The lie at the heart of science

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The lie at the heart of science: Fraud is more pervasive than we think

Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis | Journalist and author of Fraud in the Lab: The High Stakes of Scientific Research.

Quote:Everyday fudging of experimental data in laboratories cannot ex­clusively be explained by researchers’ desire to get an intuited result in a better­ than­ perfect form, as was the case with Mendel, or to distinguish themselves through the accuracy of their measurements, as with Millikan. It can also be due to the more or less unconscious need to confirm a result seen as established, especially if the person who initially discovered it is the recipient of a prestigious prize. Par­adoxically, another factor leading to fraud is conformism, as we have seen in the case of Jan Hendrik Schön. All these (bad) reasons for fudging data are as old as science itself and still exist today. The difference is that technological progress has made it increasingly simple— and therefore increasingly tempting—to obtain results that are easy to embellish. 

In a fascinating investigation, the anthropologist Giulia Anichini reported on the way in which experimental data was turned into an article by a French neuroscience laboratory using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Her essay brings to light the extent that “bricolage,” to borrow her term, is used by researchers to make their data more coherent than it actually is. Anichini makes clear that this bricolage, or patching up, does not amount to fraud, in that it affects not the nature of the data but only the way in which it is presented. But she also emphasizes that the dividing line between the two is not clear, since the bricolage that goes into adapting data “positions itself on the line between what is accepted and what is forbidden.”

Quote:Since 2011, the highly prestigious European Molecular Biology Organization has entrusted a layperson with screening the four jour­nals it publishes: Jana Christopher, a former makeup artist at the English National Opera, casts an eye expert at detecting subterfuge on the images of every manuscript accepted by the journals’ scientific reviewers. One out of five proves to be beautified, one out of one hundred to such an extent that the study’s publication has to be canceled, despite the fact that it has been validated by the peer re­viewers.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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