Saturday, 30 November 2002

William Broad & Nicholas Wade: Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in Science (1982)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1985 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1134

Scientists have generally portrayed themselves as they have perceived themselves: as objective searchers after truth. This is itself not entirely the way things are even at the best of times, and on reflection it could hardly be the case. Scientists are human too; the ideas on which they work are the products of human minds; and total objectivity can only be an ideal to aspire to.

It is the dichotomy between the ideal and the reality which is the subject of this book - the whole spectrum of deceit in science, ranging from outright fraud to massaging of results to bolster a conclusion to subconscious self-deception. Topics touched on also include the relationships between the different people involved in research - such as senior and junior researchers, or co-authors of papers. The authors set out to determine what it is about the (then) current scientific culture which encourages fraud and its cover up, and they are particularly interested in the ways that process supposed to act as checks and balances (peer review of grant applications, refereeing of papers, and replication of results) have been corrupted. Broad and Wade seem to imply that a major source of problems - which are clearly wider than can be seen by examining only those scandals which have become public knowledge - are consequences of the professionalism of science (as it has this century become more of a career and less the province of the dedicated amateur) and the massive increase in the size of the scientific culture (they estimate that 90% of all scientists who ever worked were active at the time of publication, and that many papers and journals are virtually unread, making it easier to get away with plagiarism). This is however balanced by accounts of (relatively minor) fraud by some of the greatest names in science in previous centuries - men like Galileo, Newton and Mendel reporting experimental results unbelievably close to the predictions of their theories. The verdict of the historians of science seems to be that this is OK, provided that the theory turns out to be correct.

I'm not sure that the selection of the professionalisation of science as a major cause of fraud is entirely correct. One of the other interesting things that comes out of reading Betrayers of the Truth is that almost all the recent examples discussed come from the biological sciences, particularly medicine. This is something which the authors put down to the higher mathematics content in physics and chemistry. The twentieth century expansion of science as a whole is disproportionately centred on biology, and in medical research in particular are combined high pressure to produce results and massive rewards (both in money and status) potentially available, and considerable difficulty in designing, carrying out and correctly interpreting experiments. This is something which seems to me to be a basic part of the reason behind modern fraud, and it makes it especially tragic when flawed experiments can be used as the basis for new treatments.

It is now twenty years since the publication of Betrayers of the Truth; have things changed? I can't see that deliberate fraud and self deception will have gone away. One of the most famous episodes in science in the last few years falls pretty definitely into the latter category, for example - the story of cold fusion. That shares many features with cases described here (especially that of N-rays to which it has frequently been compared). One particular common feature is the attitude of the authorities involved, with the attempts of the university to play things up to attract grant money and the use of rhetoric rather than logic to argue the merits of the case. These are aspects that one would expect to have changed, as high profile cases of error would argue caution, but this does not seem to have happened.

Many scientists manage to go through their entire careers without coming across a case of fraud, though I suspect that most would harbour suspicion that some massaging of results has gone on at some point. One of the major surprises to me in this book is the consistent attitude of senior scientists that fraud hardly ever happens; that it is only the sick of mind who attempt it; and that accusations of fraud are best covered up. (This last is a regrettable consequence of the generally positive fact that scientists see themselves as a community.) There was an article in Physics Today (Investigation Finds that One Lucent Physicist Engaged in Scientific Misconduct) in November, which showed that lessons still hadn't been learnt - despite Broad and Wade bringing this up repeatedly twenty years ago, the investigating committee still said that the responsibilities of co-authors to check for fraud were not clear.

One of the most interesting points that Broad and Wade make is that attempting to understand how science works by discussing what ideal science would be like, as philosophers and scientists tend to do, is likely to lead to distortion of the truth and, in particular, to the reluctance to accept the existence of fraud that seems to still be rife. They would argue that the pathology of the scientific culture should be considered as well as its ideals; knowledge of how things can go wrong can help bring understanding of the healthy system. There is something in this, but it can be equally misleading to go too far the other way, basing understanding of the healthy on examination of the sick; this was a problem with the early development of psychiatry.

Betrayers of the Truth is a thought provoking and frequently shocking read, clearly written, in a journalistic style admirably appropriate to the topic.

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