Unholy Science

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

by William Broad and 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
mit gier’ger Hand nach Schätzen
und froh ist, wenn er Regenwürmer

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…

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