Science in Christian Perspective


Scientific Fraud

 D. Gareth Jones,
University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ

From: PSCF 49 (December 1997): 

Science lives by trust, and if that trust evaporates, what is left? Such is the predicament in which the world of science currently finds itself. Of the many examples of scientific fraud, a major one at present emanates from Germany.1 Gene therapists, Friedhelm Herrmann and Marion Brach, have been accused of fabricating data in more than 30 papers in molecular medicine. While Brach has admitted forging data, Herrmann is contesting the decisions made by various jurisdictions on the ground that he was only the senior author or translator. He claims he had no motive since he had already reached the top of his profession.

This case is riddled with intrigue, including the breakup of a personal relationship which led to the exposure of plagiarism. The claims include misuse of a position as an anonymous referee, by taking other people's unpublished results and constructing imaginary experiments around them. Equally dubious practices as a referee of grant applications have also been suggested.

The unethical nature of practices such as these is self-evident. The fact that science appears to be riddled with them is an indictment of the pressure under which scientists are having to function. Nevertheless, they are also reminders that truth and scrupulous honesty are prerequisites for scientific activity, as they are for all healthy human interactions. But, on occasion, these can prove barriers to career advancement, and the question of ethical priority then becomes paramount.

What also emerges from this tragic series of incidents is that science is frequently not the impersonal, objective activity many like to think. Important as objectivity is, science is undertaken by fallible (and sometimes unscrupulous) people, and the interaction between the two can be a delicate one. The integrity of science is under scrutiny, because if science cannot be trusted what can? Surely Christians, of all people, should be campaigning vigorously for impeccable standards of truth, rigorous accountability, and as much openness as possible in science. And yet, these attributes lead inevitably to a willingness to go wherever the evidence takes us, and this can sometimes be a tricky business.



1Allison Abbott, "Fraud Claims Shake German Complacency," Nature  387 (1997): 750; and Quirin Schlermeker, "Gene Therapist Accused of Fraud to Ask Redress in German Court," Nature  389 (1997): 105.