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The Dark Side

Fakery And Its Ends

Thinking about that plagiarizing Indian professor brings up the same thought I always have in these situations: what on Earth is going through the heads of these people?
I can tell you, honestly, that I have never faked any data. (That phrase makes me remember, though, that one of the most crazed fabulists I’ve ever known started a good number of his sentences with the phrase “I tell you honestly”). I would feel nervous and guilty about making up so much as an NMR coupling constant – I freely admit to having put down “10 Hz” for something that might well be 9 on closer inspection, but making it up without having even looked? No way. It’s not like I have a halo over my head, but hey, these things are real numbers that people can check. You’d think that if a person feels the need to lie about things that they’d pick something else to lie about. I can see telling people that the check is in the mail, or that yes, I did indeed read every word of your insightful memo, but I can’t see telling someone that I made some compound that I didn’t make.
So, then, faking up a whole publication? How can you do that and sleep at night? Even if it’s just some obscure analytical method, published in a journal that no one has ever read an issue of front to back, how can you do that? Well, then, how about sixty or seventy of the damn things over a period of a few years – that’s what this guy did, after all.
And I think that, other than the (to me) incomprehensible mental angle, what I feel about this sort of thing is anger. Although I work in a very applied research field, I think that scientific research is generally a good thing in and of itself. I’m signed up with Francis Bacon and his program “for the effecting of all things possible”. (Peter Medawar’s thoughts on this are well worth reading). So this sort of cynical fakery really gets to me, because it’s the work of someone who, in the end, figures that science and data are just stuff to use to get what you want. They’ve no intrinsic value. It’s not like anyone cares, right?
It’s like watching a pastry shop mix ground cardboard into their muffins – hey, you get more muffins that way, and what good are the damn things anyway if not to unload them on the idiot customers for cash? So for anyone who came to Chiranjeevi’s work for anything useful (God help ‘em), well, his message to you is to stick it in your ear. “Useful for you” isn’t anything he cares about. What he’s interested in, of course, is “useful for him”, and that’s what the whole enterprise of science comes down to for someone like this: a means to an end. And what mighty end is that? Why, advancement at Sri Venkateswara University, of course. And some pocket money. And a longer CV. Noble stuff, isn’t it?

17 comments on “Fakery And Its Ends”

  1. sroy says:

    As I have said before, a system that rewards public showmanship and punishes scientific rigor/ diligence tends to produce this outcome. Human beings are fairly amoral, and such actions often reflect what their surroundings demand of them.
    While honesty should be an individual responsibility, if it comes to feeding one self and his/her family, people tend to be dishonest/cynical.
    Worst of all, sometimes such research becomes the dominant meme in the field and almost no one wants to oppose it.
    A few examples. If you have free time, look up the history of how the memes below came into existance- it is quite disturbing to say the least.
    A] Why do most people still think that low fat/ high carb diets reduce weight? The history behind how we came to this particular idea is rather disturbing (personal ideology) and shows you what a well established idealogue can do.
    B] Do healthy foods (vegetables/ fruit) really increase your life span beyond preventing malnutrition? If not, why do we believe it? why do doctors try so hard to generate or select data to support it. Is it any different from pre-20th century physicians believing that TB was caused by insolence and laziness in poor people.
    C] The corelation between free serum testosterone level and the risk of developing prostate cancer is rather poor. But then, why are medical doctors so “worried” about the risk of testosterone replacement in older men, when the benefits outweigh the risk. You can always give 5-alpha reductase inhibitors with testosterone replacement, if BPH is an issue. Free testosterone levels have a poor corelation with the risk of CVD or Type II DM, if at all. So why do we demonize testosterone- changes in social attitudes towards masculinity or hard science.
    D] Why do we not hear more about how cholesterol levels (and sub type ratios) are a better reflection of insulin levels and it’s efects on the liver. Prediabetics have almost the same increased risk of CVD as diabetics. And why do most doctors still try to put diabetics on a high complex carb/ low fat diet when no large study has shown it reduce the risk of CVD or microvascular disease. Worse- it makes diabetes harder to control. Groupthink or science?
    E] While moderate exposure to UV from the sun is associated with increased photoaging and a higher risk of skin cancers (very treatable except for rare types like melanomas), it has been associated with a decreased risk of almost all other cancers in a number of retrospective population analysis from a couple of decades back. Given the recent evidence of high but physiological levels of Vitamin D (a pro-hormone) decreasing the rates of solid cancers, what took so long? Dogma and echo chambers?

  2. GYA says:

    Do you write these things out ahead of time and then just try to connect them to the topic of Derek’s post, regardless of what that topic is?

  3. sroy says:

    I do not write them ahead of time. I am just writing what i am thinking at that time. What you see is just my stream of thought.. though it is usually caffeine-induced/ enhanced.
    The things are usually in my head.. just connect the dots.. and type + try to spell check.

  4. processchemist says:

    Think about a national academical system basically self-referent, where most of the produced papers are no relevant and where connections between academia and industry are poor… number of publications for a group or an individual are the fuel for their careers and for their funding capabilities (public funding without any check about the productivity of the research, number of papers apart). Think of a system where the reviewers of papers are also active publishers. What’s the best way to produce the maximum of papers with the mininum effort? It’s to publish all you can do, faking something, when needed. The cross-reviewing network will take care of the rest. “Science” it’s only an ancillary subproduct of the system.
    I’m not talking about an hypothetical academic system in an hypothetical country, and maybe some (european) reader know something about it, and maybe someone will also remember something about an “AIDS vaccine” tested on apes…

  5. agogmagog says:

    Perpetrating scientific fraud is the equivalent of standing on a tall building in a thunderstorm while wearing copper armour and yelling ‘All the gods are Bastards’*. They truly, shall be hoist apon their own petard.
    p.s. – the whole first sentence is a blatant plagiarism.

  6. tipstriflate says:

    Talk about not being able to sleep at night(!) – there was a case of scientific fraud reported recently involving baby formula:
    Apparently, the researcher in question created and published under an alias in his own journal to back-up his previously published work….

  7. I was talking to a post-doc once who mentioned that his supervisor (who was up for tenure) got impatient for NMR data to come in so he inserted what he thought would be the final numbers and sent the paper in saying that he would correct the numbers at the proof stage. The post-doc left before the manuscript was returned and always wondered.
    I was horrified and have always thought about it when I read papers by this researcher.

  8. Harry Bishop says:

    Thanks for the interesting post Derek (I’ve just started reading your after seeing it mentioned on fnord).
    It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been in the research field, but I can remember the pressure to get published … I didn’t take the “fake the data” way myself, as you said it’s simply not right. But there were a surprising number of people some of us ended up finding out had faked data to get themselves published – either to speed up the process, or to support their position, when they could do neither with their actual data. Or when they realized far too late that they were missing some supporting data they did not have time or ability to get.
    Thankfully at the time I did not have to deal with pressure from corporate sponsors, but I’ve kept hearing for many years, abig concern over the perceived bias towards generating data that makes your paymasters happy.
    Then there’s what your first commenter referred to: research designed and done specifically to support a commercial position that is in fact incomplete if not downright inaccurate. Food additives are one of the most egregious examples of this.
    Falsifying results is not a new issue, and unfortunately I don’t ever see it going away.
    Thanks for a very interesting blog, have added it to my daily feed.

  9. Skeptic says:

    The three great general causes:
    The FDA operates much like a private central bank. Lots of amoral minds to found there.

  10. milkshake says:

    What goes on in the heads of these people? Not much, actually: it is a pattern of self-aggradnising bullshit and self-deception that has developed gradually. Often it is inspired by the pressure and example of the advisor. “Once you deceived yourself, deceiving others is very easy”.
    That’s why when you cook data or plagiarize someones work, you must be clear-headed and feel qualms about doing whats profitably wrong. That way you can stay honest most of the time and to avoid sloppiness when you are not/

  11. DrSnowboard says:

    Sounds like sroy needs his own blog…
    Or less caffeine.

  12. It must be really terrible for the guys whose publications were plagiarised. Not just the plagiarism, but the amount of time it took for somebody to cotton on, makes their work seem rather obscure and insignificant, which has to suck. Of course the fact that this prof’s career is totally worthless has to be some sort of compensation. Maybe the guy should get a job mending cars or something because he’s clearly not in the work for any sort of enjoyment

  13. Just Dropped In says:

    Not the same ballpark as “that plagiarizing Indian professor” but long ago I heard the tale that Millikan “faked the data” in his oil drop experiment. What seems to be fact is that he struck outliers to yield smaller statistical error.
    The tale does raise the question of the line between justifiable and judicious data selection and “faking it”. Confirmation bias can tempt a step over the line, and higher stakes (fame, money and even political influence) amplify the temptation.
    For a boatload of possible biomed plagiarism, see:

  14. Just Dropped In says:

    Well D’oh! Reading the backstory tells me the DeJaVu database is old news here. That’ll teach me to comment first and read later.

  15. milkshake says:

    Millikan did not fake his data, his measurements were sound – the problem was that he used a rather incorrect value for the air viscosity in calculating the electron charge (the velocity of charged dropplets depends on their friction) so his determined value was below the real value.
    A bigger problem was that no-one noticed the error for a long time and Millikans authority and fame was such that when others repeated the measurement and calculations – this time using the correct air viscosity value – their results did not agree with Millikans so they looked hard on their data set and “removed the outliers” to make their result more in agreement with the Millikans result. It took couple of years for the electron charge to “grow” until it finally reached the correct value…

  16. S Silverstein MD says:

    Thank god you’re a chemist, not a doctor or psychiatrist.
    This behavior is easy to understand. It’s called “narcissism” (at best).
    It’s no different than the hospital senior executive who makes it more difficult to care for patients through his or her empire-building, or the pharma VP who penalizes discovery scientists for ‘spending too much money” – in order to advance their own career and bonus.

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