The scientist who invented a miracle

       

The prestigious magazine ‘Science’ withdraws for alleged fraud an investigation into the amazing arrest of an earthquake.

There are days when cities abandon their centuries-old routine and, in a few minutes, they become hell. A Kumamoto, a town of about 740,000 inhabitants in southern Japan, happened on April 16, 2016. The earth, suddenly, began to tremble. The walls of the castle collapsed, a bridge over the river collapsed, the train derailed, and the roads cracked. An earthquake of magnitude 7.1 destroyed more than 12,000 houses, injured 2,000 people and killed 40 of them. But a miracle prevented the catastrophe was even greater, as revealed by research published only a few months later in the prestigious journal Science.

 

The brutal rupture of the fault at Kumamoto’s feet came to a sudden halt – as the scientists proclaimed – thanks to a magma chamber located under the nearby Mount Aso, the most active volcano in Japan. The mountain would have avoided the tragedy, like a local legend that tells that the smoke of the volcano is the sign of a god that burns to redeem the sins of humanity. The problem is that the main author of the investigation, Japanese geophysicist Aiming Lin, had invented everything.

An earthquake of magnitude 7.1 destroyed more than 12,000 houses in Kumamoto

An internal investigation of the University of Kyoto uncovered just two months ago that the alleged miracle of Mount Aso was based on “falsified data”, “manipulated images” and even “plagiarism” of other works. The Science magazine announced on May 3 the retraction of the study. Now the big question is how could that sneaky farce be sneaked into one of the great temples of world science.

Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, receives about 12,000 original studies every year and publishes about 800 of them (7%) after a review process by other scientists. “A small fraction of these items, between three and five a year, are retracted, but most of the time it’s because of honest mistakes. In exceptional cases, such as this, there may also be an alleged misconduct, “explains Meagan Phelan, spokesperson for the editorial committee of Science.

The scientist Aiming Lin, during a talk at the University of Hong Kong in 2017.

The University of Kyoto pointed to Aiming Lin, a young professor, as the sole culprit of the irregularities. “For us it has been a very sad episode, as always happens with frauds,” says a spokesperson for the institution. The committee that investigated the case detected that Lin had even stretched the maps of the region and had modified the focus of the earthquake, apparently so that everything would fit the hypothesis of the volcanic miracle.

Lin, however, blamed the irregularities on his lack of expertise with a drawing software. The committee, according to the specialized website Tremble, disagreed. This newspaper has tried to know the version of Lin, without success. The university is now studying whether to apply “disciplinary measures”, as detailed by the institution’s spokesperson.

Science magazine publishes about 800 studies a year, of which less than five are retracted

The current scientific system evaluates researchers according to the number of studies they publish in high-impact journals. The more publications, the easier it is to find funding to continue researching. The mechanism, perverse for many scientists, even has an appellation in English: Publish or perish (“Publish or die”).

Lin’s case is far from exceptional. Only two months ago, and with the same Kumamoto earthquake as a backdrop, the University of Osaka announced that one of its professors, Yoshiya Hata, had falsified data in at least five investigations. The scientist presumed to have a seismograph in the affected area, but he did not have it. The university explained that Hata died before being questioned, but did not clarify the cause of his death. In 2014, another Japanese, Yoshiki Sasai, committed suicide after two of his studies on stem cells were retracted from the journal Nature for alleged fraud.

“Scientific research is a process of self-correction. In part, the studies are published in academic journals so that other scientists can try to replicate, confirm or refute them. This is how science advances, “says the spokesperson for the journal Science.

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