Berry, R. Stephen. "Validity and Ethics in Science," Science 300 (30 May 2003), p. 1341.

 

Berry, R. Stephen. "Validity and Ethics in Science," Science 300 (30 May 2003), p. 1341.

Two recent events have forced scientists and others to confront the issue of ethic behavior in
scientific work, leading some to question the validity of the body of accumulated scientific
knowledge. But fraud and validity are separable matters, and it is important that the public
understand the differences between them. Yes, the scientific enterprise may occasionally fall
short in dealing with unethical behavior, but that has not threatened the reliability of our
accumulated scientific knowledge.

The knowledge structure produced by science has a quality unique among the creations of the
human species. Its uniqueness lies in its capacity to provide reliable quantitative predictions of
phenomena within its own domain; no other aspect of human experience has that kind of
capability. This predictive power is a consequence of the way scientific studies evolve - and
science's validation processes, themselves unique, guarantee that power.

Science advances by trial and error, guided by past observations and their interpretations.
Establishing the validity of each new result is essential. Some new findings, such as the
measurement of a quantity predicted by a well-established theory, call for only modest efforts to
establish validity. At the opposite extreme are results that challenge established concepts. Some
apparently idiosyncratic ideas cannot be tested rigorously at the time when they are proposed. For
example, continental drift, eventually called plate tectonics, could not be validated until many
years after it was proposed. But the celebrated cases of "cold fusion" and "polywater"
immediately produced major efforts at validation, because both would have been important were
they correct. That stimulate many researchers to examine each and, in months, to discredit them.

In these examples, the researchers doubtless believed that their results were valid. In some recent
cases, it has become clear that the scientists knew they weren't. These new cases of fraudulent
research, through hardly the first, raise the question of whether the validation process that
corrects honest error works as well for deliberate fraud.

When any new result is presented to a scientific community, the tacit presumption is that the
presented is honest. But whether that presumption holds or not, the results will be subject to the
standard validation processes that make science work. And these processes have kept the body of
scientific knowledge remarkably self-consistent. Thus, it is especially important to separate two
questions: how and whether science succeeds at self-validation, and how to recognize and deal
with misconduct.

The history of element 116 - not 118 - illustrates this. A surprising report first claimed to
demonstrate the transient existence of that element. Subsequently, other investigators showed
that short-lived element 116 actually exists. In the meantime, incontrovertible evidence appeared
from elsewhere that the initial report had been based on phantom experiments! Here the
validation process established a phenomenon independent of the malfeasance of its first claimant.
This bizarre case demonstrates the important of separating how we think about the correctness of
scientific information and about the correctness of human behavior.

Procedures that test the validity of scientific information may also expose malfeasance. In the
recent case at Bell Laboratories, the identity of noise distributions in two spectra, presented as
independent and different, differs from inconsistencies resulting from careless error or poor
experimental design. The very nature of noise implies that only by being representations of the
same spectrum could two noise distributions be identical. That kind of inconsistency inevitably
implies deliberate misrepresentation, but those additional implications concern personal
behavior, not the correctness of the science. The fraudulent claim to have found element 116 is
just as reprehensible as the fraudulent claim to have found element 118. But the procedures that
make scientific results trustworthy are as robust and effective as they have been since science
began.

Scientific self-correction is alive and well, and it serves to maintain the validity of the body of
scientific knowledge. That process may work slowly, partly because of the procedures required
for validation and partly because scientists may feel little urgency to validate a particular result.
Nonetheless the validation must eventually occur if the result is to be used in building further
science. It is important tat, despite the furor over research misconduct, the public understand that
the validation process is working as it should. Cultivating, even demanding, ethical behavior in
the scientific enterprise is important for other reasons, quite distinct from out need to have
confidence in the enterprise itself.
What was he trying to study?