Science –whose Latin etymology denotes knowledge- started off as a branch of philosophy and gradually morphed into its present form. Recently, however, it seems to be resting on a progressively unstable foundation with the general public. By its very nature, Science accumulates its knowledge by induction: observations elicit explanations which suggest experiments designed to test these. The results are always contingent –a classic example might be that of swans: if all we see are white swans, it might be reasonable to conclude that all swans are white –until, that is, we find a black swan. So knowledge is couched in probabilities –everything is potentially refutable and our statements about it must reflect how likely it is to be a continuing truth. This is fine unless we crave certainty.
In an increasingly uncertain world one can understand the appeal of religions, if for no other reason than the assurance that the mainstream variants project. But historically, even the supposedly eternal truths revealed by religions have been contingent upon success in battle, or survival in times of environmental or social disasters. Certainty is a horizon that shifts and recedes whenever it is approached. However close we may feel we are, it is, like the rainbow, forever out of reach.
Of course, many do not agree with this; many feel that certainty is attainable and harbour a lingering suspicion of any system that cannot provide it. Why should faith be piled onto something that accepts that it is open to being refuted -welcomes it, in fact?
There are enough confusing and seemingly contradictory studies published to challenge the Public’s trust in Science. At times, its credibility seems to be balancing on a knife’s edge; the slightest puff of scandal could well be enough to destabilize the already tenuous confidence. For some people, it is already gossamer thin.
It is with this in mind that my fears often migrate to the subject of fraud in science. For me, it is not only a question of how it could happen, but rather, why it would. I was intrigued by an article in an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal from last year entitled: ‘Scientific misconduct or criminal offence?’ (http://www.cmaj.ca/content/187/17/1273.full) The article examines whether we should be treating scientific fraud as merely naughty ill-advised behaviour, incompetence, or criminally punishable conduct. The standard of proof needed to successfully achieve a legal conviction is apparently quite stringent and so, often in the interests of limited financial resources and depending upon the seriousness of the case, lesser sanctions are frequently used. In Canada there is a Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research. ‘The Secretariat is a government agency responsible for implementing the Tri-Agency Framework on Responsible Conduct of Research on behalf of Canada’s major federal government granting agencies… A researcher who breeches the framework may receive letters of education or admonishment. More serious cases could merit sanctions, including withdrawal of funding or even the ability to apply for funding.’ And each year, says Susan Zimmerman, the current executive director, ‘there are about 90 breeches of the framework, but very few, perhaps three or four, would be considered serious. Even fewer would constitute a criminal offence. And if one did, the Secretariat is already obligated to notify the authorities. Instead of trying to ferret out the rare egregious bad apple, the Secretariat, as stewards of public money, focuses on reducing unacceptable results. The agency considers that approach to be a more productive use of limited resources than trying to determine if a researcher made an honest mistake or acted in bad faith.’
All fine and good, I suppose, but I still wonder about the already suspicious Public Opinion about science in general. ‘In a 2014 BMJ article, Bhutta, who has a strong interest in research ethics, argued that scientific fraud can have huge consequences on public health and clinical practice, citing the damage to global vaccination coverage caused by the “fraudulent and discredited” research of Dr. Andrew Wakefield that linked vaccines to autism. There is little risk to committing research fraud, beyond damage to reputation, and the research community is doing an inadequate job of policing itself, according to Bhutta, who wrote that “additional deterrence through punitive measures such as criminal proceedings should be added to the repertoire of measures available.”’
If the results of a study were indeed woven out of whole cloth, the lack of legal consequences would feed the worst fears of an admittedly small segment of society which mistrusted western medicine’s perceived mantle of omniscience to start with. If it were fraudulent, they would wonder, then why wasn’t the doctor prosecuted? Was it because there was some uncomfortable truth to his findings that an embarrassed Medical establishment, which had been pushing the safety of vaccines for years, was trying to cover up? How many other studies are fraudulent that either haven’t come to light, or have been quietly hidden under the covers?
The point is not so much that infractions are few and often inconsequential, nor that the naysayers and critics are few in number, but that the the condemnations are loud and insistent. Without a visible and concerted effort to rebut their arguments, allay their suspicions, and demonstrate that there are consequences for deception, their doubts will only grow larger, and their trust in the scientific approach further diminish. Already we have seen the effects of an underlying mistrust in the uncertainties of science manifesting itself in the climate change deniers.
Add fraud to the inherent uncertainties embedded in the scientific method, and we can begin to worry about the punishment of Sisyphus condemned forever to roll a massive boulder up a hill then watch it roll back down again. Consequences must suit the action. Justice delayed is justice denied.