Scientific fraud

November 17th, 2012

Scientists

Once upon a time, people trusted religion. They believed the Bible, they believed their priests, they believed in God. But slowly things changed, for many people at any rate.

The demise of religion and the rise of science

People found things in the Bible they couldn’t believe. The found out that priests had human failings, and some were deeply flawed. The church was often a compromised, even corrupt institution that didn’t live up to its own ideals. And many lost faith in God.

One of the reasons for this loss of faith was the rise of science. Science had a way of getting to the truth, and it showed up parts of the bible previously believed to be literally true. Scientists were more trustworthy than priests.

The fall of science?

But soon people discovered that science wasn’t always right and scientists were not perfect. Science seemed to promise a better life for all, but then scientists helped create the atom bombs that were dropped on two Japanese cities, and scientists in Nazi Germany conducted grisly experiments on people – as Lou Reed wrote: “The goodly-hearted made lampshades and soap.”

Scientific fraud has also been a problem. Scientists assisted tobacco companies to say that smoking did not cause cancer. Some scientists falsified their data to get prestigious publication or more research dollars.

It’s getting worse

The blog Science on religion reports that a recent analysis of retractions to medical journal articles, because of wrong information, shows that:

  • 75% of retractions are due to misconduct (mostly deliberate fraud) rather than honest error;
  • the percentage of retractions due to fraud has increased almost tenfold since 1975.

As one reader has pointed out, this example relates only to medical research where big business money may be most influential, and the problems may not occur to the same extent in other scientific fields (though I have heard of some).

One of the big positives about science has been its ability to self correct, and doubtless this study is part of that self correction. We can hope that science as a whole gets its act together on this matter.

But human nature being what it is, there must be some doubts. And that is bad.

We need to be able to trust science. Mistrust of science leads to denial of important truths, such as global warming. And denial of truth takes us backwards.

Picture: Flickr Creative Commons

5 Comments

  1. Yes, and when the day arrives where someone mumbles,
    “Er… guys, you know that papyrus we found? The one about Q? Well,I think we made a teensy, weensy mistake with this historicity of Jesus thing.”

    Then the midden will surely hit the windmill.

  2. Oh, I forgot. On the subject of tobacco: Did you ever see The Insider with Russel Crowe?
    Like the JFK conspiracy only completely real. Scary stuff.

  3. Fascinating article. I only read the abstract, and I do not feel like subscribing to PubMed to read the entire article. But your retraction rate of 75% due to deliberate fraud is a bit of an exaggeration:

    “67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%).”

    Also, this study of retractions is only in the field of biomedical and life-science research, and does not encompass all of science. I do not know what it is like in your town, but go to the nearest pharmacy in here in Texas and look at all homeopathic, herbal, and other crap that is stocked on the shelves – all approved by the FDA by some less than obvious standard. The general public just wants sees medicine and is generally not going to read the fine print. Medicine is Big Money and loaded with fraud.

    Now the author of the Patheos article blames research and funding dollars for the fraud. I do not know if the author of that article is getting that from the article or if it just a guess. I made my own guess, admittedly not reading the article. But remember that the fraud rate is strictly in the biomedical and life-sciences field.

    But at least retractions are made. Science, at it’s best, is not trust in scientists. It is trust in a method. As I always stress, methodology is the key, and the scientific method, despite the weaknesses of its practitioners, is still the best method we have for analyzing anything in the biomedical and life-sciences field.

    I still trust science over religion. Has a retraction of a bogus religious claim ever been made?

  4. Hi HiS, thanks for these comments.

    your retraction rate of 75% due to deliberate fraud is a bit of an exaggeration

    This statistic was based on this statement in the blog: “Misconduct accounted for over 75% of retracted articles.” I’m not sure how the stats were worked out and if there is an inconsistency there.

    Also, this study of retractions is only in the field of biomedical and life-science research, and does not encompass all of science.

    Yes, you are correct, and I should have noted this. I have now made an amendment to the post. Thanks.

    Has a retraction of a bogus religious claim ever been made?

    I think so. Religious leaders have apologised for supporting apartheid and slavery. Christians have changed their minds about science and history. The process isn’t the same, but I think it still happens.

    But of course the truth or falsehood of religious claims isn’t so clear. That is just a fact, and it applies to both believers and unbelievers. So clear examples where retraction is required occur less often – more often about behaviour and less often about the fundamental beliefs.

  5. UnkleE says:
    “This statistic was based on this statement in the blog: “Misconduct accounted for over 75% of retracted articles.” I’m not sure how the stats were worked out and if there is an inconsistency there.”

    You are correct. I misread the article abstract. I retract my original statement 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *