Beyond the fringe: when science moves from innovative to nonsense

Authors

  • Simon Silver

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Illinois, Chicago, IL, USA
    • Correspondence: Simon Silver, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Illinois, Chicago, IL 60612, USA. Tel.: +1 312 996 9608; fax: +1 312 996 6415; e-mail: simon@uic.edu

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Abstract

Microbiology has experienced examples of highly productive researchers who have gone beyond just interpreting their experimental results with hypotheses and published nonsense that was readily recognized as such by readers. Although the most discussed cases of this pathology come from physics, studies of single-celled microorganisms, virology, and immunology have provided many examples. Five cases are described here along with some generalizations. These are the Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics reported by distinguished and experienced researchers, vectorless DNA transfer and incorporation of bacterial DNA into chromosomes of plants years before vector construction of genetically modified plants was invented, water with memory of immunoglobulin IgE, a new electromagnetic radiation method for identifying bacterial and viral pathogens by the discoverer of human immunodeficiency virus, and the claim of isolation of a new bacterial isolate with arsenic replacing phosphorus in DNA. These examples represent very dissimilar areas, and the only common factor is hubris on the part of experienced researchers. Secondarily, failure of peer review sometimes happens, and journal editors do not step in, sometimes even when alerted before publication. These failures of the publishing process teach us that unnecessary mistakes occur and should warn us all to watch our own enthusiasms.

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