FALSE PROPHETS: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine by Alexander Kohn

FALSE PROPHETS: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine

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An eye-opening survey of scientific chicanery and sloppiness, by a professor of virology at Tel Aviv Medical School. Exact correlation between observation and published data is vital to science, states Kohn, but, unbeknowst to most, cheating and gross error are rampant. To support this claim, he cites a 1976 study in which, of 201 scientists questioned, 194 reported knowing of instances of cheating--including 15 fabrications of nonexistent experiments. Kohn classifies his ensuing gallery of scientific misconduct by adopting Charles Babbage's vintage categories: ""forging,"" or making up observations; ""trimming,"" or manipulating data; ""cooking,"" or choosing only data that fits the hypothesis; and, Kohn's own addition, plain old sloppiness. For each category, Kohn gleefully offers a host of juicy examples, several involving names from the scientific firmament. It's likely, for instance, that Newton ""trimmed"" his data in his expositions of the laws of physics; Mendel almost certainly did the same with his genetic studies. More shocking, however, are the myriad cases, most contemporary, of outright forgery; Dr. William T. Summerlin's astonishing attempt in 1974 to prove the efficacy of transplanting skin patches from black mice to white mice by darkening the skin of the white mice with a black felt-tip pen! Further examples are explored in a leisurely chapter on forgery in paleontology and archaeology (where Kohn fingers Teilhard de Chardin as the brains behind the Piltdown Hoax), and a frightening one on fraud in contemporary drug research. Finally, Kohn offers suggestions, mostly based on the honor system, for preventing scientific fraud. Although Kohn condemns hoax, it seems to fascinate him, lending this book a voyeuristic cast that undercuts its instructive potential. Still, for its roundup of slide-rule charlatans, a gossipy lark.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1986
Publisher: Basil Blackwell