Fake Science – New threats to the integrity of science
In September 1986, the East German biologist Jakob Segal, together with his wife and colleagues, published a 47-page brochure entitled AIDS: itsnature and origin . In it, he claimed that the HIV / AIDS virus was created by the United States government. His publication was part of a large-scale campaign by the Soviet secret service called Operation Infectionwho sought to undermine public confidence in the U.S. government. The “Segal Report” provided information on numerous factually correct aspects of the disease, but then deviated from reality by tracing the origins of AIDS to experiments by the US military on prisoners in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Genetic engineers created the virus in 1979, which then got into circulation due to a laboratory accident. Just two years after publication, the report had led to articles and press coverage from more than 80 countries. These contributed significantly to the long, sometimes persistent belief in numerous conspiracy theorists circles that the U.S. government had made AIDS. As late as October 2014, Louis Farrakahn, the prominent and controversial leader of theNation of Islam , AIDS, like Ebola, is a bio-weapon used by the US government to exterminate the black population.
Even though the scientific community has long since shelved the Segal thesis of the beginnings of the HIV virus, the infection operation is now receiving new attention – as an example of “fake science”. Like fake news, fake science consists of consciouslyfake messages created to harm a specific entity or specific person. In this case, this happens within the academic world, on the one hand as part of a state strategy that the country wants to use to gain an advantage over a technological, political or economic competitor, on the other hand to undermine scientific theories or even the reputation of science as a whole, because they are perceived as disruptive to their own ideologies, interests in power or economic gains. In addition to damage to the reputation of reputable scientists and sciences, fake science can have other very negative effects:
- Fake science can sow considerable confusion in the academic community and arouse suspicion of the scientific method among the general public. Ultimately, this could slow down research and significantly impair open scientific cooperation.
- Undetected scientific counterfeits can lead to fruitless and wasteful follow-up efforts that attempt to build on fraudulent results.
- If scientific fraud is discovered, it can contaminate an entire research area. Scientists‘ fear of damage to their own reputation as a result of the fraud uncovered leads to massive spillover effects.
- Detecting fraud in one area of a subject can cause institutional skepticism towards that area as a whole. For example, researchers in an area affected by fraud are likely to have greater difficulty in receiving or publishing grants.
The largest amount of fake science comes from China today. But other countries such as Russia, Iran and India also produce massive fake science. But unlike China’s targeted government hacking and theft of business secrets, academic fraud could also be an unintended consequence of China’s aggressive innovation policy. The country’s almost existential focus on technological innovation has a particularly strong impact on the state’s desire for scientific publications. Many Chinese universities award high cash prizes to professors for publications in renowned journals. On the other hand, researchers without appropriate publications quickly lose their jobs and social recognition. Of course, this mixture of pressure and incentives also exists in the West, but certainly much more so in China. It was there that a considerable black market for fake peer reviews, manipulated data and false empirical tests was created. The German biologist and science journalist Leonid Schneider systematically collects studies by Chinese doctors, which are obviously not based on real research work, but were commissioned by scientists from agencies and submitted for publication (blog:www.forbetterscience.com , from January 24, 2020, report in Spiegel Online from February 11). In the meantime, a large amount of counterfeit articles have accumulated there, which have made it into renowned journals. The journals themselves have now recognized this and promised measures to improve their standards.
The development that more and more „self-declared experts“ are trying to make their own, often completely absurd theories public, should also be mentioned here. This is also fake science. So there is an astonishingly loud group of people without even the physical education necessary to believe that they have refuted the theory of relativity or use the apparent contradictions of quantum theory to fundamentally condemn the world view of modern physics. The digital media enable these people to let everyone out of the most absurd nonsense. But self-proclaimed climate experts, who advocate their own theories on climate change without any scientific basis, often with the intention of scoring points politically, play a dangerous game with fake science.
And a third form of fake science has to be mentioned: the bought science. There is a lot of talk about “Shell Papers” these days. It makes it clear that dozens of international companies such as the oil company Shell, the Dutch bank ING and the airline KLM have provided financial support to the prominent climate change skeptic Frits Böttcher for years. In the 1990s, he collected millions (at that time still guilders) for sowing doubts about man-made climate change.
As desirable and important as the integrity of the sciences is, it is also clear that this is neither automatically given nor that it is preserved on its own. We always have to fight for them.