Sunday, June 25, 2006

Tacky Science

An article in the BBC online magazine relates the story of the Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk, a pioneer of stem-cell research, who went on trial in July, “charged with deliberately falsifying his laboratory results and embezzling millions of pounds worth of state funding”. The article also mentions Louis Pasteur who, claims the article, developed a vaccine against rabies using unethical methods that his formal experimental account “was carefully drafted to obscure”. But the article goes on to say:

“As it was, the vaccine's success was such that no doubts were ever raised. Pasteur was a scientific gambler, whose bet paid off. Gamblers try to force the pace of research, wagering that the experimental results they are currently fudging will come good.”

I was reminded by this article of Prof. Martin Fleishmann and the cold fusion debacle. Unlike Hwang, Fleishmann was honest, but he may have been victim of similar career pressures. A natural gambler’s optimism may have lead them both to hazard that the final outcome would fall in their favour and that any short cuts or compromises they made on the way, like Pasteur, would be forgotten or forgiven in the harvest of success.

Although Fleishmann did not falsify his results, his sin, if sin it was, was to bypass the peer review system and go straight to the media with work he genuinely believed to contain an important discovery. If the gamble had paid off he would have been a winner and his career assured. Perhaps Fleishmann believed that if he was onto something new then the peer review system would stultify his discovery – I have heard dark rumours that one’s work, amongst a competitive peerage, can be obstructed and even plagiarized if one doesn’t get a move on.

The demands put upon the career scientist are incompatible – on the one hand (s)he must build a respectable reputation and yet on the other hand engage in the speculative and imaginative thinking required of a courageous excursion into some bizarre corners of our strange and wonderful world.

Reputation and career driven science may be part of the problem here. Perhaps the 18th C hobbyist gentleman scientists hold some lessons for us as models for innovative and pioneering science. Their prime motive was love of their subject, and unorthodox and groundbreaking work didn’t hold the career risks that it does for today’s professional scientists. “Search, reject, and select” as I always say of the acquisition of knowledge; it seems that in the maze searching process that is science some of us are chosen to probe what ultimately turn out to be dead ends.

Finally we come to two jokers in the pack. The BBC article mentions the Piltdown affair of the early twentieth century where career pressures and wish fulfillment may have help given hoax fossils the respectable cover of the prestigious Natural History museum in London until they were outted in the 1950s. In physics the peer review system normally does lend some accreditation to one’s work, but peer reviewed theoretical physics has been tainted by the notorious
Bogdanoff affair. Here, an apparently nonsensical paper, hiding under a cloak of abstruse jargon, was submitted to the journal “Classical Quantum Gravity” and accepted for publication. Even now, amid claim and counter claim, there seems some doubt as to whether the authors of the paper have perpetrated a hoax! Once again one wonders if reputations are being protected and backs are being covered and this may in part explain why exposing these papers has not been a straightforward process.

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