Search This Blog

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Anil Potti vs Bradford Perez

"One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everything's fine today, that is our illusion" - Voltaire

The Anil Potti saga is not just an isolated case of scientific misconduct. It is a case that follows the known patterns of cargo cult science. The latest news from the Duke University Potti scandal adds a few more details.

Let's first review the patterns of cargo cult science.

Step one: A narrative capable of being published is formulated by a person with above average ambition.

Step two: A skeleton outline of experimental design is set on stone by the ambitious author of the narrative. The design must protect the narrative. Assign a subservient laboratory work force to conduct the experiments.

Step three: The misconduct occurs in the analysis of the data. The author of the narrative aligns the data to the narrative. Any egregious deviations are dealt with by "correcting" the work of the subservient laboratory staff.

Step four: The narrative is written up and submitted to the journals.

In the Anil Potti case:

Step One: Anil Potti, a Principal Investigator at a prominent University, formulates a narrative, popular among the cargo cults. Genetic markers can be identified to help western medical professionals treat disease. Everyone loves a winner, and Anil Potti knew how to convince others that he was a winner. Anil Potti was not the only person with above average ambition. His superiors and most of the people around him supported what he was doing because his narrative was so attractive.

Step Two: Bradford Perez, a third year med student, is assigned to carry out the work that supported Anil Pottis' narrative. He came to the realization that the methods being used to assign patients to clinical trials were not validated. I.E. the methods were more narrative than scientific method. Yet Bradford Perez was in no position to influence the direction of Anil Pottis research/career. As Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Langone Med Center who is reviewing this case, said, "I have a feeling his lowly status made him someone that they would be able to hope would just go away. There was a little bit of don't-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out."

Step Three: Perez made several attempts to discuss the methodological issues with Potti. Things do not go well for Perez. He has to make a decision; speak truth to power or join the power in the continuation of the Potti narrative. Validation techniques from the Potti narrative amounted to, "erasing the samples that don't fit the cross validation from the figure and then reporting the cross validation as meaningful and justification for a good predictor".

Step Four: Rather than publishing another paper supporting the Potti narrative, Bradford Perez decides to pursue the courageous path. He writes a 3 page single spaced summary of his concerns with Pottis lab. "I have nothing to gain and much to lose", stated Perez in his letter to the University. He gave up the opportunity to be included as an author on at least 4 manuscripts, a Merit Award for poster proetnation at the ASCO meeting, and a year of med school. He had to put in another year to replace the dishonest research with something in which he could take pride.

The politics of this case are worth studying. Not on a simple blog but at the level of real leadership. As we can see from this case however, the leadership is a large part of the problem. Anil Potti is indeed a Cargo Cult Hall of Famer, but what about everyone else around him? Below and above, many people were spending their scientific careers standing next to the steaming pile of cargo cult science that Anil Potti was putting forth. Why was Bradford Perez the only insider speaking out? Why did his words go unheard by so many for so long?

The rest of us must operate, as Bradford Perez did, against this powerful non-scientific political force. The Cargo Cults are not simple fiefdoms rang by rogue PIs. Rather the Anil Potti story is one of bullying by a powerful person who has no reverence for the scientific method. Political prowess continues to butt heads with the truth. The truth will always win in the long run. But how long is that run and who do we encounter along the way?