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Book Review : 'Prophets' Offers Old Tales of Deception in Laboratory

February 03, 1987|LEE DEMBART

False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine by Alexander Kohn (Blackwell: $24.95)

From time to time in recent years, stories of outright fraud in scientific research have surfaced and been reported in general-circulation newspapers and magazines. Some scientists, under personal and institutional pressure to make breakthroughs, have simply invented entire series of experiments or otherwise doctored their results to draw conclusions unsupported by fact.

No one knows how widespread this practice is, whether the recent examples represent just a few bad apples in the barrel or whether they are indicative of much more widespread cheating that could undermine the entire scientific enterprise. In all likelihood, there are more cases of fraud than have been uncovered, but the majority of scientists are probably honest researchers who work in accordance with the ethical standards of their trade.

Unsupported Conclusions

But this is a guess. There are few facts to support this or any other conclusion about the extent of cheating in science.

Alexander Kohn, a virologist at the Tel Aviv Medical School, recounts many of the recent stories and some older ones in his book, "False Prophets." The trouble is, almost all of his material has been written before and even written in books before, so one wonders why he bothered. He even cites the books that have already gone over these stories, particularly "Betrayers of Truth" by William Broad and Nicholas Wade (Simon & Schuster: 1982).

After repeating these twice- and thrice- and four-times-told tales, Kohn wrings his hands and adds a few observations and pronouncements of his own, which essentially boil down to, "This shouldn't happen." But if he has any idea about how to prevent it from happening, he's keeping it a secret.

Same Old Stories

So here we have once again the story of William T. Summerlin of the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York, who painted laboratory mice with a pen to support his claims of successful skin grafts, and John Darsee of Harvard and Karl Illmensee of the University of Geneva, who simply concocted results of experiments that never took place.

(A very recent development in the Darsee case indicates that things may be worse in scientific literature than we had thought. An article in Nature magazine recently charged that Darsee's published papers were riddled with obvious errors that should have been caught during the peer-review stage. That they weren't makes one wonder about the strength of the peer-review system.)

Kohn also repeats the familiar story of the Piltdown Man hoax, which was not discovered for 40 years, by which time it was impossible to determine who the perpetrator had been.

In each of these cases and in others that Kohn cites, one can just as easily argue that the glass is half full as to say that it's half empty. That is, it could be argued that these cases show that science is a self-correcting system in which the scrutiny of other researchers eventually exposes such frauds. Or one can conclude that if all this is going on, think of what's out there undetected.

But retelling familiar stories did not provide Kohn with enough material to fill a book, so he threw in a lot of other stuff that is only marginally related to his topic. The lunatic theories of the Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko destroyed a generation of Russian biologists and nearly destroyed biology in the Soviet Union as well. But the story (which, like the rest of the book, is already well known) is completely unlike the cheating by American scientists eager to get a paper published.

To further pad out this lackluster book, Kohn discusses famous literary frauds, including Clifford Irving's fake autobiography of Howard Hughes and the Hitler diary hoax of a few years ago. What any of this has to do with fraud in science is a mystery.

Haphazard Punctuation

On top of all of this, "False Prophets" is riddled with typographical errors including spelling mistakes, repeated words and dropped words. The placement of commas is so haphazard throughout the book that a reader must conclude that no one at Basil Blackwell Ltd., the publisher, knows the rules of English punctuation.

On the central issue that he confronts, Kohn acknowledges that it is impossible to determine how widespread cheating is in science. But he suspects that it's relatively uncommon. He also acknowledges that the number of saints in the world is small, and it is safe to assume that every field has its share of fakers and crooks.

The vital role science plays in 20th-Century life makes the subject of fraud important, and it also makes it crucial that scientists who are not wholeheartedly committed to truth be detected and weeded out. Unfortunately, Kohn's book adds little to our understanding of what has occurred in the past, what is happening now or what should be done in the future.

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