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Policy

We must strive to make science more open—and honest.

Antoine Lavoisier, who lived from 1743 to 1794, was chemistryís first great empiricist. Using Newtonian analytics, he lit Parisís gloomy Quai díOrsay, designed a process to manufacture gunpowder, and debunked the shaky theories of transmutation. The conservation of mass, the chemical law that states that matter is neither created nor destroyed, springs from his genius.

Lavoisier was also a liar. When the English chemists Joseph Priestly and Henry Cavendish isolated and described the properties of oxygen and hydrogen, Lavoisier, hungry to substantiate his own theories, claimed their discoveries as his own.

It is a curious irony that scienceís hermetic pursuits, which rest on punctilious observation and repetitious, exacting measurement, are so vulnerable to fraud. “I am young and avid for glory,” Lavoisier said. And no wonder: there are few disciplines where the apogees and nadirs of success or failure can alternate so rapidly. Most experiments fail. Careers often end with a scientist still waiting for a positive result. Prizes and fame are won for a solitary, fleeting discovery.

Like medieval guilds, formed as much for the protection of a professionís common interests as for the perpetuation of its craft, the community of science actively shields its members from outsiders who would penetrate its mysteries. Scientists judge scientists; no one else oversees them. But modern biology has shattered the guild into hundreds of specialties and subguilds, where practicing experts are few in number, where everyone knows everyone else, and where bias or prejudice are therefore probable. Falsification is likely when small groups of scientists are expected to police themselves, as discussed in the essay “Patterns of Complicity,” on page 102 of Acumen, Volume II — Issue 1.

Publishing results on the Internet for all to see and comment upon, or imposing legal punishment for deliberate deception, will perhaps limit the scale of scientific fraud. Our best hope lies, however, with ordinary scientists who labor in the night in pursuit of limited glory. It is their criticism that exposes those who, like Lavoisier, strive too hard. The attempt to replicate an experimental result, borne out of skepticism of its claims—or pure curiosity—is the best guarantee against fraud. In the end, science is most honest and truthful when it is the possession of the most people.

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» Policy: We must strive to make science more open—and honest.

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