Stuart Ritchie

Lies, Damned Lies & Research Findings

Fraud in the Lab: The High Stakes of Scientific Research

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Harvard University Press 205pp £28.95 order from our bookshop

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.

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