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The Great BetrayalReview - The Great Betrayal
Fraud in Science
by Horace Freeland Judson
Harcourt, 2004
Review by Andrea Bellelli, M.D.
Oct 22nd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 42)

Several cases of malpractice by scientists, the consequence of either intentional hoax or sloppiness, have been discovered over the last forty years, and more have been indicated by historians of science. Since the scientific enterprise is usually regarded as the heaven of intellectual honesty, fraud in science strikes us as a sort of blasphemy and it is an important task to discover its occurrences. Were it only because of this reason, The Great Betrayal by H.F. Judson would be worth reading; but indeed this book has greater merits: it is well written, makes pleasant reading, and has extensive documentation.

The reader will be surprised to learn that such famous scientists as Newton, Darwin and Pasteur (to name but a few) did occasionally misreport their data in order to make their case more compelling. Here and there Judson inclines to be sensational rather than critical. The case against Darwin, by the admission of Judson himself, is a minor one (p.61-64), is a good example: in "The expression of the emotions in man and animals" Darwin resorted to the then pioneering art of photography to illustrate the facial expressions associated to inner emotions. Some, or perhaps most, of these photographs have been demonstrated to be artifice (as it was common for the portraits of the time). Judson fails to acknowledge that the photographs were not Darwin's "data". Darwin's data, right or wrong, were long hours spent observing animals (and humans); photographs could have been substituted for by paintings without touching in the least the scientific value of his book.

The attempt to indict great scientists of the past is a wrong move for Judson's cause, for it gives the impression that modern hoaxers stand on a par with Newton and Mendel, which is quite the opposite of common sense. This impression is strengthened by the cursory (and unargued) dismissal of the argument that the standards of the XIX century were not those of today. Mendel was biased in his analysis of peas by his theories (p.52-59), and today we would demand that he asks a fellow monk, unaware of the crossings, to judge whether a pea is green or yellow (i.e. that "blind" methods are resorted to). But in Mendel's times unconscious psychological biases were not fully appreciated and blind methods had not been developed; yet his biases did not prevent him from doing a beautiful job and from discovering the fundamental laws of genetics.

If the cases of great scientists of the XIX century may prove misleading for the uncritical reader, that of Freud is probably wrong. Freud cheated with his clinical observations, declared cured patients who were almost as ill as before entering psychoanalysis, accepted spurious or irrelevant data as proofs of his theory, published his hypotheses on books destined to the lay public rather than in scientific journals and so on. Such gross violations of scientific rules did not escape notice of Freud's contemporaries, and psychoanalysis was denied the status of a science from its very beginning. Psychoanalysis may qualify as an intellectual fraud, but surely never as a scientific one, unless we accept Freud's and nobody else's judgment on its scientific nature. Indeed, several authors maintain that psychoanalysis is a hermeneutical, rather than scientific, enterprise, and as such is not at all fraudulent, but subjective and true to its believers (the reader may refer to the works by J. Habermas and P. Ricoeur on this point).

Only when one comes to the recent cases of scientific fraud can the merits of Judson's book be fully appreciated, for his review is succinct and yet accurate, and poses the right questions in an unescapable way. Judson demonstrates that scientific fraud is not exceptional, on the contrary he proves it to be quite widespread, and to be seldom handed properly by the competent institutions.

The frequency of scientific fraud is difficult to determine, and Judson quotes estimates between 3 and 30% (p.171), that seem both exceedingly high and exceedingly variable. An obvious problem to solve, in my opinion, is the rigidity of the definition of scientific fraud: "... fabrication, falsification, plagiarism ... does not include honest error...", according to the US Public Health Service (p.172). This definition does not leave room for involuntary but culpable errors: overstatement, poor statistics, incomplete representation of the results and so on. Two recent and important cases of culpable errors in science, committed by honest researchers who failed to run the opportune control experiments and heavily trusted poorly reliable measurements, are Benveniste's water memory and Fleishmann and Pons' cold fusion; neither of these appears in The Great Betrayal, and the reason for their exclusion is probably that they do not fit the definition of fraud.

Selection of experimental data is an especially delicate issue. On the one hand selecting for representation those experiments that conform to the scientist's expectations and discarding contrary ones is clear-cut falsification. On the other hand discarding those experiments that the scientist believes are contaminated or in other ways unreliable is part of the honest judgment of every scientist. Often, doubtful or unexpected results are repeated several times and accepted only if reproducible, whereas expected or confirmatory results are more easily accepted. All scientists every now and then are confronted with data of uncertain quality and may decide that these should not be published; their decision in such a matter spans the whole range from prudent and honest judgment to outright fraud (p.189), and culpable errors may occur, perhaps frequently. If culpable errors of this type are counted as frauds, the incidence of scientific fraud may be significantly overestimated.

An important point raised in The Great Betrayal is the inadequacy of the peer reviewing process in stopping frauds; and although on the pars destruens of Judson's critics is flawless, the pars construens leaves much to be desired. Of peer reviewing, like of democracy, it can be said that it has obvious defects, but no acceptable alternative is in sight. Judson suggests that open refereeing (i.e. not anonymous) is superior to anonymous refereeing, and that the availability of scientific journals on line for free is going to improve the process.

Another relevant point Judson addresses is the rules and roles of the funding institutions, but here he goes astray and praises beginning-of-the-century practices and munificent millionaires choosing the right men and the promising projects out of their quasi-divine foresight, against state funding agencies and peer reviewing of grant applications. Because of his stubborn faith in the methods of the Rockefeller foundation, Judson gets caught in a futile paradox: the worst case of scientific fraud reviewed in his book, that of T. Imanishi Kari and D. Baltimore, although financed by federal fundings, appears to him as based on Rockefeller methods gone astray: "That was an anomaly." (p.253). The least we can say is that there is no obvious relationship between funding and scientific fraud, and, pace Judson, no obvious corrective of the latter by the former. Another defect of the present grant evaluation procedures, and here we cannot but concur with Judson, is elitism: only top scientists from top institutions pass scrutiny and emerging is very hard for young scientists from provincial institutions. This selection against potentially promising people is already imposing a heavy toll on the recruitment of young scientists.

An important evolution of the concept of authorship in scientific literature, that Judson thoroughly reports and praises, is championed by those journals which require that the published paper reports the specific expertise and contribution of each author. This practice may prevent or diminish "ghost authorship" (omission of a person who contributed to the paper but for some reason does not want to appear) and "guest authorship" (presence among the authors of people who did not contribute but is included for convenience or political reasons).

The second last chapter of The Great Betrayal bears the title "The rise of open publication on the internet" and expresses the confidence that free on-line journals will solve the problems of peer reviewing and reduce the incidence of fraud. Here I must have missed something, because, granted that having on-line journals is very convenient, the reasons why fraud should diminish and reviewing become less relevant thanks to the web is by no means clear. Electronic publishing is convenient and cheap, but why the shift from paper to magnetic support should change or make unnecessary the refereeing procedures? Why should it prevent fraud? Fraudsters will publish online as well as they publish on paper and the larger audience guaranteed by e-journals will not be at any advantage to detect frauds than the referees. After all, in several cases listed in The Great Betrayal fraudsters were detected by those refereeing procedures that Judson criticizes and hopes to dismiss.

Indeed, most e-journals employ the same peer-reviewing procedures of their ink-and-paper counterparts, and are as liable as those to all types of fraud except dull plagiarism, that is more easily detected by computers. An unrefereed, globally open system, as some advocate, would rapidly degenerate into a massive collection of junk, where important contributions would be dispersed to the point of being lost. Free open e-archives would probably grow faster and be of lesser quality: after all the refereeing process sets a standard and many papers that in the present system would be rejected, would appear in the unrefereed e-archives; more errors and more frauds would be published, and would escape notice for longer times. Judson does indeed present pro and cons of the open e-archives, but in the end his judgment is that online e-archives would be more exposed to the control of the community and this fact would discourage fraud.

A very interesting chapter of the book is devoted to the comparison between the logics of laws and that of science, applied both to the cases of forensic science and of trials of scientific fraud. This subject is beyond my expertise, and I found Judson's analysis interesting and educative.

Overall, The Great Betrayal is a good book on an important subject, but requires critical reading, and it is to be praised because it is stimulating and thought-provoking despite its flaws.

2005 Andrea Bellelli

 

Andrea Bellelli has an MD and a degree in psychology, and teaches biochemistry in theMedical School of the University of Rome, Italy.


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