Soiled Lab Coats and Science's Alibis

April 09, 1991|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. Measured against the big-league banditries that frequently blight our society, fakery in research is a modest problem of little direct consequence to science, let alone the public at large. Why, then, to the dismay of scientists, has so much attention been evoked by recent revelations of chicanery in the lab?

The most prominent example is the claim of boundless and cheap energy from cold fusion, suspect at the outset, but so beguiling and potentially valuable that a final verdict of fakery was long in coming. And then there's the case of the Nobel laureate David Baltimore withdrawing a breakthrough research report he had long defended until a co-author was deemed guilty of faking an underlying experiment.

Anguishing over the attention that press and television have given to these and similar cases, scientists lament that science is taking an unjustified beating for the misdeeds of a few.

The paradoxical reality is that science should be gratified by the public's fascination with its ethical failings, because the fascination reflects high expectations and a basic esteem for science. The public relies heavily on science for health, economic progress, and guidance through the complexities of modern times. If only out of hope and misguided trust, the public also tends to regard science as perhaps the least corruptible institution in a wayward era.

A high regard for science regularly shows up in public-opinion surveys that suggest confidence in the goodness of science. In a 1988 survey, 80 percent agreed that ''Most scientists want to work on things that will make life better for the average person,'' and 88 percent agreed that the ''world is better off'' because of science. The ultimate accolade is found in the carefully calculated tactics of the advertising industry, which relies on images of the laboratory and white-coated scientists to convey an aura of knowledge, reliability and authority.

Science has traditionally depicted itself as synonymous with the disinterested, objective search for truth. And politics has eagerly embraced this concept of science. Serving the U.S. Congress is its own think tank, the Office of Technology Assessment, staffed with many scientists and other technical specialists. The White House has a comparable troop, serving in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

On innumerable issues, from pharmaceutical drug safety to the greenhouse effect, politics and the public have nowhere to turn but to science for counsel on risks and strategies. While the scientists often disagree, the underlying assumption is that their policy declarations, like their science, are rooted in logic and are factual and objective.

That's often not the case, of course. But an assumption of purity accompanies scientists to the witness chair. A performance that violates that trust is considered shameful. Equally shameful is the muzzling of embarrassing scientific testimony by political or industrial bosses. Scientists are supposed to be paragons of truth.

jTC According to the folklore of science, when a scientist makes a statement, the key question is whether it's true; when a politician makes a statement, the question is why is he making it.

Given these lofty values, the intrusion of deceit into science is a proper cause for alarm. Science is revered in our society principally on the basis of its own claims of unswerving dedication to truthfulness. The scientific establishment has, in fact, performed brilliantly in presenting itself as basically resistant to the corruptions that afflict so many other institutions in our society, from banking to law enforcement, from politics to electronic evangelism. But when corruption does creep in, science insists that its system is so powerfully self-correcting that misdeeds are swiftly detected and banished.

Unfortunately, those cheery assurances are not supported by the record of recent times. Several of the more pungent cases of scientific fraud and corruption have been exposed by determined ''whistle-blowers'' whose alarms were rejected by the science establishment. Congress and the press have often been the key factors in rooting out scandalous behavior.

The great burden on science is the public's acceptance of science as a meritorious and trustworthy enterprise. It is difficult for believers to continue to reconcile their faith with squalid episodes. And that's why science, dependent as it is on public support, should strive to clean up its act, rather than resort to soothing alibis about its innate virtue.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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