Some Good Old Fraud, for a Change

Amidst all the recent headlines about scientists gone absolutely mad—murdering colleagues in cold blood in Alabama, planning terrorism at the particle accelerator in Switzerland, killing with anthrax in the U.S.—it’s nice to hear, for a change, about scientists merely perpetrating some good old, genuine, down-to-earth fraud.

Seriously, though, David Goodstein’s new book from Princeton University Press, On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science, is refreshing and entertaining, a welcome balance to journalistic flash and National Enquirer-like headlines.

I knew I’d like this book when the first thing Goodstein does is succinctly and cleverly lay out 15 fundamental ethical tenets of scientific research (many of which I myself proclaim when teaching research ethics to young scientists) and then efficiently dismantles every one of them!

In a mere 133 pages, Goodstein takes his front-line experiences at Cal Tech—as a high-level physicist, award-winning teacher, and administrator in charge of investigating research fraud—and accomplishes an impressive trifecta:

1) With dispassion and dry humor, from within the very system he is a part of—intensive academic research—Goodstein dissects a dozen or so headline cases of alleged scientific misconduct (cold fusion being the most infamous). The fact that he was directly or indirectly involved in many of these cases lends drama and authenticity to his crisp analysis of their context and facts. As we read, it becomes clear fraud may not actually have been committed in many of these cases (despite books and “investigative reporting” to the contrary). One typical Goodstein insight: “[M]istaken interpretations of how nature behaves do not and never will constitute scientific misconduct.”

2) Goodstein uses his insider’s appreciation and understanding of science and its inner workings to show that, well, basically, scientists are humans, too. He doesn’t use this as an excuse for our rare aberrant behaviors, but by painting a rich and accurate canvas of the on-the-ground reality of laboratory research, its pressures and power structure, its eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. Goodstein helps us understand why scientists — like all people — don’t always do the right thing.

3) He effectively uses scientific fraud as a hook dboth to teach some science (although his physics is often hard to follow) and to get the reader to pause and think. That’s really the strength of Goodstein’s slim volume (you can see why he’s a good teacher). Once he gets you to sit down at the bench and look in the microscope, you see scientific fraud is only Goodstein’s lens to magnify and elucidate his two major stories: (a) the scientific enterprise itself needs to be appreciated as an historical and cultural phenomenon and (b) like all human social enterprises, the practice of science is a mixed-up comedy of successes and errors.