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Saturday, 14 February 2009

Was This Man a Fraud?

Isaac Newton did it. So did Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. Louis Pasteur, and many other giants of science. Sigmund Freud apparently did it all the time.

They all, at one time or another, fudged and nudged the data a bit; skewed the results of experiments; tweaked the numbers, or doctored the photographs. In a word, they were all guilty in some degree of what scientists refer to as "FF&P": fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. (The Total Hoax, as in the Piltdown Man farce, is an extreme example). Thus does the director of the Center of Recent Science at George Washington University, Horace Freeland Judson, introduce us to the tangled world of scientific fraud, then and now.

Consider the case against Newton, clear-cut and undeniable, though it took a quarter of a millennium to be fully exposed. Newton apparently adjusted his calculations of the velocity of sound and of the procession of the equinoxes to make them correlate more closely with his theories. In effect, he worked not so much from observation to theory, but in reverse, because he was convinced that the data must bear out what he felt was the truth. In Mendel's case, his data proved literally too good (that is, too perfect) to be true. Even the mighty Darwin was guilty of altering the photographs he used in his study "The Expression of the Emotions."

We are tempted to ask "Does any of this matter? Weren't they proved right in the end?" But in his thorough and impassioned analysis of the problem of fraud in science (Harcourt Brace, 428 pages, $28), Mr. Judson persuades us that it does matter, very much, and that we must understand why fraud is increasing and what we must do to stop it. The essential integrity of the worldwide scientific enterprise depends on it.

Following World War II and its atomic aftermath, American science exploded in size and scale thanks to vast new financial resources. Science in the United States was embraced and funded not only by the federal government, but also by large private foundations, including Rockefeller and Carnegie. This unprecedented expansion, with its increased bureaucratic pressures and complexities, forever changed the way science was conducted. No longer could the field, remote and removed from outside interference, police itself; a greatly increased propensity to fraud was an inevitable result.

The time-honored system of peer review, for example, has become increasingly dysfunctional. For many years, the basic idea was that scientists would judge other scientists anonymously and with concern only for the value and integrity of their proposals. But, "half a century on," Mr. Judson points out, "peer review and refereeing are moribund. They have become dispirited, often ineffectual, and in some respects corrupt, infested with politics, and rife with temptations to plagiarize." There are too many journals, too many scientists pursuing a limited number of grants, too much pressure, and consequently too much fraud.

How much fraud is there? In his exhaustive (and fascinating) analysis of dozens of case histories, Mr. Judson concludes that these stories are merely the tip of the iceberg. Here, for example, we learn about the "Case of the Painted Rats": One William Summerlin was working on a problem of foreign-tissue grafts and seemed to be getting some surprising results. But there were questions about the research.

On his way up to a meeting with his boss regarding an article they were preparing to help resolve these difficulties, Summerlin took matters into his own hands - so to speak. In the elevator, he pulled out a black felt-tip pen and, hoping to bolster his case, darkened the graft area of two of the mice he was carrying with him. Shortly thereafter, a lab assistant noticed something funny and discovered that the "black grafts" washed away with alcohol. Summerlin's entire career unraveled as a result of the deserved ly intense scrutiny.

Justice in this case was relatively swift and efficient, but that rarely happens in most cases of scientific fraud, according to Mr. Judson. Top lab and research people tend to circle the wagons. In this, they are no different from other institutions, Mr. Judson adds, citing such news-industry frauds as Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair. But they are much more difficult to detect and expose.

More typical of scientific fraud is the famous and convoluted case involving David Baltimore (scientific blueblood, Nobel Prize winner, and president of Rockefeller University) and one of his collaborators, Thereza Imanishi-Kari. They had worked together on a very significant paper involving transgenic mice and antibodies. But allegations of falsified data threw the whole matter into a protracted and amazingly bitter struggle that dragged on for years. Ultimately it involved tribunals, congressional hearings, professional inquiries, and even newspaper op-eds. Science itself seemed on trial - as indeed it was.

According to Mr. Judson, the main issue was between two conflicting views of how science should be conducted. One view maintains that the content of the paper was not the most important factor: What mattered more was the behavior of those involved. Mr. Baltimore's contrary view was that the only important thing was the scientific validity of the paper itself. Thus, even if data had been fabricated, the paper was acceptable, because other data would soon corroborate it.

Mr. Judson passionately disagrees with this view, and he deeply regrets that Baltimore and his team were ultimately absolved from wrongdoing by an oversight committee. The issue in the Baltimore case should have been about scientific ethics; the classic obligation and desire of the scientist to be his own first and most watchful critic. Mr. Judson gives the last word to Gerald Edelman, also a Nobel winner and a bitter opponent of Baltimore: "A scientist repeats the experiment when challenged, period. There is nothing more to say."

Mr. Judson is a committed player in this ongoing drama. As a nonscientist member of the scientific community, he speaks from within the brotherhood, and he has undertaken this detailed critique because there is clearly so much at stake. For those of us who are relative strangers to this world, "The Great Betrayal" is an intriguing, and troubling, introduction to the problems that confront the practice of science in the present century.