I took a subject as an undergraduate on archaeological theories and controversies. I was interested in all things related to the past, and like most of my undergraduate choices, I hadn’t really thought through this course all that thoroughly.
I was expecting more controversy and less theory but instead learned quite a bit about how movements in the social sciences have influenced the field of archaeology. This provided a great theoretical grounding, but what interested me most were the controversies.
I especially enjoyed when we would occasionally discuss a few well-known controversies within archaeology and other sciences, including instances of fraud. We were all greatly amused by the simplicity of the frauds (or hoaxes as they are perhaps more innocently termed) perpetuated in earlier times. I jumped to the assumption that the scientists who believed these frauds must have been terribly naïve.
Let’s go back to a meeting of the Geological Society of London in 1912, where collector Charles Dawson presented the curious fossil remains of the Piltdown man. He claimed workmen at the Piltdown gravel pit in Essex, England, had handed the skull over to him.
The skull was received as a significant find and touted as an evolutionary link between apes and modern humans, as it had the characteristics of both. Professor Arthur Smith Woodward, head of the geological department at the British Museum, reconstructed the specimen that became known as Homo piltdownensis, in recognition of its human appearance.
The specimen was certainly not without early critics, and scathing comments published as early as 1913 in Nature concluding that the sample consisted of an ape mandible pieced with a human skull. It was not until 1953, however, that the Piltdown man was exposed as a forgery. Prior to this it was largely regarded as an aberrant find, inconsistent with the path of evolution established from the increasing number of fossils found elsewhere.
It turns out the skull had characteristics of both species, simply because it was actually derived from both species. It was a composite of fossils from an orang-utan, chimpanzee fossil teeth and a medieval age human skull that had been combined with the intention of deceit. The fraud remained successful for so long because it provided evidence of popular thinking that the comparatively large human brain preceded the adoption of an omnivorous diet. The culprits of the fraud remain elusive to this day and even Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, has been identified as suspicious.
The Piltdown man is the classic example of scientific forgery. Let’s think for a moment about those scientists who published reviewed work on the Piltdown specimen; they surely must have been dim-witted. If you can’t tell a human from a chimpanzee as a palaeontologist, surely you must be really daft? That could never happen now, could it?
Well it turns out that the early twentieth century scientists don’t necessarily deserve the scorn of modern undergraduates, because scientific fraud does still happen and can be particularly hard to detect. But modern day fraud looks a little different from the Piltdown specimen.
Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, for example, was recently exposed as having committed academic fraud in dozens of published papers. Over a period of a decade, Stapel published papers on interesting subjects such as racial stereotyping and the power of advertising. He exerted strict control over his data and was the only person permitted to see experimental data, which he himself had largely fabricated. He created results that he expected would be of interest and throughout his prolific career published in many high quality journals and was often reported simultaneously in newspapers worldwide.
Science magazine published an editorial expression of concern in regards to his work in April 2011 and over a dozen doctoral theses that he was involved with are now considered questionable.
In this example, the forger was able to operate for so long as a respected scientist because the structures surrounding research allow most researchers to work in an environment of secrecy without being challenged. Stapel simply did not allow others to see his raw data for fear of exposure.
This is a particularly severe problem in psychology, where statistical errors and data manipulation are common. However, research integrity is currently very much in the spotlight across many disciplines. A recent piece in Nature cites estimates that roughly ~1% of published papers are fraudulent, amounting to ~20,000 papers each year.
This is a problem that can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant to the otherwise smooth progress of science. An overhaul of both peer review and our response to academic misconduct are necessary. Universities are beginning to appoint integrity officers and the definition and policing of misconduct is being tightened. Within the field of psychology at least, there is increasing pressure of reviewers to be obligated to see original raw data, prior to approving work for publication.
Were the Piltdown supporters stupid? Well not more so than those at the journal of Personality and Social Psychology who accepted a paper for publication that purported to show evidence of extrasensory perception without scrutinising the raw data.
Now, as then, we find and believe evidence that supports what we which to believe. Oftentimes, forgers are established researchers and the fraud perpetuated by scientists is insidious and incredibly hard to detect.