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Do Scientists Abuse Science?

A recent hot topic is the marked increase in scientific problems, as seen in the Oct. 19 issue of The Economist. The problems staring the scientific community in the face are considerable: shoddy scientific practices, results that cannot be replicated, rushing to publish, plagiarism and violations of the rules of scientific conduct. Clearly, many scientists engage in practices that are unethical, wrongful, mistaken and even abusive.

The problems have been exacerbated by money becoming such a huge factor in fields such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and genetics. When big money and awards are involved, the temptation to rush to publish or skimp on due diligence can become overpowering. In many cases, otherwise competent and moral scientists yield to fraudulent practices.

Arbiters of "Truth"

But there is another more insidious intellectual abuse: Under the guise of defending science, many scientists apply their own standard of what is scientific, often rejecting any alternative ideas and results with which they don't agree. This occurs even if the work submitted for publication follows the standards of scientific methodology, such as passing statistical tests. Editors of journals can also be abusive and sometimes reject outright anything they judge to be outside the bounds of science. This is perhaps the most unscientific of practices because it slams the door on possibilities that they find unpalatable. Ironically, this is the modern version of naysayers banning the works of Galileo.

Take, for example, the phenomenon of so-called militant atheism in science. These scientists attack religion as being anathema to science. They make no distinction between organized religion and spirituality. They arrogantly write off the lot as unscientific and lambast those who don't share their views. Are these attitudes in line with the inherent wonder of science, the open-mindedness to consider all possibilities?

What can be done about all this? As The Economist points out, what underpins science is the concept of "trust but verify." But let's be honest: The scientific community needs to do more verifying and less trusting. Also, better-defined standards of behavior should be undertaken by major scientific societies. It may even become necessary to come up with oaths that serve as guidelines dictating good behavior. Relying on the supposedly self-correcting nature of the scientific community is wishful thinking. Perhaps violating one's oath and the trust of others ought to lead to sanctions, such as those imposed on doctors and attorneys. It may even become necessary to have abusive scientists expelled from the particular societies to which they belong.

Great Power? Greater Responsibility

Science is supposedly the search for truth. However, individual scientists are human beings with decidedly human frailties. This is particularly true in cases where competition and the hunt for funding become more severe. But none of these serve as excuses. Scientists have a lot of influence in matters concerning government, industry, and the general public. It is precisely because of that influence that we scientists need to hold ourselves to higher standards. To neglect to do so is to betray the trust placed in us by society.

The scientific community needs to be more protective of the totality of science rather than of individuals who go astray. In the end, it is the reputation of scientific methodology that matters. Without it, the search for so-called truth may become just another cynical search for glory and rewards. What could be more unscientific than that?

I would like to thank my son Lefteris Kafatos for providing valuable input on a regular basis.

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