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Fraud and Science

In response to:

Unholy Science from the October 13, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

David Joravsky’s review of our book, Betrayers of the Truth [NYR, October 13], was a ragbag of malevolence, misrepresentation and humbug. It would be scarcely worth responding to, except that it exemplifies a common type of review, one that reflects academic territoriality at its dreariest.

The authors of these reviews barely conceal their sense of affront that mere journalists have presumed to trespass on their carefully demarcated turf. They typically begin with some labored affectation of scholarship, usually Germanic, such as a digression on Kant. Your down-market reviewer could only manage three lines of Goethe on earthworms, a subject not very copiously treated in our book. Such displays are not as irrelevant as they may seem to the innocent reader. They serve to announce that those about to be set upon are outside the pale, hence their arguments need not be taken seriously and they can be sneered at with a license that would never be employed against a colleague.

Joravsky, in the usual mode of this type of reviewer, does not correctly describe the central theme of our book, so we will briefly allude to it here. We start from the observation that scientific fraud is almost never brought to light by the internal checking machanisms of science. This is a point of some significance because a) scientific authorities have always claimed that science is a self-correcting system by virtue of these checking mechanisms; and b) if the checking mechanisms cannot even detect gross fraud, how well do they perform their normal function of maintaining quality control and standards?

The first substantive point of Joravsky’s review, after he has plodded through Goethe and the earthworms, is that the articles we previously wrote about fraud cases in Science magazine are proof, contrary to our thesis, that the scientific community does indeed police itself against fraud. Joravsky evidently believes it was our articles that brought the frauds to light. Even if this had been the case, it would still uphold our basic thesis, that the formal checking mechanisms fail to do so. It is hard to see how Joravsky could have failed to comprehend so basic and frequently articulated a point of our book.

The rest of his review is equally beside the point. He seems to believe our book is, or should have been, about scientists’ inner mental processes and questions of creativity, a matter that lay entirely outside our scope. He repeatedly simplifies our positions to the point of travesty while accusing us, in the last-resort rhetoric of the affronted pedant, of having written a black-and-white book.

His vapid dismissal of scientific deception as unsurprising again misses the point of our book, that fraud is an interesting window through which to examine science at work. Yet the phenomenon itself is not so inconsequential. One third of all the pesticides now on the market were approved on the basis of safety tests now known to have been falsified. Even though many academic frauds may have little practical import, their effect on the public image of science could be disastrous.

Like other reviewers Joravsky tries to retell our story about Elias Alsabti but prefaces his brutalization of it by commenting that Melville or Mark Twain would have told it, oh, so much better than we do. “It is also dismaying,” he drones, that we dismiss in a ‘see also’ footnote “the most careful and thorough analysis of scientific fraud in recent sociological scholarship.” Had he read the work in question, or understood how completely it differed from the conclusions of the book he was supposed to be reviewing, Joravsky might have suspected a veiled putdown in the ‘see also’, but subtlety is not this windbag’s bag.

Joravsky freely accuses us, without adducing the slightest evidence, of lack of scholarship, yet his standards of accuracy are as slovenly as his objectivity is exiguous. He asserts that the sociologist Robert Merton “urged scholars not to buy (our book) but to read it in the library if they feel obliged to see how bad it is.” But the words “if they feel obliged to see how bad it is” are a fabrication of Joravsky’s, wholly absent from the source he cites. Merton strongly disagrees with our book, but it’s Joravsky who smears the disagreement into a vilification.

Unlike certain academics who cultivate a patch so small that no outsider will dare intrude, we in our book have cut across several disciplines. We assert that science works quite differently from how scientists, historians, philosophers and sociologists of science generally suppose. We certainly expected so broad a thesis to be heavily criticised, and it surely presented a large enough target. What has surprised us is that the Joravsky type critics have preferred noisily to demolish straw men of their own manufacture than to tackle our premises.

On the other hand, the working scientists from whom we have heard tell us they like the book. They recognise that it addresses aspects of the scientific enterprise that have troubled them too. Since its publication last January, new cases of fraud have emerged at the rate of about one a month, all serving to corroborate our basic analysis.

We believe the book presents, through the perspective of fraud, a novel and useful description of the practice of everyday science. We hope that your readers, whether or not in the manner of Merton’s advice, will test the claim for themselves.

As for your reviewer, what can we say but “Mit der Dummheit Kämpfen Götter selbst yergebens.”

William J. Broad

Nicholas Wade

New York City

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