Unethical scientists undermine public trust

Forrest Mims III on Peter Gleick.

Mims writes in the San Antonio Express-News:

“The scientific enterprise is built on a foundation of trust. Society trusts that scientific research results are an honest and accurate reflection of a researcher’s work.”

So begins the preface to “On Being a Scientist,” a book by the National Academies of Science (NAS) that should be required reading by every scientist (free at nap.educatalog/12192.html).
The preface goes on to say that when “the professional standards of science are violated, researchers are not just personally affronted – they feel that the base of their profession has been undermined. This would impact the relationship between science and society.”

I’ve learned from personal experience that most scientists meet the high standards that we and the NAS expect of them. Sadly, however, there are exceptions…

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3 responses to “Unethical scientists undermine public trust

  1. Robert of Texas

    I guess I would say that if you don’t at least try to meet the high standards then you are not a scientist – you are something else.

  2. I think the real crux underlying the relationship between the scientific community and the public is the fact that science undergoes rigorous peer review. Findings are replicated and verified, and variations undermining any one finding is thoroughly investigated and in the end, all the results are give to the public domain. For most of us, the ability to look into these matters on our own is simply out of reach, due to constraints in both time and the ability to follow much of the esoteric and often highly technical material. The fact that an entire social body serves to scrutinize the research that so frequently has a direct impact on our lives is extremely important to us. Therefore, the greater crime is not when one scientist, or one small group of scientists violate their trust, but rather when multiple institutions of society, which have been put into place in order to protect the public trust, collectively and knowingly propagate results which have been proven false.

    Unfortunately, this boils down to what Thomas Jefferson said: Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. It seems that for the time being, we’re willing to suffer untrustworthiness in our media, UN, local government, federal government, scientific community and academic community.

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m pretty dang sick of it all.

  3. Two points. Peer review is no guarantee that claims made are correct. It only says that the paper appears to follow the practices within an area of science and the results are plausible. For observational studies, 80-90% of the claims made fail to replicate. Also note that peer review is just that, review not verification. In certain areas of science, epidemiology for example, there is general agreement not to criticize other epidemiologists with respect to statistical analysis methods. They all agree that with a data set, they can ask as many questions as they like and not correct their statistical analysis for the number of questions asked. Second point. Almost universally, people doing observational studies do not share their data. Much of this work is done funded by government grants. Still, the researchers act as if the data is theirs alone. When data is not available, the work is “trust me” science, i.e. the work is just advertisement for getting another grant and (as claims seldom replicate) is not to be trusted at all.

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