Do scientists lie? Yes everyone lies. Why do scientists lie? We, like our genes, are selfish. Does it matter that scientists lie?
If we can trust Dan Ariely’s talks, then his research demonstrates that people in general lie and cheat marginally (and often) without feeling like they are dishonest or bad. Fair enough. We can all think of times, or at least I certainly can (‘No officer I don’t know how fast I was going’; ‘Yes gas station attendant I am over 21’), we have lied for minor personal gains.
Apparently situations where there is a conflict of interest, a distance between the lie and direct monetary outcome, and people you identify with are also lying lead to more misbehavior. The first two parameters are met by scientists. It is obviously in the interest of a scientist to perform research with interesting results that gets published, and although publishing is connected to monetary gain it isn’t a direct transaction. But many would argue that the third parameter, other scientists lying about their data, is not something that happens. Perhaps not so blatantly. Ariely goes on to discuss asking golfers if they have picked up a golf ball and moved it. No. Kicked it while looking the other direction? Of course. For scientists there is a distinct possibility for a similar scenario. Have you ever falsified data? No, that is repugnant. Have you ever used statistics you didn’t fully understand to analyze your data and make them look good? ......
The kicker is that dishonesty in science is neither new nor always problematic. Jared Horvath describes how important scientists from Galileo to Millikan produced research that is not replicable yet helped to push our collective understanding forward. Still it could be argued that falsification is occurring at a greater rate in contemporary science. In “Trouble at the Lab” John Ioannidis is described as saying that the majority of published findings are false. The author further notes that very few articles are retracted.
So is the process of science failing in our new age? No. A scientific paper should not be expected to be 100% correct. Hell one of the main lessons being beat into our bones as grad students is that we should always be ferociously looking for errors while reading papers. Just because a paper has mistakes does not mean that it contains no useful information. The presence of useful information implies the paper shouldn’t be retracted. Yes this means that to obtain useful information from a paper you need more than a lay understanding of the field, but the entire point is that we perform research on the cusp of our society’s understanding. The health of the scientific enterprise should not be measured by how many mistakes there are in published articles, but by how much progress we are making toward improving our society.