Lowering Expectations at Science's Frontier
Jeon Kyung Woo/Newsis via Reuters
By NICHOLAS WADE
Published: January 15, 2006
THERE is considerable disorder in heaven when stem-cell scientists are chided by the Roman Catholic Church for the folly of pursuing "miracle cures." But such are the paradoxes generated by the implosion of a South Korean researcher's widely believed claims to have created human embryonic stem cells from patients.....The contrast between the fallibility of Dr. Hwang's claims and the general solidity of scientific knowledge arises from the existence of two kinds of science - a distinction that is often blurred when new advances are reported first by scientific journals and then by the news media. There is textbook science and frontier science, and the two types carry quite different expiration dates.
Textbook science is material that has stood the test of time and can be largely relied upon. It may include findings made just a few years ago, but which have been reasonably well confirmed by other laboratories. Science from the frontiers of knowledge, on the other hand, is wild, untamed and often either wrong or irrelevant to future research. A few years after they are published, most scientific papers are never cited again. Scientific journals try to impose order on the turbulent flow of new claims by having expert reviewers assess their merit. But even at the best journals, reviewers provide only a rough screen. Many papers slip through that later turn out to be innocently wrong. A few, like Dr. Hwang's, are found to be fraudulent....