Let us consider the following case study:
5 Aug 2009 National Post
BY JEN SKERRITT Winnipeg Free Press
Researcher censured for faking study data
WINNIPEG • The University of Manitoba has censured a former researcher after an internal investigation concluded he faked data and made up experiments that led to a seemingly groundbreaking study published in one of the world’s most prestigious science journals.
The news that disgraced University of Manitoba plant science researcher Fawzi Razem committed the biggest sin in science comes eight months after the journal Nature
retracted what was once considered a breakthrough study.
Mr. Razem, working in the lab of Professor Robert Hill, claimed to have discovered a receptor for the major hormone linked to a plant’s response to environmental stress. The receptor that has eluded scientists for two decades was identified in an article and featured in the editor’s summary in the January 2006 edition of Nature, one of the world’s most renowned international science journals. Tracking down that hormone receptor would be a major breakthrough for agricultural science, as it could help plants better adapt to cold or drought.
Concerns emerged last summer when a team of researchers from New Zealand couldn’t replicate Mr. Razem’s work — a red flag that there could be serious problems with the original findings.
A December 2008 online edition of Nature said the study made “erroneous conclusions” and there is no evidence to support Mr. Razem’s findings.
The university would not initially confirm if an internal investigation was underway.
That changed on July 30 when the University of Manitoba issued a statement in a newsletter confirming that Mr. Razem had committed fraud.
“Specifically, the committee concluded that certain experiments claimed to have been conducted, in fact, were not, and that results were fabricated,” the bulletin said. “This case is a very rare and isolated incident, and there are already safeguards in place to prevent such occurrences.”
The statement said the university has implemented sanctions against Mr. Razem and that he will “never be recommended for an academic appointment of any kind at the university.”
Mr. Razem resigned when the initial allegations surfaced.
The university determined the allegations warranted an in-depth investigation and struck a committee that consisted of the academic vicepresident and three impartial faculty members. University officials could not be reached for comment over the weekend.
Experts say cases of academic fraud are rare and undermine the pillars of scientific research.
“It’s a crime against other researchers,” said Arthur Schafer, a University of Manitoba ethics professor. “It undermines the researchers at the university and the trust of the public and the integrity of the research.”
Although few cases are so extreme, Mr. Schafer said there is a growing concern in the research community about pressure placed on scientists to “make a name” and win lucrative corporate sponsors. Mr. Schafer said science is one of the few professions where staff have to snag grants to pay for their equipment and assistants, and there is increasing competition for research dollars.
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There are several interesting points to consider here: First, the research has claimed to discover something real about the world. Second, this claim is supposed to be backed up by actual research and evidence. Third, the test of the claim is replicability: Can other researchers get the same results by following the same procedures? Fourth, when the claimed results cannot be replicated, the claims are rejected as false. Fifth, if you make invalid claims, your reputation and standing is lost.
Has any anthropologist every been censured for having cheated? Not that I know of. Anthropologists have been criticized for being naive and wrong, such as Margaret Mead on Samoa by Derek Freeman, Richard Lee on the Kalahari by Ed Wilmsen, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes on Ireland by various Irish scholars. But none have been accused of "faking data," of cheating.
Of course, in the days of Mead, Lee, and early Scheper-Hughes, anthropologists were trying to say something true about the real world, and could be criticized for getting it wrong. But anthropology has gone beyond that naive epistemology, to a post-truth way of "knowing," in which we acknowledge the inevitable subjectivity and the impossibility of anything else, in which each "interpretation" is regarded as valid as any other interpretation (as long as it does not violate "liberal" norms, of course), and in which everyone, anthropologists included, is seen at "telling their stories." We no longer claim to "discover" anything, or to assert anything true about the world, but merely to express our positionality: gender, age, class, and race. So it is impossible to condemn anyone for "cheating" in presenting their findings. That's progress!
But if we cannot say anything about what is true, we do know what is good and bad, which side to choose. So we can condemn fellow anthropologists if they are not sufficiently sensitive, respectful, and correct in their views and Interactions, in short, not for scientific failings, but for moral failings. Thus the "infamous" Napoleon A. Chagnon was condemned by the American Anthropological Association, until it became evident that the grounds of their condemnation were unfounded and that the Association violated its own constitution, and so the condemnation was retracted, leaving the AAA in disgrace, where it belonged.
Given where anthropology is today, what justifications can we find for the hundreds of millions of dollars we ask to support anthropology departments and anthropological research? Can we, in all honesty, ask for allocations of scarce societal resources for the subjective expression and political posturing that seem to be the norm in anthropology today?