The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

When Scientists Sin

published July 2010
Fraud, deception and lies in research reveal
how science is (mostly) self-correcting
magazine cover

In his 1974 commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology, Nobel laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman articulated the foundation of scientific integrity: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool… After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”

Unfortunately, says Feynman’s Caltech colleague David Goodstein in his new book On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Takes from the Front Lines of Science, some scientists do try to fool their colleagues, and believing that everyone is conventionally honest may make a person more likely to be duped by deliberate fraud. Nature may be subtle, but she does not intentionally lie. People do. Why some scientists lie is what Goodstein wants to understand. He begins by debunking myths about science such as:

  • “A scientist should never be motivated to do science for personal gain, advancement or other rewards.”
  • “Scientists should always be objective and impartial when gathering data.”
  • “Scientists must never believe dogmatically in an idea or use rhetorical exaggeration in promoting it.”
  • “Scientists should never permit their judgments to be affected by authority.” These and many other maxims just do not reflect how science works in practice.

Knowing that scientists are highly motivated by status and rewards, that they are no more objective than professionals in other fields, that they can dogmatically defend an idea no less vehemently than ideologues and that they can fall sway to the pull of authority allows us to understand that, in Goodstein’s assessment, “injecting falsehoods into the body of science is rarely, if ever, the purpose of those who perpetrate fraud. They almost always believe that they are injecting a truth into the scientific record.” Goodstein should know because his job as the vice provost of Caltech was to investigate allegations of scientific misconduct. From his investigations Goodstein found three risk factors present in nearly all cases of scientific fraud. The perpetrators, he writes,

  1. Were under career pressure;
  2. Knew, or thought they knew, what the answer to the problem they were considering would turn out to be if they went to all the trouble of doing the work properly; and
  3. Were working in a field where individual experiments are not expected to be precisely reproducible.

To detect fraud, we must first define it, and Goodstein does: “Research misconduct is defined as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” Next there must “be significant departure from accepted practices of the scientific community.” Then, the misconduct must be “committed intentionally, or knowingly, or in reckless disregard of accepted practices,” and finally, as in any court of law, the fraud charge must be proved by a preponderance of evidence.

Clear-cut cases of fraud include the twin studies of British psychologist Cyril L. Burt (who faked so many twins that he had to fabricate additional twin researchers), the Sloan-Kettering Institute cancer researcher William Summerlin’s experiments on inducing healthy black skin grafts on white mice (which he was caught enhancing with a black felt-tipped pen), physicist Victor Ninov’s alleged discovery of element 118 (predicted by others so he faked data for its existence), and of course the famous Piltdown Man hoax (which turned out to be the jaw of an orangutan dyed to look old). Other cases are not so clear. Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons’s “discovery” of cold fusion, Goodstein concludes, was most likely a case of scientists who “convince themselves that they are in the possession of knowledge that does not in fact exist.” This self-deception is distinctly different from deliberate deception. So some scientists sin, it’s true. Given the fiercely competitive nature of research funding and the hardscrabble intensity of scientific status seeking, it is surprising that fraud isn’t more rampant. The reason that it is so rare (compared with, say, corruption in politics) is that science is designed to detect deception (of one’s self and others) through colleague collaboration, graduate student mentoring, peer review, experimental corroboration and results replication. The general environment of openness and honesty, though mythic in its idealized form, nonetheless exists and in the long run weeds out the cheats and exposes frauds and hoaxes, as history has demonstrated.

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14 Comments to “When Scientists Sin”

  1. Steve Oregon Says:

    What a whopper this is.
    “Given the fiercely competitive nature of research funding and the hardscrabble intensity of scientific status seeking, it is surprising that fraud isn’t more rampant.”

    Given how rampant the sinning is it’s surprising that so many fail to recognize how bad it is. Or worse how many deliberately obscure the problem.
    The level of corruption in academia has grown to not only that of politics but has been in part corrupted by politics. That and the left wing agenda where the intention always justifies the means.
    With the political activist parasite fully metastasized throughout much of science and academia deception is now an acceptable weapon. Even viewed as necessary to advance the cause. If that’s what it takes so be it.

    This use of deception and embellishment is found throughout colleague collaboration, graduate student mentoring, peer review, experimental corroboration and results replication.

    Then we have distribution through publications and blogs where openness and honesty have been replaced with censoring and obstruction.

    What would be the weeding out of cheats, frauds and hoaxes is now a process of rewarding the biggest offenders.

    I offer as example the funny business by Jane Lubchenco and her Ocean dead zone/AGW hoax & ocean acidification nonsense. Along with who distributes, while censoring discussion, all things fabricated.

  2. JM Adams Says:

    “Funny business” is generally a multi-party platform.

  3. Frank Landry Says:

    Having just read, “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes & Eric M. Conway, I find Steve Oregon’s July 7th comment,”That and the left wing agenda where the intention always justifies the means.” a bit mystifying given the Reagan and Bush administration tendency to request (order) changes to the wording of peer-reviewed reports to make them read more in line with administration policy without bothering to alert the peer review committees whose members strongly objected to having their names published in a report whose misleading conclusions now were no longer theirs.

  4. Bad Boy Says:

    As a researcher – and a human being, I have some experience with ‘fooling myself’ – luckily for me no major gaff has made it into print so far. Alas, some minor ones have.
    The humiliation from errors which made it into print motivates me to be careful what I report.

    Still, errors creep in.

    Fortunately, science is a community effort and not an individual one and a key element of the game is to scrutinize each other’s work. Scientists get ‘brownie points’ for finding other’s errors. So I am always curious about those who intentionally or negligently introduce errors into their publications – do they really think that they’ll never be caught? Do they think no one is looking? If no one is looking at your research then you must not be doing anything interesting – so why bother lying?

    If you are doing interesting work it will be reviewed, critiqued and maybe viciously attacked. Only after it survives such onslaughts will people other than you begin to accept it.

    I take comfort knowing that as long as the bulk of the community continues to scrutinize and look for faults, errors (intentional or not) will only side-track scientific progress for a time. Eventually, the train gets back on track.
    Admittedly, sometimes, when one camp gets so entrenched in the community, it resists work in conflict with the views held by the dominant camp (perhaps to the point of inhibiting the publication of that work). This delays getting back on track for a time. But the scientific effort is also multi-generational – awaiting a time that that camp does not dominate (it has been said scientific revolutions occur when one generation retires or dies off).
    The history of Physics provides numerous examples of ideas waiting for the ‘right generation’ to take hold.

    When we look at how science works we often forget to consider the “checks and balances” built into the system which compensate for humanity’s petty foibles. For this reason we somehow believe in an idealistic scientist super-human who (as an individual) rises above these foibles. Then when we are confronted with the reality of scientist’s imperfections, we may be disillusioned.

    Whenever I think upon these things, I always recall my graduate advisor’s words: Remember, scientists are people, too!

  5. Bill George Says:

    Adding to perpetrators is the media – where patience is non-existent and thrives on the instantaneous.
    (“Instant gratification takes too long”)
    The media and the general public is a feedback loop which on occasion, will snare a few scientists to rush at premature conclusions.

    Most often real science is incremental: a slow process when achieving success is usually preceded by failure and countless mistakes. This is antithetical to the media and masses who subsist on fast food and inadequate studies.

  6. Nathan Pen Says:

    “Given the fiercely competitive nature of research funding and the hardscrabble intensity of scientific status seeking, it is surprising that fraud isn’t more rampant.”

    Global Warming anyone?

  7. David H. Eisenberg Says:

    Here’s why it happens. Scientists are (drumroll) people and subject to the same failings as everyone else. That’s why we want them to replicate experiments before we get too excited.

  8. Daniel Michigan Says:

    Regarding global warming, I think the second factor of scientific fraud is most applicable:

    2.Knew, or thought they knew, what the answer to the problem they were considering would turn out to be if they went to all the trouble of doing the work properly

    On the left, people see the pollution caused by human activity and think they know that the environment is being hurt. On the right, people think that anything they do could not possibly be wrong.

  9. Spoony Quine Says:

    You know, I’m soon to be writing about the scientific process on my website, and this very thing. Do scientists fake data and mess up? Yes, all the time!

    So, how do we sort it out? I think it must come from all the different scientists throughout the world, with varying interests, working on the same problem. After all, why do most hypotheses get discredited? Because most experiments to test for them don’t find anything, even if the first ones do.

    In that perspective, I figure that the problem can’t be holding science back that badly. Besides, there are so many scientists who are looking for something and never find it because they ARE trying to be objective.

    For example, Susan Blackmore started her career trying to prove that psychic phenomena exist, after an amazing ‘astral trip’ around the world. She kept finding nothing, saying, ‘well, maybe if I try something else….’ It took her decades until she found that our own brains are more than enough to explain these phenomena, and now she studies how people’s conscious perception works.

  10. Outtodoubt Says:

    It’s too bad that most have an artificial idea of scientists being sort of know it alls, and that scientists expect everyone to just accept what they say. With this idea in the public’s head it is easy for them to almost feel vindicated when some scientist somewhere on some project gets something wrong. They stand up and yell, “Ha! science was wrong this whole time; I knew it!” As with many other misconceptions among the average population the only way to stop these feelings. Unfortunately the only people that can educate the public are the same people that the public doesn’t trust in the first place. Definition of irony?

  11. Outtodoubt Says:

    Add in “the only way to stop these feelings is to educate the public.” Sorry it’s late.

  12. Darrell Marley Says:

    Dear Spoony Quine,
    If you intend to be a science writer, as opposed to a writer about science, I’d suggest avoiding hyperbole like, “Yes, All the time!”. As a nation we suffer a dearth of science writers, and an excess of writers about science.

  13. Cristian Says:

    I think that you should update your opinion on cold fusion. True the subject is complicated in many ways scientifically, politically, psychologically and clearly Fleischmann and Pons made  many mistakes specially in the way they announced the results of their research. I am physicist and think that the scientist first law should be “nature always has the last word” and in this case soon after cold fusion was debunked it started to become evident that something real was there. I mean real scientist, not just delusional conspiracy theories nuts, were replicating some of Fleischmann and Pons results. Now after more than 20 year it is clear that the effect is real. It is also clear that the originally proposed cause is incorrect (2 deuterium atoms fusion). Some more plausible theoretical explanations have by now being proposed that do not break any known physical laws they can now be studied and proven correct or not.

  14. Greg Says:

    And while he’s at it, he needs to update his opinion on creationism.

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