Critical views of science in the news

A Dig Through Old Files Reminds Me Why I’m So Critical of Science


I'm moving soon, and so I'm riffling through the files I've accumulated in my decades as a science writer and chucking those I'll never (I hope) need. Carrying out this archaeological dig into the strata of my career, I'm struck once again by all the "breakthroughs" and "revolutions" that have failed to live up to their hype: string theory and other supposed "theories of everything," self-organized criticality and other theories of complexity, anti-angiogenesis drugs and other potential "cures" for cancer, drugs that can make depressed patients "better than well," "genes for" alcoholism, homosexuality, high IQ and schizophrenia.

Nanette Davis stands at the podium during her graduation from Wright State University in 1983, an event that raised hopes that electrical stimulation of muscles would soon help paralyzed people regain control of their limbs. Davis was helped to the podium by engineer Jerrold Petrofsky (right), the designer of her muscle-stimulation system.

I graduated from journalism school in 1983 hoping to celebrate scientific advances, but from the start reality thwarted my intentions. I got a job as a staff writer for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a trade association. One of my first assignments was profiling Jerrold S. Petrofsky, a biomedical engineer at Wright State University trying to help paralyzed patients walk by electrically stimulating their muscles with a computer-controlled device.

Petrofsky was a lavishly honored star of the IEEE, whose research had reportedly enabled Nanette Davis, a paralyzed student at Wright State, to walk on stage and receive her diploma during her June, 1983, graduation ceremony. His work was lauded by major media, including the BBC, TIME, Newsweek, Nova and 60 Minutes. In 1985 CBS produced a television movie, First Steps, starring Judd Hirsch as Petrofsky.

I wrote a puff piece about Petrofsky--based primarily on interviews with him and materials supplied by him and Wright State--published in the November 1983 issue of The Institute, the monthly newspaper of the IEEE. It never occurred to me to question Petrosky's claims. Who was I, a mere rookie, to second-guess him, Wright State and media like 60 Minutes?

Then other biomedical engineers wrote letters to me complaining that coverage of Petrofsky's work was raising false hopes among paralyzed patients. At first, I thought these critics were just envious of Petrofsky's fame, but when I investigated their complaints, they seemed to have substance.

I ended up writing an article, published in The Institute in May 1985, presenting evidence that Petrofsky's methods for helping paralyzed subjects were less effective than he claimed. My original November 1983 article, which Petrosfsky had approved before publication, stated that Davis, while accompanied by Petrofsky during her graduation ceremony, controlled the stimulation of her own muscles and did not need his assistance.

Actually, Petrofsky held the device that stimulated Davis's muscles, and he and another professor had to prop Davis up during the ceremony because the device malfunctioned. Davis also told me that before she met Petrofsky, she had trained herself to stand in leg braces for hours. In other words, her graduation feat was less impressive than it appeared. The muscle-stimulation method was also not risk free; Davis broke an ankle during a training session in 1984.

In my 1985 article, I argued that Petrofsky's work raised questions that went beyond his case: "Has Petrofsky gone too far in seeking publicity for his work, as some of his peers suggest? Or should he be praised for being an effective communicator? In addressing these questions—which are echoed in other fields of research as well—perhaps some answers may be provided to a broader and more important question: What can engineers and scientists do to inform the public about their work, while ensuring that it is not misrepresented?"

This episode also taught me some lessons about science journalism that my subsequent experiences reinforced. First, researchers, when accused of hype, love to blame it on the media. But media hype can usually be traced back to the researchers themselves.

I also learned that critical journalism is much harder, more time-consuming and riskier than celebratory journalism. My 1985 investigation of Petrofsky, which I toiled over for months, made my editor so nervous that he wanted to bury it in the back pages of The Institute; I had to go over his head to persuade the publisher that my article deserved front-page treatment. After the article came out, the IEEE formed a panel to investigate not Petrofsky but me. The panel confirmed the accuracy of my reporting.

Since then, I keep struggling to find the right balance between celebrating and challenging alleged advances in science. After all, I became a science writer because I love science, and so I have tried not to become too cynical and suspicious of researchers. I worry sometimes that I'm becoming a knee-jerk critic. But the lesson I keep learning over and over again is that I am, if anything, not critical enough.

Arguably the biggest meta-story in science over the last few years—and one that caught me by surprise--is that much of the peer-reviewed scientific literature is rotten. A pioneer in exposing this vast problem is the Stanford statistician John Ioannidis, whose blockbuster 2005 paper in PLOS Medicine presented evidence that "most current published research findings are false."

Discussing his findings in Scientific American two years ago, Ioannidis writes: "False positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years. The problem is rampant in economics, the social sciences and even the natural sciences, but it is particularly egregious in biomedicine."

In his recent defense of scientism (which I criticized on this blog), Steven Pinker lauds science's capacity for overcoming bias and other human failings and correcting mistakes. But the work of Ioannidis and others shows that this capacity is greatly overrated.

"Academic scientists readily acknowledge that they often get things wrong," The Economist states in its recent cover story "How Science Goes Wrong." "But they also hold fast to the idea that these errors get corrected over time as other scientists try to take the work further. Evidence that many more dodgy results are published than are subsequently corrected or withdrawn calls that much-vaunted capacity for self-correction into question. There are errors in a lot more of the scientific papers being published, written about and acted on than anyone would normally suppose, or like to think."

So whatever happened to Petrofsky? He reportedly left Wright State in 1987 and ended up at Loma Linda University in California. The only article I could find online that mentions criticism of his work at Wright State is a 1985 New York Times report on the angry reaction of biomedical researchers to the film "First Steps." As for Nanette Davis, after her famous 1983 graduation "walk" she "returned to her wheelchair," according to a 2010 report in the Dayton Daily News. She is now a mother and teacher.

Addendum: A couple of scientist-bloggers have commented on this post. Psychologist Gary Marcus, who blogs for The New Yorker, agrees with me that scientists "have sometimes promised more than they can deliver" but faults me for not reporting on the "huge, rapidly growing movement to address" the shakiness of the scientific literature. Neurologist Steve Novella of Neurologica also finds me "a bit too negative." The vast majority of scientists and journalists who write about science—not to mention the legions of flaks working at universities, science-oriented corporations and other institutions--present science in a positive light. My own journalistic shortcomings aside, I believe science has been ill-served by all this positivity.

Photo credit: National Center for Rehabilitation Engineering, Wright State University,

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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