Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beware the Evil Scientists

There are plenty of evil scientists in the movies, but Janette Sherman and Joseph Mangano are examples of at least two scientists who have gone bad in real life.

I've worked in science and with scientists my whole adult life. Most scientists are normal folk - some are smart and some stupid, some are lazy and some diligent, many are tall and many are short. Few, however, are evil. At least, I've never met an evil scientist as far as I know. Sadly, there a definitely some out there who I feel truly deserve the evil scientist label.

The worst of the recent evil scientists is probably Andrew Wakefield. The former doctor, who has since been stripped of his medical license, fraudulently claimed that he had found a link between early childhood vaccinations and autism. As a result, thousands of people have chosen not to have their children vaccinated, and many children have died unnecessarily or suffered life-long disabilities. Why would Wakefield do such a thing? It's hard to say, but a CNN article about him implies it was for money - a little over half a million dollars actually. (I wonder if it's enough to ease his conscience.)

The latest example of scientists turned evil that I know of may not be as sinisterly successful as Wakefield was. Although, they're actions could still lead to pretty bad outcomes. Medical doctor Janette Sherman and epidemiologist Joseph Mangano are claiming that publicly available data show that babies in the US Northwest are dying at an alarming rate as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In fact, the data show no such thing, as Michael Moyer makes abundantly clear in his Scientific American article.

You don't have to take Moyer's word for it. You can go and look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data yourself to see that Sherman and Mangano have picked data points to make a completely false argument. They weren't even very clever about it. Not only are they evil, they're apparently also none too bright. At least Wakefield's autism analyses looked superficially believable.

Why is their deception bad? Here are a few reasons that come to mind

1. Scientists should seek the truth. When people like
Sherman and Mangano attempt to mislead the public under the guise of science they erode the general confidence in science and scientists. The worst thing a scientist can do is use the language and methods of science to lie.

2. It harms the parents and family of the children who died in the Pacific Northwest, whatever the cause. As if those poor people haven't suffered enough, now they're told they should blame the wrong people and technology for one of the greatest losses anyone can bear. They deserve better.

3. It harms the people of Japan, piling more onto the national burden they already carry.

4. Lying to people about the outcome of the Fukushima disaster distorts the risk of nuclear power, making it difficult to make decisions about future energy technologies. Yes, people died at Fukushima. Yes, more people will have their lives cut short from radiation exposure. On the other hand, non-nuclear power also carries risks, and many more people die every day from oil and coal pollution than from nuclear power plant accidents. There are no easy answers, but we need accurate, truthful research to find the best solutions.

I'm at a loss to understand why Sherman and Mangano would publish such a pathetic, cruel and flagrantly false analysis. Whatever their reason, it simply seems evil to me.


  1. It looks pretty bad for Wakefield, and he may well be one of the bad guys. Still we really haven't heard his side, because the press has refused to let us hear his side. Also, according to some, there might yet be some issues with the "good guys" on this one. At this point, too much of a railroad job for me. Maybe the courts will sort this out.

  2. Here's another side to the Wakefield controversy, one the British media allowed to slip out today. It states that, "the study done earlier by Dr Wakefield and published in 1998 is correct. That study didn’t draw any conclusions about specifically what it means to find measles virus in the gut, but the implication is it may be coming from the MMR vaccine. If that’s the case, and this live virus is residing in the gastrointestinal tract of some children, and then they have GI inflammation and other problems, it may be related to the MMR."

    Read more:

  3. Actually I don't think anyone has died at Fukushima, at least not from radioactive release.

  4. I was including the workers who died in the initial event, not from radiation, but from the explosion. Many workers have been exposed to high radiation levels, and lots of people near the plant were exposed to lower, but still significant, doses of radiation. So, I suspect there will be an increase in radiation-related deaths in the future as a result.

  5. I think your an idiot. Globally, we need to find our way away from Nuclear Reactors and Nuclear Waste. Obviously, mankind is not well suited to control these things.

  6. I'm not arguing for or against nuclear power. I'm against scientists lying, particularly when their lies can affect the lives (and perhaps lead to unnecessary deaths) of innocent people.

  7. Mr. Skyline,

    I'm afraid your most recent commenter is right - we haven't heard Dr. Wakefield's side of the story because the media won't let him tell his side - even though he is at the receiving end of the allegations. Guilty until proven innocent is their policy.

    I invite you to watch a video of one of the rare instances in which Dr. Wakefield is given the opportunity to defend himself, which I organized at my now-alma mater. Please view it to get the full scoop:

    Thank you,

    Jake Crosby
    Contributing Editor
    Age of Autism

  8. Ooops, did I say your latest commenter?

    I meant to say your first commenter, sorry.


  9. NP, Jake.

    You may be right that Wakefield has some legitimate excuse, but whether or not he has his say in the press, I would assume that he would have let the British medical establishment (which stripped him of his license) and the journal that retracted his paper know about any extenuating circumstances. Short of any further developments in the case, I must assume that he is guilty as charged and is responsible for the startling rise in preventable early childhood disease since 1998.

  10. The "preventable" disease in this case is Measles. Recognizing that in a few instances there can be complications, I'll still point out that Measles was pretty common when I was a kid, and generally isn't a problem in developed countries. I think there is stuff out there that suggests the possibility that vaccines might not be a freebee, and that possible longer term problems are a possibility. Also stuff is coming out suggesting that our immune systems might benefit from our going through the childhood diseases. Plenty we really don't know.

  11. Mr. Skyline,

    I think it would be all the more prudent then - given your response - to watch Dr. Wakefield respond to these allegations on videotape before making any assumptions.

    Apart from being exposed to a whole new perspective you probably had not heard before, you may actually find the discussion interesting even if outside the field of science you are probably used to, which I gather is physics.


    Jake Crosby

  12. The pharmaceutical industry is huge business and though I believe there are some vaccines which are recommendable, depending on the region you live, an excessive amount of immune system stimulation is not a good idea.
    A Flu Vaccine for a healthy person is just insane in my opinion.
    And anyone saying that 26 people died at Chernobyl and nobody got killed at Fukushima must either be defending something or be seriously uninformed. radiation is a slow killer. Many parts of Japan are highly contaminated, and the US has received heavy fallout over the last months. The final premature death toll will likely be in the millions worldwide (which is probably true of Chernobyl too). MOX fuel used in the reactor 3 is far worse than what came out of Chernobyl. you may need to search for this info as the media failed to warn us as did our leaders. the mainstream media still refers to this as the worst accident in 25 years, when it is in fact the worst in human history (and nowhere near being contained). This will be good news for the the sales of Chemotherapy drugs in the coming decades so its not all bad news. and the UK just announced plans for 8 new reactor sites. meanwhile we have circa 300,000 tons of spent fuel worldwide hiding under the rug that future generations will have to deal with.
    The motives of large corporations are not always in the best interest of the population. people who speak out are often silenced. if a doctor does not adhere to administering Chemotherapy as THE ONLY approved but highly toxic and often fatal cancer drug then he will most definitely be stripped of his medical license.

  13. "The worst thing a scientist can do is use the language and methods of science to lie."

    The Worst thing? I think not.

  14. I should probably have said "one of the worst." I am speaking about them acting in the capacity of a scientist. Of course, it would be worse for a scientist to commit murder, but then it doesn't matter whether or not they are a scientist. That would just be a person committing murder.

    It's much like a doctor violating the Hippocratic oath - you have to be a doctor for it to matter. A person who has scientific credentials, who uses those credentials to an unscientific end, has committed the worst offense I can imagine a scientist committing(in their role as a scientist). Is there something worse I'm overlooking?

  15. Fine comments on the quality of the study by Sherman and Mangano.

    But still you paint things in black and white. It is not so easy. People want almost always to say the truth and in particular scientists. Even we who are scientists have our problems. To get a paper published it must be understandable and clear that you got a point and it should not be too long and it should be understandable by referees, or at least not understandable that you have not given a perfect reply when you critisize them. It the paper or study is not accepted you may loose something or the doctorand may not get thesis approved. It is more fun to work where you get "effects" than to report "no detectable effect". Some results are published and some things are not. You do not have unlimited time and other things to do. You trust we other cooperator and the other trust you and you misunderstand.
    Sometimes there rests expectations on you. Even if you want to tell the truth, there are things you prefer not to say, so it may not be the whole truth. You may find a way to express yourself so it is true, but many readers will overinterpret it. On an early stage you decide what the results are and when try to prove them. And essay on the net is less sensitive than a study and a comment to an essay is certainly still less sensitive.

    Some points with relevance for the Sherman and Mangano study: "Statistically significant" is not that clear what is meant, if not a lot of information is given, which it was not. The significance should be rather high if it is suprising and unexpected results, or if it is easy to use a large control. If irrelevant counfounding may be a case, the effect should be significant of some size. The demands are higher if you investigated the study yourself without being asked from an autority and have decleared and known opions in the area. It is wrong to see this as a "red flag" where more studies should be done. Even as an indication it is not strong enough and misleads efforts on what to look for,

    Mendels results were a little too close to expectation, probably he left out some results, but could find a good reason why they were not reliable.

    For dead after Chernobyl in late cancer, a figure of 4000 is linked to a pressrelease by IAEA and often cited as an estimate. But it is an estimate only among the most exposed 600 000 and only for the irradiation the first 20 years after the accident. A fair estimate done in the same way (proportional to the collective dose) for the whole world and all future would be about five times as high. Now it was interpreted as a true death toll estimate and not just a part of it. But IAEA has not lied (but one has to read the small letters).

    It becomes very philosophical where the line is drawn one should not cross. I think Sherman and Mangano crossed it.

    It is not easy and one of the major threats against the future that it is so difficult to get reliable information and that so many and difficult to understand interests make it less reliable.

  16. @dag

    Sorry for continuing off topic, well if the IAEA estimate of the total to get cancer because of Chernobyl would be 5x4000 = 20,000 then that would be a ridiculous low estimate. and a lie. its like saying no one ever died from smoking a cigarette. Most probably no one ever has. or is that a lie too?

    the point still being that when money is involved obstacles magically disappear.