Fact and Fiction

Thoughts about a funny old world, and what is real, and what is not. Comments are welcome, but please keep them on topic.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Bad apples in science

In science you occasionally get bad apples, i.e. scientists who fabricate results. Fortunately, science is a self-correcting activity in which results have to be reproducible to be accepted, and theories have to be falsifiable in order to count as science. If nobody else can reproduce a result that is obtained by only one scientist then it is erroneous, no matter how talented that scientist is. A theory that makes no predictions about things that we can measure is not science, no matter how elegant or philosophically deep that theory is.

There are some famous recent examples of bad apples in science, such as J Hendrik Schön and Luk Van Parijs, both of whom lost their jobs and no doubt their careers as a result of their reckless dishonesty. The self-correcting nature of science worked for us by exposing these rogues, but the fall-out is that people trust scientists a bit less than they did beforehand. I wonder how many more as yet undiscovered cases of fraud there are out there.

What I don't yet understand is why would any scientist think that they could get away with fabricating results? They must know that other scientists will be attempting to reproduce their results. They must know that they won't receive any long-lasting recognition until other scientists actually do reproduce their results. No Nobel prizes have ever been rashly awarded because someone suddenly produced a surprisingly impressive result.

Is it possible that some scientists can so completely delude themselves that they really believe their faked results? I know self-delusion can easily happen, but usually a good night's sleep and a pause for reflection cures the problem. Maybe some people can't reset themselves in this way.

Is it possible that the demand for a continuous stream of publications forces some scientists into grey areas where they publish what they think their results would be if only they had the time to do the work? I am very familiar with this pressure to publish according to a schedule that is determined by "bean counters", and it isn't nice.


At 9 November 2005 at 05:19, Blogger Dennis Dale said...

Here's another form of rot threatening science:

Creationists refuted the theory of evolution today, though not quite in the way they intended. The Kansas Board of Education approved the introduction of Intelligent Design into high school science curriculum.
''It gets rid of a lot of dogma that's being taught in the classroom today,'' said one board member. His credentials as a scientist weren't noted; his imperviousness to irony is evidenced by his confusing the intrusion of dogma upon science with its "removal." Perhaps most sinister of all is how these government administrators are further blurring the official separation of science and religion in Kansas schools. From the New York Times story quoted above:
In addition, the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.
Well, isn't that special?

At 9 November 2005 at 19:00, Blogger Steve said...

The sad thing is that the person who made the comment "It gets rid of a lot of dogma that's being taught in the classroom today" (I haven't read the original source) actually believes that evolution theory is dogma. This belief is so far from the truth that there must be a serious misunderstanding somewhere.

Two possibilities occur to me:

1. They refuse to listen to anything that does not fit in with their prior prejudice, so it is a waste of time talking to them.

2. They do listen but the explanations are too incompetent/difficult/subtle/etc for them to understand, so they revert to their prior assumptions.

I think (2) above is partly true. Scientists have to get their thinking straight, and to present their case in clearly reasoned way. The fashion is to teach science as if it is a set of immutable laws that should be memorised, so most scientists can do science, but they can't reason about science. If more scientists (and perhaps even lay-people) knew how to coherently discuss what science actually is, then the peddlers of "intelligent design" would have no chance of destroying the educational system.

At 10 November 2005 at 00:10, Blogger Dennis Dale said...

More heartening news on this front (from my blog, referencing the NY Times):
In Pennsylvania voters turned out eight school board members who had inserted Intelligent Design requirements into the science curriculum, drawing a lawsuit from parents arguing that it violated church and state separation requirements. The lawsuit is pending. Some argue that the evolution debate was not the overriding factor in the election rout but it's worth noting that drawing the fewest votes of all candidates in the election was the leader of the creationist bloc.
The plot thickens.

At 10 November 2005 at 08:15, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think (1) above comes into play to the extent that they delude themselves. What's saddest of all here is that the devout seemed to have staked so very much on the refutation of evolution. Evolution doesn't challenge their literalist interpretation of biblical history that much more than a host of other disciplines. It does however, cut very close to the bone of religiosity in that it places mankind squarely in the natural world with other living creatures, that is to say, animals. They also sense opportunity in the fact that evolution is not readily apparent to the layman and so many laymen are so poorly read that they are simply operating on a vague word-of-mouth understanding of it. So they trot out this partial critique gussied up to appear like a scientific theory to the naive and voila, we have a "scientific debate."


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