There are several species of impositions that have been practiced in science, which are but little known, except to the initiated, and which it may perhaps be possible to render quite intelligible to ordinary understandings. These may be classed under the headings of hoaxing, forging, trimming and cooking.
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Explore This IssueJuly 2013
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—Charles Babbage: Reflections on the decline of science in England, and on some of its causes (1830)
A Bad Habit That Reaches Back To Ancient Times
For most physicians, the ruthless pursuit of money is not the major driver for either good or bad behavior. In fact, the most common form of medical malfeasance is research fraud. Scientific misconduct is not necessarily a sign of a decline of ethics among researchers today or a manifestation of the current climate of heightened competition for tenure and research funding. In his excellent review of scientific fraud, Charles Gross, PhD, professor of psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey, points out that accusations of misconduct pepper the history of science, dating back to the Greek philosophers.3 Ptolemy of Alexandria (90–168), one of the greatest astronomers of antiquity, has been accused of using, without attribution, observations of stars made by his predecessor Hipparchus of Rhodes (162–127 BCE), who himself had used much earlier Babylonian observations as if they were his own. Isaac Newton was criticized for introducing “fudge factors” into his magnum opus on gravity, Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), so as to increase its apparent power of prediction.
Many of us fondly recall the seminal studies of the Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel, who studied the hereditary characteristics of pea-plant crossings and reported near perfect and therefore statistically very unlikely ratios. When Mendel crossed hybrid plants, he predicted and found that exactly one-third of the plants were pure dominants and two-thirds were hybrids. Yet it took nearly 50 years before any scientist questioned the improbability of observing such a precise ratio. An undergraduate at Cambridge University in England, and the future creator of the analysis of variance (ANOVA) and other important statistical tests, Ronald Fisher, was the first to raise doubts about the accuracy of Mendel’s observations.
Even the father of microbiology, Louis Pasteur, can be faulted for his ethical lapses. According to the late Gerald Geison, PhD, professor of history at Princeton University, Pasteur lied about his research, stole ideas from a competitor, and was deceitful in ways that would now be regarded as scientific misconduct, if not fraud.4 These conclusions were reached through Geison’s analysis of Pasteur’s 102 laboratory notebooks, which confirmed that, for several of his landmark experiments in developing vaccines against anthrax and rabies, data were falsified. This behavior failed to deter Pasteur from receiving, in some years, as much as 10% of all the French government research funding. In fact, it probably helped fuel his rise to stardom.