Often in science debates rage between factions, some with political or financial agendas, some with preconceived notions and biases, others based on misconceptions and a failure to accept the evidence over theory. Think global warming, relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, cold fusion, evolutionary psychology and even as I blogged here previously striped nanotechnology.

The arguments are rarely settled quickly. Sometimes a paradigm shift arises, as was the case with plate tectonic theory and ultimately the concept becomes the new scientific norm, the standard model as it were. We live in interesting and yet frustrating times when certain outmoded theories persist or those agendas foist on us deceived wisdom in the case of climate change denialism. In some cases it is less about wisdom and wonder and more about bewilderment...

I recently wrote about a new biometric technology based on magnetic resonance imaging and spoke at some length with the principal investigator undertaking the research about the technique itself and imaging in general. In passing, I mentioned the stripy nanoparticles debate and he brought to my attention a somewhat more contentious discovery he had made with regard to imaging of samples in cell biology.
It has got me intrigued and I cannot quite fathom what has been going on in this area of science for so many years if what he claims is true actually is so.

I don't intend to name names here and wish to avoid embroiling any of the research journals involved in an in-depth trawling suffice to say that my contact has evidence to suggest that in various areas of cell biology researchers have for years being using algorithms to assess cells on the micrograph images but getting the same results even if there are no actual cells in the image. To mix a metaphor or three it seems to be the microscopic equivalent of the emperor's new clothes, with some biological Peeping Tom's looking for the ruler's fine togs and seeing instead the bare, naked Lady Godiva.

Now, to stretch the metaphor literally and laterally still further my contact, as a would-be whistleblower, may be more akin to the legendary King Canute attempting to turn back the tide. However, Canute knew he could not turn the tide and drowned revealing to his subjects that he was not in fact omnipotent. The tide in question being, of course, the thousands of papers published over many years in peer-reviewed scientific journals that allegedly rely on data that simply isn't there.

My contact discovered the scientific flaw having started out testing face-recognition software and finding that if a seemingly "blank" area of an image, without a face, was fed into the programs oftentimes they would somehow recognise a face nevertheless. He extended his experiments to data from the literature on protein localisation and used that scientific field's algorithms to process the images but having first removed the parts of the images in which the proteins (i.e. the areas with cells in them) from the images. He saw the same startling effect:
the software could recognise cells in the data even when the data about the cells had been removed.

Now, there is the possibility that my contact is entirely mistaken in his observation and that the thousands of papers published in this area remain valid, but my scouring of his papers and a view of the correspondence that has taken place over the years between him other researchers and the editors of the journals involved (he has published in peer-reviewed, although slightly less prominent publications) would suggest that he is no Peeping Tom and that not only is the emperor wearing no new clothes but there is no emperor...

David Bradley blogs at http://www.sciencebase.com and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".