Whenever you narrow your gaze to the particular hero/idea you wish to hold up as a real winner in the history of science, you are completely ignoring the amount of contingency that goes into their success.
Finally, whiggish narratives, strewn with heroes, only hinder understanding of how the world works. As Athene Donald has written, heroes and geniuses are unrealistic and unhelpful for those who might enter scientific careers in the future. They are equally so for those who are not and have no interest in becoming a scientist, but nevertheless live in a world in which understanding the real rather than ideal relationship between science, technology, people, power and politics is hugely important.
“Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications” in the latest issue of the PNAS has been attracting considerable attention, at Phys.org and at RetractionWatch.com and at Science and at Scientific American and at Chronicle.com and even at the NY Times. As the title of the article suggests, misconduct of various sorts—fraud, plagiarism, errors, and duplicate publication—contributed to the retraction of 2,047 articles since 1977. Of these, fraud of some sort accounts for the greatest number of retractions.
The prevalence of fraud has prompted various explanations: the corrupting influence of impact factors and the publish-or-perish culture, the few bad seeds who happen to go into science, to a celebration of the self-correcting nature of science that identifies and roots out such cases of fraud. Common in these explanations is an effort to save “science” from reproach. It’s worth reading through the comments to see the rabid attacks on and defenses of this thing called “science.”
Why are we surprised that humans—call them scientists if you like—have screwed up, have plagiarized, and have lied about it?
[Cross posted at PACHS.]