Seeing is believing?

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Each year Scientific American recognises 50 people or teams who have made special contributions to an established, or an emerging, technology. Research leader for 2005 was a Korean scientist, Woo Suk Hwang, who managed to harvest stem cells from early stage embryos cloned from skin cell donors. His work seemed to bring closer the time when patients with certain diseases, such as Parkinson’s or spinal cord trauma, could be treated with their own stem cells which would not trigger an immune rejection. Some people may well have had ethical doubts over this type of research, but initially no one seems to have had any doubts about its scientific validity. However an editorial in the journal New Scientist published on Christmas Eve 2005 indicated that, rather than a scientific advance, Woo Suk Hwang’s claims were perhaps the biggest scientific scandal of recent times. Initially the scientist simply admitted to ethical lapses, since he harvested eggs from the ovaries of women who formed part of his team, but later he agreed that the photographic evidence contained in his original paper contained ‘irretrievable mistakes’. It is doubtful if any of his original data can be trusted although it is possible that some of his techniques were correct.

A rival candidates for the title of ‘biggest recent scientific scandal’ is Dr V J Gupta who was Professor of Geology at Punjab University and India’s most celebrated fossil scientist. For 25 years he amazed the geological world with fossil finds allegedly from the Himalayas. But in 1989, writing in Nature, Prof John Talent accused Gupta of fakery. Dr Gupta’s fossils, he said, were spurious: either bought, stolen or received as gifts. Nature commissioned a three-page paper commenting on the significance of this massive exercise in academic fraud. It really does seem that most of the fossils were fraudulent, and not simply identified incorrectly. If so the total number of publications affected by Dr Gupta’s deceit included seven books and no less than 458 papers. He did not retire until 2004. Are misrepresentations of this type common? Unfortunately it appears that they may be. One survey of scientists discovered that apparently 10% admitted to the incorrect reporting of results, methodology, or authorship. Reconsideration of the work of the great geneticist Gregor Mendel has revealed that his field observations and experimental results were altogether too perfect to be true. At best he must be guilty of ‘selective publication’ since in his research he concentrated on just those plant characteristics which showed simple dominant or recessive inheritance patterns. Perhaps it is just as well that his subsequent theories and insights were proved to be wholly correct.

There really must, you might think, be one academic discipline that holds itself aloof and pure. Surely those responsible people, the archaeologists, must have remained simple seekers after truth? Well, no. A Japanese amateur archaeologist, Shinichi Fujimura, known for finding some of the earliest evidence of human settlement in Japan, was exposed in 2000 for falsifying his discoveries. He was so good at finding ancient remains that he acquired the nickname of ‘divine hands’ among his colleagues. Suspicious scientists, however, spoke privately to a Japanese newspaper, which followed Fujimura in secret and caught him on camera, planting items in the ground so that he could dig them up later. At the last count, an analysis of Fujimura’s research records showed that at 102 archaeological investigations, from 1974 to 2000, discoveries of questionably ancient stoneware were made on 93 occasions, mainly by Fujimura himself.

The photograph accompanying this blog should remind you that nothing is easier to ‘doctor’ than a modern digital image. The party of archaeologists were definitely at Birdoswald Roman Fort in the 1930s, but the large stone limpet god wasn’t.  So, why do they do it? The explanation for such widespread fakery and fraud may not be at all simple. Some perpetrators obviously do benefit directly in terms of income or career prospects. Others may be tempted to fake if their quite legitimate research projects are slow to produce positive results, or if there is funding pressure. Forgers of paintings and artefacts often show contempt for ‘experts’ and the huge sums invested in the work of certain artists and the neglect of others who seem just as competent. In the case of Charles Dawson, the Piltdown forger, I believe that the motive was the desperate desire to be considered a serious scientist not just a talented amateur.

Making correct decisions concerning current affairs is hard enough even if the evidence on which such decisions are based is correct, which I’m afraid it seldom is. Despite my interest in scientific frauds but I have been culpably slow to appreciate that events of political and historical significance are just as unreliable. As a generalisation the honesty of informants is becoming to be of more consequence than their knowledge. Consider these items from this morning’s press. Malaysian flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine resulting in the tragic deaths of all on board. The Ukrainian government and eastern Ukrainian separatists have blamed each other for this atrocity. Now an image purporting to show a Ukrainian fighter destroying the civil aircraft with a missile has been released by a Russian broadcaster. The broadcaster calls it a sensational photograph but others label it a clumsy fake. Clearly I don’t have the knowledge to make a determination. Elsewhere a Norwegian team videoed a Syrian boy who, under rifle fire, appears to heroically risk his life to save his small sister. The video ‘went viral’ on the internet but it is now admitted and established that the scene was staged by actors and was not even shot in Syria, but in the peaceful island of Malta. It is possible that the film makers had honourable motives but they have done incontestable harm to the credibility of news reports. Meanwhile, in a very different category, a young American person, Kim Kardashian, appear semi-naked in a photograph revealing a narrow waist and another part of her anatomy which is, shall we say, fundamentally larger. This is the only area in which I have some specialist knowledge and I would say the image is unquestionably photo-manipulated. The image is a lie, albeit a pretty lie.

Does the image of an enhanced media person matter very much? Individually it probably does not but it makes another small contribution to the unrealistic ideas which many people have concerning what ‘normal’ human appearance might be. A great many people are dissatisfied with some aspect of their bodily appearance, and in some instances this dissatisfaction can be so extreme as to disrupt their lives. Such extreme problems with body image has been termed dysmorphophobia. Those with this condition wish to change or improve some aspect of their body, commonly hair, nose, breast shape or skin quality. They may spend much time and money on surgery or skin treatments without necessarily improving their symptoms in any way. To their friends, family and physicians victims may look perfectly normal, but the individual feels ugly, hideous, or unlovable. Those affected by dysmorphophobia are almost unreachable by an appeal to reason. A former patient of mine had a life made utterly miserable by stretch marks which were, in my view, of quite a minor degree. When I explained these were commonplace she admitted she had never seen the body of another unclothed adult female, but this insight had no effect whatever on her feelings of abnormality and worthlessness.

From where do people get their ideas of what physical appearance is customary or desirable? In the past from their friends and relatives I imagine, but now the concern, of course, is they are getting this from images in the press, magazines and television. Even before digital photo-manipulation became possible the images of women in the media tended to be those of thin, unusually attractive, fashion models who were ‘made-up’ and dressed by experts. Today using computer applications to remove a mole, minimise a skin crease, enhance a bust, or take an inch or two of the waist is commonplace, if not actually universal. Actually I’m afraid that it may well be universal. Fakes, frauds and photo-manipulations are by no means victimless crimes. Naturally the purchaser of a fake Monet can lose a huge sum of money. Innocent associates of those involved with scientific frauds can have their careers destroyed. The safety of air passengers depends on the full investigation of the causes of air crashes and investigators must be able to reply on the evidence presented to them. If substantial numbers of the population compare themselves with a small section whose appearance was uncommon to begin with, and has been subsequently altered to appear even more extreme, enormous unhappiness will be the result. In these matters we must tell the truth, lies are simply too dangerous. But I’m very much afraid that we have all bought into the lies.

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One thought on “Seeing is believing?

  1. It is so difficult to tell now. I suppose people who want to manipulate what others think for whatever reason have been around as long as humankind has but this problem has now been aided by modern technology. I like to take absolutely everything I see in the media with a large pinch of salt!

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