May 31, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

You Can Trust a Scientist – Can’t You?

After the flap over the “missing link” Ida last week (05/19/2009), paleontologist Christopher Beard warned about how such stunts damage scientific credibility.  “The only thing we have going for us that Hollywood and politicians don’t is objectivity,” he told Science magazine.1  Can the public trust the objectivity of scientists as a class?  Do they get more credibility points than other groups of professionals?  Do the processes of scientific publication warrant a higher level of trust?
    A study reported on Science Daily may shake that trust.  “In the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE,2 Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh reports the first meta-analysis of surveys questioning scientists about their misbehaviours” (a meta-analysis is a study of the studies).  “The results suggest that altering or making up data is more frequent than previously estimated and might be particularly high in medical research,” the article began.  It says that the well-publicized cases of fraud “could be just the tip of the iceberg, because fraud and other more subtle forms of misconduct might be relatively frequent.
    Fanelli began her report with these unsettling words:

This pristine image of science is based on the theory that the scientific community is guided by norms including disinterestedness and organized scepticism, which are incompatible with misconduct.  Increasing evidence, however, suggests that known frauds are just the “tip of the iceberg”, and that many cases are never discovered.

She found only 2% who admitted to falsifying research, but many more – 34% – who admitted to other forms of scientific misconduct.  These include distorting data, fabricating data, plagiarism, and “cooking” the data – which Charles Babbage defined in 1830 as: “an art of various forms, the object of which is to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy.”   Some scientists remove anomalous data points, for instance, based on a gut feeling that they cannot be correct.
    Babbage’s remark reveals that scientific misconduct is nothing new.  The percentages of misconduct Fanelli found, however, show it is a bigger problem than often believed.  She explained why her findings are likely underestimates:

All the above estimates are calculated on the number of frauds that have been discovered and have reached the public domain.  This significantly underestimates the real frequency of misconduct, because data fabrication and falsification are rarely reported by whistleblowers (see Results), and are very hard to detect in the data.  Even when detected, misconduct is hard to prove, because the accused scientists could claim to have committed an innocent mistake.  Distinguishing intentional bias from error is obviously difficult, particularly when the falsification has been subtle, or the original data destroyed.  In many cases, therefore, only researchers know if they or their colleagues have wilfully distorted their data.

Instances of misconduct fall into the categories of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.  These, in turn, can affect data collection, test results, and interpretation of findings.  Misconduct can be subtle.  A scientist might intentionally omit publication of results, use a biased methodology, or mislead a reporter.  And these are only aspects of scientific misconduct dealing with intent to deceive.  What would the percentages be if unconscious biases, group pressure, and human fallibility (e.g., 05/04/2009) were factored in?


1.  Ann Gibbons, “Celebrity Fossil Primate: Missing Link or Weak Link?”, 05/19/2009), Science 29 May 2009: 324:5931, pp. 1124-1125, DOI: 10.1126/science.324_1124.
2.  Daniele Fanelli, “How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research?  A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data,” Public Library of Science One 4(5): e5738; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738.

Many of us have grown up with an unrealistic image of science.  The scientist is supposed to be the honest, objective, unbiased, sincere seeker of the truth in a white lab coat, using a scientific method (whatever that is) guaranteed to sift the kernel of empirical fact from the chaff of subjectivity.  And even if he or she fails, the scientific community, with its rigorous demands for PhD certification and its peer review process, catches any mistakes before publication.  Don’t be deceived.  Real scientists often wear denim and are as fallible as the rest of us.  The same goals of integrity should apply to any professional endeavor, whether theology, philosophy, political science, economics, art, or car repair.
    Real science is often rewarded according to what works.  It’s not an ultimate source of understanding.  If your model or equation gets you to the moon, great.  If your pill cures a disease, terrific.  Repeatability adds credibility.  Science is probably the best method civilization has devised for finding workable answers to physical questions.  When it comes to understanding the world, or ourselves, or our past, scientists (like other humans) often draw inferences that go far beyond the evidence (e.g., attempting to describe the “evolution of altruism,” 05/13/2009).  Scientists are often chained to paradigms.  Peer pressure and ingrained ideologies prevent them from straying outside the paradigm, or from even asking different questions than their peers consider worthwhile (e.g., 05/27/2009 on human evolution).  Add to that the temptations of money and prestige, and the clear liberal bias of the scientific institutions (05/18/2009, 12/02/2004) and it’s a wonder you can trust anything the scientific community says.
    But even in the most optimistic view of science (and science admittedly does have many practical successes in its win column), the practice of science is dead in the water without character.  Honesty, integrity, love of the truth: these are fundamental requirements for science.  Do you learn those things in science class?  Do you discover them with the scientific method?  Do you envision them as chance inventions of imaginary ape ancestors?  Obviously not.  Those things must be in place before you even begin following the desire to become a scientist.  You learn those things in church – specifically, in a church that teaches its children, teens and parents about a moral Creator who commanded, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
    True scientists must have the moral courage to stand alone against all their peers when they discover things that contradict the groupthink of their institutions.  Since the money-grubbing, religion-bashing, atheistic, politically liberal, Darwin-worshipping scientific institutions of today are almost uniformly allied against the Source of truth, do your part to help improve the statistics on scientific integrity.  Do your part to help scientists tune in to that inner voice of conscience.  Take a scientist to church.

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