There are some crimes for which disapproval of the crime and those who committed it is mingled with grudging admiration. Because the crime was extraordinarily clever, audacious, or otherwise impressive. Think of the fictional casino heist in Ocean’s Eleven. Or in the real world, think of Alves dos Reis.*
So, what’s the closest any scientific fraud has come to Ocean’s Eleven or Alves dos Reis? What’s the “greatest” scientific fraud of all time? Where “greatest” is in scare quotes because scientific frauds aren’t actually great–they’re bad! But I don’t think that condemning their badness is mutually exclusive with acknowledging that a few of them were clever, creative, audacious, etc.
A few opening bids:
- Piltdown Man. Gonna be hard to top this one, I think. Charles Dawson (it almost certainly was him) faked actual fossils rather than, say, numbers in a spreadsheet. Although he didn’t fool everyone, he fooled enough people (including some of the leading paleontologists of the day) to appreciably influence research on human evolution. The fraud wasn’t definitively exposed until more than 40 years had passed. By way of comparison, think of the fake “Archaeoraptor” fossil from a few years ago–it only fooled a fossil collector and a few people associated with National Geographic, and was exposed within weeks.
- Does the Mechanical Turk count as scientific? Or as a fraud? If so, I’d say it was extremely clever. Like a really good magic trick. And it went many years without being exposed.
- Sticking with cases that may not even count as “scientific”: Elizabeth Holmes and her start-up company Theranos swindled $700 million from investors based on fraudulent claims about their blood-testing technology. The case has been the subject of multiple high-profile documentaries, a bestselling book, and now Jennifer Lawrence is going to play Elizabeth Holmes in a movie. I actually don’t know much about this case, and based on what little I know I confess I’m not that impressed. The huge amount of money Elizabeth Holmes was able to swindle seems to me to say more about the credulity of Silicon Valley venture capitalists than about Elizabeth Holmes’ skill, cleverness, creativity, or audacity (see also: Juicero, WeWork…). But I dunno, like I said I don’t know much about the Theranos case. Maybe I’m vastly underrating the amount of skill, creativity, cleverness, and audacity required to bilk Silicon Valley venture capitalists out of $700 million?
- Hwang Woo-suk became hugely famous in the mid-oughts by faking the creation of human embryonic stem cells. But he only got away with it for a couple of years. And it’s not clear to me if there was anything particularly clever about the fraud itself. From what I’ve read, it sounds like pretty garden-variety cell biology fakery, distinguished only by the audacity of the choice of topic.
- This list of opening bids is short because I’m not at all impressed by most recent scientific frauds. Many of them, including even very high-profile cases like the Schön case, just involve some combination of image manipulation and faking data in spreadsheets. Meh. That’s not even much work! Ok, some of them are pretty brazen. But personally I don’t have even grudging admiration for brazenness. Doing a brazen fraud–i.e. a fraud so obvious that you’re bound to get caught eventually–strikes me as weird and dumb, not audacious. It’s like if you were to walk into a bank, make a gun shape with your hand in your pocket, and ask the teller to give you a sack of cash.
Looking forward to your comments! (though anyone claiming that climate change is a conspiracy by climate scientists will be blocked…)
UPDATE: and now that we’ve had a couple of dueling comments about IQ research, I’m going to block further comments on this topic. It’s pointless and unproductive. /end update
UPDATE #2: comments now closed. I can’t be bothered to do any further moderation of shouting matches about IQ research or other political hot buttons. Take it elsewhere people. /end update #2.
*You definitely want to click that link if you’ve never heard of Alves dos Reis!