I am amused by this post in The Times Science Notebook by Anjana Ahuja, concerning the case of Jon Sudbo, a Norwegian scientist whose 2005 paper published in The Lancet was based on faked evidence.
Though it is not often acknowledged, the fact is that scientists tell lies about their research.
One notorious, though not widely known, example of this was the recapitulation theory advanced by the German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel. In its original form, this held that embryos 'recapitulate' the stages of evolutionary development passed through by the precursors of their own species. So, for example, an embryo might at some stage have rudimentary fishes gills, even though the embryo itself wouldn't become a fish.
In evidence of this, Haeckel produced numerous drawings of different embryos for comparison. This was then used as evidence for evolutionary theory itself.
The only problem is, Haeckel's evidence was, basically, faked. The resemblances he asserted were not there, even in the examples he gave, where his drawings exaggerated what he was attempting to prove.
Now the interesting thing is this. Modern biology does argue for a connection between ontogeny (the stages of embryonic development) and phylogeny (the evolutionary background of an organism), and does so without reliance on Haeckel's work. To this extent, Haeckel's idea was partially right, but for the wrong reasons. It is therefore often argued that there was never a threat to evolutionary theory and that to claim otherwise is disingenuous, particularly when such claims are made by creationists.
The fact is, however, that not only Haeckel's name but his faked evidence continued to find its way into biological text books and courses long after it had been discredited. Indeed, I myself remember being taught precisely this principle, without any cautions about fakery, when I was studying for a biology degree in the late 1960s.
The real issue, therefore, is not that Haeckel was wrong, but that the 'scientific community' was so reluctant to admit he was wrong. And this raises the question why for decades his 'evidence' was allowed to slip through the critical net into mainstream education.
What Haeckel's case shows is surely two things. First, that scientists are sinners like the rest of us, and are prepared to lie even about things they present as true. Secondly, the scientific community is similarly made up of sinners, with the result that, even unconsciously, they may collude with the sinfulness, and therefore the untruthfulness, of others.
Let us never imagine that 'science' is a matter of pure objectivity. It is not.
Revd John P Richardson
14 May 2007