Friday, January 4, 2013

Criminality and Scientific Research:Why Scientists Go Wrong; and Why the Wrong People Become Scientists

“Crime knows no neighborhood” is an axiom of criminology. In other words, every population contains members who stray from folkways, violate norms, harm others, break laws, ignore contracts, and betray trusts.  Occupation, avocation, ethnicity, nationality, language group, religion, philosophy, ideology, age, sex, gender, height, weight, body mass, and shoe size are all irrelevant. 

So, of course, some scientists are criminals.  They falsify data; and they embezzle research funds. They also harass coworkers and subordinates, discriminate on the basis of race, age, religion, and gender. And they cheat on their spouses, beat their dogs, and kick their cats.  But not every scientist who falsifies data abuses their aged parents. In fact, very few do.  The arithmetic of intersecting sets limits the count.  If 20% of scientists publish phony findings and if 20% of researchers carry non-existent students on their payrolls, then only 4% of research scientists do both.

At the same time, criminality is a way of life.  The criminal researcher does not round up the value of a single point on one graph to make the curve smoother.  And the vagary is not the first lapse after 35 years of devotion to truth.  If a complete and nearly omniscient investigation could be conducted, it would most likely show falsified lab reports in ninth grade biology. 

Of course, “most likely” is not “certainly.” When the case of Jan Hendrick Schön was finally resolved, the University of Konstanz revoked his doctorate, even though his dissertation was above reproach. 

Revocation of degree is perhaps the most serious punishment any scientist can face. 
See “Another Case of Fraud in University Research” here.  Even though Dr. Eric Poehlman was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. he kept his degrees.

It seems that in the instance of Jan Hendrick Schön the pressure for results was his motive for crime.  The pressure for results has been cited as a cause of research fraud.  However, it is also true that truck drivers also labor under a call for results and that does not justify crime for them.  Basically, everyone whether in a market economy or a centralized state is called upon to produce.  At the end of a sabbatical, a professor is expected to show more than a sun tan.

Given all of the above, the research enterprise that does not engage independent investigation jeopardizes its funding and its social status.  Which loss would be the worse is hard to say.

Whether all crimes are evenly distributed across all neighborhoods is another question.  It remains an easy assumption that life sciences are more susceptible to deviance than physical sciences.  Tons of public money are thrown at both; but as living entities are more complicated than subatomic particles, experimental results may be harder to quantify rigorously.  Confirmation bias may be a greater danger when we want to believe that we are helping other people live longer and better.  Another explanation is that the US Department of Health and Human Services actually has  an active Office of Research Integrity, while the U.S. Department of Energy has none. 

On 6 April [2011], a federal district judge in Boston, Massachusetts, dismissed a lawsuit that I had filed in 2009 under the US Freedom of Information Act. He concluded that the US government does not have to release a report on an investigation into a case of alleged scientific misconduct at a national laboratory. The ruling was disappointing but liberating: I finally had occasion to write about a case that has shown how the US Department of Energy (DOE) takes a strikingly hands-off approach to the oversight of such investigations.
"Misconduct oversight at the DOE: Investigation closed" by Eugenie Samuel Reich
Nature 475, 20-22 (2011)
Published online 6 July 2011 here
University oversight committees focus on human factors. We seek to protect individuals from unintended harm during experiments and surveys in psychology and sociology. But you cannot hurt a chemical or a star.  Short of serendipity, we only find what we seek. 

Previously on Necessary Facts

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