III. WHICH IS WORSE FOR SCIENCE: NEGLIGENCE OR DELIBERATE MISCONDUCT?


Schmaus has written that there are many who believe that

"...negligent, careless, sloppy, and reckless work [are] just as much a violation of moral duty as fraud. The potentially disastrous effects for science and society that may accrue from false information are the same regardless of the intentions of the author. Erroneous data reported from the testing of new drugs, for instance, can be dangerous whether they are a consequence of unintentional negligence or deliberate fraud.".(12)

These points are seemingly difficult to counter; however, let us reconsider an instance such as the cold fusion fiasco. Even though the information supplied by Pons and Fleischmann was found to be false due to their negligence, how has this matter proved to be disastrous for science and society? On the contrary, consider the easily formulated argument that their negligence has perhaps been beneficent for science and society. Should society be fearful of scientific fraud? Bauer indicates that "it is extremely unlikely that an issue of fraud in science will cause much harm. As others try to duplicate or build upon that claim, they will be unable to do so and it will thus be exposed. The harm is to science as a profession: time is wasted following a false trail.".(6)

In general, we can propose that both negligence and fraud are equally harmful to science. Time is wasted by those who attempt to reproduce experiments that do not offer a chance of success. Time is wasted by those who must carefully scrutinize questionable results. Time is wasted by those who must participate in outside investigations and hearings into such matters. In each case, the time lost could have been better allocated to potentially fruitful research activities.

Perhaps even more troubling is the damage inflicted upon the reputation of science. Science has normally been characterized as being able to mind its own store. Scientists proved to the public and the federal government that their projects were not terribly risky investments by applying textbook science to major undertakings; research initiated in the realm of the known-unknown.(6) Fascinating results were delivered in a timely manner. The projects had the look and feel of frontier science -- the unknown-unknown. Spin-offs associated with big science projects were often cited; many actually found their way quickly to the consumer. Instances of misconduct were supposedly dealt with internally and, if not, the public and popular media did not ordinarily have easy access to such information.

Modern technology has endowed us with an ease of information exchange. The media, often thriving on sensationalism, has taken full advantage of these information exchange capabilities. Approaches such as sensationalism help to sell newspapers and magazines and keeps people sitting in front of their televisions. Science is fair game. The general public may not have a clue as to how a transgenic mouse is different from a regular mouse. They may not understand the proposed chemical reactions associated with the fusion of two deuterium atoms either, but you can be sure that they will easily relate to a report of premeditated [scientific] dishonesty. They will have no difficulties in understanding the implications of shared [scientific] information that turns out to be unfounded. After all, these are violations of the accepted rules of the game by which all persons in society are expected to abide.

Just as society must be able to trust their policemen, firefighters, and doctors, they must be able to trust their scientists as well. It looks very bad for police officers everywhere when a few of their own physically attack a motorist late at night on a California interstate highway. It looks very bad for doctors everywhere when a doctor uses his own sperm to impregnate as many as seventy-five women at a fertility clinic.(18) Obviously, it looks very bad for scientists everywhere when a few of their colleagues tell the world that something can be accomplished when it cannot. Finally, it looks bad for all scientists when a number of their colleagues adamantly defend forged data that they should have exhibited skepticism toward at the outset. So, what can scientists do to mend their professional reputations and, as a result, continue to enjoy the privilege of self-regulation?


  • Return to Misconduct in Science
  • Next Chapter