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Science in Mind

Stem cell debate highlights difficulty of judging contrarian research

Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

The strangest and most gripping story in science during the past few weeks has been the Japanese and Boston stem-cell papers, in which researchers appeared to show that mature cells could be transformed into powerful stem cells with a startlingly simple method.

As soon as the papers were published in Nature, the finding was greeted with amazement, excitement, and also a heavy dose of skepticism. Last week researchers seemed to be backing away, with four of the co-authors agreeing to consider a retraction. But as of now, the papers stand, and no one wants to dismiss a technique that really could be a breakthrough.

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The difficulty of sorting out visionary ideas from crackpot ones — or even outright fraud — has long been part of science, especially at the cutting edge.

“Many weird ideas [weird, that is, after the acid test of time] have been advanced in the canonical form of true science. Yet there are many examples in history of people we now regard as outstanding scientists whose early writings look like those of a raving lunatic,” Fred Gruenberger of the Rand Corporation wrote in “A Measure for Crackpots,” published in the journal Science in 1964.

It is a discussion that happens in the scientific community any time a profoundly unexpected, game-changing discovery is published: Is this real, or is it too good to be true?

Chris Miller, a professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University, recently gave a talk at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on the topic. Although he was not thinking of the unfolding story of the stem cell research, his review of the pantheon of scientific characters who push unpopular ideas helps illuminate how science works and how difficult it can be to tell which character you are facing in real-time.

When Miller began to think hard about it, he decided there were distinct flavors of scientific crackpottery.

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First, and most obviously, are the con men. Those are frauds who fabricate data and break the rules of science. Con men are easily outed because the scientific method of repeating experiments means that their deceit will be revealed.

Second are the mountebanks, people who masquerade as experts.Miller finds those the least interesting types in science. What really interests him are the heretics — both the ones who turn out to be right and the ones who get stuck on a crazy idea and can’t let go.

Scientific crackpots and heroes have some of the same traits. They pursue a dogma-challenging idea even when everyone doubts them. But in his search for signs that could distinguish crackpots from heroes, Miller said that there is often a tone in the writing — a lack of openness to new ideas or other points of view.

Miller points to Lynn Margulis, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst biologist who did important work early in her career, but in her later years began to push the idea that AIDS was a form of syphilis.

“At the same time she was saying these crazy things, she was writing in a crazy way,” he said. “You could identify very Napoleonic statements you never saw in her early writing.”

It is hard to talk to Miller without wondering where the stem cell story will take its next turn. If the work is repeated by other scientists, the Boston researcher who came up with the idea would have the hallmarks of a heretic hero — Dr. Charles Vacanti, an anesthesiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is a nonexpert whose dogged pursuit of an idea would have been validated by rigorous work of collaborators. But possible problems with images and alleged plagiarism in other work by the Japanese scientist, Haruko Obokata, who led the work, give hints of the possible con-man storyline.

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Whatever the answer turns out to be, Miller is glad that science will be the perfect tool to find the truth.

“The real beauty of science is the ambiguities that we all have to figure out how to navigate through,” he said. “When you’re starting to work on a new problem, it’s as though you’ve been dropped into a dark room. . . . Of course you’re going to stumble and trip and bang into things, but if you’re good at it, you’re going to eventually resolve some of these ambiguities and make a discovery.”


Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.