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Retractions Show Scientists “Blinded” by Belief


Science is a human institution, subject to all the faults and failings of which humans are capable. The difference between it and other institutions is that science is supposed to be self-correcting. And sometimes it is, as this will show. But the reason for this particular failure is revealing.

Over at Retraction Watch, which describes itself as “tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process,” it’s reported that Nobel laureate Jack Szostak has recently retracted a paper. This is a big deal because of who he is and because of where it was published.

Some background: Szostak’s lab at Harvard University has been working on origin-of-life questions for years, particularly how RNAs might self-replicate without enzymes. This is an important question: some scientists think RNA was the first kind of molecule, because it shows primitive enzymatic abilities and can store information, two things necessary for basic life. But in order for this scheme to work, RNA would also have to be able to copy itself without protein enzymes, which would not yet exist.

In 2016, Szostak’s lab published a paper in Nature Chemistry, in which they said they had found a way to get RNA to self-replicate. Szostak himself said he had been “incredibly excited” by the result, perhaps a partial result that might solve the problem that scientists had been seeking to answer for 50 years.

That paper has now been retracted. The reason? A member of Szostak’s lab named Tivoli Olsen could not replicate the results. Then when she reviewed the results that had been published, she found they had been misinterpreted.

Szostak admitted the errors were embarrassing. He said, “In retrospect, we were totally blinded by our belief [in our findings]…[W]e were not as careful or rigorous as we should have been (and as Tivoli was) in interpreting these experiments.”

Tivoli Olsen said, “As a scientist the job is to troubleshoot. You can’t help nor can you ignore where that takes you. I fulfilled my obligation to ensure that no one after me would waste their time on this.”

Szostak also retracted a 2009 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, likewise because the results could not be reproduced, this time by a researcher from outside his lab. Szostak had one of his own postdocs verify the problem, then withdrew the paper.

Szostak and Olsen are to be commended for their integrity. They did what should be done. But here is the key point. Scientists are human, and they desire certain outcomes that fit with strongly held beliefs. Szostak has been looking for a long time for a way to make RNA replicate. So when he found something promising, as he said, “We were totally blinded by our belief.”

It is absolutely necessary that we be our own severest critics, and check and double check our interpretations of data. This applies to all points of view on the origins spectrum. Everything is subject to evaluation, everything. Bias and preconception and strongly held beliefs are to be found on all sides. If we wish to arrive at the truth, we need to be willing to show as much integrity as Dr. Szostak did.

Photo credit: Lee McLaughlin [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.