The truth will make you relevant

Scientists often cheat. Bad and famous scientists cheat. The cheating can be small or large: putting your name as an author on a paper that you barely read, omitting part of the an experiment, making up experimental results, claiming that you have a proof of a given result, making something look more complicated than it really is, and so on.

Cheating can serve you well. It may help you get a larger grant, a better job, and so on. However, all these gains are short term ones. For longer term goals, I believe cheating eventually makes you less relevant.

This idea came to me as I was reading a comment on this blog:

A scientist or mathematician may achieve relevance as a side-effect of aiming for rigour. (Peter Turney, somewhere on this blog)

Update: One of my colleague has written a book on scientific frauds (in French). Thanks to Sébastien Paquet for the link.

5 thoughts on “The truth will make you relevant”

  1. I agree completely. This fits well with my view that ethics is enlightened self-interest. In the long run, ethical science leads to better science, where “better” means more relevant, more fruitful, more accurate, more true. (That is, “better” is not merely a circular reference to “more ethical”.)

    “Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience.” — Albert Einstein

  2. “crime” sometimes pays. more than it should.

    Unethical behaviour in general, and crime in particular, is like gambling at a casino. Sometimes you may win, but, in the long run, you will lose. More precisely, the statistically expected outcome is a loss. It is not rational to gamble when the odds are against you. Likewise, a fully enlightened person does not behave unethically.

    This hypothesis has not yet been proven, but I believe that it will eventually be formalized in game theoretic terms and supported by empirical evidence. I find it to be a useful working hypothesis in my own life.

  3. Being caught cheating certainly exacts a high penalty for those at the top–who are presumably more subject to scrutiny because of their exposure. I imagine that, for such people, it doesn’t pay to cheat.

    But I’d be curious to know if that holds true for everyone else, particularly when it comes to small cheats. I know a fairly senior researcher who had a reputation for putting his name on papers he barely read. He never achieved godlike status, but he has had a very successful career–quite possibly a more successful one than if he had not co-authored all of those publications. I imagine the same holds even more true for researchers grinding out least publishable units (LPUs) to obtain tenure at lesser-known institutions.

    I’m not a cynic; I do believe that the world ultimately rewards good behavior. But only in an amortized sense.

  4. where “better” means more relevant, more fruitful, more accurate, more true

    About what and for whom, cui bono?
    I suspect that beyond the obviously working tit-for-tat and iterated prisoner’s dilemma policies the well meaning ethics are just a “middle class” illusion.
    Genghiz Khan was quite successfull but not that much “ethical”, on the other extreme of the scale should the downtrodden stick to ethics they will be screwed up even more.

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