Fraud and the decline of science

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Engraving of Edward Sabine, 1865
Edward Sabine was accused of fixing his results. Photograph: National Maritime Museum.

Today on this site Alok Jha published a fascinating article on fraud and misconduct in scientific research, suggesting that “bad practice … is rife” and that its scale is becoming ever-more apparent through the use of software and statistical analyses that flag up suspicious results.

These bad practices, which vary in seriousness, are itemised. They include fraud, massaged results, plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, sloppiness, selective publishing, incorrect attribution of work and nondisclosure of conflicts of interest. Jha suggests that “Increasing competition for shrinking government budgets for research and the disproportionately large rewards for publishing in the best journals have exacerbated the temptation to fudge results or ignore inconvenient data”.

While things may feel pressured today, it made me consider the extent to which, in the past, opportunities and livelihoods might depend on producing good or believable results. Before there was any kind of obvious career path for the sciences, coming up with the goods at the right moment for the right patrons was critically important.

Jha’s list of scientific sins brought to mind another such list, from a famously forthright and rancorous diatribe by Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and designer of the Difference Engine. Although the book was ostensibly about science, its organisation and funding in England – it was called Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes – its chief targets were personal.

Above all, Babbage picked out the career of Edward Sabine for criticism. Sabine, unlike Babbage, had received patronage from the elite that dominated the Royal Society in the late 18th and early 19th century and, crucially, controlled its connections with the chief source of government patronage for science, the Admiralty and its Board of Longitude.

Babbage was out to show that not only was the system closed, with a small group controlling access to the purse strings and the same individuals being selected over and again for the few scientific honours or paid positions that existed, but also that one of the chief beneficiaries, Sabine, was undeserving.

In one of the most remarkable sections of this remarkable text, Babbage picked on the pendulum observations that Sabine had made on Arctic voyages led by John Ross and William Parry in 1818-20, for which he had received £1000 from the Board of Longitude and was awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal. Babbage wrote of the “extraordinary nature” of Sabine’s observations, which had a “remarkable agreement with each other … unexpected by those most conversant with the respective processes”.

He devotes a whole section to ‘the frauds of observers’, writing that “Scientific inquiries are more exposed than most others to the inroads of pretenders”, because only the “initiated’ are in a position to spot them. The first listed is HOAXING, which is only excusable inasmuch as it reveals the gullibility of those who should know better. The next is FORGING, which fortunately is rare. Then come TRIMMING and COOKING, which Babbage intimates were Sabine’s sins.

The Trimmer “[clips] off little bits here and there”, while adding on elsewhere, to make his results more agreeable. “His object is to gain a reputation for extreme accuracy” and it can be difficult to detect. The Cook’s art is, likewise, “to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy”. But instead of keeping close to the actual average reached, it can involve radical selectivity in results or the use of different formulae to create a false agreement.

Babbage was confident that future philosophers (men of science) would be able to discover the Cooks, if not the Trimmers:

it would most probably happen that the cook would procure a temporary reputation for unrivalled accuracy at the expense of his permanent fame. It might also have the effect of rendering even all his crude observations of no value; for that part of the scientific world whose opinion is of most weight, is generally so unreasonable, as to neglect altogether the observations of those in whom they have, on any occasion, discovered traces of the artist.

In a bit of casual 19th century sexism, he added that, thus, “the character of an observer, as of a woman, if doubted is destroyed”.

Was Sabine guilty? The jury would seem to be out – he was certainly a diligent observer, but the young officer, unused to his borrowed instruments and on his mettle, no doubt desperate to bring home impressive results in the hope of future commissions, may well have been tempted to a little trimming.

Did Babbage’s doubts destroy his character or career? Emphatically not. Sabine proved himself to be a willing aid to the Admiralty and was evidently both plausible and an excellent networker, successfully bringing together a disparate range of individuals and interests in support of what has become known as the Magnetic Crusade in the 1830s and 40s. He lived to a ripe age, was president of both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society and was knighted in 1869.

In the short term at least, it would seem that the accuser’s reputation suffered more than the accused.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s