AS IF ON CUE, the week that Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science was scheduled for publication, science magazines reported yet another case of fraud in science. A senior biochemist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine had admitted that he faked the synthesis of a hormone potentially important in treating the blood disease hemophilia. His claims of success had figured in years of major public and pharmaceutical funding and a U.S. patent.
The episode underlines neatly the premise of William Broad and Nicholas Wade's Betrayers of the Truth, that fraud is commonplace in science and deserves our close attention. The book is an encyclopedia of scientific deceit, from data-fudging by the likes of Newton and Mendel, to notorious hoaxes like the Piltdown man, to Lysenko's grim reign in Russian genetics, to recent scandals at such elite American universities as Yale, Harvard and Cornell.
Particularly lively and detailed are the tales of recent scandals, which flesh out earlier news accounts, including the authors' own coverage for Science magazine, where both were reporters before joining the staff of The New York Times. Here, for example, is the amazing odyssey of Elias Alsabti, who in the late 1970s hoodwinked the governments of his native Iraq and of Jordan, and then several prestigious U.S. medical research centers, with his claims to higher degrees, scholarly publications, new wonder drugs, and royal pedigree. Having pirated a number of papers from other scientists wholesale, he was eventually exposed; but he has disappeared, and so may still be carrying on, even conducting research on human patients, under an assumed name.
Here, too, is the brash young student, Mark Spector, who in 1980 lied his way into Cornell University's graduate school, where his laboratory trickery fooled a widely respected senior professor. Together they launched a claim to a new theory of cancer causation that dazzled the fathers of the field for over a year.
Even more embarrassing to scientists was the episode at Yale Medical School in which a highly placed, distinguished professor, Philip Felig, was disgraced after it came to light in 1980 that a junior professor, Vijay Soman, had faked data on a number of papers the two had coauthored. Soman was exposed only after a year of persistent pressure from a young researcher at National Institutes of Health, Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard, who found her words and work, lifted from a paper she had submitted for publication, in a paper Soman and Felig were submitting for publication. Soman disappeared to his native India, Rodbard left research, and Felig was demoted at Yale.
But what are we to make of all this scientific chicanery? The authors use it to build a case for widespread reform in the conduct of science. For every exposed fraud, they contend, 100,000 others "lie concealed in the marshy wastes of the scientific literature." And the existence of this "small, but not insignificant, endemic feature of the scientific enterprise" puts the lie to the conventional ideology of science, in which science and scientists are credited with being universally objective, uniquely logical, rigorous, and self-correcting. Instead, scholars, scientists, and public must recognize that scientists can at times be treacherous, self-serving, suggestible, gullible and prejudiced. Based on this more realistic view of science, scientists should institute protective measures to guard against the abuses that come with human weakness.
In justifying such sweeping reform, the book relies almost exclusively on the argument that the fraud fostered by the current system has serious consequences for science and society--and it is here that the book falls short. The spectacular episodes of scientific fakery make absorbing reading, and create a compact and coherent book, but they are limited as a basis for criticizing contemporary science. Except in instances of testing products for the Food and Drug Administration, which is not typical of the social system of science, the authors fail to make a case that fraud has had much impact beyond the frustration and embarrassment of its victims--disturbing indeed, but not enough to inspire widespread change.
Far more convincing arguments for reform in science are thrown away in passing, in the book's descriptions of erosion and growing cynicism among young scientists, waste and inefficiency in the use of public and corporate funds, and cases of sexism and other forms of elitism that have marred and even aborted young careers.
To compensate for sparse data, the book employs a style that is strident, pedantic, and repetitive, and a tone disillusioned and even sinister, as it explores the "vast unscrutinized underworld of research." "Historians, philosophers, and sociologists," most of them unnamed, are taken to task repeatedly for their ideological view of science, while the vigorous and insightful efforts of many recent scholars, policymakers, and even scientists, to address and regulate the "human side of science" are never acknowledged.
In short, the book's shortcomings make it easy to dismiss, and it shouldn't be dismissed. The problems it identifies are real. Scientists are curiously defensive and resistant to criticism. (Some of their reviews of this book, for example, have been and will be scathing.) And the public is curiously willing to relinquish to scientific experts inappropriate authority and power.
More specifically, the authors pinpoint two areas of abuse. First, there are too many scientific papers published in too many scientific journals, perhaps by too many scientists. Basing their conclusions on sociological studies, they note that most published scientific papers are "worthless," never cited in other scientists' work, serving only to inflate the authors' publication lists and further their careers. The number of journals has proliferated, some becoming almost vanity presses. Papers are frequently split into "Least Publishable Units" to maximize the publishing mileage from one piece of research. The clutter hampers the ability of scientists to recognize and reward good work.
Second, the authors argue that the hierarchal structure of the scientific community is elitist and damaging. Students and junior scientists typically collaborate with senior mentors and laboratory chiefs, who can abuse their power by taking disproportionate credit for the juniors' work. There is no formal system for determining whose names will appear on published papers, for example, and lab chiefs' names appear, even as first authors, on papers describing research in which they had little or no direct part. When problems like fraud and incompetence arise, the prestige of the lab chief protects him and even his juniors from appropriate scrutiny and criticism. This celebrity system, according to the authors, nearly prevented the Soman-Felig affair at Yale from being investigated, for example, and cost a graduate student the share she deserved of the Nobel Prize awarded for the discovery of pulsars.
In spite of the elitism and waste, the authors are not advocating public intervention in the business of science. At heart, the book is addressed to scientists, enjoining them to overcome their predictable defensiveness, recognize their weaknesses, and put their house in order. Let us hope that scientists will listen in spite of the book's imperfections.