Dishonesty in science: we still win

Image credit

As Orac states:

Science as it is practiced today relies on a fair measure of trust. Part of the reason is that the culture of science values openness, hypothesis testing, and vigorous debate. The general assumption is that most scientists are honest and, although we all generally try to present our data in the most favorable light possible, we do not blatantly lie about it or make it up.

Science is a massively collaborative endeavor, with each researcher relying on the existing mesh of literature as a starting point for their own contributions.  When everyone is being honest, a good methodology and peer review will prevent most obvious problems of bias and rigor.  In other words, the facts are pretty well understood, and everyone has a pretty good idea about how robust various theories are.

This is important, because it means when research is invalidated (or some theory is shown to be inferior to a new one), it tends to be an incremental change, not a destructive one.  Anything we learn will update, clarify, and add to our existing understanding.  Any new theories we employ will work at least as well as the old ones they unseat.  Relativity is more correct than Newton’s laws, but that doesn’t mean apples must be re-checked to verify that they do in fact fall toward the earth instead of levitating or falling toward the moon.

When a researcher repeatedly confabulates data in a case of massive fraud, it knocks everyone for a loop.

It’s hard to overstate how serious this revelation of scientific fraud is for the field of anesthesiology and medicine. Dr. Reuben was considered a pioneer in his field, and his work is not only widely cited, but serves as the basis for an amount of anesthesia practice that few academic anesthesiologists can lay claim to.

Ripping out all his results will weaken everything that has been based upon them, even indirectly.  This is a rare case where we actually know less now than we (think we) did before, so everyone’s pissed off about it.

There is much wailing about how this fraud will be used as an illustration of the evil conspiracy of science and business.

Every crank alt-med site and blog on the Internet is going to be harping on this incident as The Proof That Conventional Medicine Is Hopelessly Corrupt and their favorite woo is being kept down by The Big Bad Pharma Man.

I agree that is likely to happen, but that argument is an obvious faulty generalization.  All you have to do to break the spell is to point out a more important result:  When the scientific community discovers an error (be it an innocent mistake or a calculated fraud) we freely choose to reexamine and, if necessary, excise all the affected parts of the corpus.  Lies and mistakes happen, but when we find them we fix it, even if it’s unexpected, embarrassing, or painful.

This is why, even when individuals can epically FAIL, science will still WIN.