Scientific Fraud

Peter Medawar

  • Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science by William Broad and Nicholas Wade
    Century, 256 pp, £8.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 7126 0243 7

Some policemen are venal; some judges take bribes and deliver verdicts accordingly; there are secret diabolists among men in holy orders and among vice-chancellors are many who believe that most students enjoying higher education would be better-off as gardeners or in the mines; moreover, some scientists fiddle their results or distort the truth for their own benefit.

None of these, though, is representative of his profession – and only people young enough to be cynical believe them to be so. The number of dishonest scientists cannot, of course, be known, but even if they were common enough to justify scary talk of ‘tips of icebergs’ they have not been so numerous as to prevent science’s having become the most successful enterprise (in terms of the fulfilment of declared ambitions) that human beings have ever engaged upon. The profession, sticking together (which is not such a bad thing to do), believes that cheating in science is a curious minor neurosis like cheating at patience – something done to bolster up one’s selfesteem. Rather than marvel at, and pull long faces about, the frauds in science that have been uncovered, we should perhaps marvel at the prevalence of, and the importance nowadays attached to, telling the truth – which is something of an innovation in cultural history, if by the truth we mean correspondence with empirical reality. The authors of the more lurid travellers’ tales would have been taken aback if someone had described them in modern vernacular as ‘bloody liars’, but so they were, many of them. They were telling stories, and wanted to tell good stories. Aristotle’s conception of poetic truth was one in which correspondence with reality played little part, and his biology gave an account of what he thought ought to be true in the light of his deep conception of the true purposes of nature. Thus it ought to be true according to the hebdomadal rule that male semen is infertile between the ages of seven and 21 – a pathetic absurdity of which Aristotle would not have been guilty if he had had any real sense of empirical truth. Aristotle was a pioneer, perhaps, in what I believe to be the commonest form of self-deception in science: the kind of attachment to a dearly loved hypothesis that predisposes us (yes, all of us) to attach a special weight to observations that square with and thus uphold our pet hypotheses, while finding reasons for disregarding or attaching little weight to observations and experiments that cast doubt upon them. There is no one who does not roll out the welcome mat with a flourish for those who bring evidence that upholds our favourite preconceptions.

The most puzzling fraud of all – for such in effect it was – was that of the segregation ratios (3:1; 9:3:3:1) as reported by Gregor Mendel in his plant-breeding experiments. As R.A. Fisher was the first to point out, these ratios conformed far too closely to theoretical expectations to be plausible, having regard to the numbers of plants and seeds involved. The explanation could be as simple as that Mendel was a nice chap whom his gardeners and other assistants wanted very much to please, by telling him the answers which they suspected he would dearly like to hear: moreover, as Mendel was an abbé, his assistants may have felt that there was an element of heresy in securing results other than those the Reverend Father was convinced were true. This is a subject on which the authors of the present book write amusingly.

I do not suppose that personal advancement is a principal motive for cheating in science: rather it is the hunger for scientific reputation and the esteem of colleagues. And I believe that the most important incentive to scientific fraud is a passionate belief in the truth and significance of a theory or hypothesis which is disregarded or frankly not believed by the majority of scientists – colleagues who must accordingly be shocked into recognition of what the offending scientist believes to be a self-evident truth.

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