The Ecstasy research scandal

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a thorough review of the MDMA (“ecstasy”) research done, under funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, by George Ricraurte and his collaborators at Hopkins.

The story doesn’t quite make it clear just how outrageous some of the research misconduct involved actually was, party because the author seems not to understand the details. (The famous “hole-in-the-brain” images involved doing odd data transformations and turning up the gain on a false-color-imaging program so that reductions in brain metabolic activity well within the normal range showed up as black areas; the primate deaths should have been queried because the experiment was supposed to replicate the experience of human MDMA takers, who die at rates of less than 1 per million as opposed to 20%.) The story also fails to discuss Ricaurte’s active role in making human MDMA studies virtually impossible.

The fact that Ricaurte is still defending the publication of that study without a prior careful autopsy of the dead primates suggests that he’s close to incorrigible. And if he really believes what he says — that, because 10 is a small sample size, 2 in 10 in the sample is actually consistent with a base rate of 1 in a million — he ought to consider retaking elementary statistics.

I hope someone at Hopkins is looking hard at Ricaurte’s lab, and that the Human Subjects folks at HHS have started to ask hard questions about coaching subjects to lie about whether they meet the exclusion criteria.

I hope that the editors of Science will take this as a wake-up call: that study never should have been published. (The quote from Donald Kennedy is anything but reassuring on that point. The reviewers couldn’t have known about the drug mix-up, but they should have known that the fatality rate was inconsistent with the claim that the experiment modeled ordinary human MDMA use.)

In addition, I have less plausible hopes: that the people in Congress and at the Sentencing Commission who made decisions about MDMA based in large part on Ricaurte’s studies are now rethinking those decisions and have made a mental note to be less credulous in the future, and that the people at AAAS who decided that Alan Leshner would made a good president of the organization feels as stupid as they now look.

The story is well worth reading, and is not without its encouraging moments. As soon as Leshner — who had invested his personal prestige and that of NIDA in an anti-MDMA crusade based largely on Ricaurte’s work — had left, NIDA quickly backed off, even before the retractions. And the current NIDA Director, Nora Volkow, is allowed a last, sensible word:

“The question that comes to light is, why has this attracted so much attention?” she says. “And I think perhaps it’s because some people are exaggerating the adverse effects of drugs.”

That’s true, of course, but it’s quite amazing to hear a NIDA Director — the head of an agency which in the past has done more than its share of such exaggeration — say so on the record.

Full text of the Chronicle article

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

4 thoughts on “The Ecstasy research scandal”

  1. Two more cases of scientific misconduct

    Andrew Wakefield published a study linking immunization injections
    with autism. The Lancet now says that it should never have been
    published because of a “fatal conflict of interest”. At the time
    Wakefield was being paid to collect evidence t…

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