Landing Me with Science: Fraud and Folly for Fame and Funding Most People Would Likely Be Surprised to Learn That a Large Percentage of Scientific Studies Are Later Retracted Because They Were Found to Be Fraudulent
Duke, Selwyn, The New American
Science's whiz kids are legendary, and its wonders legion. There is Albert Einstein with the crazy hair, and there is nuclear power. There is Nikola Tesla with his fear of shaking hands, and there is the alternating current theory of electricity. There is Edwin Hubble with his cape, cane, and fake British accent, and there is Hubble's law. But then there is also fake science. There was the Piltdown Man, Paul Kammerer and Lamarckian inheritance, the Philippine government and the Tasaday tribe, Charles Redheffer's "perpetual motion machine," and the Cardiff Giant. So while the 1950s white-lab-coat image of the scientist who cares only about Truth was once a popular Hollywood portrayal, the reality is better explained by applying to scientists what Thomas Jefferson said about judges: They "are as honest as other men and not more so. They have with others the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps"--and for money.
And while scientists and their triumphs have multiplied in modern times, so, unfortunately, have their trespasses. BMJ. corn (formerly the Brilish Medical Journal) has done much good reporting on this topic. Bob Roehr wrote in 2012:
Retraction of biomedical and life science research papers for fraud or misconduct is more widespread than previously thought and is roughly 10-fold more common today than in 1975, shows a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study looked at all 2047 retractions listed in the PubMed index as at [sic] 3 May 2012. It tallied the reasons stated by the journal in making its retraction and also examined reports filed with the US government's Office of Research integrity and other sources. That resulted in reclassification of 118 of 742 retractions (16%) given in an earlier study of retraction from error to fraud.
Also in 2012, BMJ's Aniket Tavare reported, "One in seven UK based scientists or doctors has witnessed colleagues intentionally altering or fabricating data during their research or for the purposes of publication, found a survey of more than 2700 researchers conducted by the BMJ." In the same vein, BMJ's Tony Sheldon wrote just three months later, "A Dutch survey claims that one in seven doctors have seen scientific research results that have been invented. In addition, nearly a quarter have seen data that have been massaged to achieve significant results." And going from illusory data to illusory writers, BMJ's Joseph S. Wislar reported in 2011 that there was "evidence of honorary and ghost authorship in 21% of articles published in major medical journals in 2008." Note that this sometimes occurs when academics publish work crafted by relatively powerless underlings (i.e., graduate students) as their own.
And while scientific fraud is driven by personal failings, it can have population-level effects. Perhaps the best example of this is bug researcher turned self-proclaimed sex expert Alfred Kinsey, who has been called the "Father of the Sexual Revolution." By producing subject-questionnaire data purporting to show that perverted behavior was actually the norm. Kinsey convinced millions of Americans that few were really living up to traditional sexual mores. And if this was the case, why shouldn't they give their own darker impulses free rein? Why, it's said that Hugh Hefner's founding of Playboy was at least partially inspired by his having read Kinsey's 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male as a youth. Hey, it was convincing--science with a capital S.
But it was actually a con with a capital C. First, the data sample was skewed to begin with since only the most odd and rare of people in the 1940s and '50s would answer detailed questions about sexuality. In fact, so rare were they that Kinsey couldn't find enough of them in the general population to constitute a scientific sample. So, as I wrote in "According to Kinsey, Deviancy Is the New Normal" (THE NEW AMERICAN, April 27, 2009):
He plied America's prisons and back alleys, including in his sample 1,300 to 1,400 sex offenders; 199 sexual psychopaths; other prisoners; and members of Chicago's homosexual underground, people from its bathhouses and homosexual bars. …