the grounds of religious freedom and blatantly faked 'miracles' are used to fleece the gullible and credulous, and those desperate for a cure for a terminal illness, with impunity.

And no pope or cardinal, bishop, cleric or pastor is ever prosecuted for assuring the public that there is a god, that they should worship that god by obeying the church and giving it money, and that they are assured of something better after death if they are good and never question the teachings of the church, without the slightest hint of any evidence to support that claim.

No cleric has ever been prosecuted, expelled from his post, imprisoned and made to pay restitution to those whom he mislead by faking a 'miracle' or participating in the ongoing fraud.

And what church or cult ever expelled a theologian because they had made false claims or claims that couldn't be supported or reproduced by others?

On the contrary, many are the academics expelled by a church because they had the 'wrong' opinions or reached the 'wrong' conclusions as defined by the sacred dogmas and doctrines. Although these, if they survive the 'loving embrace' of the mother church, are likely to go on to found yet another splinter group with it own sacred dogmas and doctrines, but still not a shred of real, testable, reproducible evidence to show.

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