#3: Treat appendicitis with antibiotics, not surgery.
The Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery published an article in 2009 by Indian researchers titled "Conservative management of acute appendicitis." The gist was that antibiotics might be a safe alternative to an appendectomy, the surgical removal of the appendix.
Well, maybe not. The journal retracted the paper in October. Italian surgeons had raised a red flag with the study in a lengthy letter published in 2010 in the same journal, politely citing a multitude of problems with the study's methodology. The Indian researchers responded a month later with their own two-paragraph letter defending the methodology and calling for a larger study to establish the superiority of antibiotic treatment over surgery.
There's no word whether that larger study is pending, but the journal's editors retracted the original article for reasons of alleged plagiarism, stating that "significant portions of the article were published earlier" by other researchers in 2000 and 1995.
#2: Litter breeds crime and discrimination.
It sounded so reasonable: Graffiti and litter in urban settings can trigger changes in the brain that can lead to crime, hatred and discrimination. Alas, the senior author of this April 2011 paper in Science, Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, might have fabricated much of the data.
The journal Science retracted the paper in November upon realization that Stapel, a media darling whose name frequented the New York Times, may have faked data in at least 30 papers, according to a report from Stapel's university, Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Stapel has since been suspended from Tilburg pending further investigation.
The objective reader must now question other pet theories from Stapel. These include his "findings" that beauty-advertising works because it makes women feel worse about themselves, and that conservative politics leads to hypocrisy.
#1: Chronic fatigue syndrome is caused by a virus.
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a disorder of unknown origin. Some researchers, in fact, consider this a psychological disorder largely confined to wealthier countries, affecting women more than men.
Then came a study published in Science in October 2009 by researchers from the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nevada. The researchers associated CFS with something called xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV), which they said they found in blood samples of patients with CFS.
CFS advocates were elated. At last there was proof that their disease was real, they said. Retrovirus experts, on the other hand, were skeptical. Maybe the blood samples were contaminated. It turns out that the paper is likely wrong. No other lab could reproduce the results.
Science issued an "Editorial Expression of Concern" in July after the authors themselves refused to retract their paper. The Science editorial states bluntly that the study purported "to show that … XMRV was present in the blood of 67 percent of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome compared with 3.7 percent of healthy controls. Since then, at least 10 studies conducted by other investigators and published elsewhere have reported a failure to detect XMRV in independent populations of CFS patients."
The authors finally issued a partial retraction in September, removing data now known to be from contaminated samples. Science followed with a full retraction on Dec. 23. Meanwhile, in a disturbing twist, senior author Judy Mikovits was fired from the Whittemore Peterson Institute in September and arrested in California in November over charges for possession of stolen property and unlawful taking of computer data, equipment and supplies. Science is investigating whether the data were manipulated.