Scientists Behaving Badly

For the past dozen years or so, any-one even vaguely interested in sci-ence has followed the Baltimore case with all the fascination of witnessing a slow-motion pileup of cars on a foggy freeway. Headlines have alternated between declaring that the Nobel laureate David Baltimore and his co-worker Thereza Imanishi-Kari were either guilty of scientific fraud or cleared of all charges. Federal oversight committees also alternated between finding Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari innocent and guilty. Congressional hearings claimed to expose a rot that was affecting science at its very roots. Baltimore’s colleagues joined in defending or attacking him. Such controversies in science puzzle the general public. Why are these scientists behaving so badly? Scientists are supposed to be dispassionate seekers after truth. Why all these charges and countercharges?

Quarrels in science are chiefly of two sorts—those that concern credit and those that concern accuracy. In the early days of science, all that scientists could hope to receive for their years of work was the acknowledgment of their contributions by their peers, the people who know most about the value of their work. In science the first person to make a discovery public gets the credit—all the credit. There are no silver medals in science. This system was devised to force scientists to publish their findings so that others could use them. A scientist might postpone publishing a crucial result so that he could mine it for additional discoveries, but only at the peril of being scooped. This system has worked well; but in the rush to publish, too much gets published too quickly.

In most cases of disputes over priority, only the people working in the relevant scientific community decide who gets credit for which discoveries. However, once in a while claims of priority become of more general interest because the discovery is so momentous or because large amounts of money are involved. The dispute between Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier over who first discovered the AIDS virus combined both factors. When hundreds of thousands of people are dying, how could these two scientists take up so much time and so many resources bickering over who discovered the virus first? Of course Gallo and Montagnier want credit for their contributions. But in the face of the newest and probably most lethal plague human beings have ever known, mightn’t these two scientists have bent their individual ambitions and lust for money a bit for the greater good?

To many people quarrels among scientists over credit appear a bit unseemly. Quarrels over empirical matters such as the accuracy of data strike us as more important. That is what science is all about—finding out what causes AIDS, deciding the role that genes play in alcoholism, working out the implications of “strings” in physics, etc. When scientists and students of science claim that science is self-policing, this is what they mean. Scientists use each other’s work. If it helps them with their own research, well and good, but if it …

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