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Review of 2011: retracted papers and phoney science

31.12.2011, Age: 3554 days

2011 has seen an unusually large number of retracted scientific articles. Some of the most notorious ones are a study of the chronic fatigue syndrome, and a widely cited paper about vaccines causing autism. The 2011 report "Celebrities and Science" cites remarkable scientific misunderstandings by royalty, famous musicians, models and film stars.

About a year ago, a study by NASA astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues caused a worldwide stir. They claimed to have found bacteria in Mono Lake, California, that were able to replace phosphorous by arsenic in their DNA. NASA announced that this new discovery had strong implications for the search for extraterrestrial life forms. Almost instantly, other experts expressed their concern and gave more plausible explanations of the findings by the NASA team. In the meantime, the article in Science has not been retracted. Science has made it available for free, together with a long list of comments here>>.

Among the studies that have been retracted in 2011 is one about the genetic basis for longevity, one about autism caused by vaccination and a link between a virus and chronic fatigue syndrome. All of these studies produced major headlines and heated debate, and all of them proved to be wrong and had to be retracted.

See: Debunked Science: Studies Take Heat In 2011 by Jon Hamilton, NPR.

In December each year, the British non-profit organisation Sense About Science publishes a report, Celebrities and Science, which highlights misleading scientific claims by influential and famous personalities. Some of them are funny and naive, others, like the vaccine-and-autism hoax, however, caused great health risk to numerous British and American children.

Sense About Science:

"To improve the outlook for 2012, we have distilled our scientists’ responses into easy-to-remember pointers for celebrity commentators.

Four new lessons from 2011:

Supplement what? Your body does a good job of taking in everything you need to stay healthy. If you seriously suspect a deficiency, it should be diagnosed and properly treated.

There’s a lot of well established science about our environment… So understanding the sea can be a source of wonder rather than confusion.

A correlation isn’t the same as a cause… ‘A’ following ‘B’ doesn’t mean that ‘A’ was caused by ‘B’  – it may be  a coincidence, or ‘A’ and ‘B’ may both be caused by something else.

It is easy to prevent a condition that did not exist in the first place... but this is often the result of wishful thinking, not the short-cut to good health you tried at the time. 

And this year two regular tips taken up by celebrities who got it right:

If it’s too good to be true…it probably is.

Detox is a marketing myth: our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets."

Sense About Science calls scientists to join its database of specialists and put good science and evidence at the centre of public debates.

For a more positive science review of 2011, see Nature: 365 days: 2011 in review.

The COSIS.net Team wishes you a very happy and successful 2012 with lots of good science!

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