On Fact and Fraud - Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science

by David Goodstein, Princeton University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-691-13966-1, 168 pages.

Reviewed by Joe Levinger

David Goodstein is a physicist who also was vice-provost of Caltech from 1988 to 2007.  He teaches a course on scientific ethics, and wrote this book for students in this course and for the general public.  It's worth noting that government funding agencies require a similar course to train lab personnel in “responsible conduct of research”.

Goodstein begins by surveying examples of fraud in science from the 1910’s “Piltdown Man” through the frauds committed by Sir Cyril Burt (supposed heritability of IQ), William Summerlin (alleged transplantation of tissue from unrelated animals that was shown to involve drawing colored patches on mice), John Darsee (fabrication of data from medical research experiments that were never actually conducted) and Stephen Breuning (fabrication of date regarding mentally retarded patients).  He then critiques 15 plausible but frequently unworkable precepts to eliminate fraud: e.g., “each author of a multi-author paper is responsible for every part of that paper”.  (Try to apply this precept to a paper with hundreds of authors!)

In his long second chapter Goodstein examines and then refutes the allegations of fraud C. Ian Jackson made thirty years ago against Robert A. Millikan.  Jackson accused Millikan of “cooking the data” in his dispute with Ehrenhaft a century ago.  Does the electron have a unique charge, or are there “sub-electrons”?  These allegations were studied in exhaustive detail twenty years ago, twice by Gerald Holton and once by Allen Franklin.  Yes, there are no sub-electrons; and yes, Millikan did deserve his Nobel Prize.  But I must ask:  Is it useful to look at these allegations yet another time?

In the next short chapter Goodstein examines two separate cases of fraud, one by Nisan Kumar and the other by James L. Urban, each research workers in Leroy Hood’s biology laboratory at Caltech.  Goodstein had helped write the Caltech  Policy on Research Misconduct, so he was a member of the committee that applied this policy to the conduct of Urban and of Kumar.  The committee decided that each biologist had committed fraud.  I would like to have read more about the committee’s work, and the statements made by the defendants, Kumar and Urban.

The next chapter described the evolving approaches during the 1990s to dealing with misconduct.  It is supplemented by an Appendix on Caltech’s policy on research misconduct.  I found the chapter and appendix useful but somewhat dull. 

Goodstein uses the 26 pages of Chapter 5 to tell the sad, unlikely story of cold fusion.  I heard this story both on TV, and at the 1989 Washington APS meeting.  I heard both Steve Jones’ sober contributed paper on his extremely tiny neutron flux, and I heard much of the special night session where many physicists  disputed and refuted the Pons-Fleischmann experimental results on energy from cold fusion.  I wish that Pons and/or Fleischmann had attended; but already, barely a month after they announced their “discovery,” the scientists (Pons and Fleischman and their supporters on one side, and many other scientists on the other) had divided into two opposing camps that weren’t talking to teach other!  I can’t tell if Pons and Fleischmann were guilty of fraud, or merely doing “pathological science” like the “discoverer” of “N-rays” long ago.  Goodstein joins the consensus that it wasn’t fraud; but I don’t know his reasons.  Like Goodstein, I’m surprised that cold fusion is still alive and well, twenty years after its birth and apparent death.  N-rays lasted only a year! 

In ten short pages Goodstein looks at two recent cases of fraud in physics: by Jahn Hendrik Schön at Bell Labs and by Victor Ninov at LBNL. The former published many, many papers with fabricated data purporting to demonstrate his creation of molecular transistors. The latter fabricated data to show that he had created a new element, that of atomic number 118.

In his penultimate chapter Goodstein relates the discovery in 1987 of higher temperature superconductors.  This is interesting science; but why does it belong in a book on scientific fraud?

Since I have never met a scientist who has committed fraud, I’d like to learn more about these peculiar, unusual people.  Did they think they could get away with fraud?  Did they generally break rules on ethical behavior? Did they cheat in their college exams? Did they drive through red lights? Did they think they could get away with fraud for months?  For years?  After all Sir Cyril Burt was quite successful in his fraudulent science.  He became a knight; and his fraud was only uncovered years after his death as a respected scientist.   Does the scientist who commits fraud like living dangerously?  Is fraud really rare?  After all, there were only two known fraudulent physicists in the past twenty years.  Or are there many fraudulent discoveries and publications that haven’t been exposed? I started getting answers to some of my questions from the case of journalistic fraud by Stephen Glass:  I saw the movie “Shattered Glass” about his numerous fabricated stories published by The New Republic, and I saw his interview on “60 minutes”.  I'm sorry that Goodstein didn't answer some of my questions.  Instead, half of his short book is spent on science that doesn’t involve fraud:  Millikan’s oil drop experiment, cold fusion, and higher temperature superconductors.

Added note:  Just after I finished my third draft of this review, I read “The Back Page” in the June 2010 APS News and found Goodstein’s summary of his book.  In his summary he makes two remarks on cold fusion that I question.   “Many things went wrong in the course of that episode, but fraud was not one of them.” And “…the final verdict [on cold fusion] is not yet in.”

Joe Levinger
Dept. of Physics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, NY, 12180,

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely  the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.