New book on fraud in science

feynmanby Arenamontanus

Feature: Research ethics: science faces On Fact and Fraud
[Via Ars Technica]

David Goodstein has a unique perspective on scientific fraud, having pursued a successful career in research physics before becoming the provost of Caltech, one of the world’s premier research institutions. As an administrator, he helped formulate Caltech’s first policy for scientific misconduct and applied it to a number of prominent cases—all of which should put him in an excellent position to provide a rich and comprehensive overview of scientific frauds and other forms of research misconduct.

Unfortunately, his book On Fact and Fraud doesn’t quite live up to this promise. Goodstein devotes most of the book to case studies of fraud or potential misconduct. Although many of the individual chapters are excellent, they don’t come together to form a coherent picture of what constitutes misconduct or how to recognize it.

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If memory serves, David taught a physics class I was in at CalTech. I vividly recall something he showed that informed me more about science than anything else I learned in that physics class.

I think his wife worked as the archivist in the library and he got access to Millikan’s original lab books dealing with the  ‘oil-drop’ experiment – he won the Nobel Prize for this work although the credit is somewhat complicated.

I wrote before about the lab notebooks and the effect Goodstein’s description of the work had on me. Part of the genius and tragedy of science is that sometimes there is little objective difference between a Nobel Prize winner and a fraud.

But there is a huge difference in reality – the Nobel Prize winner is right.

Science is done by humans, with many of the same foibles as seen elsewhere. But, as Feynman said, “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out.” We have developed a set of norms that helps us overcome many of our own instances of misconduct or bias to get to the truth.

I wrote about one instance that Feynman mentioned also dealing with Millikan. Even good sciece can have inherent bias. I’ll let Feynman discuss it:

Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of–this history–because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong–and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.

In a world of rules, this would all be called fraud. The difficulty is that science works in a place where we do not understand the rules.

A thought – you repeat Millikan’s work, the work he got the Nobel Prize for. You get a different value. You do it again and you get a value closer to Millikan’s. Which will you suppose is right and which will you suppose is wrong due to some aspect of the experiment you have not sufficiently controlled for?

Most people will believe the number closer to Millikan’s. It will take a lot of independent work to verify that Millikan was actually off .

This is not fraud. It is confirmation bias and is a big part of why there is so much vetting of data by so many people today. Millikan’s error would not have lasted nearly as long today because there is greater openness, transparency and competition.

Read Feynman’s speech. It’ll tell you more about how science is done, and how we protect ourselves from the fraudulent, than anything else that you can read.

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