I’ve been reading the book “Plastic Fantastic: How the biggest fraud in physics shook the scientific world” by Eugenie Samuel Reich. From the early 90s until 2004, Jan Henrick Schön falsified data about electrical measurements on organic crystals. I picked up the book to look at scientific fraud, but find myself a little shaken. I was there. I’m pretty sure I was at the materials conference referenced in the book where he presented in Boston. I remember reading his paper about superconductivity in doped C60. His research was interesting to me as a tangent of the things I was working on. How did I read about his work and miss the fact that it was fraud?
To be fair, he was exposed after I left graduate school. By the time they realized that he used the same graph in his Nature and Science articles, I was working in industry and looking into nanoscale dual damascene copper deposition. His research was no longer an inspiration of where I could go, but a reminder of my past.
Finding out about his deception years after he was exposed, still leaves me feeling strange. It brings up several issues. How do we know who to trust? How much of what we see is what we want to see? It also has renewed relevance as I embark on a new career in education. How do I use this to show the pitfalls of cheating to students who are tempted to take the easy way out?
I thought that I could trust the scientific process, but it leaves doubts in my mind. Schön was caught because he used the same piece of falsified data in multiple papers. How long would it have taken if he had been a little smarter? One piece of the scientific process is reproducibility of data. Around the time he was caught, people started doing the same experiments and getting different results. This could have led to the same result, but it would have taken longer.
Unfortunately, until fraud is exposed, it hinders science. In the mean time there is no way to tell what is real and what is false. There is no way to determine who to trust.
I don’t know. I’ll have to think about this more.