Sunday, December 25, 2011

Scientific misconduct

Scientific misconduct is not necessarily a sign of a decline of ethics among scientists today or of the increased competition for tenure and research funds. Accusations of scientific misconduct, sometimes well supported, pepper the history of science from the Greek natural philosophers onward. Ptolemy of Alexandria (90–168), the greatest astronomer of antiquity, has been accused of using without attribution observations of stars made by his predecessor Hipparchus of Rhodes (162–127 BCE), who himself had used much earlier Babylonian observations as if they were his own. Isaac Newton used “fudge factors” to better fit data to his theories. In his studies of hereditary characteristics, Gregor Mendel reported near perfect ratios, and therefore statistically very unlikely ratios, from his pea-plant crossings. When Mendel crossed hybrid plants, he predicted and found that exactly one-third were pure dominants and two-thirds were hybrids. The high unlikelihood of getting exact 1:3 ratios was first pointed out in 1911 by R.A. Fisher, the founder of modern statistics and a founder of population genetics, when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Though Charles Darwin has been cleared of accusations of nicking the idea of natural selection from Alfred Russel Wallace, he seems to have only reluctantly credited some of his predecessors.
The first formal discussion of scientific misconduct was published in 1830 by Charles Babbage, who held Newton’s chair at Cambridge and made major contributions to astronomy, mathematics and the development of computers. In Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and on Some of Its Causes, Babbage distinguished “several species of impositions that have been practised in science…hoaxing, forging, trimming, and cooking.” An example of “hoaxing” would be the Piltdown man, discovered in 1911 and discredited in 1953; parts of an ape and human skull were combined, supposedly to represent a “missing link” in human evolution. Hoaxes are intended to expose naïveté and credulousness and to mock pseudo wisdom. Unlike most hoaxes, Babbage’s other “impositions” are carried out to advance the perpetrator’s scientific career. “Forging,” which he thought rare, is the counterfeiting of results, today called fabrication. “Trimming” consists of eliminating outliers to make results look more accurate, while keeping the average the same. “Cooking” is the selection of data. Trimming and cooking fall under the modern rubric of “falsification.” Scholarly conventions and standards of scientific probity were probably different in the distant past, yet the feuds, priority disputes and porous notions of scientific truthfulness from previous centuries seem contemporary...