Science fraud occurs much more often than scientists, or their apologists, want to admit. And scientists do not police each other well. If this problem affects operational science, then how much worse might it affect origins science?
Science fraud – a particularly disturbing episode
This fall, a disturbing story of science fraud broke in the world of psychological research. Professor Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University built an international reputation for research on several social-psychology topics.
Stapel’s work encompassed a broad range of attention-catching topics, including the influence of power on moral thinking and the reaction of psychologists to a plagiarism scandal.
That last would become richly ironic. Stapel has now admitted that he fabricated his data in dozens of papers. Worse yet, fourteen of twenty-one doctoral dissertations are now suspect. The reason: Stapel was the adviser on all of them, and furnished the data. Those data are among those that Stapel fudged or literally made up.
Falsification of data (“dry labbing”) is the worst form of science fraud. Universities usually expel students if they catch them at it. In this case, Tilburg University not only fired Stapel but ordered him to surrender his PhD.
Tom Bartlett, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, lists the ways, and the reasons, that Dr. Stapel got away with it:
- Pretending to help colleagues
- Making his data look good when they were not
- Conflating fact and fiction
- Control of the data
On December 3, Alan Kraut, also of the Chronicle, sought to assure people that scientists could and would still police one another. But his own evidence suggests that this is not happening and will not happen. Two articles that Kraut linked to, showed that:
- Many of the methods for data gathering and reporting practically lend themselves to “seeing” things that aren’t there. And:
- Scientists “fudge” their data all the time. They might not tell Big Lies, as Stapel did. But they tell “little white lies” that, together, add up to thoroughly mistaken insights. And one-third of all investigators in psychology might be guilty of this at one time or another.
Science fraud need not be intentional to do damage. When science fraud persists, laypeople ask themselves, rightly so: can they trust scientists? This is particularly important when legislators base public policy, and judges base rulings, on what scientists tell them.
Kraut links to a proposal by Barbara Spellman at the University of Virginia. Spellman wants all investigators to put all their data into a public dump. Thus anyone could see the data and check it out. Kraut also hopes that the two studies that show bad behavior (though not as bad as Stapel’s) will cause other scientists to look hard at how they do things. But will they?
Evolution scientists close ranks
In a celebrated case of which your editor has direct knowledge, the evolutionary scientists, far from implementing anything remotely similar to what Spellman proposed (and Kraut agreed with), closed ranks. And they are still closing ranks. This has invited science fraud in the past and does so today.
Richard Lenski, professor of microbial ecology at Michigan State University, insisted that, after twenty years of work, he could prove evolution. According to Lenski, minor but significant changes in a population of Escherichia coli, a common bacterium of the gut, showed evolution in action. The key: he insists that those changes are not due to contamination.
Andrew L. Schlafly, attorney-at-law and founder of Conservapedia, asked Lenski repeatedly to show the raw data that led him to that conclusion. And Lenski refused.
This article gives details on the questions that Schlafly and his students have about Lenski’s proposition and his claims.
In the last several days, Mr. Fergus Mason, of Glasgow, Scotland, has excoriated Schlafly (and, by your extension, your editor, who is a senior administrator of Conservapedia) in the comment spaces of this site. Mason has staunchly defended Lenski’s decision to release the data only “to competent scientists”—competent, that is, by Lenski’s definition. Thus Lenski insists on keeping control of the data. That is one of the ways, indeed the most important way, that Stapel got away with his science fraud for so long. Thus Mason’s defense of Lenski now suffers from a fatal weakness.
The most absurd defense that Mason gave is:
The data are the bacteria!
No, Mr. Mason. The data are the detailed notes on all the things that Lenski claims to have done with his sample, to confirm his observations. They are the same sort of data that Spellman (see above) suggested that every investigator ought to publish to a publicly available site. She even suggested that people publish data from studies that editors don’t normally publish, just to promote honesty in science generally. Neither Spellman nor Schlafly suggested releasing a delicate or hazardous sample to the public. Any suggestion that either person did so, is disingenuous.
See also this list of the correspondence between Schlafly and Lenski. Let any reader judge for himself, in light of the Stapel episode, whether Lenski acquitted himself well by stubbornly refusing to offer these data. And consider this: Lenski relied in part on United States government funds. Under the Copyright Act of 1973, that puts his work in the public domain. He has no right so to withhold information.
CNAV does not know whether Richard Lenski is guilty of science fraud or not. But any investigator, unwilling to share his data openly and make it transparent, is part of a problem that makes science fraud inherently more difficult to detect and root out.
A conspiracy mindset
David K. DeWolf, in Evolution News and Views, cites the Stapel affair to show that scientists are not always objective, and do not always police each other against science fraud as well as they say they do.
[L]et’s not be naïve—as I’m afraid Mr. Kraut has been—in believing that some mystical force spares scientists the unpleasant task of admitting the same kinds of mistakes that grocers, governors and athletic coaches have been forced to acknowledge.
David Klinghoffer, three days before the tenth anniversary of the Manhattan Terrorist Incident, suggested that evolutionists suffer from a mind-set that makes them close ranks, rather than admit fraud, misinterpretation, or plain old-fashioned illogic. He identified many ways that “Nine-eleven Truthers” behaved, and suggested that evolutionists often behave the same way. He then described a memorable example:
You may recall the news of a few months back that Glenn Branch, deputy director of the Darwin-lobbying National Center for Science Education, had collaborated with 9/11 Truth conspiracist James H. Fetzer in editing a special number of the journal Synthèse on “Evolution and Its Rivals.” That issue of the journal became so notorious for the incivility of its contributions that a whole fracas broke out and made the pages of the New York Times.
Klinghoffer could say the same thing about most of Richard Lenski’s advocates. He does say it of those who conflate Intelligent Design theory with creation theory. (The two are not the same.) He could easily say it of those who conflate operational science (that tells how the world works) with origins science (that tells how the world as we know it came to exist). And it goes double for anyone who insists that “science proves that there is no God.”
Such an environment is an open invitation to science fraud. Piltdown and Peking Men are the two prize examples. The Ernst Haeckel drawings, versions of which still appear in biology textbooks (and which Eugenie Scott at NCSE actively defends), are another example.
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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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