The University Record, February 18, 1998

Spotlight on Research: AAAS Presentations
Of ethics, Aristotle and evolution

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

Unless universities and scientists take public concerns about research misconduct seriously, warns Nicholas Steneck, scientists can look forward to more intervention and oversight of their work by federal agencies in the future.

Steneck, professor of history and director of the Inteflex Program, spoke on "What Has and Has Not Been Accomplished?" at a session focusing on "Misconduct in Science: A Decade of Progress or Merely Years of Controversy."

Since 1985, when Congress mandated federal action in the National Institutes of Health Reauthorization Act, administrators and scientists have struggled with how best to define and confront misconduct, promote the importance of research integrity, and ensure the integrity of ongoing and future research studies. Steneck maintains that universities have made "significant progress" on confronting misconduct and some progress on promoting integrity, but says "little attention has been paid to ensuring integrity."

While Steneck believes questionable practices exist in research laboratories, he says there has been no serious effort to determine how extensive the problem is. "Careful studies of routine research practices and their impact on the integrity of research as a whole are needed to make sound policy decisions," he says. Among the possibilities he suggests are random audits of studies submitted for publication, exit interviews for graduate students about the research environment they experienced at a university and a nationwide call for research proposals on creative ways to deal with the problem.

Physicists have a problem with Aristotle. It's nothing personal. They just blame him for promoting flawed ideas about the basic laws of nature that impeded progress in science for 2,000 years.

Even though Aristotle got it wrong, he is a good example of how physicists use models to learn how the world really works, according to Gordon Kane, professor of physics. "Scientific theories are models of one part of nature, and all models initially have a limited range of validity," said Kane in his presentation. "In physics, models are mathematical equations describing how we think the world works. Our job as scientists is to test many models against reality to see which model nature selected in real life."

Kane spoke on "Models and Types of Understanding in Particle Physics" at a session on "The Role of Models: From Cultural Anthropology to Particle Physics."

Aristotle's big mistake, according to Kane, was not that he came up with a poor model. Scientists do that all the time. His mistake was that he accepted the model as truth without comparing it to events in the real world.

As an example, Kane cites the Standard Model of particle physics--the basic theory that defines the particles in an atom and the forces which hold those particles together. "In the late 60s, the Standard Model was just one of several theories proposed to describe the structure of matter. It's only after 30 years of research and testing that we know it's the one that was right."

"Race and Human Evolution" was not only the title of a AAAS session organized by anthropologists Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari. It also is the title of their recent book published by Simon & Schuster. In their book, Wolpoff and Caspari describe the "Out of Africa" theory of human origins, which holds that all living people are descendants of a single common ancestor named Eve. Wolpoff and Caspari maintain that both the fossil record and genetic data support a multi-regional theory of human evolution. According to this theory, human populations evolved concurrently in various regions over the past two million years. In other words, we have many ancestors, not just one.

The two also point out how the continuing debate over human origins and different races has profound social and political implications.