Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Science - Never Fake It to Make It: Resources - Secondary

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Science - Never Fake It to Make It: Resources - Secondary

Article excerpt

It may be tempting to follow the likes of Isaac Newton and fudge the data, but moral and ethical considerations must always be at the heart of scientific research.

How much should you believe what you are told by a scientist? Newspapers often run headlines that imply that if a scientist says something, it must be true. But scientists are human beings and while the idea of faking results or making fraudulent claims is repellent to the majority, it's not unknown. What surprises most people is that some very famous scientists have been shown to fake their results to help their theories along.

Isaac Newton, John Dalton and, most famously, Cyril Burt - the educational psychologist who studied IQ - have all been shown to have falsified data. In the case of Burt, he not only made up data that confirmed his ideas on the heritability of IQ, but doubts were also raised about whether his research assistants actually existed. His fraud was discovered five years after his death in 1971.

Newton fudged his data in order to confirm his universal law of gravitation. To show that his idea was "true", Newton needed an exact correlation mathematically. His data did not show this, so the master of mathematics fudged his calculations. John Dalton did a similar thing to support his atomic theory.

Such falsifications are probably not as uncommon as you may think. I'm sure that anyone who has studied science has, at some point, found an anomalous result that messes up an otherwise beautiful graph. It's so tempting to forget to include that result. In many cases the fudge is quite harmless. But what about deliberate, calculated fraud? Surely all scientists have a degree of integrity and honesty that would naturally prevent such deliberate acts of deceit?

One of the most well-known frauds in science is the case of Piltdown Man, a fossil skull hailed in 1912 as "the missing link" and conclusive proof of man's evolution from ape-like creatures into modern humans. Pieces of the skull were excavated by an amateur geologist, Charles Dawson, from the gravel beds of Piltdown Common in Sussex. The finds fooled some of the greatest minds in science for a number of years, but it was science that eventually exposed the fraud in 1953. Unrelated skull pieces and jaw bones were deliberately stained and aged to appear as if they came from one animal. In fact, it was an ancient human skull and the jaw of an orang- utan. To this day there is still debate about exactly who perpetrated the fraud. …

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