Monday, January 14, 2008

Isaac Asimov on Scientific Fraud: Self Correction or Self Delusion

Isaac AsimovThe famous biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov claimed to believe in evidence. In his book The Roving Mind he wrote:
Don't you believe in flying saucers, they ask me? Don't you believe in telepathy? — in ancient astronauts? — in the Bermuda triangle? — in life after death?

No, I reply. No, no, no, no, and again no.

One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out "Don't you believe in anything?"

"Yes", I said. "I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I'll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be."
I subscribe to Asimov's sense of science. It is why I know homeopathy or bone-throwing don't yet pass the sniff test.

The problem is that I don't think Asimov himself believed in evidence. Some who claim the scientific high-ground have an interesting view of evidence as Asimov's 1982 essay below demonstrates.

Striking examples of scientists ignoring reason and facts arise when science confronts actual evidence of its own malfunction. Note for example the newly instituted UK panel for Research integrity. This esteemed body has (as a fundamental principle of its operation) the idea that academic institutions are capable of honest "self-investigation" of misconduct by their own faculty. Evidence based policy this is not. There is voluminous and compelling evidence (n=1000, P<0.0001) that this is delusional nonsense.

The below 1982 commentary by Asimov is an interesting example of science in delusion. He contends that fraud in science (however defined) is rare. He contends that instances of fraud and their management reflect "credit" on science. He would have us believe that it is difficult to be a fraudster because science is always "self correcting". Fraudulent results will fail to replicate (who is going to repeat that $300million clinical trial of a drug controlled by Pfizer). It "is scientists themselves who catch the frauds" - science is after all self policing. He contends that there is absolutely "never any cover-up" and that the perpetrators of fraud are "exposed pitilessly and publicly .... the punishment is absolute - anyone who proves to have violated the ethics of scientific endeavor is ruined for life. There is no second chance, no vestige of status. He or she must drop out, forever disgraced."

Martin Keller is a nice example here, though I can think of many more persons disgraced in this way.

I believe in science, but I will have none of this nonsense. There is so much wrong in this short essay that it would make an ideal background to a teaching series on scientific fraud.


From SciQuest, February, 1982, p. 32, By Isaac Asimov

Every once in a while - not often - scientists discover that one of their number has published false data or has plagiarized someone else's work.

This is always deeply embarrassing, especially since these days such news usually receives wide publicity in the nonscientific world.

In some ways, however, these scandals actually reflect credit upon the world of science. Consider:
  1. Scientists are, after all, human. There is enormous pressure and competition in the world of science. Promotion and Status depend on how much you publish and how soon you publish, for the lion's share of credit comes if you are first with an important theory or observation. Under these circumstances, there is great temptation to rush things; to make up some data you are sure you will eventually find anyway that will support your theory, or to help yourself to someone else's work. The surprise, really, is not that it sometimes happens, but that it doesn't happen much more often. Scientists resist the pressure marvelously well.
  2. When it does happen, the mere fact that it is so publicized is a tribute to scientists. If it were a common event, or if people expected scientists to be corrupt it would make smaller headlines and drop out of sight sooner. Single cases of scientific corruption, however, will be talked about for years and inspire articles and books by the score. It's really a compliment.
  3. Cases of scientific misbehavior point out how difficult it actually is to carry them out successfully, or even for very long. .. . A vital principle in scientific research is that nothing counts until observations can he repeated independently and there, almost inevitably, anything peculiar is uncovered. Science is self-correcting in a way that no other field of intellectual endeavor can match.
  4. It is scientists themselves who catch the frauds; no one else is equipped to do so. The point is that scientists do catch them. There is never any cover-up on the grounds that science itself must not be disgraced. However embarrassing the facts may be, the culprit is exposed pitilessly and publicly. Science is self-policing in a way that no other field is.
  5. Finally, the punishment is absolute. Anyone who proves to have violated the ethics of scientific endeavor is ruined for life. There is no second chance, no vestige of status. He or she must drop out, forever disgraced.
  6. Add to all this the fact that scientific ethics requires all scientists to labor to find flaws in their own observations and theories - and to publicize these flaws when they find them - and you will understand how stern the requirements are and how astonishing it is that scandal is so infrequent.

What do you see in the mirror Professor? Self correction or self delusion?

Even in 1982 it would have been obvious to an evidence-based Asimov that his essay was delusional. In 1982 he could have been forgiven for failing to discuss corporate scientific fraud. He might not have noticed that honest scientists who draw attention to fraud are viciously persecuted while the scientific community stands by in silence. Most recent instances of scientific fraud have come to light, not through failed attempts at replication but through actual evidence of manipulation revealed through litigation. He might not have noticed then that the policemen are often government "regulators" who collude with fraud. So much for self policing.

Perhaps Asimov's perspectives would apply to some areas of physics or chemistry.

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Anonymous said...

Martin Keller (spit, spit) wouldn't know science if it hit him on the head.

Anonymous said...

Good work! It's easy to pick on homeopathic gurus and little old ladies who read palms for a living. Asimov is considered a hero to many.
The fact remains however, this essay is pure fiction. Asimovs specialty!

Radagast said...

Provided the original lie is in place for long enough, a whole reality will grow around it, thus making it true. Longevity is guaranteed, when nobody's really testing anything, apparently in accordance with the design of the system.

I'm bored of the Worshipful Company, so I'll offer you an example from some other place in my reading experience! The Conquista. The Spanish wanted lots of land, money and other stuff that the indigenous peoples had. So they pretended that they weren't people. Then they conducted lengthy debates on whether the fact that they were people, or not, permitted them (the Spanish) to claim the land indiscriminately by force, in the name of the King (and thus the Catholic Church), and rape and murder, as they saw fit.

All because the people weren't human. But, hey, that was all a long time ago, wasn't it? So much has changed, since then.


Anonymous said...

To believe something you have to believe in everything that's necessary for believing in it. Yes, fiction, and not science.

Garth Marenghi said...

hopefully the ranting of independent blogs can do a little to expose the lack of decent evidence behind many things in the modern world, one being government policy,

nice piece by the way

Aubrey Blumsohn said...

Thank you Garth. You have a a great blog. I agree - sham policy is at the heart of it

Anonymous said...

Thanks for dropping by my blog and for your comment on Paul Levinson's interview.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Super blog.

I agree "It's easy to pick on homeopathic gurus and little old ladies who read palms for a living."

Rocks in own eyes and so on.

Anonymous said...

Scientific fact is only scientific fact as long as it's beleived to be true!! "The world is flat" being a good example!! How true is true and how false is false is dependent on a number of factors one of these being the technology that supports the truth. Some science is touted as rubbish years after by scientists who have access to better data and better equipment. Homeopathy is also a good example. There has seemingly been a 1 million dollar reward for anyone able to prove homeopathy works, put forward by a wealthy American. so far no-one has been able to claim the money....