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Unholy Science

Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science

by William Broad, by Nicholas Wade
Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, 256 pp., $14.95; $6.95 (paper)

Learned audiences smile happily when they hear the story of Einstein’s defiant response to Kaufmann. Walter Kaufmann was a professor of physics who had been measuring the relation between charge and mass in electrons when Einstein, a twenty-six-year-old employee of the Swiss patent office, published the special theory of relativity. Kaufmann declared the theory to be incompatible with his experimental findings. So much the worse for your ephemeral findings, Einstein replied—and for the limited theoretical vision that informs them. And then the happy ending: other experimenters produced findings that suited Einstein’s theory.

Learned audiences like the story because it reinforces faith in the creative power, not only of the unique Einstein, but of the scientific mind that he has come to symbolize. Such a mind is not slavishly chained to apparent facts. It not only discovers, it invents; it creates the maps that guide those who grub for bits of truth in the chaos of experience. Einstein’s haughty response to Kaufmann recalls Faust’s comment on his drudging assistant Wagner:

der immerfort an schalem Zeuge
   klebt
,
mit gier’ger Hand nach Schätzen
   gräbt,
und froh ist, wenn er Regenwürmer
   findet!1

I draw the moral in such exaggerated fashion to suggest a disturbing similarity between the daring that creates and the daring that fabricates, between the inventor and the deceiver—including the Great Deceiver to whom Faust turned at last in despair. Literary artists have been fascinated by the connection between creativity and deception—as in Bergman’s most recent film, Fanny and Alexander, and Calvino’s latest novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler—but scientists do not like to think about it. To invent theories and be disdainful of inconvenient evidence may be admirably bold and creative, but it must somehow be different from creating literary fictions.

Learned audiences smile nervously, or not at all, when they hear the story of Newton “fudging” the data that he offered in confirmation of his theories, or John Dalton selecting experimental findings that suited his theory of atomic weights, or Mendel offering numbers that fit his theory of heredity too perfectly to be an unimaginative count of yellow and green peas in a real garden. In such displays of bold genius we sense something unpleasantly analogous to recent scandals involving the deliberate faking of experimental results—like the young man at the Sloan-Kettering Institute who inked in the black patch he had predicted would appear on the skin of his experimental mouse; or the cancer researcher at Cornell who did a much more subtle faking of chemical analyses; or Cyril Burt (1883-1971), a leading British psychologist who published heaps of fabricated data to hold back the scholarly criticism and social revulsion that have overwhelmed IQ testing.

Now two respected science reporters, William Broad and Nicholas Wade, have written a book insisting that there is more than analogy here. There is virtual identity:

If history has been kind to scientists such as [Newton and Mendel], it is because [their] theories turned out to be correct. But for the moralist, no distinction can be made between an Isaac Newton who lied for truth and was right, and a Cyril Burt who lied for truth and was wrong.

Moralist” is the crucial term in this lofty declaration, a “moralist,” indeed, who brushes past the distinction between factual right and wrong to express his revulsion against the moral wrong of “lying.” That outlook may come as a surprise, for Broad and Wade are well known as factual reporters on recent work in science. Now they have ventured a bit into the history, sociology, and philosophy of science. But their most urgent impulse in the present book is to moralize, to denounce the sanctimonious pretensions of objectivity and dispassionate logic that they find in “the ideology of science.”

They are eager to prove that “betrayers of the truth” are not rare freaks but symptomatic figures, who suggest that something is rotten in the state of science. Objectivity is a myth; scientific method is a purely rhetorical device; replication is quite rare. Scientists do not check each other’s results but accept them on faith—unless accidental scandal exposes deception, in which case the scientific establishment hastens to insist that exceptional deceivers prove the rule of self-enforcing honesty in the profession as a whole. Thus the profession continues its profitable exploitation of public faith in science, which the authors consider the modern substitute for religion.

In the heat of this sermon, Broad and Wade fail to note the most obvious counterevidence: themselves, their own work. They have been hired by the most prestigious scientific journals to write the exposés that they summarize in their book. It is hard to accept their insistence that the scientific community does not police itself against fraud when one notes their persistent references to Science, the chief publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, not only for their own articles on recent scandals, but even for historical discussions of the “fudge factor” in Newton’s Principia and the wholesale fabrication of evidence by Cyril Burt.

Ignoring that the chief journal of the largest scientific organization has been actively and continuously helping to expose fraud in science, Broad and Wade make their case for habitual coverup by dwelling on the characteristic reactions of scientists when fraud is discovered in the work of close colleagues. The common reflexive reaction, they find, is refusal to acknowledge unpleasant truth. When public scandal makes further resistance impossible, scientists ease the criminal colleague out of their community as quietly and gently as possible, arguing that he must have been insane to attempt fraud in an enterprise where everyone checks everyone else’s claims of knowledge. Broad and Wade attack that customary reassurance with a variety of arguments; sometimes they are muddled and superficial, sometimes illuminating and persuasive—most ironically so when they have the unintended effect of undermining their own moralizing purpose.

They admit that “complete fabrication…is probably a rare event.” Burt’s reports of IQ studies that he never did, telling of assistants who never existed, are virtually their sole example, unless one counts the fabrication of the Piltdown man, which was probably intended as a hoax rather than a fraud. Mostly Broad and Wade tell about “fudging,” “trimming,” or “cooking” evidence to make it fit preconceived theories. They ignore the dismissal of evidence, as in Einstein’s reply to Kaufmann, for it is hard to call that conscious deception. Yet they acknowledge that the usual pattern begins with self-deception, which turns into deliberate faking only in extreme, very rare cases. What matters, they insist, is not those rare cases, but the social system of science and its attendant state of mind, which pushes scientists toward deception, whether of themselves or of others. Scientists are driven by careerist lust for fame (or tenure, at least). Disinterested yearning for objective truth is not the motive force of scientific research.

Evidently the authors expect us to be shocked, but I confess surprise only at their strident tone, their extreme, black-or-white vision. Is it really a dirty secret that selfish passions and irrational guesswork drive scientists along their careerist ways? I thought everyone knew that; all the scientists of my acquaintance seem to take it for granted. (Much the same, of course, is true of journalists, and of humanistic scholars.) The hard question is whether—or rather, to what extent—the social organization of science (or journalism, or humanistic scholarship) transmutes those brutish energies into disciplined inquiry by the community as a whole, and with how much objective knowledge as a result. Linked to that sociological question is a psychological puzzle: whether—or again, to what extent—the transmutation is internalized in the minds of scientists. To what extent are aggressive self-assertion and wild guesswork inwardly disciplined by the rules of public inquiry and rational discourse?

Philosophers, sociologists, and historians of science have offered a variety of responses to those questions, as Broad and Wade are vaguely aware. Their book offers potted sections on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science—so oversimplified and superficial that the naive reader will be completely misled, while the knowledgeable reader is inclined to throw up his hands in dismay. Max Weber, for example, is given a one-line, walk-on role, declaring unqualified faith in the inner honesty of scientists, as opposed to the faith of Durkheim and Robert Merton in the power of the scientific community to enforce purity of behavior if not of heart. Thus sociologists and philosophers are pictured as reinforcing the scientists’ complacent belief that they are uniquely honest, rational, objective. The innocent reader would never know that Max Weber’s classic essay, “Science as a Vocation,” portrays the torment of a mentality in continual conflict with itself, since striving for utterly rational objectivity is, in Weber’s view, a cruel disfigurement of our human essence. It is also dismaying to see Broad and Wade dismiss, in a “see also” footnote, the most careful and thorough analysis of scientific fraud in recent sociological scholarship.2

Nevertheless, I think that Robert Merton, the grand old man in the sociology of science, went too far in his angry reaction to the book, urging scholars not to buy it but to read it in the library if they feel obliged to see how bad it is.3 In my opinion the book has what the courts call redeeming social value. Superficiality and sensationalism may help popularizations serve useful purposes. My circle of acquaintances is limited; many people, scientists included, may share the mythic faith in scientists as uniquely dispassionate, rational, and objective people. In any case, whatever the state of public opinion on the virtuous or sinful nature of scientists, their fear of sin may be usefully reinforced if they have on their shelves a minatory compilation of the scandals that have erupted recently, especially in the biomedical sciences, at some of the most prestigious research centers.

Even the book’s shallow historical compilation of frauds charged against great scientists like Ptolemy, Newton, and Mendel may serve a useful purpose. Readers may be sufficiently intrigued to look into the scholarly references that Broad and Wade have solemnly tacked onto their little caricatures of historical argument. They cannot plead limitations of space in exculpation of their onesided sensationalism. Within three pages of the “see also” article by Harriet Zuckerman the curious reader will find a summary of historical counterarguments that Broad and Wade simply ignore. For example, it is anachronistic to use twentieth-century standards of statistical reporting and analysis to make charges against Dalton and Mendel.

Nevertheless, there is special reason to be forgiving of such faults, for this peculiarly one-sided, moralizing book points urgently toward an important problem that is usually ignored, not only in popularizations but also in the scholarly literature. As dullness of sight can heighten sensitivity of touch or hearing, the authors’ obsession with inauthenticity, with phoniness, has enhanced their attention to the problem of the persona and the person, the outward role and the inner self.

Scholars have reproached Broad and Wade for insensitive lumping of plagiarism with fabrication—and their further tendency to lump all degrees and kinds of fabrication—in their moralizing eagerness to inflate the magnitude of “fraud and deceit in the halls of science.” And they deserve reproach, if one’s central concern is the reliability of scientific knowledge and the process by which it is improved or spoiled. From that point of view, plagiarism is a peccadillo compared to the mortal sin of fabrication. Knowledge of cancer may be advanced by a plagiarized report of new evidence; it is gravely damaged by fabricated evidence, whether the claim of authorship is authentic or phony.

Broad and Wade are largely indifferent to such distinctions, for they care rather little about the content of science. Their minds are focused on scientists as people. They are obsessed with the problem of personal authenticity, of really being what one pretends to be. They are even disgusted by the mask of dispassionate objectivity and rationality that scientists put on when they write up articles that are neither plagiarized nor fabricated. In short, they sense a kinship between the extremely few scientists who have been caught faking and the great majority who have successfully maintained an appearance of rationality and objectivity. Time and again they seem on the verge of shouting: “You’re all a bunch of phonies!”

A number of literary artists have had a similar obsession with the problem of authenticity in the creative process, with the relation between the author’s inner self and his public mask, with the resemblance to the theater, where creation and deception are obviously similar. Think what Melville or Mark Twain, Thomas Mann or Nabokov, or most recently Italo Calvino, would have done with the tale of Elias A.K. Alsabti. He was a confidence man who came from Jordan, pretending royal blood and academic degrees, and made a brief, dazzling career in American cancer research. His favorite trick was quite simple. He would copy an article from one scientific journal and submit it to another, with his name substituted for that of the authentic creator. There are so many medical journals—a British editorial on the Alsabti scandal estimated 8,000—and they publish so much trivial, repetitive, and otherwise ephemeral stuff that Alsabti had little reason to fear detection if he had been modest or restrained. But he dared too much, in this respect resembling a creative person.

He not only stole authentic work, he faked data, and he published so many plagiarisms so rapidly that one victim found himself scooped by his own article. (Alsabti had stolen it in typescript and got it to a journal that published faster than the one chosen by the author himself.) Quietly eased out of one institution, he managed to wangle a position at another, and so on through a rising scale of prestige, until a major public scandal erupted about him while he was at the University of Virginia. That was the end, or seemed to be. Sneering at his gullible victims (they had assumed he was of royal blood simply because he had a crest on his stationery), correcting errors in newspaper stories (his Cadillac was white; he had sold the yellow one), threatening lawsuits against his detractors, Alsabti disappeared from public view in 1980. Chances are, as Broad and Wade conjecture, he changed his name and is now making a new career in the world’s premier land of opportunity for medicine men on the make.

Unfortunately, Broad and Wade lack the sardonic imagination of Mark Twain or Italo Calvino. They fail to see Alsabti’s manic approach to creativity, his wild daring to stand out from the mass. They emphasize how much safer he would have been had he been content with mediocrity. Certainly they have an important sociological point: the gray mediocrity of most scientific publications offers protective coloration to mediocre scientists, whether honest or (moderately) dishonest. To deprive the dishonest of their hiding place, Broad and Wade propose a purge of mediocrity in science. They think a reduction of government subsidies will significantly reduce superfluous publications, and thus mediocrity, and thus dishonesty.

Can they possibly believe that? Have they not looked at humanistic scholarship? It gets minuscule subsidies from the government, but careerism and mediocrity and (moderate) dishonesty are probably as common among humanistic churchmice as among scientific fat cats. Indeed, if Broad and Wade considered their own field of journalism, they would note that Grub Street long ago set the pattern that scholars and scientists have belatedly adapted to their needs to make careers through publishing. Surely neither preaching nor purging will reverse these great tides of modern hackwork, within which selfeffacing plagiarists of modest ambition can safely feed upon the great majority of honest mediocrities.

Where genuinely creative people are inventing great theories or making major discoveries, gray anonymity gives way to vivid individuality, and problems of honesty assume very different forms from the plagiarism or the fudging that no one will notice because no one will care. James Watson told an exemplary tale of genuine creativity and its moral problems in his fascinating confession, The Double Helix. He boasted of the little deceptions that attended his irrational plunge into a problem he hardly, understood; he told how he managed to get Rosalind Franklin’s data without letting her know that they were the key to the great puzzle of DNA structure, and he grinned as he recalled the accusations of dishonesty that this move brought upon him. He can afford to grin, for he saw the way to the Nobel prize and “Rosy” did not, in his version of the story.

Broad and Wade entirely ignore this impressive attempt by a great scientist to confess the mixture of passions and guesswork, including elements of deception, that are involved in the creative process. I suppose they ignore it because it will not fit their black-or-white categories, their either/or division of personality into honest or dishonest, objective or subjective. They prefer to tell of Antony Hewish, who took sole possession of a Nobel prize that should have been shared with Jocelyn Bell. She established the existence of the pulsar while working on a different matter under Hewish’s direction. When eminent astronomers protested the theft of credit from Bell, Hewish added male chauvinist insult to exploitation: “Jocelyn was a jolly good girl but she was just doing her job. She noticed this source was doing this thing. If she hadn’t noticed it, it would have been negligent.” Such brute refusal of any self-examination fits the stark portrait of bullheaded hypocrisy that Broad and Wade love to paint of scientists. (Incidentally, they neglect to note the persistent evidence of exploitation to which women scientists have long been subjected.)4

The ultimate irony of this present-or-absent, black-or-white view of scientific rationality, objectivity, and dispassionate honesty is its unwitting confinement within the very ideology that Broad and Wade are intent on denouncing. A more complex approach would have taken them into the really interesting problems of honesty, which come up when the creative urge trembles on the dangerous edge of self-deceit, fearing the most common fate: honest mediocrity. Thus they might have perceived the analogy between the scientific and the literary forms of imagination. Both are fictive in the way they work, yet claim to arrive at truth. To be sure, the scientist’s ethos requires him to be more repressive of the self when he moves from fictive imagining to proof and asks external realities to chastise and correct his fictive constructs. Hence there is a far greater tendency in the scientific literature for the inner self to be obscured by a mask of objectivity and rationality.

Broad and Wade are indignant at that style of symbolic presentation. I read their indignation as a yearning for complete transparency of the inner person or self, for a completely clear logic in its mode of thinking, for a logic of private thought that would mirror the public rules of rational discourse and empirical testing. They are yearning for an impossibly simple “honesty.” Their shouts of “fraud and deceit” at the messy incongruities involved in creating knowledge strike me as an unwitting confession of attachment to the simplistic ideology of science that they are ostensibly denouncing.

Long ago the Donatists insisted that only pure priests can perform effective sacraments. That may seem obviously logical: only holy agents can achieve holy effects. But it is logical only within the frame of faith in the supernatural realm of holy sacraments. The real world is much messier and more interesting, and cruel to those who yearn for holiness.

Letters

Fraud and Science January 19, 1984

Fraud and Science January 19, 1984

  1. 1

    In the Bayard Taylor (Modern Library) translation:

    whose choice is

    To stick in shallow trash forever-

    more.

    Who digs with eager hand for

    buried ore,

    And, when he finds an angleworm

    rejoices!

  2. 2

    Harriet Zuckerman, “Deviant Behavior and Social Control in Science,” in Deviance and Social Change, edited by Edward Sagarin (Sage, 1977), pp. 87-138.

  3. 3

    Reported in The Washington Post Book World, February 20, 1983.

  4. 4

    See Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and strategies to 1940 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).

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