May 7, 2014

When Science Selects for Fraud


This post is in response to Jon Grahe's recent article in which he invited readers to propose metaphors that might help us understand why fraud occurs and how to prevent it.

Natural selection is the process by which populations change as individual organisms succeed or fail to adapt to their environments. It is also an apt metaphor for how human cultures form and thrive. The scientific community, broadly speaking, selects for a number of personality traits, and those traits are more common among scientists than in the general population. In some cases, this is necessary and beneficial. In other cases, it is tragic.

The scientific community selects for curiosity. Not every scientist is driven by a deep desire to understand the natural world, but so many are. How boring would endless conferences, lab meetings, and lectures be if one didn’t delight in asking questions and figuring out answers. It also selects for a certain kind of analytical thinking. Those who can spot a confound or design a carefully controlled experiment are more likely to succeed. And it selects for perseverance. Just ask the researchers who work late into the night running gels, observing mice, or analyzing data.

The scientific community, like the broader culture of which it is a part, sometimes selects unjustly. It selects for the well-off: those who can afford the kind of schools where a love of science is cultivated rather than ignored or squashed, those who can volunteer in labs because they don’t need to work to support themselves and others, those who can pay $30 to read a journal article. It selects for white men: those who don’t have to face conscious and unconscious discrimination, cultural stereotyping, and microaggressions.

Of particular relevance right now is the way the scientific community selects for fraud. If asked, most scientists would say that the ideal scientist is honest, open-minded, and able to accept being wrong. But we do not directly reward these attributes. Instead, success - publication of papers, grant funding, academic positions and tenure, the approbation of our peers - is too often based on a specific kind of result. We reward those who can produce novel and positive results. We don’t reward based on how they produce them.

This does give an advantage to those with good scientific intuitions, which is a reasonable thing to select for. It also gives an advantage to risk-takers, those willing to risk their careers on being right. The risk averse? They have two options: to drop out of scientific research, as I did, or to commit fraud in order to ensure positive results, as Diederik Stapel, Marc Hauser and Jens Foster did. Among the risk-averse, those who are unwilling to do shoddy or unethical science are selected against. Those who are willing are selected for, and often reach the tops of their fields.

One of the more famous examples of natural selection is the peppered moth of England. Before the Industrial Revolution, these moths were lightly colored, allowing them to blend in with the light gray bark of the average tree. During the Industrial Revolution, extreme pollution painted the trees of England black with soot. To adapt, peppered moths evolved dark, soot-colored wings.

We can censure the individuals who commit fraud, but this is like punishing the peppered moth for its dirty wings. As long as success in the scientific community is measured by results and not process, we will continue to select for those willing to violate process in order to ensure results. Our species, the scientists, need to change our environment if we want to evolve past fraud.

Photo of Jon Grahe Biston betularia by Donald Hobern, CC BY 2.0

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