Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
André Knottnerus watched the rough footage of the Rambam broadcast
“What happened with Rambam, is extremely damaging.” At the same time, Maastricht emeritus professor André Knottnerus is not assuming the programme makers were deliberately malicious. Maybe it was a case of “ignorance, in combination with the pressure to score. But this does not make the damage done any less.”
The affair concerning the Rambam broadcast took off after Observant discovered the identity of the two UM professors - Fred Brouns and Rob Markus - who, although blurred, were depicted as malleable scientists. The Executive Board was informed about the (then still impending) broadcast, by Markus, but only took action after the publication in Observant. Rector Rianne Letschert first wanted to speak with “the professors concerned” and afterwards put their heads together “internally”, she said.
On behalf of Letschert, Knottnerus travelled with a small delegation to Amsterdam last week to view the raw footage. Representatives from production company CCCP and broadcasting company BNNVARA were also present.
Knottnerus: “I felt it was an important issue because of the intruding nature and the impact on the professors. Their integrity was being questioned, which is a grave matter. I hadn't seen the programme, which was an advantage, because I wanted to view the material with an open mind. Did the researchers tell a good story, are they credible, honest?”
The answer is yes. “There can be no doubt about the good intentions and the integrity of both of them. They indicate very often what science is all about: “Basing yourself on all the knowledge, not publishing selectively and acting independently. The interview with Markus could have ended after ten minutes, it was clear what he thought.”
He didn't know the main characters personally. “I have seen Rob now and again in the robes room, nothing more. I see myself as an external expert, I no longer work for Maastricht University.”
Knottnerus draws a parallel between science and the media. Just like researchers have to justify themselves on the basis of raw data – they are expected to produce results that are representative of that which they have investigated – the media should do the same. Is what you broadcast representative of the information that you have? A second point: more and more scientists are expected to make the underlying data available to the public. “There is a lot to be said for also doing the same with the raw footage of programmes such as Rambam, as long as it is not damaging to others.”
“The producers welcomed us; there was an overall feeling of ‘what has happened here’. I immediately reported my impressions. I only requested a rewind of a couple of passages: ‘how could this be interpreted?’”
He mainly knows Rambam from the discussion on their programme about hazing (in which case the broadcasting company made apologies). And even though the programme “sometimes draws attention to important matters, things do sometimes go wrong. When is it justified to use hidden cameras? Who makes that decision? Also when it comes to blurring – because you don't want people to be recognised – do realise: this is a profession. You don't want people who are victims of domestic violence to be recognised?”
The makers of Rambam are not good enough at their profession, was his conclusion. “You may say that the outside world won't recognise Maastricht University or the professors, but these days there is no difference between the inner and outer world. You people from Observant then did what you had to do, spotted a possible wrongdoing, felt it was relevant to investigate; because it could go two ways at that time.”
Knottnerus suspects that the programme makers felt that the finished story was representative of the whole interview. “I cannot otherwise imagine that you would do this to the researchers and yourself. But it should never have happened, it should have been reviewed by an expert before it was broadcast.” He or she could have informed them how things work in the world of science, about the methodology, the existing rules about agreements with subsidisers and sponsors, et cetera.
Take the remark made by Markus in the programme where he says that he can help ‘the energy drink representatives’ in setting up research with “as favourable as possible an effect of a certain drink on behaviour.” As if he wanted to say: ‘You ask, we execute’.
Knottnerus explains that such a sentence must absolutely be placed within its context, in addition to the fact that there must be understanding of the world of science. “Good research starts with an excellently phrased question based on a great deal of knowledge about the status of science and about the ingredients, for example, that are contained in an energy drink. It is exactly the point that Markus makes in the interview. If you think that research will not be favourable, then you won't do it, you cannot burden subsidisers, patients and test subjects with that.”
So never gamble on a stroke of luck. At the same time, as a researcher, you never know what the outcome will be beforehand, and even unfavourable results must always be published. “That uncertainty is part of it. Markus says that too.”
But what does Markus mean by an “as favourable as possible effect”? Knottnerus: “A good scientist knows how to formulate such a hypothesis, and to design the research in such a way that there is a considerable measure of probability that – when there is a favourable, let’s say positive effect – you will find that effect. That is completely different to fraudulently working towards unjustifiable positive results. If you don't understand that and as a programme maker choose to broadcast an incomplete story, such a quote can be conceived as something completely different.”
Where Knottnerus has no doubts about the integrity of the two UM scientists, emeritus professor of Nutrition Martijn Katan from Amsterdam seriously queried the statements made by Markus. Knottnerus on this: “I don't know how he viewed the material. It is important to me that BNNVARA, having seen all the material, says: ‘You are right’. Furthermore, I urge to have a public debate on research methods and selectivity in science and the media. As an Executive Board or aggrieved professors you could consider further steps, but that is up to them, there are advantages and disadvantages. No matter what, if it had happened to me, I would find it extremely serious. Integrity doesn’t come in degrees.”