Wagner professor helps uncover a major scientific fraud

Wagner professor helps uncover a major scientific fraud

Brian Palestis, professor of biology

Brian Palestis, professor of biology

In 2005, the prominent science journal Nature devoted its cover to a story with the headline “Fascinating Rhythm: Dancing’s Role in Sexual Selection,” and a digital rendering of a naked human body making a dance-like move.

Eye-catching, no doubt. And the scientific community welcomed its conclusions, which made a strong link between bodily symmetry and dance ability — a connection which, evolutionary biologists theorize, is linked to sexual selection. Since then, other researchers have cited this paper more than 130 times.

In November 2013, however, Nature published an official retraction of the article — a goal one of the paper’s co-authors, the famed evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, had doggedly pursued for six years.

Why would a scientist fight to have his own work retracted? And what does all of this have to do with Wagner College? Brian Palestis, professor and chair of Wagner’s biology department, did the statistical analysis that revealed the study’s data to have been manipulated and pre-selected to fit a foregone conclusion.

Trivers is a professor at Rutgers University, where he served on Palestis’s dissertation committee. Since then, the two scientists have collaborated on research. In 2007, Trivers mentioned to Palestis that he had noticed issues with the data set presented in the Nature paper. Palestis started checking the numbers, and quickly found problems in how the data was handled by the paper’s lead author, William M. Brown.

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Trivers and Palestis believed so strongly in their case that they even coauthored a short book, The Anatomy of a Fraud: Symmetry and Dance, published in 2009. Their work was vindicated by an investigative committee at Rutgers in April 2012, and finally given credence by Nature itself.

Palestis says that he had no idea he was getting himself into such an ethical quagmire when he started this project, which has been widely covered in the science and higher education press.

He and his students have benefited from his raised awareness of scientific misconduct and the difficulty of having such behavior acknowledged. “There’s been a few classes where I’ve talked about research misconduct and research ethics,” he says. “There is a growing awareness that this is a problem.”

 

To read more, go to retractionwatch.com and thewinnower.com, two new websites devoted to increasing transparency in science.