Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

Only gods and magic are “unnatural”

November 5, 2015

I dislike the manner in which we use the words “nature” and “natural” to surround some things with a halo of virtue and rectitude and righteousness, while we use “unnatural” to disparage others. The usage is somewhat perverse and illogical. There are some who define “nature” as “existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind”. By what logic can humans not be part of nature? Are they inherently, unnatural? What actually is “nature”? Is my garden part of nature or an unnatural artefact created by man. I find that defining nature without man is almost as stupid as defining “environment” to be all that excludes man and his works.

When a male lion takes over a pride from another and kills all his predecessor’s cubs it is natural and a part of nature. When ISIS does something similar, it is barbaric and unnatural. When weeds take over my garden and kill other plants, it is natural. If I use weed killer, it is unnatural. When humans make artefacts, they are unnatural. When a chimpanzee uses a stick to poke into and extract insects from down a hole, it is a wonder of nature. Evolution is taken to be a natural wonder of nature. But less than 1% of all species produced by evolution are still alive. Of all the species alive today, most have failed to develop any semblance of intelligence. Should I take human intelligence and its evolution to be unnatural? (Actually, I take the fact that only humans, of all the species, have developed intelligence to any degree, as being proof of the ineffectiveness of evolution). Earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis are examples of the awesome power of nature and perfectly natural. How is it that when an earthquake and tsunami kills 18,000 it is natural but when the same event damages a man-made nuclear reactor and causes great fear – but no loss of life and relatively little damage – it is unnatural?

When the monsoon fails once every decade or brings bumper rains – also around once a decade – it is natural variation. Almost every location on earth sees a natural variation of temperature during a single day of between 10 and 30ºC. Over a year the natural temperature variation at any location is between 30 and 50ºC. But an alleged temperature warming of about 0.8ºC over the last 100 years is termed unnatural. Natural climate change has caused forests to become pastures and vice versa. What were deserts in the past have become fertile land and what were seas in the past have become deserts today.Rivers have changed their courses and even ceased to flow or been created. All that was perfectly natural.

When some event or behaviour is deemed natural or to have natural causes, no further explanation is necessary. It is used to shut down discussion or questioning of the causes. A natural death needs no further explanation or discussion. When bad behaviour is to be excused it is termed natural whether it is the behaviour of a lion or a human psychopath. We tend to use unnatural to be synonymous with abnormal. Abnormal of course only means that the probability of something is low – not that it is impossible. We use the terms to imbue virtue or awe to the event or thing or behaviour being described. Natural foods are good foods. Natural storms are awesome and unstoppable. And we use unnatural to disparage without further justification. Our use of natural and unnatural already includes a value judgement.

The natural world can only be everything that obeys the laws of nature (as we know them). And that has to include humans and their works. There is nothing holy or sacrosanct then about being natural. The conclusion I come to is that there is nothing we know of in the Universe which is not part of nature. Everything is part of nature And everything that exists or happens in the Universe is also natural.

And that leaves only the gods and magic as being unnatural.


Fate? destiny? Drunken snowplow driver causes death of Total CEO

October 21, 2014

Following on from my previous post about the season of birth having some effect on temperament, this news item got me to wonder about how much of our lives is – or can be – “fixed” by our genes, our place of birth or our time of birth. How much “free will” and freedom of behaviour and freedom of action do we actually have?

Vnukovo plane crash: Snowplow driver drunk in collision with Total CEO’s aircraft

It was determined in the course of the investigation into the Moscow plane crash that killed the CEO of French oil giant Total that the driver of the snowplow which likely caused the crash was drunk.

“It has been determined that the driver of the snowplow was under the influence of alcohol,” head of Russia’s Investigative Committee Vladimir Markin told the reporters on Tuesday.

Markin added that “there is a possibility that a number of airport staff will be suspended from carrying out their duties pending criminal investigation.”

During the taxiing before take-off, at around 0:10 am Moscow time on Tuesday, the Falcon 50 business jet hit a snow-clearing machine. Although previous reports indicated otherwise, the plane did not leave ground following the collision. The CEO of France’s oil and gas giant Total, Christophe de Margerie, was the only passenger in the jet, while three crew members who were also French citizens perished as well.

Psychologists seem to find that more and more of our behaviour is due to our genes. This seems to be used increasingly often as a mitigating factor – if not as an excuse – in court cases where socially unacceptable behaviour and actions are judged. Our sexual preferences and our positions on the bi-modal gender scale are also increasingly put down to genes rather than upbringing – nature rather than nurture. Intelligence is thought to be at least 50% due to genetic factors. Our adult heights are said to be 80% genetic and 20% due to nurture. Mental and physical abilities and disabilities are increasingly said to be due to our genes. Our moods and our temperaments are said to affected by when we were born.

I have little doubt that – at some macro level – it is our genes that define the envelope of our possible behaviours. It is clearly predetermined by our genes that we cannot – however much we wanted to – behave like a whale or a bird. Our genes constrain us to behave within the narrow envelope of behaviour open to humans. To that extent we are surely “fated” or “destined” to behave within the envelope of possibilities open to us as determined by our individual genetic make-up at birth as humans. Even aspects of nurture can said to be pre-determined. The parents we are born to – pre-determined – in turn determine the education we get, our nutrition and the religions we follow. To that extent our decisions through life which we believe are a consequence of our individual characteristics and who we are and our exercise of our “free will” are already constrained and channeled by parameters fixed at birth.

If two individuals having predetermined behaviour interact, then the envelope of possible results of that interaction are also “fated” or “destined”. It may be an intractable problem with our current state of knowledge to predict the results of such interactions, but that does not mean that the “result” is any less pre-determined. The butterfly problem is also intractable but that does not mean that it may not exist. Extending that thought leads to the conclusion that all the possible results of all our interactions – between humans and with other species and with our surrounding environment – are already largely constrained and predetermined.

I would like to think I have free will and everything is not determined in advance — but it also seems self-evident that everything that happens is caused by what happened immediately before. If not we would have to be able to explain how some event does not have to be dependent upon the preceding events. And that would require that we redefine the nature of time. What comes afterwards cannot escape what came before.

So was the death of Christophe de Margerie a random, unfortunate and “unlucky” accident, or was it fate? A “fate” already determined with his birth and the birth of the drunken snowplow driver?

More stem cell fakery as a quick way to publication and fame?

March 11, 2014

Dr Haruko Obokata shot to fame with her stem cell papers photo BBC

Another young researcher, Dr Haruko Obokata has apparently made sensational claims about her stem cell research, shot to fame as lead author in two papers published in Nature and is now in the dock for dodgy images and irreproducible results (perhaps faked).

WSJ: Her co-author, Teruhiko Wakayama of Yamanashi University in Japan, called Monday for the retraction of the findings, published in late January in a pair of papers in the journal Nature.

The papers drew international attention because they held out a safer, easier and more ethical technique for creating master stem cells. These cells, which can be turned into all other body tissues, promise one day to transform the treatment of various ailments, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s. 

But shortly after the papers appeared, Japan’s Riken Center for Developmental Biology, where the work took place, began to investigate alleged irregularities in images used in the papers. Separately, many labs said they couldn’t replicate the results.

A spokesman for Riken said Tuesday that the institution was considering a retraction and that the article’s authors were discussing what to do.

Dr. Wakayama said he has asked the lead author, Haruko Obokata, to retract the studies. “There is no more credibility when there are such crucial mistakes,” he said in an email to The Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Wakayama said he learned Sunday that an image used in Dr. Obokata’s 2011 doctoral thesis had also been used in the Nature papers. “It’s unlikely that it was a careless mistake since it’s from a different experiment from a different time,” he said.

Like several other researchers, Dr. Wakayama said he hasn’t yet been able to reproduce the results. “There is no value in it if the technique cannot be replicated,” he said. 

But another co-author of the papers, Charles Vacanti, a tissue engineer at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, defended the work. “Some mistakes were made, but they don’t affect the conclusions,” he said in an interview Monday. “Based on the information I have, I see no reason why these papers should be retracted.”

Dr. Vacanti—whose early work some 15 years ago spurred the novel experiments—said he was surprised to hear that one of his co-authors asked for the retraction.

Dr. Vacanti said he had spoken to Dr. Obokata on Monday and that she also stood by the research. “It would be very sad to have such an important paper retracted as a result of peer pressure, when indeed the data and conclusions are honest and valid,” said Dr. Vacanti. …..

The papers created a stir because they reported a process by which mouse cells could be returned to an embryonic-like state simply by dipping them in a mild acid solution, creating what they called STAP cells, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency. ….

There seems to be a hint of some “academic rivalry” here as well.

Retraction Watch has more:

Nature told the WSJ that it was still investigating the matter. As Nature‘s news section reported last month, lead author

…biologist Haruko Obokata, who is based at the institution…shot to fame as the lead author of two papers12 published in Nature last month that demonstrated a way to reprogram mature mouse cells into an embryonic state by simply applying stress, such as exposure to acid conditions or physical pressure on cell membranes.

But the studies, published online on January 29, soon came under fire. Paul Knoepfler has had a number of detailed posts on the matter, as hasPubPeer.

Stem cell research seems to have more than its fair share of dodgy papers – presumably because sensational results are easier to come by and very much easier to get published.

Climate “scientists” begin to acknowledge the obvious

January 16, 2014

It is obvious that the source of all heat is the Sun and that nuclear reactions in the earth’s interiror producing heat – if any – are negligible in comparison.

It seems equally obvious, considering the relative heat capacities of air with that of water, that the primary vehicle for the storage and distribution of the heat emanating from the sun, around the earth, is first by the oceans and only second via the atmosphere. The heat absorbed is attenuated by clouds. The heat lost from the earth is also primarily attenuated by clouds and only marginally by other constituents of the atmosphere.

But climate models have generally minimised solar insolation effects and largely ignored the oceans. Heat losses have been predicated primarily on carbon dioxide and other trace constituents of the atmosphere and have ended up treating the net effects of clouds as causing warming rather than cooling. Whither common sense!!

But the current “hiatus” in global warming – which may well become 2 or 3 decades of cooling  – is beginning to bring a whiff of reality into the “science”. They don’t acknowledge the possibility of cooling, of course, and don’t give up on their carbon dioxide fantasies but they are beginning to pay some attention to the oceans and the Sun.

But now they reckon models must be judged on a timescale of 50 – 100 years!

But note the phrase “sceptics and some scientists”! I thought scientists were supposed to be sceptical. Science based on belief leaves a little to be desired.

The heat is actually non-existent but the euphemism for that is “missing heat”.

Climate change: The case of the missing heat

Nature 505, 276–278 (16 January 2014),  doi:10.1038/505276a

… Average global temperatures hit a record high in 1998 — and then the warming stalled.

For several years, scientists wrote off the stall as noise in the climate system: the natural variations in the atmosphere, oceans and biosphere that drive warm or cool spells around the globe. But the pause has persisted, sparking a minor crisis of confidence in the field. Although there have been jumps and dips, average atmospheric temperatures have risen little since 1998, in seeming defiance of projections of climate models and the ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. Climate sceptics have seized on the temperature trends as evidence that global warming has ground to a halt. Climate scientists, meanwhile, know that heat must still be building up somewhere in the climate system, but they have struggled to explain where it is going, if not into the atmosphere. Some have begun to wonder whether there is something amiss in their models.

Now, as the global-warming hiatus enters its sixteenth year, scientists are at last making headway in the case of the missing heat. Some have pointed to the Sun, volcanoes and even pollution from China as potential culprits, but recent studies suggest that the oceans are key to explaining the anomaly. The latest suspect is the El Niño of 1997–98, which pumped prodigious quantities of heat out of the oceans and into the atmosphere — perhaps enough to tip the equatorial Pacific into a prolonged cold state that has suppressed global temperatures ever since. …… 

….. But none of the climate simulations carried out for the IPCC produced this particular hiatus at this particular time. That has led sceptics — and some scientists — to the controversial conclusion that the models might be overestimating the effect of greenhouse gases, and that future warming might not be as strong as is feared. Others say that this conclusion goes against the long-term temperature trends, as well as palaeoclimate data that are used to extend the temperature record far into the past. And many researchers caution against evaluating models on the basis of a relatively short-term blip in the climate. “If you are interested in global climate change, your main focus ought to be on timescales of 50 to 100 years,” says Susan Solomon, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. …….


Turney faces the wrath of the Global Warming Inquisition

January 16, 2014

The fallout from the Ship of Fools continues and the Global Warming Establishment is turning on Chris Turney and his tourists.

Last week National Geographic distanced themselves from the Ship of Fools. Now even Nature is turning. They first published an article by Turney defending his jaunt into the Antarctic. But they quickly realised that supporting Turney was untenable. Now, not just one but two articles in Nature (here and here): 

Turney's tourists

Turney’s tourists

Turney again

Turney again

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) has added its voice to the growing criticism of a stricken private polar expedition by challenging claims that it approved the research element of the trip.

On page 291 of this issue, Nick Gales, chief scientist of the AAD, which is based in Kingston, Tasmania, responds to an earlier Nature column by expedition head Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales (see Nature 505, 133; 2014). Turney’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition aimed to retrace the steps of explorer Douglas Mawson, who led an outing a century ago. But members of Turney’s expedition had to be rescued from their ship, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, after it became trapped in ice at Christmas, adding fuel to a debate about the merits of such privately funded trips. 

Gales challenges Turney’s implicit suggestion that the AAD had approved the expedition’s science plan. The AAD did not formally review the research strategy, Gales notes, but had issued the permits required for Turney’s group to visit the region in which it got stuck. “It’s an important distinction for us,” says Gales. He adds that the expedition’s rescue has delayed several projects in Australia’s national Antarctic programme that have been many years in the planning. ……

There can be few things worse for a scientist than being accused that “science was not well served” by his efforts!! And that too by his own faction.

Climate Audit has a good account of the follies of the Ship of Fools.

I get the impression that Turney is going to face the full rigour of the Global Warming Inquisition. He may not be burnt at the stake but he may be thrown under a bus or two!

Nature/Turney defend the Ship of Fools and their Antarctic pleasure cruise

January 7, 2014

Chris Turney, his global warming pilgrims (called scientists), his pet journalists and his tourists are due to reach Tasmania on 22nd January after being “rescued” (from what?) after their chartered ship Akademik Shokalskiy (ice-strengthened but no icebreaker) was trapped in the Antarctic ice on December 24th.

Nature (much to their discredit) have hurriedly published a defence by Chris Turney of his tourist trip on his Ship of Fools.  It amazes me that Nature would – so quickly – publish such an obviously self-serving and narcissistic article. Almost as if they had a higher agenda of defending the larger global warming community so grievously opened up to ridicule by Turney and his tourists.

“It was no pleasure cruise” he whines (though he seems to have taken his family along for this jaunt). He claims the ship was an icebreaker – which it was not – and that the event could not have been anticipated  – which it could. He claims to have advanced the frontiers of science – which is mere hyperbole. He even tries to take credit for rekindling public interest! 

“… the value of our expedition must be judged by the quality of the research it always intended to produce, and the remarkable rekindling of public interest in science and exploration that has come with it”.

But his attempt to salvage something from his PR disaster does not go down well judging by some of the comments that his self-serving “defence” elicits:

Roger Corbett 2014-01-07 04:46 AM

How does a couple of hours shoveling snow to get inside Mawson’s Huts reported at the time by Professor Turney become “important conservation work” a few days later? When he is trying to boost the scientific credentials of a tourism exercise. When you are in a hole, stop digging. These little exaggerations add up to make it hard to believe the bigger things. “Never before has a science expedition reached out live to so many people from such a remote location”….er, “one small step for a man…” It’s a definite pattern in the accounts coming from the AAE-2 people. Reading as much as I can, I conclude that the tourism activities delayed return to the ship, despite increasing concern from the ship’s Master. The claims that the weather closed in so suddenly and unexpectedly by Professor Turney are exaggerated (like so many things he says and writes), either to deliberately deflect from his responsibilities as tour leader, or because ego doesn’t allow him to admit it even to himself.

Charles Rotter 2014-01-07 12:41 AM

…  I have been following the writings of the various blogs documenting this trip, and as far as I can tell, the only scientific discovery/conclusion/finding you have documented so far is that, if the food source for a population of penguins becomes much harder to reach due to added physical obstacles, then that penguin population will probably reduce in number. I am in awe at this insight.

Richard Tol 2014-01-06 04:09 PM

The way it turned out, this was indeed no pleasure cruise. At the same time, Chris Turney has yet to answer questions about the research purpose of this expedition. The Spirit of Mawson website is vague and many of the aims listed there cannot be achieved by a single, short trip. The successes listed above are from the first leg of the trip, rather than from the now-infamous second leg. If the second leg aimed to launch Argo floats, why did it sail on? And why were there so many people on board? There were 18 PhD students on the expedition. Only 6 have a research connection with Antarctica (the other 12 studying the North Atlantic, Australia’s coastal waters, brain injury, Iceland, New Zealand’s North Island, urban climates, pedagogy, the Equatorial Undercurrent, pharmaceuticals, time series statistics, microbiology, and Siberia), but only one of those has an obvious reason to visit Mawson’s Huts and even she would have collected more data in the same time had she flown there. Forgive me for asking, what research purposes were served by this expedition? Was this really the best way to spend the available funds?

Nature hypes the IPCC

September 24, 2013

It could not have escaped anybody’s notice that the summary of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (AR5) is due out at the end of this week in Stockholm on 27th September. The hype around this release is building up and by all the usual suspects. And the prime suspect is Nature. It has released a special issue on the 25 years of the IPCC. But nearly all these usual outlets are all in a state of denial or cover-up or both.

The IPCC faces a dilemma. Should they mention that while carbon dioxide keeps increasing global temperatures have been at a standstill and their fantasised link between fossil fuel combustion and global temperature seems to be broken. Not likely since the usual suspects have far too much invested in this hypothesis. Should they just ignore that global warming has stalled for the last 17 years and lose even more of their fast evaporating credibility. Or should they mention it and then enter into an orgy of contortion to show that their models are still valid because the missing heat has been swallowed by the Monsters of the Deep. It looks like they will choose the latter since the contortions have already begun.

The simple but inconvenient truth is that the IPCC has misled and wasted the world’s resources for  25 years.

Nature Special Issue

This Nature special issue explores the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – an international body of hundreds of scientists and policy experts that regularly assesses the state of knowledge about how climate is changing, what impacts that will have, and how nations can mitigate the problem. A graphical introduction chronicles the history of the IPCC and how climate science has evolved over the past 25 years. One news feature examines the latest research on rising sea levels and another profiles Ottmar Edenhofer, a leader of the IPCC’s upcoming report on mitigation. In a Commentary, Elliot Diringer proposes that individual actions by nations to tackle the causes of climate change can set the stage for international action. And K. John Holmes looks at the history of large-scale environmental assessments.
Image credit: Carl De Torres



Outlook for Earth

As the IPCC finalizes its next big climate-science assessment, Nature looks at the past and future of the planet’s watchdog.

25 years of the IPCC

A graphical tour through the history of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the science that underlies it.

Rising tide

Researchers struggle to project how fast, how high and how far the oceans will rise.

The climate chairman

Getting hundreds of experts to agree is never easy. Ottmar Edenhofer takes a firm, philosophical approach to the task.


A patchwork of emissions cuts

Home-made national approaches can be effective for climate-change mitigation if countries agree on rules and build trust, says Elliot Diringer.

Pushing the climate frontier

The first large-scale environmental surveys, carried out on the US arid lands, hold scientific lessons for policy-making still relevant today, explains K. John Holmes.


Nature Editorial – All change but no change (because the heat is hidden)

August 29, 2013

A very peculiar Nature Editorial.

First they confirm that there has been a hiatus in global temperature.Then they report on recent papers trying to invoke ocean cycles and their impact on global temperatures. This is followed by a claim that this does not explain the “missing heat” but fail to say that there may be no “missing heat” at all if global warming has slowed-down or ceased. By assuming that there must be “missing heat” they then claim that the underlying science has not changed. The key point of course is that if ocean cycles can cause global cooling they can also cause global warming. Natural processes can then well explain all the temperature observations of the last 150 years. Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere and the 5% of global emission that is man-made emissions of carbon dioxide become irrelevant and unnecessary to the explanations for changes to climate.

“Hidden heat” that cannot be found is just a convenient excuse to avoid having to scrap most of the existing climate models. And what Nature fails to mention is that if there is no “missing heat” then the entire edifice that is the man-made global warming hypothesis comes crashing down.

Nature: Hidden heat

Nature 500, 501 (29 August 2013), doi:10.1038/500501a

This week, Nature publishes a study online suggesting that a recent cooling trend in the tropical Pacific Ocean can explain the current hiatus in global warming. Authored by a pair of scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, the paper does not say why the Pacific seems to have entered a prolonged ‘La Niña’ phase, in which cooler surface waters gather in the eastern equatorial Pacific. It is also silent on where the missing heat is going. But it does suggest that this phenomenon — affecting as little as 8% of Earth’s surface — could temporarily counteract the temperature increase expected from rising greenhouse-gas emissions

(Y. Kosaka and S.-P. Xie  Nature,; 2013).

Previous modelling studies have linked the pause to La-Niña-like conditions that have prevailed since 1999, suggesting that heat that would otherwise go into the atmosphere is getting buried deeper in the ocean. And scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, have a study in the press indicating that decades in which global air temperature rises rapidly — including the 1980s and 1990s — are associated with warmer temperatures in the tropical Pacific, as exemplified by La Niña’s opposite effect, El Niño (G. A. Meehl et al. J. Climate; 2013). The Scripps researchers also confirmed that El-Niño-like conditions can boost global temperatures.

Scientists seem to be homing in on an important lever in the climate system. And none too soon. Although a prolonged hiatus in warming does not necessarily contradict prevailing theory, this one came as a surprise and has been used to discredit the climate-science community. The story will probably not end there. Scientists know that the Sun has been in a prolonged solar minimum for several years, which means less incoming energy, and there may yet be a role for sunlight-blocking aerosols — human pollution and volcanic ash — and other factors in the hiatus. But at least a better explanation of the climate system is beginning to take shape.

All of this comes as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prepares to release the first instalment of its fifth assessment report. The hiatus in warming is at the centre of an ongoing debate about ‘equilibrium climate sensitivity’, which is the amount of warming that would be expected over the long term owing to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Several papers have assessed the most recent data and conclude that the climate may not be as sensitive to greenhouse gases as was previously thought. The latest draft of the IPCC summary for policy-makers accounts for this — just. It suggests a likely climate sensitivity of 1.5–4.5 °C, compared with a range of 2–4.5 °C in the IPCC’s last assessment report.

Some argue that recent temperature trends show that the climate problem is less urgent. One can only hope that this is so, and scientists will continue to probe the matter. But policy-makers would be foolhardy to think that the danger has receded. Although scientists understand the basic physics, nobody can know how the numbers will turn out, as shown by the various temperature projections. Plenty of other lines of evidence, including palaeoclimate data and modern modelling experiments, support the higher end of these.

Ultimately, the decision over how to characterize climate sensitivity will fall to government officials who will approve — under the watchful eye of scientists — the latest IPCC documents in Stockholm next month. Whatever their decision, the underlying science has not changed.

This 2007 ClimateGate quote seems timely:

“What if climate change appears to be just mainly a multidecadal natural fluctuation? They’ll kill us probably…”

[Via Barry Woods; Tommy Wills, Swansea University to the mailing list for tree-ring data forum ITRDB, 28 Mar 2007]

Faking the rythm: infantile academic spat at Rutgers University

May 7, 2013

Oh Good Grief!

As if the field of psychology did not have enough scandal and fakery already.

A childish spat between academics at Rutgers and infantile behaviour by Robert Trivers, a Professor of Anthropology who ought to know better. His opponent is William Brown, now a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire.  But in this infantile academic spat it does seem as if the “establishment” are circling the wagons. I suspect that Robert Trivers, and Nature and other psychology heavyweights will prevail — but only to the further discredit of the discipline and its narcissistic  “star performers”.

Can’t they just both be spanked — in public? or put in the stocks?

A study featured in Nature in 2005 has drawn suspicion from university officials and one of its authors.


Few researchers have tried harder than Robert Trivers to retract one of their own papers. In 2005, Trivers, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, published an attention-grabbing finding: Jamaican teenagers with a high degree of body symmetry were more likely to be rated ‘good dancers’ by their peers than were those with less symmetrical bodies. The study, which suggested that dancing is a signal for sexual selection in humans, was featured on the cover of this journal (W. M. Brown et al. Nature 438, 1148–1150; 2005).

But two years later, Trivers began to suspect that the study data had been faked by one of his co-authors, William Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the time. In seeking a retraction, Trivers self-published The Anatomy of a Fraud, a small book detailing what he saw as evidence of data fabrication. Later, Trivers had a verbal altercation over the matter with a close colleague and was temporarily banned from campus. 

An investigation of the case, completed by Rutgers and released publicly last month, now seems to validate Trivers’ allegations. Brown disputes the university’s finding, but it could help to clear the controversy that has clouded Trivers’ reputation as the author of several pioneering papers in the 1970s. For example, Trivers advanced an influential theory of ‘reciprocal altruism’, in which people behave unselfishly and hope that they will later be rewarded for their good deeds. He also analysed human sexuality in terms of the investments that mothers and fathers each make in child-rearing. …. 

In 2008, Trivers sought to retract the paper, but found the editors at Nature reluctant to do so. The paper remains unretracted, although a spokeswoman for Nature says that the case is under “active consideration”. (Information available to Nature’s research-manuscript editors is not generally shared with its reporters.) ….

…. Last year, the investigation concluded that there was “clear and convincing” evidence of fabrication by Brown, who it alleged had altered overall asymmetry measures of dancers to support the notion that better dancers were more symmetrical. The report was not published for more than a year, at which point Trivers posted it online. Rutgers has sent a copy to the NSF’s inspector-general, who is reviewing it to determine what action, if any, to take. ……

Brown, now a psychologist at the University of Bedfordshire, UK, denies fabricating the data. He criticizes the Rutgers investigation for comparing his data set with the one from Trivers’ group rather than the original hard copies of the source data.

Tohoku University struggles to handle transgressions by its President Akihisa Inoue

March 14, 2012

Professor Akihisa Inoue

Professor Akihisa Inoue is the President of Tohoku University, is a leading materials scientist and the author of over 2,500 publications. But criticism from other Japanese scientists (as on this Japanese website) has now led to at least 7 retractions for plagiarism. Three investigations have been conducted so far  with rather wishy-washy conclusions. The investigations are in uncharted territory since Japan has no established processes for handling cases of scientific wrong-doing. There is no institution or body for supervising ethics or misconduct in research. And now yet another investigation committee is proposed. Without the guidance of precedent Tohoku University and even the Japanese Science and Technology Agency are not really sure how to proceed – especially when the allegations are against as prominent a person as the President of a University. Almost a classic case of  what in industry would be called “paralysis by analysis” where every analysis shirks the task of coming to conclusions, declines to make judgements and merely proposes further analysis.

Nature reports:

Japan fails to settle university dispute

It has been a rough year for materials scientist Akihisa Inoue, the president of Tohoku University in Japan.


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