Surgeon promotes fraudulent research that kills people; his employer, a leading hospital, defends him and attacks whistleblowers. Business as usual.

Paul Alper writes:

A couple of time at my suggestion, you’ve blogged about Paulo Macchiarini.

Here is an update from Susan Perry in which she interviews the director of the Swedish documentary about Macchiarini:

Indeed, Macchiarini made it sound as if his patients had recovered their health when, in fact, the synthetic tracheas he had implanted in their bodies did not work at all. His patients were dying, not thriving.

In 2015, the investigator concluded that Macchiarini had, indeed, committed research fraud. Yet the administrators [at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute] continued to defend their star surgeon — and threatened the whistleblowers with dismissal.

But then there was the fact that the leadership of the hospital and the institute had, instead of listening to the complaints, gone after the whistleblowers and had even complained [about them] to the police.

What was he thinking???

Check out this stunning exchange from the interview:

MinnPost: Did you come to any conclusion about what was motivating [Macchiarini]? It seemed at times at the documentary that he really cared about the patients. He seemed moved by them. And, yet, he then abandons them. He doesn’t follow up with them.

Bosse Lindquist [director of the documentary about this story]: I think that he feels that he deserves success in life and that he ultimately deserves something like a Nobel Prize or something like that. He thinks the world just hasn’t quite seen his excellence yet and that they will eventually. He believes that he’s helping mankind, and I think that he construes reality in such a way that he actually thinks that he was doing good with these patients, but that there were minor problems and stuff that sort of [tripped him up].

This jibes with my impressions in other, nonlethal, examples of research incompetence and research fraud: The researcher believes that he or she is an important person doing important work, and thinks of criticisms of any sort as a bunch of technicalities getting in the way of pathbreaking, potentially life-changing advances. And, of course, once you frame things in this way, a simple utilitarian calculation implies that you’re justified in all sorts of questionable behavior to derail your critics.

All of this is, in some sense, a converse to Clarke’s Law, and it also points to a general danger with utilitarianism—or, to put it another way, it points to the general value of rules and norms.

And what about the whistleblowers?

MP: And what about the whistleblowers? Have they been able to go back to their careers without any professional harm?

BL: No. Two of them have had to change cities and hospitals. Two are still there, but they have been subjected to threats from management and from some of their colleagues who were involved with Macchiarini. They have not received any new grants since this whole thing happened. It’s a crying shame.

MP: That’s quite a terrible outcome, because that may stop other people from stepping forward in similar situations.

BL: Exactly.

MP: Do you feel that everyone who was responsible for ignoring the warnings about Macchiarini has resigned or been fired?

BL: No, no, no. A number of people are still there and have their old jobs and just carry on. Some have been forced to change jobs, to get another job — but in some other function within the hospital or in the government.

And, finally . . .


MP: What has happened to the patients. One was able to successfully have the tube removed, is that correct?

BL: Yeah. One person.

MP: And everybody else has died?

BL: Yes.

The whole thing is no damn joke.

I originally called this “research-lies-allegations-windpipe update update,” but I can’t laugh about this anymore, hence the revised title above.

P.S. Alper writes:

According to the NYT’s Gretchen Reynolds, the Institute is looking into breathing again:

Two dozen healthy young male and female volunteers inhaled 12 different scents from small vials held to their noses. Some of the smells were familiar, like the essence of orange, while others were obscure. The subjects were told to memorize each scent. They went through this process on two occasions. For one, they sat quietly for an hour immediately after the sniffing, with their noses clipped shut to prevent nasal breathing; on the other, they sat for an hour with tape over their mouths to prevent oral breathing.

The men and women were consistently much better at recognizing smells if they breathed through their noses during the quiet hour. Mouth breathing resulted in fuzzier recall and more incorrect answers.

But, no numerical notion of “how much better.” And only “two dozen” subjects? Despite the defrocking of Paolo Macchiarini, the Karolinska Institute is undoubtedly still solvent so it seems strange that it undertakes a study that is more typical of a psychology professor, who has little or no funding, and seeks a publication using his students as convenient subjects. One is reminded of the famous sweaty T-shirt study.

I guess there’s always a market for one-quick-trick-that-will-change-your-life.


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