I was asked to give a talk at the AACI in Netanya, and because of the current focus on “fake news,” this set me thinking regarding science, so I thought of “fake science” or rather “fraud in science.” Most people cannot believe that there is such a thing, since the advances of technology both in electronics and medical sciences has been nothing short of astounding. Yet, indeed there is fraud in science and much of what is known about this happened during the 1980’s.
In a sense, scientists today hold the position that priests in various religions held in the past. They are the source of enlightenment and power, they know esoteric information that the common people don’t understand, and they are supposed to use that information only for the good. Scientists are expected to be totally honest and to only seek the truth. Yet, there are many cases where that is not true. Why would scientists falsify or alter results? It could be for money, for example in the development of a new drug, it could be for fame and for obtaining notoriety and it could be for promotion and obtaining a higher position. Also, some experts were prepared to “cut corners” to arrive at the results they expected sooner.
One of the first cases of so-called falsity in science was deemed to be none-other than the founder of modern genetics, the priest, Gregor Mendel. Working with pea plants in Brno in 1866, Mendel established the basic rules of genetics. But, in 1936, Ronald Fisher subjected his results to statistical analysis and proved that Mendel’s results were in effect too good to be true, they lacked experimental error. But, it should be pointed out that in 1866 the rigor that is expected today of scientific data was not applied then, and Mendel had in fact excluded data that did not fit his expectations. This is something that would be considered unacceptable in today’s science.
In 1912, in an era when the idea of evolution was actively in people’s minds due to the publication of Darwin’s iconic “On the Origin of Species,” an amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson claimed that he had found one of the much-sought after “missing links” when he reported a find in a pit in the village of Piltdown in England. This became known as “Piltdown man,” and was considered to be an ape-like skull intermediate between apes and man. However, careful examination by experts revealed that this was actually a fraud, some human and animal bones were mixed and the skull itself was an ape skull that had been altered. The Piltdown hoax was considered to have set back belief in Darwin’s theories for some years.
I will continue this subject in a subsequent blog article with more modern examples of fraud in science, but for now I must sign off, because I have a bad cold and also because it will be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in 2 days.