The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science. Horace Freeland
Judson. xvi + 463 pp. Harcourt, 2004. $28.
Contrary to their public image, scientists are normal, flawed human
beings. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that from time to
time dishonest scientists appear on the scene. However, the spate of
reports of cases of scientific fraud in the United States that hit
the headlines in the 1980s, culminating in the much-publicized
affair involving a collaborator of Nobel laureate David Baltimore,
suggested that science was suffering from a veritable crime wave.
Hunting down scientific misconduct became a major pastime, and it
appeared that even the great names of the past—Newton, Mendel,
Darwin, Pasteur and Freud, for example—had not been above
manipulating their data when it suited them.
Although this deepening suspicion of the scientific endeavor began
in the United States, it soon spread to Europe and elsewhere.
Scientific misconduct is now universal, or so we are told. It is not
restricted to individual scientists but also seems to be rife among
big corporations—notably, the pharmaceutical industry. And
although it is most active in the biomedical sciences, some
spectacular examples are turning up in other fields, particularly physics.
There have always been a few dishonest scientists, and it was
inevitable that the huge expansion in all fields of science in the
latter half of the 20th century would increase the number of cases
of scientific misconduct. Furthermore, today's frenetic scientific
scene undoubtedly creates an environment that is more conducive to
this kind of activity. Intense competition for funding puts young
scientists under increasing pressure to obtain exciting results and
publish their work quickly. These stresses are compounded by demands
on the part of government and funding agencies that scientists
direct their work toward short-term commercial exploitation. Current
research reports are often written by large multidisciplinary teams;
it is very difficult for each member to have the breadth of skills
to appreciate the finer details of the work of their colleagues, who
in some cases may number in the hundreds. Heads of research groups
increasingly are taken away from the laboratory bench by the
requirements of bureaucratic administration, and the skills and
responsibilities of scientific mentorship are declining. The
overstretched peer review system, whether it involves assessment of
work for publication or grants to carry out research, provides
opportunities for plagiarism, or worse. And with the enormous
pressures to publish, the most prestigious journals often restrict
the length of articles such that only the bare bones of experimental
methods can be included; the bracketed "data not shown"
statement is ubiquitous and appears to be acceptable to many editors.
These problems have been played down to some extent by many senior
scientists and their institutions through the argument that science
is a self-regulating activity; work leading to potentially important
discoveries is always repeated by others. Even if this is true, and
the rather hollow ring of this defense notwithstanding, it ducks the
issue of the considerable amount of public money that may be wasted
by fraudulent science and, in the case of the biomedical sciences,
the harm that may be done to the public. Hence, although one may
have serious reservations about the motives of the expanding and
sometimes messianic band of seekers of scientific fraud, and about
the extent to which it occurs, there is no doubt that science has to
face up to the existence of dishonesty within its ranks.
The complexities of fraud in science are highlighted in The
Great Betrayal, Horace Freeland Judson's new account of the
subject. As he points out, it is extremely difficult even to define
what the term scientific fraud actually means. Where, for
example, is the line drawn between extreme sloppiness and genuine
intent to deceive? Scientists, like many creative people, are not
always blessed with attractive personalities. When does poor
management or harassment of young people in research teams cross the
border between bad behavior and genuine scientific misconduct?
Considering the bumbling attempts on the part of universities, grant
agencies and even governments to reach any consensus about how
misconduct of this type should be investigated, and the difficulties
for the legal profession in putting it into a framework that is
consistent with other fields of law, how are we to investigate, let
alone control, this kind of behavior in the future? And how are we
to protect the reputations and careers of whistleblowers in this
increasingly messy scene?
Judson accepts that editors of scientific journals have gone to
great lengths to try to put their houses in order, but he is not
convinced that they have gone far enough or, indeed, that it is
possible for them to help eradicate these problems using the current
mechanisms of scientific publication. Rather, he suggests that the
major hope for encouraging honesty in the scientific community lies
in the evolution of open publication on the Internet. This approach
to the dissemination of scientific discoveries is fast, allows the
inclusion of much more experimental method and background data than
is possible in scientific journals and, in particular, offers the
opportunity for rapid correction of incorrect findings and for open
dialogue when scientists disagree with one another.
The few cases of real or apparent scientific misconduct that have
been analyzed in objective detail seem to reflect the interplay of
innumerable factors: personality disorders, overpressure to be
productive, greed, isolation, poor mentorship, bad communication,
arrogance, personal tragedy and, above all, simple human frailty. In
light of this, Judson's depressing catalogue of scientific fraud in
the first half of the book seems rather merciless and one-sided. Why
was it that some of the highly gifted young scientists he describes
behaved in this way? A moment's reflection surely would have
convinced them that their sins would come to light. Were there
common threads in their early behavior in the laboratory that should
have sounded warning bells? To what extent, through excessive
pressures or poor supervision, did their mentors share
responsibility for their misdeeds? What lessons can be learned from
these human tragedies? Readers who wish to try to grapple with the
complexities of the Baltimore affair, for example, will find a more
balanced and humane investigation in Daniel Kevles's 1998 book
The Baltimore Case. Also, Judson underemphasizes the
critical role in preventing misconduct that can be played by senior
scientists in creating an atmosphere in their laboratories that is
not conducive to the pressures and isolation that may lead young
research workers astray in their formative years. Many universities
still do not run introductory courses for research students on good
scientific practice or the potential pitfalls of commercial exploitation.
But these concerns apart, this is a valuable survey of an extremely
disquieting and ill-understood aspect of modern science. In an
epilogue, which compares scientific creativity with that of the
arts, Judson argues that, ultimately, science, "the art of our
time," will be recognized as our greatest achievement. Perhaps
this, above all, is the reason that the disturbing issues he
addresses cannot be ignored.
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