Cautionary tales from the front lines of science

I teach a short unit on scientific ethics in my senior design class, so when I was offered a review copy of the book, On Fact and Fraud, by David Goodstein, I took it. The title of this essay is in fact the subtitle to Professor Goodstein’s book.

The book is composed largely of essays that Goodstein had published elsewhere, and the cautionary tales are mostly from physics. Among other anecdotes, Goodstein discusses Millikan’s oil-drop experiment, cold fusion, the case of Jan Hendrik Schön at Bell Laboratories, a little-known case where a Caltech postdoc apparently falsified a figure in a paper, and the successful discovery of high-temperature superconductivity.

Two of these, it seems to me, are not exactly cautionary tales. The Millikan story, I thought, belonged more in a history-of-science book than in a book that claims on the dust cover to be “a user’s guide to identifying, avoiding, and preventing fraud in science.” Indeed, the only protagonists I would caution in the Millikan chapter are the reporters who may have tried too hard to find misconduct where none existed. And I found nothing cautionary in the tale of high-temperature superconductivity. Schön presumably faked his data, and Pons and Fleishmann, the “discoverers” of cold fusion, presumably did not; Goodstein makes much of these tales, as well as the story of the postdoc.

Early on, Goodstein presents 15 precepts for preventing scientific fraud – then demolishes every one of them. He briefly discusses the etiology of scientific fraud and notes that most people who commit fraud probably think they are right, because if they were wrong they would almost certainly be discovered. So, as he says, they think they are reporting truths but have dispensed with all the messy experimentation that other scientists think is important. Unfortunately, he can give no prescription for preventing scientific fraud.

Goodstein observes that scientific fraud is associated with three risk factors: career pressure, but rarely what he calls “simple monetary gain”; “knowing” the answer; and working in a field where precise answers are hard to come by. I think he may have left one or more out: working in a laboratory in which the principal investigator is not involved in day-to-day supervision, and possibly working for a sponsor who has a vested interest in the outcome. Pertinently to readers of PT, he does not discuss, for example, intelligent-design creationism (nor HIV denial nor global-warming denial), which is arguably an example of scientific fraud.

Unfortunately, much of the action today, both in fraud and in science, is not in physics but in biology or medicine. It is too bad, then, that Goodstein did not include such cases as that of Woo-suk Hwang, whose papers contained fabricated data and who was additionally convicted of related crimes, or Andrew Wakefield, whose disastrous paper on the MMR vaccine had to be withdrawn. Indeed, Goodstein notes that most instances of scientific fraud involve biomedicine, possibly, he thinks, because MD’s are not as well trained in research as are PhD’s (but see also his third risk factor). Goodstein, perhaps wisely, perhaps not, follows the adage to write about what you know. What he knows includes Millikan, some of the protagonists involved in cold fusion, high-temperature superconductivity, and Caltech. I liked the book, but I thought that it would have been better if he had gone a little farther afield.