Stem cell debate highlights difficulty of judging contrarian research

Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

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The strangest and most gripping story in science during the past few weeks has been the Japanese and Boston stem-cell papers, in which researchers appeared to show that mature cells could be transformed into powerful stem cells with a startlingly simple method.

As soon as they were published in Nature, the discovery was greeted with amazement, excitement, and also a heavy dose of skepticism. Last week researchers seemed to be backing away, with four of the co-authors agreeing to consider a retraction. But as of now, the papers stand, and nobody wants to dismiss a technique that really could be a breakthrough.

The difficulty of sorting out visionary ideas from crackpot ones — or even outright fraud — has long been part of science, especially at the cutting edge.

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