When scientists cheat

Friday Book: A RUM AFFAIR BY KARL SABBAGH, ALLEN LANE/ PENGUIN PRESS, pounds 16.99
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FRAUD IS all around us. Turn on your television set and you will see a dubious "documentary" in which scenes will have been re-created - a couple waking up in the middle of the night, a pair of workmen helping items they don't own over a fence. We expect politicians, celebrities, even (gasp) newspapers to be distorting the truth in some way all the time.

But scientists? Though their stock has fallen recently - notably in the furore over BSE, and then over genetically modified (GM) products - the idea that scientists could indulge in outright fraud is not one we accept easily. The suggestion is more that they would wilfully ignore inconvenient results, or be ordered to do so by superiors. The commercialisation of science, and the privatisation of research over the past 20 years, has increased that pressure.

You might think, though, that fraud would be the preserve only of those playing for high stakes, where getting the "right" results will offer a path to riches. Not so. Karl Sabbagh has dug up one of the most abstruse examples imaginable: the case against JW Heslop Harrison, accused in the Forties of quite literally planting examples of rather dull plants called sedges from another part of Britain on to the then privately owned island of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland.

Pardon? A 50-year-old case about some botanist putting plants the ordinary person wouldn't notice on a distant speck of land? Well, yes. Sabbagh deserves a lot of credit, first for making the subject interesting, then for doing so much detective work. The latter would not have guaranteed the former, but his background as a BBC science producer clearly made a difference.

Sabbagh provides a meandering description of the way in which John Raven - a don from King's College, Cambridge, and a passionate if amateur botanist, whose obituary first alerted Sabbagh to this decades-old case - investigated the evidence against Harrison. The latter had, by dint of hard work and a flinty personality, risen to become professor of botany at Newcastle University. Then the rumours started that he was faking the evidence he brought back from Rum (then known as Rhum), to which only he had scientific access, through an arrangement with the owner.

Why meandering? Because everything in this case seems to meander. Raven's investigation was done through subterfuge, by getting himself invited along to Rum, then investigating whether Harrison could have been right. Of course, Harrison was faking it.

One notable weakness is that the book gives away Harrison's motives for committing fraud before presenting the case. As with murder, fraud rests on three essential legs: means, motive and opportunity. The key - almost inevitably the precursor - is motive.

What bedazzled Harrison was the prospect of proving a theory that, unfortunately, could not be proven because it just wasn't true. He reckoned that the Hebrides had been joined to the main British land mass during the Ice Ages, and that various plants had survived there along with others. Most other scientists disagreed. Had Harrison been right, it would have been - well, not on a par with continental drift, but quite important to geologists.

When the data wouldn't agree with him, Harrison appears to have resorted to planting the evidence. He seems to have had an eye for unfeasible theories; he also backed Lamarckism, which broadly suggests that giraffes (say) lengthened their necks by straining for high branches, and that this characteristic was then passed to their descendants. Harrison even said he had carried out experiments that showed Lamarckism in action, which only goes to show how wrong a scientist in the grip of a flawed idea can be.

Raven concluded a report suggesting in the mildest, but most definite terms, that Harrison's Rum data was faked. Yet it was never published. Indeed, Harrison was never confronted. His membership of the Royal Society seems to have protected him from the consequences of telling scientific porkies. Sabbagh shakes his head rather wryly. I think we should be more worried.

It's arguable that the edifice of science is not about to come crashing down just because somebody thinks you can find sedges on Rum. But it's the principle that counts. We may be postmodern about our TV programmes, knowing that certain camera shots aren't possible without the collusion of those pictured; we may know that when politicians say one thing it is because they desperately don't want to reveal another. But as a society we are a long way from having that sort of sophistication about science.

Even scientists have not achieved that state of grace where they know which sets of data to ignore. It is a rum affair indeed when scientists are still not happy to complain about apparent fraud. But it is the case. Harrison and Raven's affair may seem comforting because it all happened long ago. The truth is, fraud still happens in science, all the time. Remember that as you read.

Charles Arthur

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