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The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character

The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character

Amazon.com Review

In a perfect world, science wouldn't be done by human beings, since despite our best efforts, we aren't truly objective about anything. When personality and emotion inevitably get mixed up with science, sparks can fly. The most notorious such conflagration in recent times was The Baltimore Case, a decade-long dispute between supposedly objective scientists that resulted in excruciating trials, sensational headlines, and damaged careers and lives. Historian Daniel Kevles tells the story of the accusations of fraud leveled by Margot O'Toole toward her colleagues, Thereza Imanishi-Kari and Nobel Prize-winner David Baltimore. Kevles first explains the controversial experimental results and the paper published outlining them. O'Toole was unable to reproduce the results of Imanishi-Kari and accused her of falsifying data, also implicating the high-profile Baltimore, coauthor of the original paper. In the following years, all participants in the investigation were subjected to dehumanizing, humiliating scrutiny--including a congressional inquiry not unlike a mini-witch-hunt--and nasty comments gleefully reported by a media eager for a big scientific scandal. Kevles comes down on the side of the self-admittedly sloppy Imanishi-Kari (who was officially exonerated in 1996) and Baltimore, painting O'Toole as a well-motivated but overenthusiastic watchdog manipulated by embarrassingly eager investigators. This book is a valuable lesson in how uneasily humanity and science share the laboratory. Even our best and brightest can be brought low by jealousy, carelessness, and deception. --Therese Littleton
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In this gripping tale of high-stakes research science colliding with headline-grabbing congressional investigations, careers and reputations are part of the wreckage. Kevles (The Physicists, etc.), a professor of humanities and scientific policy at CIT, takes readers into the esoteric realm of molecular biology to explore one of the most controversial ethical cases in modern scientific history. In 1986, David Baltimore, a 1975 Nobel laureate in medicine, coauthored a research paper on gene transfer in Cell magazine with a former MIT associate, Thereza Imanishi-Kari. When a postdoctoral fellow in Imanishi-Kari's lab could not duplicate the results of the experiment as described in the article, then made her concerns public, charges of fraud began to erupt that eventually involved scientists at Harvard, Tufts, MIT and the National Institutes of Health. According to Kevles's report, scientific gadflies at the NIH, in concert with an egoistic congressional committee chairman and moralizing scientists, opened a decade-long witch hunt that split the academic science community and nearly destroyed the professional lives of Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari. This analysis of a scandal within a scandal, which includes a brief account of the disputed experiment, breaches the high walls of science and politics for a close-up look at the dispute, with Kevles's fast-paced journalistic style rendering a recondite subject immediate and accessible for the lay reader. Photos. Agent, Ronald Goldfarb.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The "Baltimore Case" sent shock waves through the scientific community. Did Nobel laureate David Baltimore collude to commit fraud? Or, was he the victim of a witch hunt? Kevles's book puts the matter to rest.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

It is difficult not to feel sympathy for (or fearful identification with) David Baltimore, who endured an ordeal of epic proportions over more than a decade because he objected to the tactics of his inquisitors. After all, it is hard to feel good about a governmental process that takes 10 years to grind to its conclusion, sullies all the participants along the way, and ends with a verdict that excoriates the competence of the prosecutors while damning with faint praise the quality of the science. On the other hand, that the process was horrific is not a defense of conduct. This is a point that Daniel Kevles seems to have passed by in writing this homage to Baltimore. Kevles, a professional historian, says he approached this work with "an obligation to achieve a balanced understanding of the story," but his book is not even-handed, and his 92 pages of endnotes do not fully support his assertions. Kevles starts by describing Margot O'Toole, the young postdoctoral fellow who questioned the accuracy of a paper of which Baltimore was a coauthor. Kevles reports from interviewing her that she was "virtually bred to confront trouble." Even more, "Civil rights protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam War had flourished during her undergraduate years, likely encouraging her familial propensity for dissent." The sources for the paragraph containing the latter statement include notes of a telephone conversation in 1993 between two people neither of whom is O'Toole or anyone in her family. In contrast, Kevles learns from direct interviews with Baltimore that his family's "left-leaning" heritage and his exposure to the McCarthy hearings as a high-school student undergirded his principled objections to Congressional inquiries into his questioned science. Thereza Imanishi-Kari, O'Toole's supervisor and a coauthor with Baltimore of the paper in question, is described as "vivacious, competent, quick on her feet and formidably smart." On the next page, we learn that she "broke the laboratory rules against smoking and neglected to meet M.I.T.'s requirements for getting ahead." Whereas Imanishi-Kari merely "neglected to meet" standards for getting ahead, what O'Toole "seemed at heart to crave was recognition as an insightful scientific critic and, more important, legitimation as a practicing scientist who was not incompetent because she could not get Bet-1 to work." Of even greater concern is Kevles's seeming willingness to gloss over (or deny) documented facts. He writes that a government lawyer "spent most of one morning in September trying to impugn Imanishi-Kari's veracity, suggesting, among other things, that she had lied about earning the equivalent of a master's degree at Kyoto University.... [Her lawyer] demonstrated that the suggestion had no merit." The endnote at the end of the paragraph containing these sentences makes reference to an official letter from Kyoto University saying there was no record that she had ever been enrolled there, and a "To Whom It May Concern" letter from two faculty members saying "that she had done enough to complete the `two-year Master course."' Conspicuously missing is any reference to the National Institutes of Health grant application in which Imanishi-Kari asserted that she had a master's degree in developmental biology from Kyoto University -- not that she had "the equivalent of a master's degree." My central objection to the book, however, is to its premise that Baltimore's "ferocious" defense of the questioned paper, without careful review of the data or any attempt to replicate the admittedly complex science -- was appropriate. Much space is given to how very bad the government's process was in this case, which started even before there was a published definition of scientific misconduct or a set of procedures for responding to allegations of it. This seems beyond dispute, and documenting what we have learned about fairness to participants in cases of misconduct is important. But doing that is different from considering the obligations of scientists when questions about their work arise. Do we truly believe that science benefits when a prominent scientist acts as Baltimore did in this case? Kevles argues that nothing Baltimore could have done would have made any difference. He also endorses how "Baltimore unabashedly defended the common-sensical legitimacy of collaborators' taking the results of participants in other specialties to a considerable degree on trust." Despite these defenses, however, Kevles never addresses how the scientific community should respond when serious questions are raised about published work. This omission undercuts many of the book's conclusions about Baltimore's conduct. Even more remarkably, Kevles seems to believe that attention to the issue was unwarranted. He comments that concern about scientific fraud and misconduct "was a peculiarly American phenomenon, compelling attention at the time in no other scientifically vital nation, a product in part of the political culture of the day." What? Are we to understand that it was unsuitable for Americans to pay attention before others addressed these issues? And perhaps, now that serious problems of scientific conduct have surfaced publicly and are being addressed in other countries (including Germany, Denmark, France, and Britain), that it becomes more appropriate? It is troubling that Kevles appears to have lost his objectivity. He reports that Baltimore's critics applied a "mythical standard of scientific practice" requiring ethical scientists "to respond to every challenge by returning to the lab to check their work." This is simply not what the cited publication, a commentary in Nature by Harvard biochemist Paul Doty, states. Doty quotes physicist Richard Feynman on the integrity of scientific thought, which requires "utter honesty -- a kind of leaning over backwards... (to) report everything that you think might make (an experiment) invalid." This remains a basic tenet of sound science -- and mutatis mutandis, of sound history as well. Reviewed by C.K. Gunsalus, J.D.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Tina Brown--heading to Hollywood to produce "content" for films as well as magazines--ran Kevles' first stab at this subject in the New Yorker in 1996, but it's hard to see how anyone will translate it to the screen. Not that the story's not dramatic, full of conflict and fascinating characters. But the key issue--whether an immunology study involving transgenic mice and antibody production constituted fact or fraud--is tough to evaluate, even with lucid explanations from California Institute of Technology humanities professor Kevles. "Baltimore" is Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who was the study's senior coauthor. The scientist responsible for most of the research was Thereza Imanishi-Kari, who spent nearly 10 years defending her work against questionable challenges from a postdoctoral fellow she employed, Representative John Dingell (D-MI), academic scientists, and government agencies. A scary tale of science in the political and media crosshairs--and doubts within the community of scientists about what rules and ethics apply. Mary Carroll
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

A brilliant, unsparing and meticulously re-searched account. . . . Kevles has assembled the history of a single experiment and the lives it derailed. -- Robert Lee Hotz, Los Angeles Times Book Review
You read with a rising sense of despair and outrage, and you finish it as if awakening from a nightmare only Kafka could have conceived. -- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times

From the Publisher

"The Baltimore Case" was shortlisted for the 1998 Los Angeles Times Book Award in Science/Technology.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Daniel J. Kevles, the Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale University, taught American history for many years at the California Institute of Technology. He has written extensively on the history of science and its relationship to American politics and society in the twentieth century. His works include
The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America and
In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the Society of American Historians and is currently a Distinguished Lecturer of the Organization of American Historians.

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