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Science is more interesting when it’s true

December 3, 2012

There is a great profile of Uri Simonsohn’s fraud-detection work in the Atlantic Monthly, written by Chris Shea (via Andrew Gelman). This paragraph popped out at me:

So what, then, is driving Simonsohn? His fraud-busting has an almost existential flavor. “I couldn’t tolerate knowing something was fake and not doing something about it,” he told me. “Everything loses meaning. What’s the point of writing a paper, fighting very hard to get it published, going to conferences?”

 It reminded me of a story involving my colleague (and grand-advisor) Lew Goldberg. Lew was at a conference once when someone presented a result that he was certain could not be correct. After the talk, Lew stood up and publicly challenged the speaker to a bet that she’d made a coding error in the data. (The bet offer is officially part of the published scientific record. According to people who were there, it was for a case of whiskey.)

The research got published anyway, there were several years of back-and-forth with what Lew felt was a vague and insufficient admission of possible errors, which ended up with Lew and colleagues publishing a comment on an erratum – the only time I’ve ever heard of that happening in a scientific journal. When someone asked Lew recently why he’d been so motivated to follow through, he answered in part: “Science is more interesting when it’s true.”

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