I can remember the first time I felt deeply betrayed. It wasn’t by a friend or a family member, but instead by a toy company. The early 1990s was a heady time for me. I was fully immersed in the cartoon masterpiece that was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT). I have not bothered to rewatch this show for fear that I would not currently share the opinions of my 5-year old self. Being a prepubescent boy living in the suburbs of New Jersey, I considered this high art. In a bid to further monetize the show, Playmates Toys released a line of TMNT action figures and accessories, which they advertised relentlessly on television at the time. My obsession for the summer of 1990 became the “Mutant Module.” Commercials showed a massive drill bit smashing through a nondescript countertop to break into a supposed gold vault. In rewatching this tv spot, I’m not exactly clear on why I figured this thing could actually drill through table tops. Nor am I certain about why I would want to destroy the various surfaces in my home, but at the time this seemed like a really desirable activity. I was deeply disappointed to open the box though and find a collection of plastic and stickers, which wouldn’t drill through a paper bag let alone a countertop.
I further lost faith in corporate America when I begged my parents, for a straight month, to buy me a pair of sneakers known as LA lights. It was my desire to “own the night,” as the ad campaign used to say. I felt like every kid in third grade had them and I needed shoes that spit red hot LED fire,to cruise up and down the cinder block halls of my elementary school. When my parents finally relented, and bought me the shoes, they fell apart in the span of week. I can still remember how bummed I was when the little light pack dropped out of the back during recess, rendering them just uncomfortable regular sneakers.
Besides being a testament to what a cushy deal my childhood was, I’m not going to lie, it still ticks me off a little bit that those shoes fell apart the way they did. After that corporate betrayal, I kind of realized that companies don’t always tell the truth. It made me a lot more skeptical of claims people might make in general. It also made me think of shoe and clothing advertising as just a bunch hype and as a result I really didn’t care about what I wore for the rest of my childhood. This produced a collection of shirts and sweatpants that closely matched that of Napoleon Dynamite minus the “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt. My wardrobe, arguably, didn’t recover until college and even to this day I’m still not someone you come to for advice on how to put together your outfit.
My fashion insecurities aside, I’ve never really felt screwed over by a fellow scientist. I’ve been lucky, I had a great advisor and generally honest colleagues. Unfortunately some people are not so lucky. For example there is the case of Vipul Bhrigu, a postdoc who systematically sabotaged the work of Heather Ames while she did her graduate work at the University of Michigan. There is actually security cam footage of Bhrigu poisoning Ames’ cell culture medium with ethanol. In the end he pled guilty to malicious destruction of personal property. He received 6 months probation and is on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars, to cover wasted lab time and resources.
I wish I could say this was just an isolated incident of lab misconduct and otherwise scientists are better and more moral than the general public. I do not have evidence to support the idea that this is true. The steady stream of questionable work and misrepresentation, which is regularly highlighted on Retraction Watch has disabused me of this notion. Some individuals are particularly problematic. As of this writing Yoshitaka Fujii holds the record, with 172 retracted publications showing evidence of data fabrication and misrepresentation.
Scientists being deceitful and treating one another terribly is far from a recent development either. One need only look at the petty fights between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Depending on who you ask, either Newton or Hooke was quite the asshole (I say why not both). I think the moral of the story is that being smart, doesn’t necessarily make you nice or honest.
Nor is making up data new to our time either, or systematically limited to just bad scientists. Naturalist James Audubon, while playing a prank on the socially awkward French naturalist, Constantine Rafinesqu, made up at least 28 fake species, which was not realized until relatively recently. Rafinesqu is also said to have had a reputation for a “fertile imagination” himself, when it came to naming and describing species.
Sometimes business interests can also corrupt the outcomes of studies. For example there is good evidence that the tobacco industry got very creative when assessing epidemiological data about whether their products caused cancer. It also seems quite clear that the cigarette manufacturer RJ Reynolds, had a set of conclusions that they were interested in arriving at and would much rather not let data get in the way.
Now let me just come out and say, all the things I’ve just described are pretty bad. In fact, they make me kind of mad. They are betrayal of the public trust, a betrayal of their colleagues and the graduate students who will waste their time and delay their graduation dates trying to get bogus experiments to work. In some cases, when public money is involved, it is also a real waste of a small percentage of your tax dollars. It also might cause you to distrust what is presented as scientific fact (e.g. climate change, evolutionary theory, the objective fact that I look good in a bathing suit). Here’s the thing though, you should be skeptical. You should ask questions. You should be leery if it’s just one study by little group at University/Company “X.” They really might be full of crap. I don’t know them, you don’t know them. Maybe they are making stuff up. Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe it’s a statistical fluke. Pick your confound … it could be that!
Here is the take home message to keep in mind though; science isn’t really about individual people. It is a human endeavor, yes. It is prone to human failings, but at the end of the day, it’s a collective process. It requires reproduction to be accepted. It’s not just my opinion that objects fall to earth with an acceleration of 32 feet per second squared (9.8 m/s²), lots of different people measured it and came to the same conclusion. Lots of biologists observe genetic changes in their organism of choice and conclude selection is very much a real thing. Others see it out in the world and conclude that natural selection seems to be legit.
Now some might wonder “how do we know scientists aren’t conspiring to fool us?” Here is the thing, scientists are not a monolith. Any graduate student, who has tried to schedule a committee meeting, can tell how hard it is to push a group of scientists towards a consensus opinion, on something like a meeting time or a defense date. It’s like herding cats. In fact I think that may be an unfair slander on cats, so nobody tell Retraction Watch because I may need to pull this blog post.
It’s not that scientists can’t be coordinated to do some really great and impressive things it’s just really hard and requires a great deal of discussion. If there was a massive conspiracy to deceive the public on a major scientific theory, some disgruntled junior professor, who was denied tenure, would have blabbed about it by now. In fact if you could provide evidence that some idea was very flawed and others could repeat it, well that is a path to the tenure track, because if there is one thing scientists kind of love it’s telling people that they are wrong. I think they might get a special high out of it, and that’s a good thing, even if it doesn’t always make you popular. Scientists do respond to evidence, and while some individuals may be corruptible, the system as a whole rewards those who find flaws. There are patents to license, awards to be gleaned and high impact publications to be published.
At the end of the day I think you will find that what motivates most scientists, even when they are committing fraud, is a desire for recognition, stability and funding. When Bhrigu was asked why he sabotaged Ames’ work he said, “I just got jealous of others moving ahead and I wanted to slow them down.” As long as studies are replicated by independent groups, and one study backs up the next then fields grow, funding improves and it becomes a virtuous cycle.
There are always a few things wrong, but it will only improve with time. It’s not perfect, but it just may be good enough. So I’ve resolved to stop losing sleep over scientific misconduct, and start worrying about important things. Like where can I find sneakers that light up in a men’s size 11.