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Patterns Of Complicity

The truth behind fraud in science.

‘One can only judge the rare acts that have come to light as psychopathic behavior originating in minds that made very bad judgments—ethics aside—minds which in at least this one regard may be considered deranged.’

Those words are from Philip Handler, then president of the National Academy of Sciences, testifying about fraud in science before a congressional hearing in 1981. Anyway, he asserted, legislators should not be concerned, because science operates in a “highly effective democratic, self-correcting mode.” Though Dr. Handler spoke two decades ago, he expressed all too clearly an attitude that remains widespread to this day among the scientific establishment.

Science, of course, has a hundred faces. Besides experiments and observations, data and hypotheses and theories, speculations and controversies, beyond the myriad varieties of method, science is a social system. Fraud is an intrinsic, ineluctable element in that social system. It has a long history. Classic cases implicate revered names: Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Sigmund Freud, Robert Millikan—one could add more.

We look at the classic cases with a double vision. We cannot help assessing them by today’s standards—not that today’s standards are necessarily higher than those of the past, and certainly not that the standards are more often lived up to, but rather that we have become more sophisticated about what goes into research, careful or sloppy, honest or fraudulent. Simultaneously, though, we must see the classic cases on their own terms, in the scientific communities of their time and the wider milieu in which they took place. Such, of course, is the central task of the historian.


Patterns Of Complicity; Copyright © 2004 Acumen Sciences, LLC, All Rights Reserved.Conspicuous in accounts of the classic cases has been the dismay evinced by those who raise the questions or bring out the evidence. Scientists often, and not far below the crust, are sweetly idealistic. They have heroes. More than that, for many scientists, science itself is a heroine—the French have got the gender right, la science—whose innocence and pristine reputation must be defended. When great scientists are attacked, the prosecutors themselves leap to the defense of the accused. Newton must be beyond reproach—Newton, the giant on whose shoulders all physics rested for two centuries? The problem—putting aside the alchemical investigations and heretical theology so long hidden in his notebooks—is that Newton adjusted his calculations of the velocity of sound, of the precession of the equinoxes, and his early work on the orbit of the moon to correlate more closely with his theories. Newton’s biographer Richard Westfall, though overawed by Newton’s intellect and achievements, confronted the evidence: “If the Principia established the quantitative pattern of modern science, it equally suggested a less sublime truth—that no one can manipulate the fudge factor so effectively as the master mathematician himself.”1 Mendel? The monk in the garden? The problem here, as the English population geneticist Ronald Aylmer Fisher demonstrated in 1936, is that some of his data are too perfect.2 Yes, well, “Mendel was the first to count segregants at all. It is rather too much to expect that he would be aware of the precautions now known to be necessary for completely objective data.”3 Darwin? The problem is that some of the photographs in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals were doctored. Ah, but, “In many ways publication of Expression marked the birth of empirical photography. It could not conform to rules about scientific photography, because it was part of the creation of those rules.”4 So strong is the compulsion to save the great men, to protect the reputation of science herself, that the defense turns nastily ad hominem. Pasteur? The hero of generations of French schoolchildren, the inspiration of countless careers in science? The problem is that his entries in his private notebooks contradict, significantly, his public claims for how he had achieved his most celebrated victories, including immunization against rabies. No, no, “complete rubbish,” his accuser is “trying to pull a great man down” and is himself “guilty of unethical and unsavory conduct when he burrows through Pasteur’s notebooks for scraps of supposed wrongdoing.”5

With Newton, Mendel, Darwin, Pasteur we frequently encounter the defense that their actions should not be judged by today’s standard. A variant: they are great scientists. But, after all, does that not make the offense more rank? A subtler corruption is implicit in the defenses of Newton, Mendel, and many others: the scientist’s conviction that he already knows the answer. From this arises a second and rather different defense. They were right. Their scientific conclusions are unimpeachable. Yet therefore—what, exactly? Are we really to conclude that the fudging or faking doesn’t matter, must be condoned? The argument is too frequently offered in exculpation of present-day misconduct.

In the classic instances of fraud, the perpetrators acted alone. Or so the stories are told: they fit suspiciously well that archetypal image of the solitary genius making—faking?—the revolutionary discovery. Recent scientific frauds display greatly different characteristics. In almost every case, to be sure, some one individual gets blamed, but these frauds cannot be presented even as anecdotes without an accounting of the relationships among many people within the laboratory and the larger institutional setting. The cases exhibit multiple, tangled complicities.

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1  1 Westfall, R.S. (1983) Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge University Press.

2  Fisher, R.A. (1936) Has Mendel’s work been rediscovered? Annals of Science 1:115–37.

3  Wright, S. (1966) “Mendel’s Ratios,” in Stern, C. and E. R. Sherwood, eds. The Origin of Genetics: A Mendel Source Book. W. H. Freeman: 173.

4  Prodger, P. (1998) “Photography and The Expression of the Emotions,” in Darwin, C. [1872] The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 3rd ed. Appendix III. Oxford University Press: 409.


5  Perutz, M. (December 21, 1995) review of Gerald Geison, The private science of Louis Pasteur. The New York Review of Books, and M. Perutz, personal communication.