Heroes and Villains

Heroes and Villains Why we sometimes need scientists to publicly misbehave. By Steven Wiley These public instances of misbehavior give us a chance to reinforce our shared sense of morality. It's nice to see all of the recent positive press coverage on Charles Darwin. It is refreshing because it often seems that the scientific press is more interested in publicizing the bad behavior of scientists rather than our accomplishments. In part, I

Steven Wiley
May 1, 2009

Heroes and Villains

Why we sometimes need scientists to publicly misbehave.

By Steven Wiley

These public instances of misbehavior give us a chance to reinforce our shared sense of morality.

It's nice to see all of the recent positive press coverage on Charles Darwin. It is refreshing because it often seems that the scientific press is more interested in publicizing the bad behavior of scientists rather than our accomplishments. In part, I am offended by the public airing of our "dirty laundry," but I also find myself drawn to stories about scientists behaving badly. I am not so interested in the miscreants themselves. Rather, I am fascinated by our reaction to them.

Although we fear that the public airing of science's dirty laundry will damage the public perception of scientists, surveys do not support that. Nearly 90% of respondents of a National Science Foundation survey in 2001 agreed that "scientific...

Unlike most professional fields, science doesn't have a formalized authority structure, and we scientists don't need a license to ply our trade. Instead, science is a field that depends almost completely on the honor and integrity of its individuals. The community's reaction to instances of misbehavior serves to reinforce this social compact, helping to keep everyone in line, so to speak.

I know of many examples of important lessons taught by the public disgrace of my fellow scientists. A notable one was the "cold fusion" fiasco that unfolded while I was a faculty member at the University of Utah. The unforgivable mistake made by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann was not the fact that they postulated a new type of nuclear process, but rather that they chose to announce their ideas at a public press conference, bypassing the normal channels of scientific communication. This publicity gave their idea an authority that it did not deserve, resulting in the wasted time and effort of hundreds of scientists, not to mention millions of dollars of research funding. This incident demonstrated to me the value of the peer review process (see this month's editorial, "Citation Violations") and also showed that overselling your research cannot only hurt your reputation, but that of your institutional colleagues. (I was ribbed by non-Utah colleagues about this incident for years.)

I also learned positive lessons from many other publicized stories of scientific misbehavior. These include the story of David Baltimore's colleague Thereza Imanishi-Kari, who was accused of fabricating data by a disgruntled postdoc. Called "The Fraud Case That Evaporated" by the New York Times, this incident showed that sloppy recordkeeping can sometimes be indistinguishable from fraud, and that whistleblowers are not always right. It served to put a brake on the efforts of self-appointed guardians of scientific morality, and also demonstrated the necessity of presuming innocence of those accused of scientific misconduct.

Positive scientific accomplishments seem to serve a distinctly different purpose. They show us the accomplishments we should strive for, rather than the behavior we should emulate. It is easy to admire the accomplishments of James Watson, but do we really want to emulate his behavior? Personally, you can be as virtuous as Mother Theresa, but unless you are reporting some breakthrough, the scientific press is unlikely to care.

Despite the constructive lessons that might arise from seeing what happens to badly behaving scientists, positive role models are still essential in our personal development. And here's where good behavior is important. There are many different scientists that I consider my personal heroes, but they attained that status mostly by their personal virtues, rather than their accomplishments. Although Stanley Cohen won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of growth factors, he is one of my heroes because of his honesty, scientific integrity, and the way he treated his colleagues and students. And you don't have to look in the hallowed halls of science for positive role models—think of your first adviser, or a favorite teacher.

The best role models are those scientists that we have some chance of actually emulating. Scientific discoveries require hard work, but also a good deal of luck. Being a good person, however, is mostly a matter of choice. Personally, I reserve most of my admiration for people's choices rather than their luck.

Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director of PNNL's Biomolecular Systems Initiative.


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