Scientific Sins

My Top 5 | Scientific Sins 1. Around 1726, professor Johann Beringer, University of Wurtzburg, Germany, published a treatise, Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, about mysterious fossils that three boys claimed they found at nearby Mount Eivelstadt. But, they were fakes--part of a hoax conceived by junior faculty members. The hoaxers later tried to warn Beringer. When he received a fossil bearing his own name, he sued his fellow professors. But his treatise already had been published. 2. In 1835

May 5, 2003
The Scientist Staff

My Top 5 | Scientific Sins

1. Around 1726, professor Johann Beringer, University of Wurtzburg, Germany, published a treatise, Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, about mysterious fossils that three boys claimed they found at nearby Mount Eivelstadt. But, they were fakes--part of a hoax conceived by junior faculty members. The hoaxers later tried to warn Beringer. When he received a fossil bearing his own name, he sued his fellow professors. But his treatise already had been published.

2. In 1835, the New York Sun published concocted articles about astronomer Sir John Herschel's sightings of beasts--half-man, half-bat--flying about the moon's surface. The reports said that the creatures' faces were "a slight improvement on that of a large orangutan." Circulation rose, but scientists were skeptical because telescopes at that time could not detect such detail on the moon's face. The publisher later confessed.

3. In 1961, Australian obstetrician William McBride wrote that thalidomide could cause birth defects, which afterwards proved to be correct. So, when he wrote 21 years later that a morning sickness drug called Debendox caused birth defects in rabbits, a flurry of lawsuits followed. Merrell Dow took the drug off the market. But in 1993, a medical tribunal found that McBride had altered his assistants' data, and he was pronounced guilty of fraud.

4. Cardiac radiologist Robert Slutsky tried publishing a new research article every 10 days. But after investigators concluded he had altered data and misrepresented methods, he resigned from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine in 1985. He also had persuaded prominent scientists to lend their names to his articles. The Journal of the American Medical Association, interested in whether scientists could detect fraudulent results, conducted a case-control study (272:170-3, 1994). It found that before the frauds were discovered, scientists had cited each of Slutsky's 86 articles as frequently as they had cited each of the 176 control articles.

5. Immunologist Polly Matzinger, now section head at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, turned conventional immunity theories around when she conceived the "danger model," which suggests that the immune system is more concerned with damage than with foreign invaders. But early in her career, she included the name of her Afghan hound, Galadriel Mirkwood, as a coauthor, and the Journal of Experimental Immunology barred Matzinger from its pages for 15 years; "until the editor died," she says. When the NIH considered Matzinger for tenure, the canine coauthor question reemerged. The directors, she says, could take a joke. "They decided it wasn't really fraud. It was a real dog [a frequent lab visitor] and they said it had done no less research than some other coauthors had."

Adapted from Science's Most Wanted: The Top Ten Book of Outrageous Innovators, Deadly Disasters, and Shocking Discoveries, by Susan Conner and Linda Kitchen, published by Brasseys, Dulles, Va., 2002.


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