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Inexact sciences

Hang Woo-seok, the South Korean scientist who caused excitement in the world after announcing a breakthrough in stem cell research and cloning, admitted in May 2005 that he falsified the results of his research.

In the field of science there is no second place. The big prizes are awarded to those who present findings that change the way of scientific thinking. The winners measure their success in research budgets, research assistantships, tempting teaching jobs and the number of times their findings are cited by other scientists. Money is not very important. Only a few engage in science to get rich - the competitive ones derive pleasure from the ability to be ahead of the others, to set the pace.

This is what you get when you advertise first. There is an automatic control system for exposing fraud - a scientific experiment must be one that can be repeated. But there is always a temptation to claim success before the conclusive proofs have been obtained. If the results of the experiments do not verify the predictions, there is always a temptation to distort the results.

Hang Woo-seok, the South Korean scientist who caused excitement in the world after announcing a breakthrough in stem cell research and cloning, admitted in May 2005 that he falsified the results of his research. He and his colleagues claimed that they succeeded in cloning embryos from skin cells and created 11 lines of embryonic stem cells. In November, one of Hang's American colleagues began questioning his methods, and within weeks others began asking questions as well. At the end of December, Hang resigned from all his positions and apologized to the Korean people.

The world of science is full of scientists who rushed to print with findings that turned out to be premature. In 1988, two important physicists from the state of Utah in the United States claimed that they had succeeded in achieving cold fusion - the spontaneous formation of thermonuclear energy. For 50 years scientists have dreamed of building a reactor that would provide unlimited energy. Until now, technology has been able to produce energy that lasts only for fractions of a second. The team from Utah claimed to have achieved better results by conducting an electric current through water and a block of palladium (a chemical element). Huge sums were promised for research, and the race to achieve cold fusion began. Other researchers who longed to win the race also announced that they had succeeded in achieving cold fusion. After a few months it was proven that the results in Utah were false.

In the same decade, claims were also heard against the American "discovery" of the AIDS virus. The French were convinced that the Americans had only discovered a sample sent to them from the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The matter was finally settled through diplomatic means, but the conflict left a murky atmosphere and criticism of the scientific procedures of a certain American institute.

In 1999, a famous American laboratory enlarged the periodic table. The scientists claimed that they had discovered elements 116 and 118 - a very heavy and unstable substance, with a shelf life measured in fractions of a second. Other scientists reacted first with admiration, then with suspicion: by 2002, the laboratory retracted the discoveries, and one physicist was fired for "cooking" findings.

There are publications that have managed to mislead researchers for years. The British psychologist Cyril Burt used dubious information to "prove" that IQ is inherited, thereby influencing academic thinking for at least a decade. The Russian biologist Trop Lishenko dominated Soviet agricultural science for 25 years with arguments that would have been laughable anywhere else. And in the Philippines in 1971, one government expert found a Stone Age tribe that had not been exposed to modern civilization. Finally it turned out that the tribe, Tasaday, which became Tom's symbol, was nothing but a hoax, while the "discoverer" disappeared after 12 years with the millions of dollars collected in order to "protect" the tribe from modernity.

It turns out that science is a democracy: in a healthy intellectual climate mistakes are corrected and fraudulent practices are exposed. But only in a healthy intellectual climate.

Tim Redford

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