A ‘Cat Tale’: A story of how flawed science formed the basis of policy

On the surface, it would seem like a good thing when science undergirds policy decisions. But what if that science is deeply flawed? Craig Pittman, an award-winning journalist at the Tampa Bay Times and author of 4 books, writes that his new book Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther is “a tale of raw courage, of scientific skulduggery and political shenanigans, of big-money interests versus what’s right for everyone.” In this excerpt, Pittman explains what happened — and what didn’t — after a group of scientists known as the Science Review Team (SRT) found serious problems in research used to support regulatory policies involving panthers.

In 2003, the SRT released a report containing its verdict. As you might guess, it ripped apart Maehr’s work, piece by piece, and yes, they called him out by name. They didn’t label him a fraud, but they made it clear that Dr. Panther had done some pretty shady things.

Because they were scientists, they didn’t scream out their find­ings in impassioned prose. They were cool and calm—but there was no mistaking what they were saying.

“The conclusions that panthers prefer large forest patches and are reluctant to travel from forests are unreliable because the analyses excluded (without mention or rationale) a large fraction of the available data, ignored errors inherent in telemetry data, and did not rigorously compare used habitats to habitats avail­able to the radio-tagged panthers,” they wrote in their final re­port. “The conclusion that Everglades National Park and most of Big Cypress National Preserve are poor habitat for panthers is not scientifically supported.”

Naturally, they zeroed in on the 1995 paper that Maehr had written with Cox, the one that had become the basis for so many permitting decisions, not to mention subsequent Maehr papers. The notion that panthers wouldn’t cross an area of more than three hundred feet between forests despite data showing they crossed miles and miles of territory was, as one SRT member said later, “a very improbable conclusion.”

Making it worse, of course, was that Maehr had dumped so much data that didn’t jibe with his own theory, and didn’t dis­close that in the paper.

“They excluded animals that were out in the swampland and then came to the conclusion that panthers only used forest,” an SRT member explained to a reporter later.

At the time its report was released, the SRT’s findings seemed to hit like Thor’s hammer. This was an unprecedented slam against the author of most of the literature in a single scientific field. It was also a vindication for the little band of biologists who had been pointing out his deliberate errors.

But the dent this hammer made turned out to be a some­what shallow one.

Despite what the SRT said about him, Maehr didn’t get charged with fraud or even get a traffic ticket. He wasn’t pun­ished by his university. He faced no suspension, no reprimand, nothing. He didn’t have to give back all the money he’d raked in. He continued publishing scientific papers too. The only real changes were that he shifted his focus more to bears than pan­thers, and his publications tended to be in smaller, less presti­gious journals.

To McBride, that hardly seemed like an appropriate penalty for what Maehr did.

“What offends me is he’s still publishing,” McBride told me over lunch in 2007. “Science never punishes its own.”

Conservation Biology never retracted the 1995 paper. It’s still available online just as it appeared originally. There’s no cau­tionary note warning readers not to rely on its findings. Reed Noss said the amount of time that passed between publication and the SRT verdict—eight years—made it difficult to correct or retract.

Craig Pittman

I talked to Ivan Oransky about that and heard a different opinion. In 2010, Oransky, an award-winning health reporter and a journalism teacher at New York University, cofounded an online publication called Retraction Watch. The blog docu­ments and sometimes criticizes the retractions and corrections run by scientific journals, looking into instances of plagiarism, incompetence and outright fraud, not to mention identifying repeat offenders.

“Retractions are reserved for extreme cases,” he said. “If jour­nals retracted every paper that turned out to be wrong, they’d be retracting a million papers a year.”

The key to whether a retraction is warranted, Oransky said, is summed up in one word: fraud. If someone deliberately tried to mislead the journal’s readers, that’s something that merits re­tracting.

Even in cases of fraud, though, journal editors shrink from running a retraction, he said. One way they avoid it is by cit­ing the amount of time that’s passed since publication, as Noss did. Some editors won’t do anything about a paper that’s more than six years old, while others will run a retraction on papers twenty years old or older.

“It’s a hell of a convenient excuse, when really what it means is, ‘I didn’t want to deal with it,’” Oransky said. “Journals can do what they want to do—they’re not regulated. But I think [refusing to retract the paper] is an abdication of responsibility.”

Oransky was hesitant to give an opinion on whether the Maehr and Cox paper deserved a retraction, “but it sounds like the journal ought to do something,” he said.

For a paper so flawed, he suggested, Conservation Biology could post something on the paper called “An Expression of Concern” saying that its findings were debunked, and attach it so that no one could access the paper without first seeing the note about it.

“That’s the least they could do,” he said.

Excerpted from Cat Tale @ 2020 by Craig Pittman, used with permission by Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.

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