I was talking with someone about the need to get good research in a particular area of interest to him, and he dismissed me outright.
“Not only is research a waste of time,” he said, “I could get research done and published that proved whatever I wanted it to.”
“Then I’d get another study published and so on.”
Was this guy cynical?
Is he completely wrong?
The history of fraud and falsification in the research literature is huge.
Yet how many times do you hear about the latest research, and really question if it was produced by outright fraud.
My favorite example is Gregor Mendel, the monk who in 1865 published experiments with growing peas, that demonstrated the basic principles of genetic inheritance.
It was pointed out however that his experimental results are in fact way too perfect to be true. The main reason why he is not totally rejected is because subsequent scientific results have shown he was correct. Being right saved him.
He might also have received some sympathy because no one in his lifetime took his results seriously, right or not. It wasn’t until the 20th century that his work was rediscovered and he was seen as a genius.
When I was going through medical school, one of the really interesting stories in science was the idea of “cold fusion”.
Two researchers with great scientific-type names, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann at the University of Utah, had found a way to get the energy of the sun, out of water at almost room temperature.
This was jaw-dropping stuff.
The attempts at replicating their research came thick and fast and the debate raged across hundreds of different research reports because the idea was so enticing.
Now almost two decades has past and the hope of cold fusion has come to nothing.
Most of the recent scientific fraud and misadventure has received much less publicity, but regularly in the scientific literature there are retractions and accounts of people getting caught out in various ways.
In colleges and universities, the proven rate of fraudulent activity is pretty high. Most of this fraud is copying of other’s work, and at the higher levels of published scientific research, plagiarism like this can be a lot harder to get away with because people assessing the research already know much of what is in a particular field.
More importantly however, it’s not much of a leap from copying someone else’s work, to inventing it from scratch, or at least filling in the gaps and covering over the flaws in the work you have done.
With the world awash in so much information it’s not hard to imagine that such behavior would be easy to get away with, at least on a few occasions.
This is all just another thing to think about when you hear about the latest piece of research on your favorite topic.
Science is still human after all.
-Dr Martin Russell