Saturday, May 23, 2009

A physics fraudster's story

The Rise and Fall of a Physics Fraudster is the title of the article which is an "abridged and edited" version of Eugenie Samuel Reich's Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World. Here's the blurb:

Seven years after rumours of massive fraud began to surface, the repercussions of Jan Hendrik Schön’s lies still reverberate. In her new book Plastic Fantastic, abridged and edited here, Eugenie Samuel Reich chronicles how his fraud shook the scientific world.

Here's an extract:

This dramatic end to Schön’s case brings us back to the question of whether science is, or is not, self-correcting. Science was corrected in the Schön case, but not by itself — only because individual scientists made corrections. From would-be replicators in dozens of labs to many sceptics, only a couple of researchers were transformed into whistle-blowers by the unlikely pattern of evidence. The correcting process turned out to be as human and haphazard as the fraud — and certainly less systematic than Schön’s single-minded commitment to keep trying to publish fabrications.

The problem is that when data are fraudulent, they are designed to elude all the self-correcting processes of science. Keen to oblige, Schön tuned his data to pass quality-control checks and fulfil expectations for his research programme. Fraud was able to stifle questions about Schön lab technique that would otherwise have been asked, and to turn review processes at journals into opportunities for additional fabrication. Other scientists’ support of the fraud was unwitting, but the decision to place so much trust in a colleague was a conscious rationalization that continues to be defended in science to this day.

That is where the danger lies. Even now, Schön would be happy to work in science again. Somewhere in science, there must be a place for a logical, intelligent, literal and meticulous person who is not brilliant, who does not quite “get it”. Schön’s gift for agreeing with whatever others want to hear, his uncanny ability to pick up on any demand in any environment and duplicate answers that seem to work well, and to be plausible and friendly as he goes; these qualities will not go away. A couple of years after this article is printed, his ban by the German Research Foundation will expire. Then maybe he will find an opening. If not him, maybe others, and would science fraudsters less extreme, less literal, less once-in-a-generation than Schön be any less dangerous than he was; or more?