Someone pointed me to a long discussion, which he preferred not to share publicly, of his perspective on a scientific controversy in his field of research. He characterized a particular claim as “impossible to be true, i.e., false, and therefore, by definition, fiction.”
But my impression of a lot of research misconduct is that the researchers in question believe they are acting in the service of a larger truth, and when they misrepresent data or exaggerate conclusions, that they feel they’re just anticipating the findings that they already know are correct. This is inappropriate from a scientific perspective but it doesn’t quite feel like lying either. Again, having not read any of the details I am not saying that any aspects of this apply to this person’s particular story, I’m just speaking in general.
It would be fair to characterize the typical unjustified claim in a scientific paper (pick your favorite example here) not quite as fiction (defined as “literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people”), in that any evidence of such a claim is imaginary. But that doesn’t sound quite right to me. I’d characterize it more as “misleading exposition,” if such a literary classification could be said to exist.
My correspondent replied as follows to my comments regarding the story in his own field:
“Fiction” doesn’t quite fit, but it’s close in this case. Fiction assumes that the authors know it is untrue, I suppose, and unless you can have an honest conversation (or any conversation at all) with the authors, one can never know what is in the other guy’s head.
It’s possible that this person believes what he is writing, but as I think you have written, when it is defend defend defend in spite of all of the problems, at some point the authors have to know that none of it is true, then it crosses the line to unethical behavior, or beyond.
That could be. Again, I can see that someone can violate scientific ethics without thinking they are writing fiction. A related issue is that people will cheat when they think they’re in a fight. Once you feel that the other guy is hitting below the belt, it’s natural to feel that anything goes from your side. It’s all horrible and I wish we never had to think about any of this stuff. But we do need to look at this stuff, given the influence and reach of outlets such as NPR, Gladwell, Ted, PNAS, Freakonomics, etc., all of which are generally well-meaning (I assume) but are susceptible to the stories spun by exaggerators, fakers, and just plain confused people in the science biz.