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3 scheming scientists who played us all for suckers

Most scientists are great folks. They pay their taxes regularly, buy fundraising chocolates from schoolchildren, and go to great lengths to ensure that their science is as honest and accurate as possible. These are all essential parts of being a scientist.

Chocolate

Because nothing gets done without chocolate. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But occasionally there is a bad apple, a renegade who doesn’t want to play by the rules. These Lance Armstrongs of the science world are not content with putting in all that hard work, and instead try to pull the wool over our eyes. Luckily, these scientific tricksters are usually caught out with the fullness of time.

#1 Alan Sokal convinced an academic journal to publish gibberish

I can’t decide whether this guy is a troublemaker or a legend. Alan Sokal is a Physics Professor at New York University, noted for his published work in statistical mechanics, quantum field theory, mathematical physics, and computational physics. No, that’s not the gibberish I was talking about ‒ those are all perfectly legitimate fields that have all contributed truckloads to what we know about the Universe.

But one field of research ‒ at least in Sokal’s view ‒ was not pulling its weight. The 1990s saw the rise of scientific postmodernism, a branch of philosophy that, among other things, seemed to decide that scientific enquiry could never be truly objective. Sokal, a self-confessed “stodgy old scientist,” wasn’t impressed with these conclusions, and strongly believed these postmodernists were speaking worthless self-congratulatory nonsense. And, funnily enough, they were looking for new article submissions.

In May 1996, the academic journal Social Text published “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Written by Alan Sokal. I don’t understand that title, and neither did he. In the author’s own words, the article was “liberally salted with nonsense” and “a pastiche […] held together by vague rhetoric.” In nearly 6000 hilariously incomprehensible words, Sokal claims, among other things, that quantum gravity is a social construct with important left-wing political implications.

Sokal even included a joke or two:

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and ‘pro-choice’, so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo–Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.

A mathematical joke or two. I should have warned you.

Needless to say, the editors of Social Text lapped it up, every ambagitory word of it. On its surface, the article seemed to agree with their ideologies, so they perused Sokal’s dense mass of Joycean rambling, decided “that looks impressive enough”, and hit PUBLISH, no peer review required. Needless to say, they weren’t happy when Sokal immediately stepped forward to confess the hoax.

#2 Diederik Stapel pulled years of experiments out of his hat

The scientific process is long and exhaustive. Before you can even think about performing an experiment, you must browse the scientific literature, formulate a hypothesis to be tested, and painstakingly develop your methods. When it came to these preliminary steps, senior Dutch researcher Diederik Stapel was a scientific ace. His preparation was so good, in fact, that he began to consider the actual experiments an unnecessary chore.

By 2011, Stapel’s social psychology research had yielded dozens of high-profile publications about human behaviour and attitudes. A few people began to wonder why he always received such awesome results in his experiments.  The bottom line: there were no experiments.

Stapel had a very refined M.O. He would thoroughly prepare his questionnaires and (presumably) assure his colleagues with the words, “Don’t worry, I got this.” Then, questionnaires in hand, he would skip off into the sunset and emerge nine hours later with an armful of totally-not-made-up data. (Amusingly, one of his experiments involved eating M&Ms, so we can totally understand why he performed them on himself).

Questionnaire

His fatal mistake was choosing “lucky C” on every questionnaire. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, this sort of scientific fraud ‒ known as “fabrication” ‒ isn’t as rare as it should be. When a sample of scientists were asked anonymously if they had ever faked data, nearly 2% responded “yes.” Even more worryingly, 14% of scientists claim to know of colleagues who have fabricated data. This isn’t just bad science ‒ it’s anti-science, defeating the very purpose of what we do!

Stapel was eventually caught out by three younger researchers who slowly cottoned on to his cheating. Tilburg University confirmed in October 2011 that he had left a trail of fraudulent research, spanning years and dozens of journal publications. The shame-faced professor voluntarily returned his PhD, and now operates a small business as an “identity language consultant.” That sounds made-up to me.

#3 William Summerlin performed skin transplants like a kindergartener

In the early 1970s, William T. Summerlin was an up-and-coming dermatologist at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His work mainly involved skin transplants, and he was very interested in whether growing skin cells in culture for a week before transplantation would reduce their likelihood of being rejected by the body. If successful, his research could massively increase the success rate of transplant operations.

To test out his theory, Summerlin had two types of mice: one with black skin, and another with white. He eventually succeeded in his goals, successfully transplanting skin from a black mouse onto a white one.

These results were published, and enthusiastically received by the scientific community. But something was amiss. Summerlin wasn’t being entirely honest about his methods. This Moriarty of the science world had painstakingly concocted a bold and brilliant scheme to bamboozle the entire establishment. No wait, scratch that ‒ he actually just drew on the white mouse with a texta.

Crayola-Markers

When I do surgery, the pen is mightier than the sword! Source: Wikimedia Commons

That’s right. After a transplanted patch of black skin started to turn grey (an early sign that it was being rejected), Summerlin’s grand master-plan was to cover it up with black marker pen… and then hope for the best, I guess. His deception was discovered when an animal handler noticed that the black square could be rubbed off with alcohol.

Summerlin’s “patchwork mouse” caused an uproar in the scientific world. A closer look at his research revealed that his methodology was sloppy and of little scientific validity (although later research may have vindicated his theories to an extent). His prior publications withdrawn, and his scientific career in tatters, Summerlin eventually moved to Louisiana to practise medicine.

Because we need more doctors like that.

Andrew Katsis is an MSc candidate in zoology at the University of Melbourne. For more of his entirely honest and accurate writings, you can visit here and here. Featured image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

One thought on “3 scheming scientists who played us all for suckers

  1. Pingback: Colour Blindness: or, How I Was Humiliated By a Rainbow | mindboggled

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