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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

Fraud in Science

Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer writes and presents a weekly science column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.

The columns, which have the umbrella title Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science, are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.

Recorded 23 June 2003

Host: The name Jayson Blair will live in journalistic infamy. He's the New York Times reporter who fabricated dozens of stories for that newspaper. But such deception doesn't just appear in newspapers — and that's dangerous, says science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer.

Robert J. Sawyer: It's almost beyond belief that Jayson Blair's flagrant deception went undetected for so long, especially at what many used to consider the finest newspaper in the world. I mean, shouldn't there be mechanisms in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening?

Actually, there are: big newspapers and magazines employ "fact checkers" to minimize the number of errors that get published. But that safety net failed woefully in case of Jayson Blair. Why? Because fact checkers are there only to catch accidental slip ups, not deliberate deception.

The same is true in the world of science: a process called "peer review," in which anonymous experts read through and comment on papers submitted to scientific journals, is supposed to catch errors in fact and logic.

What they don't catch well, though, is deliberate deception, and, sadly, that seems to be rampant in science these days. Researchers make up data, lie about results, and fudge the facts.

Why? Are they crazy? No — but the are desperate. Academic tenure is awarded based in part on a scientist's publishing record — if you don't publish papers, you lose job security. And funding bodies are biased toward giving grants to those whose work is showing positive results: an honest negative result may mean your money disappears; a dishonest positive result can help keep the cheques coming in.

Things are so bad that Denmark has struck a Committee on Scientific Dishonesty. It recently ruled that the surprise bestselling book The Skeptical Environmentalist by Björn Lomberg, which claimed that global warming was a myth, was "clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice" and accused the author of "systematic one-sidedness in the choice of data and line of argument."

Maybe that's forgivable; we all pick and choose data to support our positions. But what about when the data has been completely made up? Earlier this year, Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs fired wunderkind Hendrik Schön, whose dozens of breakthrough papers had put him on a fast track to a Nobel Prize.

A special committee found dishonesty in 17 of Schön's 25 most-recent papers, most of which had appeared in the respected journals Science and Nature. The thing that gave Shön away was simply the sloppiness with which he carried out his deceptions: he used the same graph in three different papers to illustrate three different things, and an attentive reader noticed. Shön's work had been in cutting-edge fields such as nanotechnology and advanced computer circuitry; he'd claimed to have developed a single-molecule transistor — which would have been a massive breakthrough ... except it never happened.

Also recently fired: Victor Ninov of California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. There are only 92 naturally occurring elements in nature, but Ninov claimed to have produced two new ones, dubbed elements 116 and 118. A five-month investigation led to the conclusion that the results were fraudulent.

Now, perhaps only scientists care about nanotechnology and exotic elements. But fraud goes even further, affecting our health care. In February 2003, a previously published paper was disowned by the New England Journal of Medicine after it was found that the signatures of doctors who supposedly vetted the data had been forged. That paper had been about a risky medical procedure: deliberately inducing a heart attack to shrink the heart's central wall when it has become so stiff that it keeps blood from flowing easily.

Although stories of fraud in science don't get nearly as much press as do cases of journalistic wrongdoing, they can be far more damaging.

Simple peer-review just isn't sufficient for catching fraud; we may have to begin requiring actual replication of experiments by third parties before results can be published. Also, the scientific community needs a code of ethics, and the equivalent of disbarment for those who violate its principals.

After all, lives are at stake.

I'm Robert J. Sawyer.

More Good Reading

Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer

Rob's novel Frameshift, which deals with fraud in science

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