The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science

Lies, damn lies, and scientific research

Don Maisch's comment: Perhaps this could have been sub-titled "Lies, damn lies, and Motorola!

Book: Lies, damn lies, and scientific research

The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science

Horace Freeland Judson. Harcourt, 2004. Pp 463. $28·00. ISBN 0-15-100877-9.

As an editor of this medical journal, I try to judge whether the research reported in a paper was well done and whether the paper reports that research accurately. In general, scientists believe in their work, and, try as they might to maintain equipoise, find it hard to keep their biases--of which they might well be unaware--from putting a spin on their results. It's only human. In these cases, most researchers will tone down claims when pressed by peer reviewers and editors. But others are so wedded to their hypothesis that their papers become polemics. Negotiations with these authors can be difficult, but at least the disagreements are open and the discussions civil, usually.

But, as Horace Freeland Judson describes in The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science there are researchers who submit papers in which data have been faked, numbers fudged, and ideas filched. How many such papers come in? How many slip through the peer review and editing process? It's impossible to know. In the past 4 years, The Lancet has had one proven case of fraud. Judson, a journalist and historian, would argue that it is likely we've missed many more

Judson thinks that fraud is common because it is the inevitable product of the current culture of science. Fraud, he says, is intrinsic in institutional cultures that are "characterized by secrecy, privilege, lack of accountability". Scientists have won exactly such a privileged place in society by presenting themselves as altruistic seekers of truth whose method will invariably ferret out not only truth, but also fraud. "The grandees of the scientific establishment", writes Judson, "regularly proclaim that scientific fraud is vanishingly rare and that perpetrators are isolated individuals who act out of a twisted psychopathology".

The elevation of the scientific profession to the status it holds today in the USA can be credited at least in part to Vannear Bush, an electrical engineer, who served in President Franklin Roosevelt's administration as director of the Office of Research and Development. This agency was established in World War II to adapt the discoveries of basic scientists and the tools of civilian technology to the war effort. Basic research had already led to improved radar systems, mass production of sulfa and penicillin antibiotics, and, of course, the atomic bomb. Even greater advances would come, Bush argued in a 1945 proposal to Roosevelt's successor President Harry Truman, if the government funded scientists and gave them free rein to pursue questions of their own choosing. "Scientific progress on a broad front", Bush wrote, "results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity, of the unknown".

Since then, US investment in research has climbed steadily, and in recent years, steeply: in 1995, for example, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget was US$67·1 million; this year, under a decade later, the NIH budget is nearly $28 billion. To protect this investment, Judson charges, scientists play down the extent and seriousness of fraud. "In sum", he says, "the scientific communities believe that public funding is their right, but so is freedom from public control. The grandees, the guardians, must defend the honor of science: fraud, if it proved to be more than rare and individual, perhaps even to be built into the ways institutions of science work, would engender distrust among legislators and the public and so threaten the money stream and self-governance."

Fraud has always been present in science, long before the NIH was handing out grants. Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, had results that are just too good to be true. Louis Pasteur's notebooks, long kept secret, reveal that he misled the world and his fellow scientists about the research behind two of his most famous experiments: the vaccination of sheep against anthrax, and that of a boy against rabies. And it is common knowledge that Sigmund Freud fabricated many of the case studies on which he built his psychoanalytic theories and career.

Judson recounts, in detail, a number of well publicised cases of scientific fraud that have come to light over the past two decades. "In almost every case, to be sure, some one individual gets blamed", he writes, "but these frauds cannot be presented even as anecdotes without an accounting of the relationships among many people within the laboratory and the larger institutional setting. The cases exhibit multiple, tangled complicities."

These complicities tend to fall into predictable syndromes, Judson maintains. "The dominant form is the prodigy; others are the mentor seduced, the folie à deux, and the arrogance of power." The prodigy, for example, is a young researcher whose productivity is too good to be true. One such prodigy was John Darsee, a Harvard researcher who had, by the age of 33, published more than 125 research articles, book chapters, abstracts, and other papers. But it turned out that he had fabricated data in scores of papers. Some of the problems with his data should have been obvious at the time. In one paper he described a family in which a 17-year-old male had four children--the eldest of which was 8 years old. Do the maths. These and other glaring problems eluded not only the peer reviewers and editors, but also, apparently, his coauthors.

What is particularly worrying about Darsee's case and many of the others Judson describes is that the fraud was not detected by safeguards built into the scientific system, such as peer review. Instead, deception is typically discovered by dumb luck: a co-worker notices something strange in a log book; a colleague stumbles across a discrepancy in a table. Closer inspection often reveals fraud so ham-handed that the perpetrator seems to have been asking to be caught.

So what can be done? Attempts, some more promising than others, have been made to combat fraud. Journals, for example, have tightened their rules, requiring all authors to have made significant contributions to a paper that carries their name, and to vouch for its content. Institutions have established much-needed formal procedures to expedite inquiries into fraud allegations. In the past, some institutions seem to have been more concerned in hushing up scandal than in rooting out fraud; whistle-blowers have found their careers destroyed while department heads have escaped rebuke. Furthermore, Judson thinks that e-publishing, which makes it possible to post not only the paper on the internet, but also the original manuscript, peer reviewers' comments, and raw data will have a substantial effect on fraud. But while e-publishing will make plagiarism and duplicate publication easy to detect, whether it will prevent the determined fabricator is not so certain.

Most worrisome of all, most of the fraud Judson describes was done by individuals seeking acceptance and advancement in the world of science. Increasingly, a great deal of research is in fact product development; researchers often have more than their egos and grants on the line--a fortune can rest on their results. Judson paints a dark picture of science today, but we may see far darker days ahead as proof and profit become inextricably mixed.

Michael McCarthy


This book is published by Elsevier, of which The Lancet is part.



If any of you hasn't read Dr George Carlo (you will have heard of him), "Cell Phones. Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age" 2001, (£9.54 from Amazon) do.

Omega find it under: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0786708182?v=glance
>>>Look inside this book
>>>further un der "Next Page" and so on

Carlo was appointed in 1993 by the US telecoms industry to allay the fears of mobile phone users through scientific research. Carlo is a public health scientist, epidemiologist and lawyer, so no fly-by-night. In June 1999 he stood up in public and instead announced his findings that mobile phones cause cancer and that no-one should hold one to their head. Ever.

Could you wish for a more competent whistle-blower? Recent studies confirming acoustic neuromas from ten years' use only add to what he said. What emerges from the industry in fighting him, is only repeated in our BBC3 programme with T-Mobile etc. This industry will trash the best scientists, hence what they are doing to Trower, Hyland, Johansson even now. And every would-be whistleblower, and every MTHR scientist knows it too.

Eventually, like our Venezuela surgeons, as with those reporting from Hayward's Heath in Sussex, we will all just "know" in the face of industry denial. Will it stop phones being used so much and start masts coming down? Watch your Christmas TV adverts and tell your friends and family not to use mobile phones. Not so easy is it?


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