Dan Ariely in his talk, ‘The Honest Truth About Dishonesty’ at The Amaz!ng Meeting 2013 introduces the concept of little cheaters, that is, people who are dishonest in ways that they consider small enough to maintain personal morality while still reaping benefits of dishonesty. This concept was derived from studies in the general population suggesting that scientists too are privy to such behavior, but what implications does this have for science?
The most likely effect of dishonesty in science is irreproducibility. If experiments are planned, executed, interpreted, or reported with even the slightest amount of dishonesty, they are impossible to repeat by others. Consequences extend beyond those who seek to replicate to those attempt to build on the existing work as they would be working off likely incorrect information. Such deception is clearly undesirable but eliminating it can be difficult as perpetrators may not always be aware of their deception because they perform it while convinced of their morality. This is further compounded by the inherent conflict of interest that exists in all scientists. Every researcher holds stake in the success of their work: graduate students benefit from publishing papers and graduating early, senior investigators gain career advancement and increase their marketability for grant funding by presenting positive results. All these factors color the objectivity of researchers making it harder to recognize the subtle ways in which they can be dishonest such as inflating the meaning of their findings or omitting unfavorable results. Proper statistics should be able to check this bias but it is no secret that many laboratory scientists are not sufficiently conversant in statistical methods.
What then, does the combination of dishonesty, bias, and poor statistical knowledge mean science is doomed? Should presenting work be put off until these problems are eliminated? No. Rather, science needs to be redefined as the work in progress that it is and not the subject of irrefutable answers as perceived by many. Efforts should be taken certainly, to minimize blatant falsehood in published work, but it should also be acceptable to not be quite certain. Scientists will be more likely to shed their little cheater identity when it is fine to have work that does not completely make sense.