The importance of honesty in science.

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Historical notes in electronics series.

a reference

"Good practice in scientific and engineering research"

A document issued by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council February 1999.



1.1 Progress in scientific and engineering research depends on the honest reporting of genuine results....


Have you ever wondered why the scientific revolution started in Western Europe? and, will it continue there?

Experimental and observational science.

Aristotle is reported to have maintained that men have more teeth in their mouths than do women, assuming both have full sets.

He could have counted the teeth in his wife's mouth and compared the number with a count of his own teeth.

He did not do this; or, if he did, she was deficient in number of teeth and he didn't bother to look at a larger sample of ladies. (The author's wife and father-in-law each have their bottom two canines missing from birth....) He was a thinker rather than an observational scientist. Alternatively, he may have done this, and decided for reasons best known to himself to misreport the observation.

In any case, he was running a risk of credibility, as anyone else could have made this observation. But because he was a respected philosopher, I suppose no-one thought to question his statement. We can all identify "respected experts" in our own time who make pronouncements without checking on the facts.

Science really took off at about the time of Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo, who dared to question the accepted beliefs of the Church of the time, the members of which had been raised on Aristotelean philosophy, with verifiable experimental observations.

Thus a cornerstone of Western Science was the willingness to make disinterested experimental observations, and to report these accurately even in the face of a sceptical and hostile audience.

Truth in reporting observations and experiments

In the Middle Ages, many people tried to follow the quest of the alchemists; to turn base metals into gold. Clearly there was power and prestige to be had in convincing some wealthy patron that you could actually do this, despite the fact that no experiment you had performed gave any indication that the process was possible.

What distinguishes the alchemist from the true experimental scientist is the honesty of the scientist in reporting the results of experiments, unsatisfactory as well as satisfactory.

The Western cultures had one advantage in Christianity; there was within their teaching, an onus on telling the truth, or on "not bearing false witness". This gave the early experimentalists confidence in confronting the authority of the Church.

A modern view.

Entrepreneurial capitalism has attempted to harness the power unleashed by the experimental scientists in order to generate wealth. This has put heavy pressure on the scientists and engineers to present their results in the best possible light. They now tamper with the principle of telling the truth however unpalatable it may be.

The result is that over the last 50 years, the truth of the scientists and engineers has become suspect. There are many people who distrust scientists in principle, regarding them as motivated entirely by self-seeking interests. A similar distrust can be seen of advertisers, and of politicians.

The moral of this little tale is, "honesty is the best policy" in science particularly. For example, if I was to tell you I have invented a teleporter; you get into a green phone box in London, dial New York and emerge a moment later on the other side of the Atlantic, how are you to know whether or not to believe me? Presumably there are rich people on the planet who could be persuaded to sink significant resources into such a project.

Nowadays academic scientists are judged on "quality research publications" to a large extent. There is a great temptation to massage the results, and there is much addition of spurious mathematical argument supported by only meagre, if any, experimental verification. Thus we see many scientific papers which are so obscure that we have to rely on the supposed veracity of the authors, or on the logical soundness of the maths. A false result is easily hidden beneath logically correct mathematics.

The public is therefore probably correct in its current assessment of scientific honesty. Many scientists also do not understand the importance of disinterested honesty, and reputable general science Journals actually carry articles by pundits who claim that science has not often been advanced by the disinterested reporting of facts, but rather by the people who lie for gain, being right by accident, even if for reasons connected with the financial rewards involved. We are indeed getting close again to the world of the alchemists.

Harold B. worked between WWI and WWII in London in a mechanical engineering firm which produced the models required by the Patent Office in those days, before issuing a patent. He told me they had many people come to him with drawings of perpetual motion machines; he also told me they knew none of these would work, but because they were being paid to make them they kept a respectful silence and just took the money. The problem for him was, the inventors of these machines always blamed the constructors when the machines did not work.

Harold would have known sufficient basic Physics to discount these inventions; in the modern age we are less well off, for Scientists and Engineers propose impossible projects and can now claim validity for their schemes on the strength of a few suspect computer simulations or the predictions of imperfectly verified mathematical models.

The behaviour of the few therefore damages the credibility of the many honest and truthful practitioners.

An example from medical science

This is an extract from a report in "The Guardian" newspaper for Thursday November 6 1997.

"Falsified research "threat to patients".

"Fraudulent doctors who make up research findings are undermining the process of scientific study, weakening the chances of finding new medicines and treatments, senior researchers warned yesterday.

"The scientists jeopardise patient safety because their false data make it look as though a particular drug or operation is safer than it is....

"The putative researchers obtain government funding or charity grants under false pretences, and are often promoted....

"Some doctors tried to publish the same study several times in different journals. This boosted the database on that particular drug or treatment, making it look more effective than it was...

"The US Office of Scientific Integrity investigated more than 100 allegations of misconduct a year, of which about 30% were found proved.

"Dr Rennie said it was vital that protection was given to whistle blowers who exposed scientific fraud, as usually such people were vilified and hounded out of their jobs, rather than being praised for their bravery."


Study Finds Widespread Lying, Cheating Among U.S. Teens, CNN

* Study Finds Widespread Lying, Cheating Among U.S. Teens , CNN, October 16, 2000 , Web posted at: 6:27 AM EDT (1027 GMT)

A clamp-down on communication

quote from the news service of Sigma Xi, 02/02/11


from The Los Angeles Times

Scientists depend on openness for their research advances--many of which the public underwrites. More and more, however, they are keeping information about their discoveries to themselves, new surveys show.

In the first detailed look at how scientists share information, analysts at Harvard University Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital questioned 1,800 geneticists and others in the life sciences at the 100 U.S. research universities that receive the most public funding from the National Institutes of Health.

They found that almost half of the scientists had been denied access to information about published research. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. The survey adds to a growing body of research over the past decade that documents greater secrecy among scientists and greater corporate control of university research.

A structural solution

Some breaking of the strong link biased towards "payment by results" is needed for scientific research activity. Regulation by formal bureaucracy will not work when the organisations employing the scientists have vested interests at stake. Who believes any of the research put about by scientists employed by tobacco companies, for example?

The social cost of this is to arrange a system in order to support more scientists doing research whose utility is not immediately apparent. For most academic organisations the utility of their academics may be measured by the quantity of their publications in what are regarded as "quality refereed journals". However, the cohorts of referees are self serving, in that they are subject to the very same pressures.

So, the libraries of the planet are clogging up with work which is worse than useless, as it diverts people from studying the properly conducted activities which may not emphasise quantity for the research output measures. Much of the trouble has originated in the more capitalist countries of the West, where, charitably, the best that can be said is that many competing organisations have been trying to ratchet themselves up in the credibility stakes. The result is obfuscation rather than clarification; mathematics rather than simple testable models; computer simulation rather than honest experiment.

It is very difficult to convince a member of the public that a negative result is as strong and valid a result of an investigation as is a positive outcome. One of the classic negative result experiments was the Michelson-Morley experiment which showed that the velocity of light did not depend on the direction of travel, thus disproving the "ether" theory and laying the foundations for special relativity.

Here is a summary in Physics World of why neglecting the publication of negative or unwanted results is hindering scientific advance...

* Filing cabinets hamper scientific research!: (4 Oct) In 500 BC shipwrecked Greek sailors washed ashore on the Isle of Samothrace painted portraits celebrating their survival in a local temple. This was proof that the gods intervene in human affairs said the priests. But where, asked Diagoras of Melos, were the portraits of those who had drowned? These paintings are the first recorded evidence of a 'publication bias' producing a positive result. This "file-drawer effect" - the habit of not publishing negative results, thereby leaving a large amount of unpublished data hidden in filing cabinets - is a "severe impediment to combining the statistical results of studies collected from the literature" according to Jeffrey Scargle, an astrophysicist at NASA's Ames Research Center.
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Political interference in Science truth-telling.


from The Washington Post

The Bush administration has begun a broad restructuring of the scientific advisory committees that guide federal policy in areas such as patients' rights and public health, eliminating some committees that were coming to conclusions at odds with the president's views and in other cases replacing members with hand-picked choices.

In the past few weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services has retired two expert committees before their work was complete. One had recommended that the Food and Drug Administration expand its regulation of the increasingly lucrative genetic testing industry, which has so far been free of such oversight. The other committee, which was rethinking federal protections for human research subjects, had drawn the ire of administration supporters on the religious right, according to government sources.

A third committee, which had been assessing the effects of environmental chemicals on human health, has been told that nearly all of its members will be replaced -- in several instances by people with links to the industries that make those chemicals. One new member is a California scientist who helped defend Pacific Gas and Electric Co. against the real-life Erin Brockovich.

The changes are among the first in a gradual restructuring of the system that funnels expert advice to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

Washington Post article 16th Sept 2002

Today's Headlines 24th October 2002


from The Chicago Tribune

Academic institutions that use money from private sponsors to fund medical research say they are finding it difficult to comply with tough new ethical standards proposed by the major medical journals, researchers reported Wednesday.

Officials at the institutions generally feel their hands are tied when they enter into business arrangements with industry sponsors of clinical trials, according to a survey of 108 medical schools published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The national survey presents "a bleak picture," the Journal wrote in an accompanying editorial, with the goals of academic freedom and scientific truth often placed in direct conflict with the business interests of sponsors.

Pharmaceutical firms are the largest source of funding for medical research in the U.S. and Canada, but companies can't survive if they don't make money for shareholders and they may not want negative results about their drugs to be made public.

Academic ghost-writing

Whilst there is nothing wrong in students seeking assistance with project report writing and thesis writing, such assistance MUST be acknowledged in order for the process to fall within the requirements of honesty. Therefore, it is surprising to find institutionalised dishonesty available within the community. The only reason that this may escape detection is if, in a mass education system, students are not known to their tutors at all closely. This also leads to debasement of the degree-awarding process and to the devaluation of the worth, and the pecuniary worth, of the piece of paper called a "degree certificate". For those people who really would like to purchase a degree certificate of zero worth, there are good sites including a famous site offering degrees in subjects such as "post-feminist needlework".


Politicians in the UK have a long track record of making "positively definitive statements" about issues in the public domain. An example from recent years is the issuing of statements about the safety of BSE-infected beef, and again about the safety of salmonella-infected eggs, or more recently the financial probity and even the veracity and basic honesty of various political figures who need not be named here.

They have brought the considered opinion of genuine experts into disrepute, particularly when it transpires that they have "spun" the opinions of the experts for their own political ends. This is another example of the negative effects of deliberate dishonesty in public life. Now, nobody can offer a sound scientific opinion, for example about the relative safety of mobile phone base stations when compared to the hazards of the handsets, without being disbelieved and discounted by the Public.

For this reason, we observe a general decoupling of public opinion from the posturing of politicians and the political process in general, and also from the unquestioning acceptance of genuine scientific opinion even when there are no other recourses available. This has harmed the progress of life on the planet. The mendacity of politicians has also in the past led to avoidable war and international conflict. People are correct in their distrust of politicians and statesmen.

Business cash skews science

Excerpt from "The Times Higher Education Supplement", London, 28th March 2003.

The academic integrity of UK research is at risk as the government tries to wean researchers off state support in favour of commercial income, the Royal Society said this week.

.... Patrick Bateson, the society's vice-president, said that commercial opportunities were already affecting the choice of research topics. He said that scientists were leaning towards projects with short-term financial benefits instead of concentrating on long-term public need.

... Professor Bateson said that many scientists were not aware of the potential pitfalls of corporate funding and that the effects of commercial influence on research could be subtle.

The Politics Of Publication.

Extract from "Nature" March 2003.

The decision about publication of a paper is the result of interaction between authors, editors and reviewers. Scientists are increasingly desperate to publish in a few top journals and are wasting time and energy manipulating their manuscripts and courting editors. As a result, the objective presentation of work, the accessibility of articles and the quality of research itself are being compromised. Managers are stealing power from scientists and building an accountability culture that "aims at ever more perfect administrative control of institutional and professional life".

The Politics Of Publication, Peter A. Lawrence, Nature 422, 259 - 261 (2003);

The Iraq war intelligence fiasco.

Extract from an article in the NY Times, 31 March 2005.

The commission said the erroneous assumption by intelligence agencies that Saddam Hussein possessed deadly chemical and biological weapons had damaged American credibility before a world audience, and that the damage would take years to undo.

Comment. In the UK this "erroneous assumption" has been almost universally accepted to have been a "politically motivated lie". In any case, the consequences illustrate the thesis of this page.

"Report Calls U.S. Intelligence 'Dead Wrong' on Iraq Weapons" 31/03/05

Non-quoted parts copyright © D.J.Jefferies 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005.

D.Jefferies email
31st March 2005.