Day By Day

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Continuing Collapse of Scientific Authority -- Marc Hauser

One of the most important figures in the study of cognition has been Harvard professor Marc Hauser. His work on evolutionary biology and the biological basis for morality has been praised by such luminaries as Peter Singer and Noam Chomsky. He has published more than 200 papers and several books. He is, or rather was, a heavyweight.

Writing in the Nation Charles Gross details Hauser's fall from grace. The results of a government investigation into his work have not yet been revealed, but a Harvard faculty investigation has found him guilty of eight counts of "scientific misconduct". Earlier this year he was banned from teaching, and subsequently resigned his professorship at Harvard.

What is the meaning of all this? Charles Gross explains:
Science is driven by two powerful motivations—to discover the “truth,” while acknowledging how fleeting it can be, and to achieve recognition through publication in prominent journals, through grant support to continue and expand research, and through promotion, prizes and memberships in prestigious scientific societies. The search for scientific truth may be seriously derailed by the desire for recognition, which may result in scientific misconduct.
Certainly the reasons for error go beyond the "desire for recognition" -- we might note ideological predispositions, confirmation bias, monetary considerations, and a host of other factors -- but far more important than understanding why some scientists falsify and misattribute data is the extent to which systematic fraud has permeated the scientific community from its ancient origins. Gross writes:
Accusations of scientific misconduct, sometimes well supported, pepper the history of science from the Greek natural philosophers onward. Ptolemy of Alexandria (90–168), the greatest astronomer 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 used “fudge factors” to better fit data to his theories. In his studies of hereditary characteristics, Gregor Mendel reported near perfect ratios, and therefore statistically very unlikely ratios, from his pea-plant crossings. When Mendel crossed hybrid plants, he predicted and found that exactly one-third were pure dominants and two-thirds were hybrids. The high unlikelihood of getting exact 1:3 ratios was first pointed out in 1911 by R.A. Fisher, the founder of modern statistics and a founder of population genetics, when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Though Charles Darwin has been cleared of accusations of nicking the idea of natural selection from Alfred Russel Wallace, he seems to have only reluctantly credited some of his predecessors.
Wow! Ptolemy, Newton, Mendel, Darwin... members of the pantheon all. The list underscores just how powerful and ubiquitous are the temptations to which even the greatest scientific minds are susceptible. But certainly, you would think, the modern scientific community, with its elaborate professional standards, peer review, and international associations, would be relatively immune to such error. But, you would be wrong.

In the past few decades there have been a number of studies asking scientists at every level of research in a variety of fields, and under the cover of anonymity, whether they had engaged in fabrication, falsification or plagiarism, or had direct evidence of such misconduct by others. Although the results were variable and involved different survey response rates and methodologies, the overall picture is disturbing.

In a large and pioneering survey of science graduate students and faculty at ninety-nine universities, the historian of biology and ethicist Judith Swazey and her colleagues found that “44 percent of students and 50 percent of faculty” had knowledge of two or more types of misconduct, broadly defined; about 7 percent had “observed” or had “direct knowledge” of faculty falsifying data. In a survey of its members, the International Society of Clinical Biostatistics found that 51 percent of respondents knew of at least one fraudulent project in the previous ten years. Of 549 biomedical trainees at the University of California, San Diego, 10 percent said they had “firsthand knowledge of scientists’ intentionally altering or fabricating data for the purpose of publication.” In a similar survey, 8 percent of biological and medical postdoctoral fellows at the University of California, San Francisco, said they had observed scientists altering data for publication. The American Association for the Advancement of Science surveyed a random sample of its members, and 27 percent of the respondents believed they had encountered or witnessed fabricated, falsified or plagiarized research over the previous ten years, with an average of 2.5 examples. A study by the director of intramural research at the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of the Department of Health and Human Services found that of 2,212 researchers receiving NIH grants, 201 reported instances of likely federally defined misconduct over a three-year period, of which 60 percent were fabrication or falsification and 36 percent plagiarism. Noting that in 2007 155,000 personnel received research support from the NIH, the authors suggest that under the most conservative assumptions, a minimum of 2,325 possible acts of research misconduct occur each year. Finally, in a meta-analysis of eighteen studies, 2 percent of scientists admitted to fabricating or falsifying data and more than 14 percent had observed other scientists doing the same.

Scientists guilty of misconduct are found in every field, at every kind of research institution and with a variety of social and educational backgrounds. 
So we are not dealing merely with a few "bad apples" -- marginal figures whose misconduct doesn't compromise the integrity of the scientific community in general. This is systematic and pervasive fraud and it brings into question the scientific enterprise in all its aspects. 

Keep this in mind the next time you hear about questionable practices among climate researchers, nutritionists, or medical studies. These fields, because of the immense amounts of money involved, have been particularly susceptible to fraud. And, most importantly, remember this when you hear a politician or policy expert say that they "trust the science". All too often, especially in the areas most closely related to public policy, "science" is not to be trusted. 

Read Gross' article here.

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