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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

John Darsee, Cargo Cult Alumnus

The case of John Darsee teaches us an important lesson here at the Cargo Cult Scientist. He was indeed a Cargo Cult Scientist in the area of heart damage. He worked at a top laboratory in a top institution, at Harvard Medical School, and he had published over 125 research articles, book chapters, shorter papers and abstracts. His boss at Harvard had authored more the 600 papers. These guys were accomplished at the one thing that will speed up any career in modern science, getting published.

Getting published requires skill in understanding what people want to hear and how to write about it. That doesn't mean that you have skills in scientific research, merely writing up what people want to hear. Those who accept or reject your paper will not be going into the lab to watch you work. Nor will they require any evidence that you actually did the work such as lab notebooks or any other form of raw data. The powers that be will read what you send in and use their superior knowledge of, well... reading papers, to determine if what you said is the honest truth or not. Furthermore, they will also know if you used all of the proper controls and formed the proper conclusions. Getting published means getting into the heads of these sorts and writing a paper that they can stand behind. It must then support their own theories, flatter their own body of work, and be authored and co-authored by respected individuals working at respected institutions and universities.

John Darsee and his boss Eugene Braunwald certainly had what it takes to get published. 109 of Darsees papers had 47 co-authors so there were plenty of people verifying the work. Yet Darsee managed to fool them all. He had fabricated data for many of his publications. In one startling case he proposed that a 17 year old subject had four children, ages 8, 7, 5, and 4. Eugene Braunwald didn't see it. The co-authors didn't do the math that would make the father 8 or 9 at the time of his first childs birth. The referees who read the paper didn't see it. The editor didn't see it. The readers of the article didn't see it either. Not until the notorious NIH duo Feder and Stewart got involved did anyone bother to bring up this puzzling set of data.

But not everyone was convinced that John Darsee was infallible. At Harvard three of Darsees laboratory colleagues started to wonder where he was getting all of the good data. They soon became convinced that he was outright making it up. They reported their suspicions up the chain of command forcing Darsee to finally show his superiors some raw data. Back in the lab he set out to obtain the final set of data to be presented. With co-workers looking on he began to mark down his data, Day 1, Day 2..., thus demonstrating his most effective method of obtaining positive data. You just make it up as you need it.

Three laboratory workers uncovered what 47 co-authors, scores of superiors and journal editors could not see. John Darsee was a fake. But he was a skilled paper writer and that is what made him a star early in life. The culture still exists. It is of course, The Cargo Culture, that we are interested in here on this blog. John Darsee is a high ranking member of the cult. He knew absolutely nothing about airplanes but he knew what the leaders wanted to hear. Not the sound of airplanes coming from the sky, but the sound of their own ideas being backed up by a bright young Cargo Cult Scientist. They sure did have a good run.

Where did the truth come from in this story? The laboratory. It's a tough place to be for Cargo Cult Scientists. If you want to make it in the ranks of the Cargo Cult, stay out of that lab.

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