Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Science and Truth

Reminder: see the previous essay about the Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip. Registration will open soon.

I consider science and scientists to be perhaps the best source of truth in the world. When I was a kid I believed politicians, and then along came Watergate. I believed radio evangelists, and then along came Garner Ted Armstrong. I think most of us realize that politicians, lawyers, corporations, and evangelists are in the business of selling image, not truth. In selling their image, sometimes they use truth, and sometimes not; they use it selectively, and sparingly.

Science has built-in systems to prevent both error and fraud. One of these is anonymous peer review. And it usually works. Whenever I would hear about scientific fraud, or about scientists who rushed forth to print unreliable results even if it was not fraud, I considered it to be a rare exception to the rule.

But after awhile the number of “exceptions” reached a critical point for me. I reached that point last night when I listened to the news.

The general rule for fraud is to follow the money. The more money is involved, the more desire there is to lie in order to get the money. That is why, for example, fossil fuel corporations lie about the science of global warming more than do solar energy companies. Fossil fuel companies want to sell us the energy-dense materials that they alone control; in contrast, the sun shines on everyone. Nobody can corner the solar, or wind, markets. Also, it is much more likely to find scientific fraud in medical or biotechnology research than in ecological research: more money is involved.

Perhaps no field of scientific research has been more of a gold-minefield for fraud than stem cells. In late 2004, Woo-suk Hwang published a paper in Science in which he claimed to have produced embryonic stem cells with donor nuclei—that is, you could get bio-identical stem cells. By late 2005 his fraud was exposed. At the 2005 AAAS meeting, everyone was thrilled by his discovery. When I went to the 2006 meeting, I saw the biotechnologists going around with sheepish looks on their faces.

Last year, a lab in Oregon managed to actually do what Hwang had only pretended to do. So far I have not heard anything negative about these findings.

This year, another group of scientists claimed to be able to produce pluripotent (almost-stem) cells by treating animal cells with acid. Once again it looked like a bright future for stem cell biotech. But just last night, the news reported that these results had been retracted. Fraud? Error? It is too early to say.

Creationists claim that evolutionary science is fraud. But this cannot be true, since evolutionary theory is based on thousands of individual research projects over centuries. However, it is possible for any one of these projects to be fraudulent, though extremely unlikely for them all to be. Scientific conspiracies just don’t work. But the results reported by a single lab can be, and often is, fraudulent.

If you follow the news section of Science, you find that scientific fraud is relatively common. Ten to a hundred times less common than among lawyers, politicians, and preachers, but still common enough that I have reached this conclusion: Scientists are more honest than most other people, but it is only a matter of degree. I am no longer a scientific idealist. I see it as a business in which truth pays off more than in other businesses, but when the opportunity or temptation for fraud comes along, scientists may embrace it. It is just that such temptation is less common in science than for corporations or politicians.

I can feel good about my line of work but there is no good reason for me to feel righteous about it.

1 comment:

  1. Continued funding in highly competitive fields leads labs to "enhance" their results, often reporting them in venues outside main stream science, i.e., news media, who always want to sensationalize everything. A lot of science frauds have that hallmark. And sometimes labs think they're almost there, and if they only had more funding, so the decide to boost things a bit. Frauds are still about the money.