Science - Never fake it to make it

14th September 2012 at 01:00
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. These episodes in history are interesting, but result in no great harm to science or the general public. More recent cases of scientific fraud have shown a much more sinister edge, with potentially negative implications for public health.

In 2004, a public announcement was made that the first human embryonic cells had been cloned. This announcement stunned the scientific community. The person making the claim, Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean biomedical scientist, had made claims about cloning previously. He claimed to have cloned a BSE-resistant cow, among others, but many of his assertions were not backed by peer-reviewed articles in the scientific journals. He went on to claim that he had succeeded in creating 11 cloned stem cell lines. The importance of such an achievement was immense. There was, if this was true, the real possibility of producing, for individuals who were ill, stem cell lines that could be used to treat them.

A full investigation of his claims was launched when mistakes and errors in his published papers were found. It was then revealed by Hwang that the stem cell lines did not exist and that data he was using to support his claims were fabricated. He was fired from his post at Seoul National University.

When we discuss cutting-edge science in our classrooms, moral and ethical considerations linked to that science need to be included. How new scientific discoveries and claims are verified, substantiated and announced within the scientific community and to the public in general is all part of the How Science Works curriculum.

Fraud in any field harms the standing of the community, whether it is bankers or scientists. Falsifying data, making unfounded claims or seeking to profit from deliberate deceit and lies is wrong. Luckily, in science we do have peer review and independent verification of claims, which serves to minimise the chances that any fraud will succeed in the long run.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work

What else?

Help pupils to prove Newton's theory with MissAli87's practical lesson. bit.lyproveNewton

Use the case of Cyril Burt's false data as a starting point to explain the importance of validating research, with a resource from phildb.


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