JOST A MON

The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

There has been quite a bit of talk about plagiarism, fraud, and underhand skullduggery in the scientific community. The Nanopolitan has dedicated a few posts pertaining to the situation in the subcontinent (see, e.g. here and here). Various Indian (and international) journals have had to retract papers when plagiarism was detected (see this for one example). Overall, worldwide, there does not seem to be any lessening in the number of fraudsters in the sciences. Why would there be? For all their talk of the scientific method and integrity, scientists are human like the rest of us, subject to the same follies and weaknesses, ambitions and faults.

One might think that the increasingly cut-throat world of academia with its ethos of publish-or-perish is what drives the fraudsters. This is not the entire picture. Greed is another motive. During my college days, one of the prescribed texts for the Analysis course in Mathematics was by S. C. Malik, an author of particularly poor skill and laziness. The man filched entire paragraphs of proofs and examples and exercises from T. M. Apostol's superb textbook on the subject. It was bad enough that there were mistakes during the copying that went uncorrected before printing. (In fact, it was an exercise for us to find the mistakes in the book. Not a bad way to learn math, eh?) But Malik didn't stop there, however. He was so singularly lazy he even copied large chunks of Apostol's preface. The preface! The mind boggled at the time when I discovered the fellow's perfidy, and it boggles now.

Of course, the worthies who prescribed the text for Delhi University students didn't really care. I doubt anyone cares even now. For all I know, Malik's book is still in print and possibly is still a prescribed text.

Because the litany of human perfidy is longer than the names of God (thanks, A. C. Clarke, for this wonderful story), it stands to reason that with sufficient digging, one can uncover scientific fraud throughout the ages. Mr John Grant has performed said digging, and published an interesting little book titled Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science, which I have before me now.

Skullduggery began early. That much vaunted astronomer Ptolemy is credited with a superb cycle of observations and experimentation to validate his geocentric theory of the universe. Although the theory was supplanted by the Copernican heliocentric one, Ptolemy's scientific credibility was never doubted. According to Grant, 20th century astronomers began to study Ptolemy's data and reports. Ptolemy worked in Alexandria, but his observations would fit better had they been made in Rhodes. It turned out that Hipparchus, an astronomer preceding him by a couple of centuries, had made those observations - from Rhodes. Ptolemy was passing off Hipparchus's results as his own, having copied them from records in the great Library at Alexandria. Grant continues:
The clincher came when the modern researchers calculated the exact time of the autumnal equinox in the year AD 132. Ptolemy recorded that he had observed it very carefully at 2pm on September 25; in fact, the equinox occurred that year at 9:54am on September 24. Ptolemy was attempting to prove the accuracy of the determination Hipparchus had made of the length of the year; using as his base a record Hipparchus had made of observing the moment of equinox in 146 BC, 278 years earlier, Ptolemy simply multiplied Hipparchus's figure for the year's length by 278. Unfortunately for Ptolemy, Hipparchus's figure was slightly off, hence the 28 hour disparity in AD 132.
Of course, had Ptolemy bothered to make the observation himself and discovered that it occurred over a day earlier, he would have been in a position to make an even more accurate measurement of the length of a year than Hipparchus - now that would have been an achievement. Instead, he copied, didn't verify, and we all now line up to sneer at him.

Even such giants of science such as Newton weren't above a spot of rigging data to suit theoretical prediction. More recently, Edward Jenner's path-breaking invention of vaccination stemming from his observation that people who suffered from cow-pox didn't catch small-pox has been lauded as a triumph of observational science and innovation. He basked in this glory and never revealed the fact that he had known of a farmer, Benjamin Jesty, in Dorset who had, over 20 years earlier, injected pus from a cow-pox pustule into his family, in a desperate attempt to keep them alive during a raging small-pox epidemic.

The stories and names pile up. The Nobel Prize associations have been remarkably remiss and often awarded prizes to one scientist for the work of another. A notable case, which inflames feminists to this day, is that given for the discovery of pulsars to Anthony Hewish. The discovery and subsequent analysis had mostly been done by his graduate student Jocelyn Bell. Hewish, creditably, never diminished his student's work, and indeed promoted it as much as he could. The fault, as Grant says, lay with the Nobel committee.

A colossally egregious example was that of Selman Waksman who was awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of streptomycin. Most of the work had, in fact, been done by Waksman's student Albert Schatz, but the Nobel committee passed over that fact. Had this been all, one might have shrugged and moved on (after throwing several fits at the iniquity of it all), but Waksman patented streptomycin - as a sole creator! - and refused to share the large revenues that began to accrue to him as the antibiotic was made into a popular drug. Schatz, rebuffed in his effort to get a portion of the royalties, sued his mentor, and that proved the end of his career in the US. The American academy was outraged that a student would bring a lawsuit against his teacher; the justice of Schatz's claim was ignored by the leading research centres, and he was forced to emigrate to South America.

Wrongful attributions are one thing. An entire programme of science debauched by ideology is something else. Into this camp falls work on eugenics (culminating in Nazi-sponsored research on 'sub'-human subjects during WW II); the disaster of Lysenkoism from which Russian genetics never recovered; and any of the work done by Creationists in the domain of, well, Creationism.

So, all is not perfect in the world of science. Luckily, a majority of scientists - like many of us laymen - are decent and honest and not driven by baser instincts. As long as popular trust in them is not lost, they will have something of immense importance to contribute to mankind. If not and they do not police themselves, they will join the ranks of many other professionals - politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, lawyers and astrologers - who evoke derision and disgust.

13 comments:

Veena said...

Someone's bound to bring this up might as well be moi. An entire post on plagiarism in science and math and no mention of Lobachevsky? Come on now.

Fëanor said...

Umm, Lobachevsky didn't plagiarise. I think his name was chosen by Tom Lehrer so that he could do Minsk and Pinsk and Omsk and Tomsk. No?

Veena said...

Ya, next you will be telling me that Brigitte Bardot didn't really play the role of hypotenuse and Lehrer just made up that.

Fëanor said...

Nope, it was Ingrid Bergman :-)

Veena said...

Nope, the you tube version is bastardized. It is most definitely Bardot in the original. His put on accent doesn't quite work with "Bergman"

Fëanor said...

you may be right! although this site says that the studio version had bergman for the hypotenuse.

Veena said...

Thats interesting. Didn't know that.

Though by rights, I think the hypotenuse part should go to some hot Russian actress. Am sure you know all about them from your time in the country and all. Who would you pick? :)

Fëanor said...

I was not interested in Russian women (hot or otherwise) when I lived there! But there was an immensely popular film about Gypsies (based on a tale by M. Gorky) during the time - The Gypsy Camp Goes To Heaven - that I remember still. It was also shown on Doordarshan in the 80s (or possibly in the 90s). Perhaps you saw it? The lead role was by Svetlana Toma. Man, she was something else! (Moldavian, though, not Russian). Check her out here.

dodo said...

Very well written!

But how could you miss the victim nearer to our home, Jagadish Chandra Bose.

When Marconi took up all the glory and ran all the way to the bank.

Please have a look : http://web.mit.edu/varun_ag/www/bose.html

Achoo said...

I've heard rumours that the Raman effect is not really the 'Raman' effect.

Fëanor said...

@Dodo: welcome, and thanks for the kind words! I didn't know the details you reference. Thanks for the link as well.

@Achoo: welcome! Do you have any references to the Raman effect not being his work? I must confess this is the first I have heard of this rumour.

ros said...

Ah, so you're a mathematician too?

Fortunately I never had to suffer being plagiarised (as far as i know). It was bad enough for two people, far too clever for thwir own good, to find a more elegant proof than mine for a problem a whole 10 days before I sent mine to the publishers!

The drive to publish quickly and ruthlessly is the reason I left academia. I hate politics within a field.

Fëanor said...

Ros: welcome, and thanks for the comment. I have a mathematical background, yes. Hardly a mathematician, though! Re:politics, though, surely that exists in every field? Even education?

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