Betrayers of Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science

Written by J A Cook

This book is a “must read” for those concerned about the history of corruption in science – the authors provide ultra sharp analysis of fraud and deceit within the scientific community. ‘Betrayers of Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science‘ details certain cases and how the fraud came to be, and how people got away with it or the fact the evidence was ignored.  book-cover

Authors Broad and Wade are seeking to reveal the dark heart of science. Science by its nature is rational, but people aren’t – they are biased and seeking only personal and professional gain and standing. And it is this clash that we will see more clearly and the book progresses. The clash between the rational (facts) and the irrational (human nature).

The authors spell out their approach clearly and early. They start by saying that the conventional wisdom about science is too misleading to be used in describing science as it really is. Therefore, “Fraud, we believe, offers another route to understanding science. Medicine, after all, has derived much useful knowledge about the normal functioning of the body from the study of pathology. By studying science through its pathology rather than through some preconceived criterion, it is easier to see the process as it is, as distinct from how it ought to be. Cases of fraud provide telling evidence not just about how well the checking systems of science work in practice, but also about the fundamental nature of science – about the scientific method, about the relation of fact to theory, about the motives and attitudes of scientists. This book presents an analysis of what can be seen of science from the perspective of scientific fraud.” (p. 8)

By the second chapter, they are into the history of fraud in science. It is a familiar trail which centres on Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton, Dalton, Mendel and Millikan. They tell these tales well, with several useful quotes.

Certain areas of modern science are based on non-scientific systems of belief, one of the most famous is The Berkeley Physics Course, which is an influential text that has been used across the United States to impress college students with both the substance and tradition of modern science.

Although the have been many great scientists throughout history who were not so honest and didn’t conduct their experiments as they reported and I’m only going to name a few:

Galileo is often hailed to be the founder of modern scientific methods because of his insistence that experiment should be the arbiter of truth. Although many scientists of the 17th century had great difficulty reproducing his results and doubted that he even conducted certain experiments.

Isaac Newton the genius who formulated the law of gravitation relied on an unseemly fudge factor in order to make the predictive power of his work seem greater than it actually was.

Robert Millikan who won the Nobel Prize for being the first to measure the electric charge of an electron extensively misrepresented his work in order to make his experimental results seem more convincing.

These are just a few of thousands famous historical scientists whose work cannot be replicated even with the technology and scientific advances.

This is because experimental science is a paradox, it seeks the truth but does so while ignoring the facts. Even textbooks when trying to appeal to the facts, there is always an element of rhetoric in the argument.

Also the priority of discovery is a key element because credit in science goes to originality, for being the first to discover something. As they are no prizes for second place in science. “Discovery with priority is a bitter fruit”.

The desire to win credit and respect with one’s peers is a huge driving force for scientists. And a scientists often takes active measure to ensure his ideas are noticed and that under his name a new finding is recognized. Even if this means “improving” on the truth or pulling a whole experiment out of thin air to make his theory prevail.

A prime example of this is Claudius Ptolemy who was one of the most influential scientists if early astronomical ideas. He practically created the system for predicting the positions of the planets. And for more than 1,500 years Ptolemy’s ideas have shaped man’s view of the universe. But it was in the 19th century the astronomers re-examining his ideas noticed some curious features. Back calculation from the present day position of the planet show that Ptolemy’s ideas were wrong. The errors they found was gross even by ancient standards. This was because Ptolemy did most of his observations during the day rather than at night like all astronomers do today.

Ptolemy is accused of derived the data for his theory from the theory itself rather than from nature and experimentation. His accuser is Robert Newton a member of the applied physics laboratory at John Hopkins University. In his book, The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy, he collected scores of evidence showing Ptolemy reported results identical to what the Alexandrian sages wanted rather than what he should have been observing at the time.

A striking example is that Ptolemy claimed he had observed an autumnal equinox at 2pm on September 25th A.D. 132, but Newton says from the back calculations from modern tables shows he should have observed the equinox in Alexandria at 9.54pm on September 24th, more than a day earlier.

In other words, Ptolemy must have worked backwards from the result he was trying to prove instead of making an independent observation. Defenders of Ptolemy claim modern scholars are being unfair in applying contemporary standards of scientific procedure to Ptolemy even though the facts say otherwise, reinforcing the fact that lots of scholars turn a blind eye to scientific fraud for the sake of rewards and respect.

Owen Gingerich, a Ptolemy defender concedes that the Almagest contains “some remarkably fishy numbers” but he insists that Ptolemy chose merely to publish the data that best supported his theory and was innocent in his intent to deceive. No matter the intentions Ptolemy’s borrowing of Hipparchus’ work won his nearly two centuries of glory before his fraud was detected.

The feature that supposedly distinguishes science form other kinds of knowledge is its reliance on empirical evidence, although this is being disproven going back thousands of years.

Even Galileo has been found to have fudged data. He would perform “thought experiments” where he would imagine the outcome rather than performing experiments. He relied not only on his experimental skill but on his exquisite talents as a propagandist. Galileo is reported to have confessed to not performing experiments: “I do not need it, as without any experience I can affirm that it is so.” All this proves is that Galileo had already proved it in his head therefore he had no need to experiment, in modern science this would not stand, yet fraud is exists.

Even Newton in his Principia of 1687 established the goals, methods and boundaries of modern science, yet his exemplar of the scientific method was not above bolstering his case with false data when the real results failed to win acceptance for his theories.

According to historian Richard S. Westfall, Newton “adjusted” his calculations on the velocity of sound and on the precession of the equinoxes, and altered the correlation of a variable in his theory of gravitation so that it would agree precisely with the theory. The fudge factors Westfall says was “manipulated with unparalleled skill by the unsmiling Newton”.

The difference between the lofty principle and low practice could not be more striking. It is amazing that a figure of Newton’s stature would stoop to falsification of data and it is even more surprising that none of his contemporaries realized the full extent of his fraud. More than 250 years passed before the full extent of this fraud would be revealed. As Westfall comments “having proposed exact correlation as the criterion of truth, Newton took great care to see that exact correlation was presented, whether or not it was properly achieved.”

So even the work of scientists we naturally take for granted as “settled science” are filled with the falsified data and discrepancies. But what is most shameful about Newton’s behaviour was the hypocrisy with which he paid lip service to fair procedure but followed the very opposite course.

The finger of deception is even being pointed at Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution, who was accused of failing to give adequate acknowledgement to previous researchers. According to historians, Darwin appropriate the work of Edward Blyth a British zoologist who wrote on natural selection and evolution in two papers published in 1835 and 1837. They point out similar phrasing, rare words and choice of examples, while Darwin quotes Blyth on a few points, he does not cite the papers that deal with the natural selection directly, even though it is extremely clear he has read them.

We must also consider the case of Robert A. Millikan, a U.S. physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for determining the electric charge of an electron. He became the most famous scientist of his day winning 16 prizes and over 20 honorary degrees. A careful study of his notebooks brought to light some bizarre procedures in the methods by which Millikan climbed to scientific fame. Millikan’s notebooks proved that he was discarding any data that didn’t conform to his theories and was only recording and publishing data what proves without any doubt the correctness of his theory.

Wade and Broad examine scientists from all different discipline from mathematics and physics to biology and genealogy, and they systematically proves that all these scientists famous or not fudged their data to fit their ideological theories. Some like Darwin’s’ theory of Evolution have remained theories because they cannot be proven, but others like Newton’s Law of Gravity have become fact even though they are practically based on lies, adjustments and alterations of data.

The examples of Millikan and the other adepts of science who cut corners in order to make their theories prevail contain some alarming implications. Scientific history by its nature tends to record the deeds of the few who have successfully contributed to knowledge and ignore the many failures. So we ask if some of the most successful scientists resorted to misrepresenting their data, what the extent of their fraud was in scientific work that has now been rightfully forgotten.

History shows that the deceit within the scientific community was more common than anyone had first assumed. Almost all scientists nowadays pursue science as a career, so their vocation is also the source of their salary. And whether they are employed by the government or industry, they work within a career structure that will often offer rewards for tangible, often short-term success. So few scientists today can leave it to future generations to judge their work; as universities may deny them tenure, the flow of grants and government contracts may dry up quickly unless evidence of immediate and continuing success is forthcoming.

In short, careerist pressures are intense and unremitting and most scientists won’t let their work by distorted by them. Yet for those who do, the rewards for even deceitfully gained success are considerable and the chances of apprehension negligible. The temptations of careerism, and the almost total absence of credible deterrents to those who would cheat the system, are graphically demonstrated in the meteoric career of that uniquely 20th century scientist Elias Alsabti.

One kind of fraud which they identify is “careerism,” the substitution of “professionalism” for the goals of science, the advancement of self through the abuse of science. They go on to provide clear examples. The first is of Alsabti, who illustrates the point well: he knew how to work the system and work it he did. There is an additional tale of academic careerism: James H. McCrocklin, an erstwhile college president who faked his way through academe.

Another myth in science which the authors identify is the failure of replication to control fraud. Replication, they insist does not work in the way science assumes it should work, and for a very simple reason: the suggestion that replication is to be attempted is an implied and/or overt threat. It is the suggestion that the researcher is not believed. The case in point is that of Marc Spector and his mentor, Efraim Racker, of Cornell. Spector could do things in a laboratory that nobody else could do; he was supposed to have magic fingers. If one could not replicate his work it was because one was not doing it correctly. Furthermore, Racker, who was a Big Name, had vouched for the work the young man was doing. Finally, Racker was having his own pet theory proven by Spector’s work and was most unwilling to “check out” confirming evidence. “The notion of replication, in the sense of repeating an experiment in order to test its validity, is a myth, a theoretical construct dreamed up by the philosophers and sociologists of science.” (p. 77)

The authors have a section in this chapter on replication which merits special mention. They point out that when research is routinely replicated, as is work done for the FDA and EPA, the discovery of cheating increases about 10 per cent. This is to say that when checks are routinely imposed, a lot more fraud is uncovered. The appropriate quote is, “…perhaps as many as 10 percent do something less than honest research.” (p. 83)

It is not until page 87 that the authors reach this startling guesstimate of cheating in science “…(our estimates) would indicate that every major case of fraud that becomes public is the representative of some 100,000 others…that lie concealed in the marshy wastes of the scientific literature.” I do not understand why they felt they had to come up with some sort of number. As it stands, it is meaningless save as a sort of a catchy quote.

They then focus on the scientific elite for another kind of fraud. The case of John Long is illustrative. He was a rising star in a big hospital, doing big things. And then he had the whistle blown on him. For a long time, however, his position saved him. Another example of this elitism is the case of Noguchi at the Rockerfeller Institute, whose friendship with Simon Flexner seemed to make him immune to criticism.

The crime of self-deception is mentioned and the examples given include the cases of Clever Hans, Rene Blondlot, the Piltdown forgery, and the profession’s cruel blindness to Ignatz Semmelweiss.

The mentor-professor relationship is shown to be a tricky one which is frequently abused.

(Though Broad and Wade do not mention it in their book, the student can frequently benefit enormously by allowing his mentor to steal his ideas.) Some cases of abused students include: Hewish’s winning the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars and he didn’t do the work. He was director of the laboratory in which the work was done. The question: What are the rights and responsibilities of the administrator of a large scientific project?

The master-apprentice relationship seems to be central to the frauds of Summerlin, Guillis, and John Darsee. These men got away with fraud as long as they did because of their contacts with Big Name scientists. (Broad and Wade do not mention that in the Summerlin affair, his mentor at Sloan-Kettering was among the accusers.) To tie up this section, the authors discuss the Soman-Filig affair.

The next sin in science is that of “politicalization,” wherein the sacred garb of science enwraps the garbage of the partly disguised ideologist. This was the problem with Lysenko and what passed for Russian agronomy under his years in power. Strangely enough, the authors include the Paul Kammerer case here. They conclude: “There exist clear limits to the ability of the scientific method to resist encroachment by nonscientific ideologies.” (p. 191)

The failure of objectivity is exemplified in Samuel G. Morton. The authors’ source on Morton is Gould, and they mention “The Finagle Factor” as well as the Science article. Also they quote from Gould’s Mismeasure of Man. However, they stick to citing the materials on Morton, ignoring Gould’s insistence that all of psychology and certainly a large number of psychologists could be used to exemplify the loss of objectivity through a commitment to a pet hypothesis. Consider their awareness that “…psychologists used the massive test results (of WWI) to bolster their own claims for the technique.” (p. 200) But they let it go at that. Clearly, this is not an attack on psychologists.

Cyril Burt is handled in the same way, as exemplifying a loss of objectivity. “Science is not self-policing. Scholars do not always read the scientific literature carefully. Science is not a perfectly objective process. Dogma and prejudice, when suitably garbed, creep into science just as easily as into any other human enterprise, and maybe more easily since their entry is unexpected. Burt, with the mere appearance of being a scientist, worked his way to the top of the academic ladder, to a position of power and influence in both science and the world beyond. He used the scientific method as a purely rhetorical tool to force the acceptance of his own dogmatic ideas. Against such weapons, the scientific community that harbored him was defenseless.” (p.211)

The book ends with “Fraud and the Structure of Science,” in which the authors try to sum up. The chapter is much the same as Broad’s article, (same title), which appeared in Science. I like this analogy: just as Adam Smith had economics ultimately operated by an Invisible Hand, so would this describe the ideological view of science as operating with an Invisible Boot, which is supposed to kick out the rascals and the rotten apples along with their evil data.

The last pages of the book provide a very brief picture of cheating in science by listing 34 cases which the authors know about and report on in the text of the book. It is a sort of rogue’s gallery of science.

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J A Cook is a professional book reviewer. Further reviews may be found at forthenovellovers.wordpress.com