Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Korean Cloning Scandal: A Win for Science

As usual, lies, deceptions and frauds were a part of American news in 2005. We are forever plagued with those willing to abuse the trust of others for personal and political gain. However, science is a pursuit that grows stronger as individuals engage in errors and deceptions.

In politics, sports, business, journalism and most other fields, deception is detrimental to the entire endeavor because the average person “knows” those who get caught represent only a portion of the guilty. January 4 newspapers reported Jack Abramoff’s role in a new political scandal. The public looks at what has been revealed and infers that there is more to this iceberg beneath the surface. (Tom DeLay probably regrets calling Abramoff “one of my closest and dearest friends.”) Jose Canseco’s steroid admissions caused doubters to look more closely at Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds and others. Public cynicism was confirmed when Palmeiro tested positive for steroids and Bonds admitted “inadvertent” steroid use. Enron, Global Crossing, Adelphia, and Tyco only convince us that there is much more undetected deceit in the business sector. Judith Miller’s faulty reporting on Iraqi WMDs and Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and deception impacted the New York Times and journalism. Regarding journalists, even Bill O’Reilly, a leading contender for “Most Irrational Public Figure,” said December 29, “Any kind of irrationality on the part of the American media impedes the honest flow of information and causes damage to our system of checks and balances.” (Most Irrational Public Figure is not a real award—but it should be.)

Fraud occurred in 2005 in the scientific community as well. In May an article in Science described breakthrough research in human cloning and cloned human stem cell lines. December 15th one of the co-authors admitted that evidence for the article had been faked. One day later, Hwang Woo-suk, the lead author, requested retraction of the paper. It remains to be seen whether this current episode will take a place with Cold Fusion, Piltdown Man, the Baltimore Affair and Lysenkoism among discreditted ideas in science.

Cheating in banking, business, politics or law are failures of the safeguards in the system and commonly seen as indicators of further corruption. Catching frauds that slip through the system is a win for science because no fraud of major scientific ideas can hope to go undetected. Science is a process of asking questions and questioning proposed answers. As surely as an interesting finding is announced, others will seek to confirm it and the one making the claim better have the proof. (It is important to note that there is a difference between fraudulent ideas in science and fraudulent academic and ethical practices. There is a disquieting body of evidence of scientists claiming credit for work that is not rightfully theirs and other unethical behaviors. See the excellent work by Horace Judson, The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science.)

Skepticism is a key element of science, but skepticism is not researchers looking critically at their own work. It is the critical analysis of one researcher’s work by others. Scientists may be biased, sometimes fooled and even dishonest, but Science is unrelentingly skeptical and will root out false notions in the long run. Thomas Hobbes described the distinction between fallible humans and the skeptical safeguards of science. Even the scientists who know they commit fraud do not want others to get away with fraud because even the cheaters have a stake in the perception of the system as honest.

The Korean cloning scandal is a win for science, because it shows that cheating on the Big Ideas of science will be caught. It is the nature of science that any major idea will be tested again and again. Breakthroughs in science always become the basis of future research. When additional scientists try to build on fraudulent ideas, the new research will fail and that will lead back to the prior cheating. Individual scientists may have a motivation to cheat, but all of the others have a stake in catching cheaters.

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