Betraying the Truth

Allen Bramhall

Science inspires awe. It seeks to answer the questions of life in a practical and logical manner. People rely on science not just to make sense of life, but to improve life. Science, then, is about objective truth, or so we’ve been led to believe.

Betrayers of the Truth by William Broad and Nicholas Wade persuades otherwise, questioning the very mechanism by which Western science goes about its business. Critical light has long been thrown on lawyers, doctors, educators, politicians, and religious leaders. The work of scientists, too, should be studied critically, and our awe towards them diminished, with critical insight, for human weakness, one might say, is the right of every person. Even scientists can stray from the noble path.

The public image of scientists betrays a belief in the perfectibility of scientists. The enormous amounts of funding that science receives proves how strongly accepted is the work of science. The public believes that science will cure our illnesses and science will fight our wars. Science will even unveil the mystery of life itself, to the smallest component of matter. Science is a noble pursuit.

What science does for us cannot be gainsaid, but we take much that scientists do on faith, as so much arcana. Few people know how their television works. It is enough that a push of a button brings the joys of football or the latest reality-based tv show into the living room. We live a great deal by induction, trusting that the mysterious processes that science has given us to improve our lives will function as they always have. This trust has at times been misplaced.

A look at the chapter titles in Betrayers of the Truth presents a grim, eye-opening story: The Flawed Ideal, Deceit in History, Rise of the Careerists, Power of the Elite, The Failure of Objectivity. Broad and Wade poke at some substantial assumptions held by those outside the scientific community. Having been inculcated in the idea of the Scientific Method since elementary school, it dismays me to think that how science really gets done can include seemingly rampant deceit, careerism, elitism, and even lack of objectivity.

It especially dismays me that it isn’t just mid-level hacks who might be enacting fraud in their quest towards what is clearly a wobbly sort of truth. Broad and Wade describe how Isaac Newton adjusted his calculations to bolster his theories. “Using his contrived data as a spectacular rhetorical weapon, Newton overwhelmed even the skeptics with the rightness of his ideas.” (Broad and Wade, 1983, p 28). And, I might add, thoroughly belying what I was taught of the Scientific Method.

It gets worse. “More than 250 years passed before the manipulation was revealed.” (Broad and Wade, 1983, p. 28.). That hiatus shows a startling lack of inquisitiveness in the scientific community. The picture here is not of an ideal search for scientific truth. We all bow to received wisdom, for we can find out only so much for ourselves, but it shouldn’t take 250 years to challenge Newton critically, even the great Newton.

The question arises: How important is such fraud? In Newton’s case, he seems to have used his fraudulent data to fill in intuitive leaps that he made. I think we can allow for genius. There is a creative side to science, in which great scientists can imaginatively see what others have missed.

A fine illustration of less creative thinking appears in The Golem by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch. The authors describe a typical classroom experiment in which the students try to discover at what temperature water boils. Results vary widely, even though everyone knows what the right answer should be.

Skip had his thermometer in a bubble of super-heated steam when he took his reading, Tania had some impurities in her water, Johnny did not allow the beaker to come fully to the boil, Mary’s result showed the effect of slightly increased atmospheric pressure above sea-level, Zonker, Brian and Smudger have not yet achieved the status of fully competent research scientists. At the end of the experiment, each child will be under the impression that their experiment has proved that water boils at exactly 100° C, or would have done were it not for a few local difficulties that do not affect the grown-up world of science and technology, with its fully trained personnel and perfected apparatus. (Collins & Pinch, 1998, p. 149).

Here Collins and Pinch satirically describe a mechanical sort of process in which the experimenters work by rote, on the advice of the attending expert, who already knows what the answer should be. The creative spirit is lacking, and probably the sense of curiosity is, as well. This is not science as a noble pursuit, it is science as a job. Low level researchers, murdering lab rats by the thousands, may be no more inspired.

A worse example of science gone awry, or at least of scientists straying from the straight and narrow, is the heinous career of Elias Alsabti. Alsabti committed plagiarism, faked research, and lied about his qualifications and accomplishments while constantly pushing his career forward and otherwise making a mockery of medical research (Broad and Wade, 1983). Supposedly screening workers for cancer, Alsabti drew blood samples, for which fees were paid, yet, “according to a former Iraqi official familiar with the case, he merely pocketed the money and never did a stroke of clinical or scientific work with the blood samples he had drawn. (Broad and Wade, 1983, p. 40).” With Alsabti, we may have a pathological case, for his career is not just dotted but smeared with morally derelict behavior, but Broad and Wade recount many instances in which the Noble Scientist looks more than a little besmirched.

One instance stings, for it shows a critical lack of objectivity. Inspired to prove the inferiority of non-Caucasian races, Samuel Morton, a respected nineteenth century physician, fudged his figures to help promulgate his racist views. His theory was that larger skulls indicated greater intelligence. His questionable research proved that whites are most intelligent, blacks least (Broad and Wade, 1983). “Essentially he would include subgroups with small heads when he wanted to bring a group average down and exclude them when he wanted to raise a group average (Broad and Wade, 1983,  p. 195).” Dr. Morton, sir, your agenda is showing.

The paleontologist Stephen Gould recomputed Morton’s data in 1978, more than a century after Morton made his findings known. He found that, on Morton’s own evidence, all races have approximately equal skull volumes. “Had Morton looked at his data with a trace of objectivity, he could have seen that the major determinant of skull size is body size (Broad and Wade, 1983, p. 195).” And as in the case with Newton, as the authors point out, Morton’s fudged figures were long accepted without re-evaluation. Received wisdom marches on.

I am not down on science, despite the testimony supplied by Betrayers of the Truth, and I don’t think the authors are either. Science as a noble pursuit still exists. But science is open to criticism as much as is any other pursuit. Science is the work of men and women, with all their human flaws intact. Because of public awe of science and scientists, an arrogance among scientists has developed.

Betrayers of the Truth begins with a description of a House Committee on Science and Technology, in 1981. The hearing was concerned with scientific fraud. “’I was somewhat taken aback by the [witnesses’] chastisement of the committee for being presumptuous enough even to have a hearing at all,’ Bob Shamansky of Ohio dryly confessed (Broad and Wade, 1983, p. 12).” Yet while the committee met, such elite institutions as Yale and Harvard were being implicated in cases of scientific fraud. Problem? No problem!

We have seen a similar arrogance amongst our politicians, and even now, with the way the Catholic Church has dealt with child molestation charges against the clergy, amongst our religious leaders. Scientists told that 1981 Congressional committee that self-corrections were in place, a stance similar to what the Catholic Church has recently tried to maintain. The implication is that scientists and church leaders are above public scrutiny. Memories of Watergate and all the other political fiascoes this country has seen ought to obliterate the idea that anyone is above scrutiny, although the current political climate seems to disprove this assertion.

The awe that the public holds towards scientists and religious leaders and politicians serves as an invitation for greater arrogance. No one is above scrutiny. All should be subject to the cool light of critical assessment. We betray ourselves when we don’t utilize the critical faculty that we were born with. Awe and blind faith allowed Morton and Alsabti and the other examples of scientific fraud and deceit that Broad and Wade tell of to flourish. The frauds were empowered by the critical weakness of the mystified and indolent public view of science. The public’s uncritical acceptance allowed the frauds to exist.

Works Cited