The juiciest science scandals of 2011

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The Scientist magazine has helpfully gathered together all the weirdest and worst science scandals of 2011, as well as bringing us updates on some ongoing science trainwrecks that started way back in 2010. Here are a few highlights.

The Scientist sums up one of our favorite scandals this past year in this way:

The work of Diederik Stapel, who headed the Institute for Behavioral Economics Research at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, epitomizes the old saying that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Stapel routinely came out with counterintuitive findings that seemed to capture human nature, peppering the headlines of media outlets around the world. But at least 30 of Stapel's papers were retracted after evidence of massive data fabrication was uncovered, and many scientists expect that number to continue to grow. In total, more than 100 published papers could be affected by the fraud. Among the most novel of his findings to be retracted: that thoughts of meat make people surly, and that a chaotic environment makes people more likely to stereotype.


As one of the many publications that covered Stapel's work (usually with a lot of skepticism), I think it's safe to say that nobody was terribly surprised. What is surprising is that this guy was taken seriously for so long, without anyone questioning his work.

And then there's this one:

The link between a mouse leukemia virus and chronic fatigue syndrome made waves when it was first announced in 2009. But after several labs failed to recreate the link, the paper, which was cited 200 times, was retracted. The story took a turn for the dramatic when Whittemore Peterson Institute director Judy Mikovits, who led the retracted 2009 study, refused to hand over key lab notebooks [these have now been returned]. She allegedly had an underling take the notebooks, then skipped town to California. She has been arrested on counts of felony theft, jailed overnight, and is now awaiting trial.

I love that the people running her institute actually got her arrested for taking her own notebooks out of the lab. Really? This is either sheer vindictiveness or the beginning of an even more shocking scandal where we discover later that Mikovits had successfully weaponized fatigue and her notebooks were the only proof.

Here's an update from a 2010 scandal, which I hope one day will spawn a dark, character-driven satire about scientific rivalries, to be written and directed by Alexander Payne:

In May, the Office of Research Integrity announced its finding that postdoc Vipul Bhrigu is guilty of misconduct. Grad student Heather Ames thought she was going crazy when her experimental results kept messing up. But after conducting experiments in her boyfriends' lab and getting solid results, she suspected foul play. Sure enough, her colleague Brighu was caught on tape sabotaging her samples. In July 2010 he pled guilty to malicious destruction of property and received 6 months of probation and a $10,000 fine.


Read more about the year's science scandals over at The Scientist.

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