In 1830, Charles Babbage, the English mathematician and ‘father of the computer’, wrote his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes. He sketched out a typology of all the ways scientists could commit fraud: by hoaxing (where the idea is to reveal later that the scientific results were fake, to prove a point); by forging (where the results are made up from scratch and passed off as real); by trimming (chopping away inconvenient data points from studies); or by cooking (‘serving up’ only the best data, hiding the evidence that doesn’t back up a theory). Thus, even decades prior to major scientific successes like the development of the theory of evolution and the germ theory of disease, people had a good idea of how science could go wrong.
To put it mildly, Babbage’s problems haven’t gone away. Just ten years ago, a review of polls of scientists found that, when asked if they’d faked any results, 2 per cent answered in the affirmative. Bad enough, you might think; but when asked whether they knew any scientists who’d committed fraud, over 14 per cent said they did.
A modern follow-up to Babbage’s treatise is provided by Malscience: De la fraude dans les labos, a 2016 book by the French investigative journalist and ex-biologist Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis. Newly translated into English by Nicholas Elliott, Fraud in the Lab consists of a series of short, punchy chapters on