Research Fraud and Public Policy

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Science  18 Apr 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5618, pp. 393
DOI: 10.1126/science.300.5618.393

We've been concerned recently about misconduct in scientific research. There's a lot to worry about: Some careers have been destroyed because the temptation to falsify data proved too great; others have been put on hold while irresponsible charges were allowed to dangle for years before being discredited. In the real instances of research misconduct we know about in biology and physics, the motive appears to have been career enhancement, pure and simple. It is, after all, a competitive world, and the incentive to gain reputation can be powerful. But other motives may appear in those social sciences that bear upon major policy issues.

A recent case is worth examination, especially because it involves a major public health problem. Guns kill nearly 30,000 people each year in the United States and injure many more. Indeed, homicide is among the leading causes of death among males between 17 and 28. As everyone knows, that has played into one of the signature controversies in U.S. political life. On the one hand, there are the gun control advocates—supporters of the Brady bill and of required registration for gun purchase. On the other, there are the supporters of the right to bear arms even when concealed. Social scientists, not surprisingly, have entered the fray on both sides.

Michael Bellesiles, of Emory University, supported the gun control case with a book called Arming America. Part of his argument was that guns were rare at much earlier times in U.S. history. Challenged on that claim, he failed to produce the data, claiming that an office flood had destroyed his records. Emory empaneled a committee of scholars to investigate, and its report questioned Bellesiles “scholarly integrity.” He resigned from the Emory faculty, and the Bancroft Prize his book had won was revoked. The pro-gun faction began to chortle with glee; end of story, right?

Not so fast. Here is John Lott: ex-University of Chicago Law School, now at the American Enterprise Institute. His book More Guns, Less Crime claims that on 98% of the occasions in which citizens use guns defensively, the mere production of a weapon causes the criminal to desist. These data were allegedly based on some 2000 interviews conducted by Lott himself. But when pushed for the survey data, Lott gave a hauntingly familiar explanation: His hard drive had been destroyed in a computer crash. Apparently the dogs in this controversy eat everyone's homework.

Wait. It gets even funnier. As the debate over gun laws spilled over from the scholarly journals to the Internet, Lott was defended passionately by a persistent ally named Mary Rosh. She attacked Lott's academic critics, including John Donohue of Stanford Law School, claiming in one posting that Lott had been the “best professor I ever had.” Alas for Lott and his case, Mary Rosh now turns out to be—John Lott! The American Enterprise Institute has not yet followed the example Emory set with Bellesiles, though it might think about it.

Meanwhile, though, legislators in a number of states are still considering liberalizing concealed-weapon laws, and Lott's book plays a continuing role in the debate. That moves this story from high comedy to a troubling challenge in social policy that isn't funny at all. Death by shooting is a national public health problem. Sound social science, not cooked data, is what we need to work out the tough problems like the relationship between gun ownership and violent crime.

Other sciences engage political passions just as hot as those in the gun control controversy. For example, in analyzing the relationship between atmospheric chemistry and the only climate we have, we need solid scientific work. The same could be said about the debate over whether there may be ecological or nutritional risks connected with transgenic crop plants. So far, thankfully, passion has not overtaken truth in the actual doing of science, even in these hotly contested areas. Once the experiments are done and the data are out there, scientists may argue forcefully for the appropriateness of their conclusions and for the policies they believe should follow. Others will criticize them for this, arguing that it's important for scientists to be “objective.” Indeed they should be—in doing their analyses and reporting their results. But in advocating policies based on what they have learned, it's good for them to take sides. Indeed, it's their responsibility.

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