Who was it who recommended I read this book? Step forward! Someone out there recommended I read this recently, I know.
Horace Freeland Judson is a science journalist who tackles the issues of scientific fraud. The content was interesting, especially in context of in light of the recent stem cell research scandal, but I felt the treatment was scattered and lacked focus.
Judson describes instances of fraud by some of the major scientists of the last two hundred years - Darwin, Pasteur, Haeckel, etc., and then jumps to a description of several high profile modern scientific frauds. How were they perpetrated? How were they discovered? What was the institutional reaction to discovery?
Those institutions and scientists who react swiftly and openly come out looking best. But even some quite prominent and respected figures have been shown to be involved in 'scientific misconduct', which spawns the gamut from tweaking results, to putting one's name on a paper that one has not authored, to outright fabrication and plagiarism.
Judson begins to lose his focus when he goes beyond specific instances of fraud into the wider implications. Clearly he is right when he concludes that fraud in science is not self-correcting; many egregious examples of fraud were discovered only by happenstance. Where he is on less solid ground is concluding that undiscovered fraud is widespread. How many things don't we know about? Hmmmm.
Judson also argues that peer-review of grant requests and refereeing of papers are two institutions greatly in need of reform, leading to greater opportunities to commit fraud and 'misconduct'. Grant requests are so competitive that review boards end up choosing between grants of 'equal scientific value' - demoralizing and an invitation to cronyism. Peer review of papers almost always fails to detect fraud, and is an invitation to plagiarism.
Judson's claim is that within the next ten years both institutions will be clearly different and better. But it's hard to imagine how this will happen without in the first case, grant review, without a huge influx of money from the government or a significant reduction in the number of working scientists. Refereeing of papers, on the other hand, which is currently anonymous, may well become an open process.
Not much of the theorizing was new to me, as I have a lot of academics in my family. Scientists are not all pure-hearted idealists, they are not more or less likely to misbehave than ordinary mortals. The only difference is that in science as contrasted to the rest of academia and the rest of the world, you are dealing with experiments and data.
The book's greatest weakness is that misconduct, bullying, plagiarism, appropriation are endemic in all of academia, and in the business world as well. Judson even throws in brief summaries of the big accounting and journalistic scandals that have happened over the past five to ten years in an introduction, for good measure.
Yes, scientists are people, and more people are cheating, and that means more scientists are cheating, and that is bad! But it doesn't really seem to be about science.
The material would have benefited from a narrower lens and a greater focus on historical cases. Where it succeeds is telling fascinating stories about people who 'done wrong', some of them people we respect. Where it fails is in becoming a generic polemic.