Why a Norwegian cancer researcher deserves a tongue-lashing from Oprah.

The cover of A Million Little Pieces. Credit: Doubleday

Last week, in a moment sure to go down in daytime-television history (along with Tom Cruise jumping on the couch declaring his love for Katie Homes), Oprah Winfrey blasted novelist James Frey into a million little pieces.

“I feel that you betrayed millions of readers,” Winfrey scolded.

As everyone who comes out from under a rock to follow the news scandal du jour knows, Frey fabricated and exaggerated large parts of his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces. The book lounged atop the New York Times best-seller list after Oprah featured it on her book club. When The Smoking Gun published accusations that Frey had lied, Oprah first defended the book, saying the essence of it was still valid. But after she had some time to think—and sort through angry e-mails from fans—Oprah got pissed.

While this literary scandal brewed in front of millions of viewers, a quieter scandal unfolded in the realm of science. Over in Scandinavia, Norwegian Radium Hospital researcher Jon Sudbø admitted to fabricating research that concluded long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs is effective in preventing oral cancer. Sudbø didn’t just twist his data. He didn’t just use faulty analysis. He definitely didn’t retrieve the wrong stem cell lines from MizMedi Hospital. He just made it up—all of it. He pulled data about over 900 research subjects right out of the dark, Norwegian air. And if Oprah wants to lash out at someone, she should get on his case now.

Let’s examine the comparative problems between James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Jon Sudbø‘s “Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the risk of oral cancer: a nested case-control study,” published in the October 7th, 2005 issue of the prestigious medical journal Lancet.

Alleged Medical Drug Use

Frey claimed that he had root canals without the use of novocaine or any other kind of painkiller. He has since admitted that he does not clearly recall this surgery. This is pretty fishy, but it doesn’t compare to the fishiness of the drug use alleged by Sudbø. The disgraced researcher asserted that of his 908 subjects, 29% of them had used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. That’s 263 people using NSAIDs. And how many of them actually used NSAIDs? Zero. Why? Because he made them up.

Alleged Non-Medical Drug Use

Frey had some pretty spurious claims regarding his recreational drug habits. He wrote about setting a county Breathalyzer record: 0.36% blood alcohol content. He really blew a comparatively paltry 0.21, a measly two times the legal limit for driving under the influence. He also claimed to have been arrested for narcotics possession on several different occasions. His record is clear of any such charges.

Those drug exaggerations are impressive; however Sudbø claims 79% of his subjects, 722 people, used alcohol. As little as they might have been drinking, that has to add up to a greater total amount of phantom alcohol in the blood than Frey’s measly exaggeration. Sudbø also states in his methodology that he only sought out heavy smokers. He said that all 908 subjects had at least 15 cigarettes per day—a total consumption of 22,500 cigarettes, per day, between all the “volunteers.” Are’t readers of the Lancet feeling betrayed? Shouldn’t someone stand for their betrayal? What better arbiter and bastion of moral integrity to take up the cause than Oprah?

Timing Is Everything

The misuse of time in both of these documents is absurd, but which is worse: stretching two hours of jail time to 87 days, or creating 908 lifetimes of smoking and claiming to have interrupted these lifetimes every five years for an interview to discuss “long-term use of NSAIDs” when there was actually no term use at all, or interviews, for that matter?

And Oprah, you thought it was such a lovely, heartbreaking, perfectly literary coincidence that Frey’s girlfriend killed herself on the exact day that he got out of jail. You must have been so disappointed when you found out this poetic concurrence was false. Well, Sudbø can outdo Frey on suspicious coincidences, too: In the Lancet paper, out of the 908 subjects, 250 had the same birthday. What are the chances of that happening? My combinatorics are pretty shoddy these days, but I’d say it’s awfully small.


Frey was able to share the blame with his publisher, Nan Talese, who admitted she didn’t fact-check his book completely. Sudbø, on the other hand, releases everyone who funded his experiment from any responsibility.

“The sponsors of the study had no role in study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, writing of the report, or the decision to submit the paper for publication,” he wrote in the fabricated study, itself. “The corresponding author had full access to all the data in the study and had final responsibility for the decision to submit for publication.”

Therefore, all of the blame lies squarely on Sudbø—there was no backup and there were no fact-checkers. Sudbø is an outright fraud, Oprah, but your embarrassment at recommending Frey’s book to your legions of acolytes keeps you from seeing the true scandal of January, 2006.

So, Oprah, take this as a cue to refocus your considerable rage at Jon Sudbø. He truly deserves your wrath. People may connect with memoirs emotionally, and the readers of A Million Little Pieces may feel betrayed, but at least Frey’s book won’t cause anyone to take fruitless precautions to prevent oral cancer. Sudbø‘s crime is a grave miscarriage of science, the intellectual search for truth.

So go to Norway, Oprah, and slap this dishonest professor silly. Or else we may have to turn Kenneth Starr on him, and I wouldn’t wish that on the most dishonest of scientists.

(sources: The Smoking Gun, Lancet, Guardian, Wikipedia, ABC, Reuters, The Scientist)

Originally published February 3, 2006


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