How credentialled elites distort science
Rajeev Srinivasan | 22 Jun, 2020
1843 magazine, part of the Economist group, published an article in August 2019 titled The original anti-vaxxers, in which it extolled Edward Jenner, supposedly the inventor of the technique of vaccination in 1796, and spoke about the resistance in certain quarters to vaccination, known as ‘anti-vaxxing’. In passing, it said the following:
‘In British-ruled India, the authorities were so hellbent on mass-vaccination that they resorted to fraud. When devout Hindus refused to be injected with cow products, the impasse was broken by the lucky discovery of an ancient Sanskrit text which showed that, incredibly, Hindu physicians had discovered vaccination centuries earlier. It was only after the vaccination campaign was safely under way that the truth was revealed: the “ancient” manuscript had been forged in a hotel room in Madras by the British Museum’s expert in Sanskrit. Can such a “pious fraud” be excused because ultimately it did good?’
The idea may have been to show that anti-vaxxing has a long history, but the paragraph reveals a whole lot more: the positioning of Hindus as not only the Other, but also ignorant, unscientific, and gullible; how easy it was for the ‘expert’ (note they needed just one!) in Sanskrit to fabricate a text that fooled an entire nation; and how there was this touching paternalistic concern for the welfare of their somewhat unwilling Indian subjects on the part of the kind imperial British.
If we were to stop deconstructing this pregnant paragraph for a minute, there is a meta-narrative as well: our instinct is to believe what’s said there, because it fits in with our prejudices. For example, the Nehruvian trope of ‘Scientific Temper’ that implies there was no science in India before ‘Enlightenment’ values arrived.
The reason why the grand term ‘Enlightenment’ may be less than meets the eye is that several of the stalwarts of that time, spoken of in hushed tones as high-watermarks in the evolution of human thought and ethics, turn out to have held the normal prejudices of their time. Yet, they have been put on pedestals; they deserve to be deconstructed in turn.
They were often racist imperialists. James Mill and John Stuart Mill wrote volumes damning Indians as inferior, justifying British rule in India. Jeremy Bentham invented the surveillance nightmare of the Panopticon, of which the Cellular Jail in the Andamans was an early implementation. Abolitionist William Wilberforce was a literalist Christian fundamentalist and a misogynist. At a time when casual racism is facing protests all over, it is not appropriate to give them a free pass.
What is more germane to the issue of fraud, though, is that the 1843 magazine paragraph is itself a complete fabrication. The meme ‘pious fraud’ was popularised by Dominik Wujastyk, a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.
I am indebted to S Kalyanaraman of the Sarasvati Research Institute for evidence from British archives about the hollowness of the claim. He directed me to Dharampal, who cites original British manuscripts in his 1971 volume Indian Science and Technology in the 18th century: Some contemporary European Accounts.
Dharampal quotes Robert Coult in Bengal writing a letter to Dr. Oliver Coult in England:
‘Their method of performing this operation is by taking a little of the pus (when the smallpox are come to maturity and are of a good kind) and dipping these in the point of a pretty large sharp needle. Therewith make several punctures in the hollow under the deltoid muscle or sometimes in the forehead, after which they cover the part with a little paste made of boiled rice…The feaver issues later or sooner, according to the age and strength of the person inoculated, but commonly the third or fourth days. They keep the patient under the coolest regimen they can think of before the feaver comes on and frequently use cold bathing.’ (Pages 141-142)
This letter was written in 1731. Edward Jenner was born 18 years later in 1749, and his first vaccination was in 1796. This should meet the ‘evidence’ test and I rest my case.
Why, you might wonder, is this relevant today? Well, it’s because fraud, pious or not, is rampant, especially in the medical industry, the largest single industry in the world at some $18 trillion in revenue. For example, the anti-vaxx movement got a significant fillip from a 1998 paper published in the Lancet that claimed that standard Mumps-Measles-Rubella (MMR) vaccination had a direct causative link to autism in children.
That paper, written by Andrew Wakefield, et al caused a sensation, and turned many people sceptical and even fearful of what had hitherto been considered a safe procedure applied to every young child. It’s not clear how many people’s lives were affected.
It turned out by 2011 that the Wakefield paper was fictitious. The British Medical Journal called it an ‘elaborate fraud’. The Lancet ended up humiliated, but such has been its prestige that the bad-faith or sloppy publication of this paper and its 12-year-long aftermath did not affect its pole position as the journal of record.
But people did notice. Writing in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2011, TS Sathyanarayana Rao, et al said: ‘Scientists who publish their research have an ethical responsibility to ensure the highest standards of research design, data collection, data analysis, data reporting, and interpretation of findings; there can be no compromises because any error, any deceit, can result in harm to patients as well harm to the cause of science, as the Wakefield saga so aptly reveals.’
This sensible suggestion was not followed; the Wakefield debacle did not improve the vetting process, nor did it dent the journal’s status. The same prestige enabled the 2020 Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) fiasco as well, except that researchers are more vocal these days, and quick to point out methodological or other errors. The democratising effect of social media means that not-so-pious frauds can be brought to heel by sceptical readers who in earlier times might not have had a voice.
That prestige issue brings up the whole question of credentialism. There are a few entities that, for historical reasons, command respect perhaps vastly out of proportion with their actual output or capabilities. Anything that they ‘bless’ is considered the last word on the matter, and sceptics will be hounded, humiliated, and ruined for daring to question them.
It’s ironic that this is seen most evidently in the West, and in particular America, which is supposed to be militantly egalitarian and unmindful of prestige and pedigree. Let us look at just a few of these ‘untouchable’ institutions whose word, as it were, is the law: The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, the World Health Organization (WHO), Harvard University. These are undoubtedly the most prestigious names in the business.
The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) that originated in China’s Wuhan has laid low some of these institutions: the WHO for example. Before the pandemic came about, the WHO had a sterling reputation as one of the most important global organisations, one in the forefront of public health. As far as a lay person was concerned, their directives and comments were the gold standard.
There were murmurs of discontent that the WHO did not fulfil its duty in the case of Covid-19, and that it acted as a handmaiden of the Chinese government in downplaying the outbreak in Wuhan. The net result, some say, is the series of disease hotspots all over the world that have led to more than a million deaths and untold misery. It is likely these deaths could have been reduced if the WHO spoke up in January. But it didn’t, and that raises serious questions about its efficacy, and certainly about its ethics and political perspectives.
The matter reached a nadir recently with the publication of a paper in the Lancet on May 22nd by Mandeep Mehra, et al: ‘Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis’ (and a similar paper in the New England Journal of Medicine). This stated that HCQ, which had been considered a potentially useful drug in treating the disease, was positively harmful.
The paper was published in the most prestigious journals, the first author a well-known cardiologist from the prestigious Harvard Medical School, and it fit with the confirmation bias of a lot of the establishment, which believed that HCQ, especially after it was endorsed by US President Donald Trump, must be dubious.
The effect was electric: the WHO immediately suspended large ongoing clinical trials of HCQ. There is an interesting background story to HCQ that was immediately picked up by observers. A widely used anti-malarial drug, HCQ is off-patent, and is available from generic Indian drugmakers for Rs 6 for a 200mg tablet: in other words, it is dirt cheap and affordable to even poor nations, although there are concerns about a possible side effect of heart arrhythmia.
If HCQ were unfairly dismissed, and it is actually useful, that might mean that many people died who didn’t need to, due to what might amount to largescale criminal malpractice.
The other drugs in the running for the coronavirus include remdesivir (an early front-runner: an antiviral drug originally developed for Ebola) and a host of brand-new, customised vaccines. They are generally patented, and it is in the interest of the pharma majors to get them chosen as the coronavirus therapeutic of choice. It would mean a windfall for them.
In the case of a vaccine, it would be an annuity, because the virus will mutate, and there will need to be new and updated vaccines created and distributed periodically.
So there’s seems to be scope for a case to be made that Big Pharma would have the motive, and the means, to create disinformation to eliminate a competitor.
In fact, the methodology of the HCQ studies, observers soon discovered, left much to be desired. The data had purportedly come from a company named Surgisphere, which is owned by one of the authors, Sapan Desai, also a doctor.
Surgisphere claimed it had collected data on almost 100,000 patients in some 700 hospitals around the world, cleansed and anonymised it, waded through the incompatible patient data record formats from these hospitals, and applied data warehousing and machine-learning tools to arrive at their conclusions, and all done in a few weeks.
The information technology challenge is immense and would strain a large organisation. It was virtually impossible for a small team of 12 to have done all that data analytics in weeks or even months. Surgisphere refused to release the raw data so that others could verify it and reproduce the results; strangely, none of the hospitals that allegedly provided the data had heard of Surgisphere, and at least in Australia, it claimed to have covered more patients than the country had in total.
By Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation was that Surgisphere had fabricated the data, and in fact, didn’t have any. That was the conclusion everyone came to in a couple of days, leading to the swift retraction of both the Lancet and NEJM papers, and an apology of sorts from the WHO. Soumya Swaminathan, its chief scientist, told the Financial Times (“WHO says it did not see the Surgisphere data that halted virus drug trial”, June 5th) rather plaintively: “In hindsight, you can say maybe we should have asked for the database, we should have examined [it], but that’s not normal, especially when it’s published in the Lancet”.
That’s the crux of the matter. Prestige, credentialism, blind faith. Result? Pious frauds.
The immortal advice of Ronald Reagan—“Trust, but verify”—should be basic hygiene applied to these elites.
The more trusted you are, the greater the fall. Harvard University, the most credentialed, the most prestigious of the lot, seems to have more than its fair share of dubious theories.
On the one hand, you have Harvard Indology researcher Michael Witzel, who said, in a memorable replay of 19th century European imperial fantasies: ‘The first appearance of [‘Aryan’] thundering chariots must have stricken the local population with terror similar to that experienced by the Aztecs and Incas upon the arrival of the iron-clad horse-riding Spaniards’ (Early Indian History: Linguistic and Textual Parameters, 1995). Yes indeed, ‘Aryans’ on horse-drawn chariots thundering down the Khyber Pass and bringing Sanskrit to India.
There is also the Harvard paleo-geneticist David Reich with his certainty that a certain fierce warrior tribe (‘Yamnaya’) from Central Asia populated, conquered and spread their genetic footprints to most of western Europe and invaded India as well (the ‘Aryans’).
The New York Times, enthusiastic about the ‘Aryan’ Invasion theory (as are Witzel and Reich), however slammed Reich regarding his views on Pacific Islanders for ‘making categorical claims…about the shape of human history—claims that were essentially indistinguishable from the racialized notions of the swashbuckling imperial era.’ (‘Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths—or Falling Into Old Traps?’, 2019). They called him, in almost so many words, a racialist fraud. Nevertheless, Indian journalist Tony Joseph periodically and emphatically announces that the ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ has been proven, yet again, mostly based on Reich’s work.
You could at least give the Witzel-Reich duo the benefit of the doubt that they are merely mistaken, not perpetrating outright, premeditated fraud.
The cholesterol scare is more straightforward. Although the principal actor was Ancel Keys of the University of Minnesota, Harvard played a big role. Says the New York Times: ‘[The] sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead’ (‘How the Sugar Industry Shifted the Blame to Fat’, September 12th, 2016).
It appears that sugar barons in 1965 paid the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s money to researchers at Harvard to develop a theory that heart attacks were the result of cholesterol (as opposed to another theory, dangerous to the sugar industry, that the causation lay with sugar).The incidental major beneficiaries were Big Pharma who sold billions of dollars worth of statins.
The conflict of interest was swept under the rug, and for 50 years, we have laboured under the misconception—despite booming rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease that implicated sugar, especially the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup—that fat was the villain. Another pious fraud that paid off handsomely for the impugned researchers and the institution.
This sort of behaviour continues today. There has been a slew of accusations about bad faith by Harvard researchers, mostly related to China.
The Wall Street Journal wrote in February that Harvard and Yale together had received $6.5 billion as donations, contracts or gifts from China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. Bloomberg News claimed that Harvard alone had received $1 billion from China, of which they had declared only $97 million to the tax authorities.
The head of the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, Charles Lieber, was arrested in January and released on $1 million bail. He is accused of being paid $50,000 a month, along with millions in other funds, to research at the Wuhan University of Technology. He did not reveal this additional (and reportedly illegal) appointment to Harvard or American authorities. According to Nature magazine, he is a top scientist, who had won ‘the 2017 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and the 2012 Wolf Prize in Chemistry. In 2008, he was tipped by Thomson Reuters as a potential Nobel prizewinner’.
It appears that China has been able to infiltrate the most credentialled and prestigious universities and research institutions in the US, particularly (but not only) Harvard. In June, according to Science magazine, ‘Some 54 scientists have resigned or been fired as a result of an ongoing investigation by the National Institutes of Health into the failure of NIH grantees to disclose financial ties to foreign governments. For 93% of the 189 scientists whom NIH has investigated to date, China was the source of their undisclosed support.’
While there is not necessarily immediate evidence of intellectual property theft, what is worrisome, as the prosecutor in the case said, is that this sort of monkey business makes the researchers “potentially vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese government to do its bidding at some future point”. That is the point: scientific fraud produced on demand.
So there is a pattern of deceit that further makes Big Science questionable: bad intent, research distorted to push certain narratives, the broken peer-review process, the fixation on correlation as opposed to causation. Pious frauds are so numerous that the casual observer begins to wonder if there is any real scientific research going on at all. Elites with credentials continue to perpetuate fraud with no consequence to themselves. Credentialism has won. Science and common sense have lost.