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Published On July 23, 2006

CLINICAL RESEARCH

Cheating Science

An excerpt from Allegra Goodman’s novel Intuition.

To outsiders, scientific research may seem a cut-and-dried endeavor in which an army of lab assistants carries out experiments with 100% precision, gathering data to support an unassailable hypothesis. Yet one layperson has imagined this world very differently, where the full range of human flaws—deception, jealousy, egotism—are at play. Allegra Goodman’s new novel, Intuition (The Dial Press, 2006), traces the fallout as Cliff Bannaker comes under suspicion for omitting data to magnify the success of a cancer drug. This passage offers just a taste of Goodman’s revelation that in science, neither the methods nor the motives are necessarily pure.

“We have believed you, and we’ve defended you,” Marion said. “We’ve staked our reputations on you. Why didn’t you show us all your data?”

“You saw everything.”

She looked him in the face. “No, I don’t think so.” 

He was pale, frustrated, indignant. “I don’t know what else I can say to you; you’ll think whatever you want to think.” 

“I do not think whatever I want to think,” she countered, “and that’s the difference between us. Why didn’t you publish all your data?” 

“I did.” 

“Everything.”

He practically shouted, “Yes. Yes! Every single scrap of relevant data.” 

“Ah.” She sat back sharply in her chair. 

“No, I misspoke.” 

She caught her breath. She had him. Not in the angry outburst, as he thought, but in the wavering afterward. She gazed at him as though she’d just made a bloody discovery. 

He was floundering. He heard his own voice, and the words spilled out in his defense, but for a moment even he heard his sentences as hollow formulas. His credo was rehearsed; his passion credible, but a performance all the same. “When I said relevant, I meant relevant to those particular experiments on that date.” 

She fixed her eyes on him in chilling fascination. “No. Relevant to the results you wanted.” 

“Not true. Not true at all,” he protested. 

But she’d found the equivocation she had been listening for, the willful confusion in his mind, the root of so many beautiful unfounded ideas. There it was; she’d caught him out. “Don’t you see?” she told him. “Can’t you see? The work isn’t good. It isn’t right.” 

He didn’t see. His guard was up again. Once more he maintained he had done nothing wrong. She wanted a confession, but he had nothing to confess. After all, he could not confess to Marion what he would not confess to himself. What he told himself about his work was not exactly what he had done. What he had done, not exactly what it should have been. Still, Cliff’s own perceptions of his actions were coherent, internally consistent. He clung to his defense for safety. 

Perhaps his work with R-7 had been more about ideas than concrete facts; perhaps his findings had been intuitive rather than entirely empirical. He had not followed every rule. Strictly speaking, he had not broken the necks of all his mice, but gassed them, instead. He had not dissected every animal. He had not chosen to discuss every piece of data, but had run ahead with the smaller set of startling results he’d found. Still, aspects of his data were so compelling that in his mind they outweighed everything else. He had sifted out what was significant, and the rest had floated off like chaff.

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