Einstein’s fudging . . . and other researchers behaving badly

It isn't just journalists, politicians and police officers who behave badly. On 1 August, the cognitive scientist Marc Hauser will step down from his post at Harvard to pursue "new and interesting challenges". His resignation comes after a year on leave, which followed an internal investigation into his research on the minds of primates that found him guilty of eight counts of scientific misconduct.

At Columbia University, New York, another investigation has found that a chemistry graduate student called Bengü Sezen made up a lot of her data; six published papers have been retracted. What is still not clear is whether Dalibor Sames, her professor, should have picked up on the fraud - instead, he sacked two other graduate students for lacking the skill to replicate Sezen's results.

Sezen was caught only after lab members mounted a sting operation to reveal her sabotage of colleagues' experiments. This has echoes of another case: that of the former University of Michigan researcher Vipul Bhrigu. Caught on camera last year, he confessed to interfering with the experiments of his colleague Heather Ames.

Bhrigu had been switching labels on Petri dishes and compromising samples by lacing them with antibodies. Apparently, her swift progress was making him look bad.

Scientific misconduct is more prevalent than anyone would like to think. Some of the biggest names in science - Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei - have been guilty of questionable behaviour. Einstein cherry-picked data and fudged proofs of E=mc2 (he never managed to prove it properly); in the Principia, Newton massaged his equations to fit with the latest data. And Galileo tried to convince the pope that the earth moved around the sun by "proving" that this was what caused the tides, when everyone knew even then that it was the moon.

In 2005, the journal Nature published a report showing that a third of scientists admitted to having misbehaved in the previous three years. The cited crimes included falsifying data, ethical breaches, dropping inconvenient data points and failing to give proper credit to the work of others.

Fight club

Given all this, should we start to show a little more mistrust towards the pronouncements of science? Not at all. The interesting thing about scientific fraud is that it rarely makes waves. Its exposure never changes scientific consensus. In some ways, it provides proof of the reliability
of science. The misbehaviour is motivated either by the sheer difficulty of proving what your gut tells you to be true or by a human desire for more credit than you deserve. Nothing you do, however, can change the laws of nature. If your goal is to misrepresent the way the universe works, you can be sure that your colleagues will find you out. It's their job to poke and prod at your work and expose any flaws. They carry this out with glee: that's why it's not unknown for fist fights to break out at research seminars.

As a result, any important idea or experimental result that survives a few years in the gladiatorial arena of science is almost certainly trustworthy. Which is why, for example, we should take note of the consensus among climate science researchers about man-made global warming. It stands at 97 per cent.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

Show Hide image

“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.