Do Scientists Ever Fabricate and Falsify Research?

j0386202Have you ever asked yourself that question?  Apparently you’re not alone.  The science journal PLoS ONE recently published an article which asks, “How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research?

This is an extremely relevant question to many areas of discussion and public policy.  From health care to taxes to abstinence to abortion to stem cell research and more, so much of public policy today is driven by what purports to be “scientific” evidence.  We would do well to understand all we can about the background and reliability of “scientific” evidence.

Scientific evidence is indeed a good thing upon which to base our public policy decisions (that, and common sense). True scientific evidence would generally provide a more reliable foundation than mere opinion and commonly accepted wisdom. But in order for scientific evidence to be presented to the public, it must first be measured, compiled, and documented.

Being the finite creatures that we are, scientific evidence is seldom complete or totally understood. What’s more, the scientific evidence we do have at our disposal is subject to the steps I mentioned in the last paragraph–steps which involve interpretation and filtering. It is in these “human handling” steps where the reliability of scientific data is most likely to break down, potentially becoming an overrated club with which to beat ideological opponents.

Indeed, we often hear it stated or strongly implied that scientific evidence is objective, that it is factual, that it is reliable, that it is above petty human biases and concerns.  Ironically, we often hear this from those most ideologically invested in contaminating the “human handling” phase of presenting scientific data for consideration.

Contrary to what many in the professional and scientific community want average Americans to think, doctors, scientists and researchers are not above politics, ideology, biases and personal passions.  No matter how well educated, no matter how well trained, no matter how well paid, no matter how “scientific” a person’s background, at the end of the day, every single scientist is human.

That means even scientists and other professionals are subject to the same corruption of the heart as everyone else, susceptible to the same foibles and vanities as any other human being.

Two epic examples of the corruption of science have dominated the public arena for a long time: the theory of evolution and the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Both hijack a mustard seed of evidence and, fueled by extravagant amounts of assumptions and speculation, attempt to steer the available scientific facts to places those facts simply will not go under their own power.

Despite the fact that the former is unworkable with the framework of its own assumptions, and both tend to defy common sense and the “smell test” of credibility (especially the latter), we are lectured to like simple little children that the professionals know what they’re talking about, that we must “take their word for it,” that the facts are objective, and that because they are professionals they are above bias.

But this article from PLoS ONE takes a close, analytical look at that contention of unimpeachable integrity and objectivity from the scientific community…and finds it wanting.

Here is what the study found:

A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once –a serious form of misconduct by any standard– and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Meta-regression showed that self reports surveys, surveys using the words “falsification” or “fabrication”, and mailed surveys yielded lower percentages of misconduct. When these factors were controlled for, misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others.

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad: 1.97% admitted their own falsification and 33.7% admitted they had engaged in questionable research practices. Hmmm. A third admitted to their own questionable research practices.  Maybe that doesn’t sound too good, after all.

When reporting on colleagues (where the objectivity factor may theoretically go up), those figures rose to 14.12% falsification and 72% questionable practices.

How does PLoS ONE evaluate the reliability of these results?

Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.

So how high is the rate of falsification and questionable practices? That may be impossible to tell. But it’s pretty obvious that the scientific community is not the unimpeachable source of total truth that they and their allies in the “mainstream” media would have us believe.

Now am I saying that all research data we hear about in the news is total bunk?  Of course not.  Is every scientist or other professional a liar who will twist the facts to support their personal biases?  No.

But the findings outlined in this PLoS ONE article substantiate the understanding that all human beings are subject to bias and dishonesty.

j0430481The consequences for public policy are that much of the information upon which we craft law and policy may not be reliable–and how are we to know what is reliable and what isn’t?

If a scientist or three who have an ideological agenda take a grain of factual information and fabricate a misleading shell around it, we may be tempted to adopt harmful and useless laws based on that deception.

And if large numbers of scientists fall prey to the same peer pressure “herd instinct” to which all humans are susceptible (after all, they don’t want people to think they’re dumb), the deception gains even more credibility until it reaches the point where objective examination of the facts is rejected and even ostracized.  When peer pressure is involved, acceptance of errors can become a self-perpetuating snowball.

And this is where our society currently stands on the issues of evolution theory, anthropogenic global warming and more.

Must we ignore every scientific report and finding which comes our way?  Of course not.  But we must keep in mind that the scientific community is made up of human beings too, subject to the same  failings of perception, morality and bias as the rest of us.

Always remember to apply the “smell test” to anything you hear.  If it defies common sense and reason, there’s a good chance it isn’t “science,” but rather someone’s dressed-up bias.

8 Responses to “Do Scientists Ever Fabricate and Falsify Research?”

  1. The words “science says” have incredible power to influence people. Do you think nobody's going to try to use (or abuse) that power for their own ends? Why do you think some of the greatest ideological battles take place over what scientific evidence (supposedly) says?

    Nowhere is this more evident than in the debate over origins. Darwin's hypotheses allowed atheism to gain great power in the scientific community over the course of the 20th century. That's why we keep hearing things like “all scientists agree about evolution” — a statement so easily discovered to be false that no one has an excuse to believe it.

  2. Do you have proof or are you just spouting off the same old paranoid rants that you usually engage in? Show us the proof and real evidence, please…

  3. Mac, do you really want proof, or are you just spouting the same old head-in-the-sand denials you usually engage in?

    If you'd really like to see some proof, put your mouth in park, put your brain in drive, then re-read (or more likely, read for the first time) the article.

  4. Mac – Yours is the language of emotional venting, not of reasoned discussion. I'm not sure what part of all this you're asking for proof of, but at this point you sound like you'd only explain it away anyway.

    It's easy to find out that scientists are not all in agreement about evolution, and that it wouldn't necessarily mean anything if they were. It's easy to see that even scientists are human, fallable and biased. It's easy to see the current scientific world's power structure that tolerates no dissent when it comes to certain sacred cows. And you don't even have to watch EXPELLED to find some of this out.

    There are people who have an answer for everything — an answer that fits what they already believe — and there are people who want to know the truth whether they like it or not. Until you're willing to be in the latter category, you're letting yourself be lied to where you can least afford it.

  5. DCM ” It's easy to find out that scientists are not in agreement about evolution”

    Almost all scientists do believe in evolution, but debate vigorously on certain aspects of it.

    I think that is the honest and correct way to put it.

  6. DCM ” It's easy to find out that scientists are not in agreement about evolution”

    Almost all scientists do believe in evolution, but debate vigorously on certain aspects of it.

    I think that is the honest and correct way to put it.