How Can Science Teachers Use Examples of Dishonest Science?

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NSTA members ask and answer one anothers’ questions about science teaching every day via the listserv, and the topics are fascinating. The latest question, trending on our NGSS list, focuses on dishonest science. The answers and comments are eye-opening!


“We’re exploring what it means to be principled and show integrity in science and I’m wondering if you know of any famous (or not so famous) NON-examples of integrity in science?  When did dishonesty in reporting data lead to some devastating consequences?  Any insights are appreciated!”

—Sara Severance, 8th Grade Physical Science Teacher, McAuliffe International School, Denver, CO
(question shared here with her permission)

Top Answers from NSTA Members

    • In 1998 Andrew Wakefield and colleagues published an article in the Lancet that the MMR vaccine may predispose children “to behavioral regression and pervasive developmental disorder”.  As a consequence, vaccination rates began to drop, and outbreaks of measles climbed.  Other scientists immediately began researching the topic and could not replicate the results.  After much investigation and debate, The Lancet completely retracted the article in 2010.  Wakefield et al. were found to be guilty of deliberate fraud.  If you do a search on this, you will find much more information, but here is a good article:
    • Three quick ones: Univ. of Utah and cold fusion, South Korea and stem cell research, Ptolemy and changing the math/data to fit the heliocentric model of the universe (just covered a few minutes ago in my 8th grade Earth science class).
    • I’m not sure if this is what you are thinking of, but the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932-1972 is certainly an example of egregious human rights violations, racism, and deception done in the name of science.  I mentioned it in my Introduction to Microbiology class last night.
    • How about Watson & Crick stealing Rosalind Franklin’s data? They end up with the Nobel prize and she dies of cancer.
    • I am wondering about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells.  The Smithsonian has some good information on her and there is also the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

A Word of Caution

Hat Tip to NSTA member Nathan F. for this reminder: “I think we need to be careful of using isolated examples of poor science. Students may extrapolate to “you can’t trust science” instead of ‘peer review is important makes science a self-correcting system.’ This is where we as teachers need to use our expertise. I can envision a list of quality research projects a mile long and a list or poor research much much shorter.”

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13 Responses to How Can Science Teachers Use Examples of Dishonest Science?

  1. Sarah Benedik says:

    Another example for dishonest science that I use in my class was covered in a 60 Minutes presentation called “Deception at Duke” which involved Dr. Anil Potti falsifying some of his cancer research and continuing to treat patients. His deception was identified by other scientists attempting to replicate his work and authenticate his results. Here’s the link:

  2. Andrew Gatt says:

    The radio program This American Life covered a research project which was later discredited. The research dealt with one method for changing people’s minds about controversial topics like gay marriage and abortion. This is the follow-up to the original story and deals more with the discovery that the data had been faked:

  3. David Prentice says:

    Another example is Ernst Haeckel’s “Embryonic Recapitulation” fraud of the late 1800s, in which he fudged his drawings to make it seem as if embryos of various organisms were a lot more similar than they actually are.
    Unfortunately, the drawings are still in many biology textbooks. Perhaps they are still reproduced because they are old enough to be in the public domain and so are royalty-free.

  4. Chad says:

    In the 90’s it was said that spotted owls could only live in old growth forests. Communities and jobs were lost because of this myth of many many years that never recovered. It was proven this was a myth and that these majestic animals do live in new growth forests years later. The harm was done already. Using unproven science to make a environmental based opinion is reckless and happens way to often. Science is amazing when proven but opinion based science where a hypothesis cannot be proven with all facts is detrimental. Many in our world believe a documentary with sciencey words makes it true. Not always the case.

  5. Christine Roberson says:

    One of the most powerful stories for my students is that of William McBride. McBride was the first person to sound the alarm about the dangers of thalidomide. His life’s work became trying to prevent birth defects. When McBride was convinced that Debendox also caused birth defects, he altered data to strengthen his case so that it would be pulled from the market. I have never seen any indication that he had any other motive than being a “true believer” who couldn’t wait for the experimental results to support what he already knew to be true. This one hits the students because McBride was trying to prevent harm to babies by altering “bad data” because good data was too slow in coming. Below is a link to part of the story:

  6. Tristan MacLean says:

    Rather than focusing on individual cases, you could explain how science works by taking a look at RetractionWatch with your students – “Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process”. The site can help them realize that there is a lot of scrutiny of scientific research and that integrity is very important.

  7. William Barnes says:

    There are several deeper issues here.
    First, some of the suggestions are NOT good examples of scientific dishonesty. For example, neither Watson nor Crick did nothing wrong. It is true that Watson was later ungenerous, but Franklin’s paper on her contributions to the structure of DNA app0eared in the same issue of Nature as Watson and Crick’s. The fact that by 1960 Franklin was deceased, and therefore ineligible for the Nobel is hardly dishonest. Subsequently, it is is not unfair to say that Franklin has received more credit for her contributions than any of the other three principals.
    Secondly, Nathan F’s warning is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!! The opinion that Science is never honest, but only the opinion of an expert elite is far too prevalent already. In my humble opinion, dishonesty in Science should only come up in the context of showing how Science can recognize and reject falsehoods to get at the truth.
    Third, the question of Medical Ethics is both highly inflammatory and a moving target. To the first, we all know that many adults are not willing to think coolly about ethical topics, so it is a question at what grade it is appropriate for students. To the second point, the Tuskegee Experiments were not ethically questionable AT THE TIME, regardless of how appalling they are to us in retrospect.
    Fourth, if one is going to do thinigs like this, it is essential to understand that Science is not only a set of “facts” melded into Laws, Models and Theories to create meaning and understanding, but that it is also a PROCESS. I am not at all confident that most Teachers have thought sufficiently about this, because very few of their college Professors have either. The following URL may be helpful:
    Bill B.

  8. Hal Harris says:

    The story of Jan Schön is told in the book “Plastic Fantastic”, by Eugenie Samuel Reich, published by Palgrave (Macmillan) in 2009. Jan Hendrik Schön published some of the most exciting and ground-breaking physics of the past decade. He published it in the most prestigious specialty journals such as Physical Review Letters, Nature and Science. He won several important prizes and was being nominated for more of them when a problem came to light. The problem was that Schön had no data to substantiate his discoveries . His deception was disclosed not by assiduous reviewers or journal editors, nor his supervisors at Bell Labs, but by an ad hoc group of skeptical readers of his papers on solid-state physics, molecular electronics, superconductivity, and nanoscience. They saw that his results were too good to be true, contained identical background noise in some figures, and that there were too many breakthroughs in too little time to be plausible. The fundamental problem turned out to have been something that is taught in the first chemistry course – how and why to record one’s original data in a scientific notebook.

  9. Mary Jane Else says:

    It occurs to me that this is something students could research themselves and then use the results to come to conclusions on how scientists come to consensus. Human-caused climate change is now in most states’ frameworks because of NGSS. Industry-funded climate skeptics who were non-experts ended up heavily quoted in the media, whose culture leads them to always look for “two sides.” But does science work that way? Skepticism is a part of science, but in a different way. I think eighth-graders could sort that out themselves.

  10. Michael Day says:

    Two cases from the 1930’s that come to mind are (1) the Lysenko Affair in the USSR, and (2) the accusations leveled against Einstein and others of doing “Jewish science,” by some non-Jewish scientists in Nazi Germany. It seems that often bad science arises when scientists are concerned with remaining in favor with some power elite or another. Nowadays, its a matter of remaining in favor with those that hold the purse strings; or in a school setting, fudging or ignoring an inconvenient data, so one can keep a good GPA. Still, the fact that we know what bad science practices are means that we know what good ones are.

  11. Maajida Murdock says:

    I normally start the academic year talking about about Galileo case. I then pose the question to the class if you are sponsored as Gallileo ( called a grant) and if you had data that will change the status quo in your area ( againt your sponsor’s interest), at the same time will damage your name and reputation if you tell the truth, will you proclaim the truth at the ‘national conference’ . In class there is No judgement just honest conversation. It is amazing the break down of number of studentsin the class is 50/50 on telling the truth vs falsifying the data

  12. William Barnes says:

    I hope that I will not appear as a scold, but with all due respect, the Galileo case misrepresents Modern Science, which did not really exist until the latter part of the 19th century. Galileo was arguing with the Catholic Church predicated on faith and the supernatural, not a community of professional Scientists operating from reason and evidence, with explanations predicated on natural causes.
    In Modern Science, challenging an established model will never “damage your name and reputation” if you have good evidence. Quite the opposite, it is the best way to enhance your reputation. An excellent example is Thomas Cech who discovered that some RNAs have catalytic properties just as enzymes do. This completely upset Francis Crick’s idea that RNA was only an inert informational molecule. For this, Cech was not punished, but was rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
    I am very strongly in favor of examining the way Science works, but it is important to keep in mind the ancient Greek dictum of “First, do no harm”. The danger is in unintentionally giving support to the spurious arguments of Pseudoscience and Propaganda Science that Science is only a “secular religion” of a self-serving elite.
    In fact, there is no such thing as “telling the Truth” in Modern Science. Every paper published is presumed from the outset to contain flaws – intentional or unintentional. The object is to persuade hundreds of skeptical experts by the strength of your evidence and the logic of your arguments. The Truth emerges from that. The moral intentions of the authors are irrelevant.

  13. Claude Thau says:

    I have not taught in 45 years, but I read this discussion with interest and applaud it. There are broad issues of integrity here (beyond dishonesty) and also even broader issues of inaccurate science even without an integrity violation. With today’s technological ability to create fake news, teaching students to probe is, if anything, even more important than in the past. We also need to guard against suppression of ideas which challenge conventional wisdom. Maajida Murdock’s classroom discussions are particularly exciting to me.

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