Textbook vs. Frontier

The Hwang Woo Suk stem cell research scandal has triggered quite a bit of concerned introspection in the scientific community. Orac has some useful comments on a good article in the NY Times that makes the distinction between "frontier science" and "textbook science", where much of the current stem cell research is clearly on the frontier.

Much of science at the very frontiers turns out not to be correct. However, the way it is all too often reported in the press is that it is correct. We in science understand the difference between textbook science and the sort of frontier science that makes it into journals like Science. Indeed, we often lament that the very highest tier journals, such as Nature, Science, and Cell, tend to be too enamored of publishing what seems to be "sexy science," exciting or counterintuitive results that really grab the attention of scientists--in other words "cutting edge" or frontier science. Such journals seem to pride themselves on publishing primarily such work, while more solid, less "sexy" results seem to end up in second-tier journals, which is why they are so widely read and cited.

I would add another factor, though: Hwang Woo Suk's results were not at all unexpected, did not contradict any accepted scientific concepts, and were dramatic because they represented a methodological breakthrough. In a way, it was almost a "safe" category in which to cheat: lots of people are trying to transform adult cell nuclei into totipotent stem cells, it looks like a problem that's just going to require a lot of trial-and-error hammering to resolve, and what Dr Hwang did was steal priority on a result he could anticipate would be "replicated" (or more accurately, done for the first time) in short order. This is one of the hardest categories of science to police, I would think. It's frontier science all right, but it's only one step beyond the textbook.

Orac's comments about those sexy hot scientific results that get into the top-ranked journals also applies to weblogs. I'm guilty of the same thing: the articles I tend to summarize here are the ones that push at the edges of what we know, rather than the ones that consolidate what we already knew, which actually represent the majority of what I read. The solid stuff that is packed with gobs of detailed data on expression patterns of a single gene, for instance, is hard to make exciting to a general audience—when the conclusion of a long paper is that Hox1 represses transcription of Pax1/9 in the endoderm, it takes an awful lot of background exposition to try and make that interesting.

For the creationists out there, by the way, most of evolutionary biology is solidly in the "textbook science" category, which is one of the reasons biologists are so baffled about why the general public embraces criticisms of it.

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The NY Times has the dish on perhaps the final tragedy in the fall of Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk. Apparently Hwang's lab was the first to derive stem cells from parthenogenesis, or virgin birth, meaning they were derived from an unfertilized egg. "It could have been a seminal…

" In a way, it was almost a "safe" category in which to cheat: lots of people are trying to transform adult cell nuclei into totipotent stem cells, "

I would think this would be one of the hardest areas in which to cheat. If many people are also trying very hard for a similar result, using similar methods and probably identical background information, then you have to successfully fool a great many experts who all have a vested interest in attempting to replicate your results immediately on publication.

If you really wanted to cheat, I think you'd be better off looking for a seriously neglected area of research (taxonomy?) and getting deep into that.

By The Brummell (not verified) on 16 Jan 2006 #permalink

One factor that allowed Hwang to remain undetected for as long as he did is that the US scientists were prohibited from even trying to replicate the findings, due to the ban on stem cell research. If thousands of US researchers were in a rat-race with Hwang, there is no way he could have gotten away with this for so long. And still, he was found, showing that peer-review works even when hampered by politics.

Alon, I think the answer to your question is yes--to the extent new advances appear in textbooks.

Henry Bauer's book _Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method_ (1992, University of Illinois Press) uses the distinction between frontier and textbook science, introducing it like this:

"Again, though we use the single word 'science' for both, *textbook* science is a very far cry from *frontier* science. What is in the texts is reliable. It is relatively uncolored by the personalities of those who originally conceived it. It is generally agreed to by almost all the experts. It is unlikely to need to be altered in the future, and in that unlikely event the alteration will likely be of limited extent. By contrast, science at the frontier is very unreliable: today's discovery often turns out tomorrow to have been an error. Frontier science often bears the stamp of its discoverer's persona; and it is often disputed by other experts. Frontier science and textbook science are about as different from one another as any two things can be, within the bounds that both are guesses about the nature of the real world. Our failure to bear these differences in mind has drastic consequences (as illustrated in chap. 6)." (p. 32)

Chapter 6 of Bauer's book is titled "Consequences of Misconception" and includes a large section on fraud in science, arguing that it's not such a big deal since it usually occurs in frontier science (and notes that even a long-lived fraud, Piltdown, never really became textbook science because "it did not mesh with other relevant knowledge").

>If you really wanted to cheat, I think you'd be better off looking for a seriously neglected area of research (taxonomy?) and getting deep into that.

I think few people get into science wanting to cheat - pressures and rewards push you into it. I agree with PZ in which he says this is an area that is easy to cheat. I suspect this type of work can be very touchy and difficult to replicate. I would imagine that many researchers unable to replicate Hwang might blame one of those minor issues.

An example of how touchy is provided by yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) transformation - Dan Gietz's group gets incredible efficiency, and I've never had a student come close to matching his efficiency. I've never seen colleages get close to the Geitz group efficiency. Do I doubt Dan? Not at all! He spent a lot of time optimizing. I suspect folks in my lab could get pretty close to the Geitz efficiency if we put the effort into it (if we did a project needing that efficiency we would do that). For now I just think his group does a good job.

The point being that nuclear transfer might occur under conditions similar to the one's Hwang claimed to have used. He might have even been able to claim priority in a patent if it weren't obvious he cheated.

Obviously I don't know, but I suspect Hwang was was still trying to get his techniques working. I they did he could claim priority on the method with the fraudulent results but say that a new protocol was much more efficient.

I remember reading Hank Bauer's book and thinking it was a fine follow-up to a distinguished career in baseball.

By C.J.Colucci (not verified) on 16 Jan 2006 #permalink

P. Z. Meyers writes:
> when the conclusion of a long paper is that Hox1 represses transcription of Pax1/9 in
> the endoderm,

It does? Really? Have you got a cite for that? :-)

By Jonathan King (not verified) on 16 Jan 2006 #permalink

Yeah...Schubert et al. (2004) Retinoic acid signaling acts via Hox1 to establish the posterior limit of the pharynx in the chordate amphioxus. Development 132:61-73.

I've been wondering lately how distorted our general view of science must be. The best known stories of science - our archetypes - are of serendipity and eureka. I suspect only a tiny fraction of even frontier science works that way.

If thousands of US researchers were in a rat-race with Hwang, there is no way he could have gotten away with this for so long. And still, he was found, showing that peer-review works even when hampered by politics.

I see someone has been reading the American Journal of Bioethics blog :) I also happen to agree with their position.