Are brilliant scientists less likely to cheat?

In this discussion of Allegra Goodman’s book novel Intuition, Barry wrote, "brilliant people are at least as capable of being dishonest as ordinary people."  The novel is loosely based on some scientific fraud scandals from the 1980s, the one of its central characters, a lab director, is portrayed as brilliant and a master of details, but who makes a mistake by brushing aside evidence of fraud by a postdoc in her lab.  One might describe the lab director’s behavior as "soft cheating" since, given the context of the novel, she had to have been deluding herself by ignoring the clear evidence of a problem.

Anyway, the question here is:  are brilliant scientists at least as likely to cheat?  I have no systematic data on this and am not sure how how to get this information.  One approach would be to randomly sample scientists, index them by some objective measure of "brilliance" (even something like asking their colleagues to rate their brilliance on a 1-10 scale and then taking averages would probably work), then do a through audit of their work to look for fraud, and then regress Pr(fraud) on brilliance.  This would work if the prevalence of cheating were high enough.  Another approach would be to do a case-control study of cheaters and non-cheaters, but the selection issues would seem to be huge here, since you’d be only counting the cheaters who got caught.  Data might also be available within colleges on the GPA’s and SAT scores of college students who were punished for cheating; we could compare these to the scores of the general population of students.  And there might be useful survey data of students, asking questions like "do you cheat" and "what’s your SAT" or whatever.  I guess there might even be a survey of scientists, but it seems harder to imagine they’d admit to cheating.

Arguments that brilliant scientists are more likely to cheat

Goodman makes the argument (through fictional example) in her book that brilliant scientists are more likely to be successful lab directors, thus under more pressure to keep getting grants (many mouths to feed), thus susceptible to soft cheating, at least.  Similarly, the cheating postdoc is described as so smart he never had to work hard in college, again under high expectations and cheating partly to maintain his reputation as the golden boy.  On the other side, a more ordinary "worker bee" type will not be expected to come up with a brilliant insight, and so won’t be under that pressure to cheat.

Another argument that brilliant scientists are more likely to cheat comes from some of the standard "overcoming bias" ideas, that a brilliant person is more likely to have made daring correct conjectures in the past, then when the person comes up with a new conjecture, he or she is more likely to believe in it and then fake the data.  (I’m assuming that scientific cheating of the sort that’s interesting is in the lines of twisting the data to support a conclusion that you think is true.  If you don’t even think the hypothesis is true, there’s not much point to faking the evidence, since later scientists will overturn you anyway.  The motivation for cheating is that you’re sure you’re right, and so you overconfidently discard the cases that don’t support your case.)

Arguments that brilliant scientists are less likely to cheat

I’m half-convinced by the overconfidence argument above, but overall I suspect that brilliant scientists are more likely to be honest than less-brilliant scientists, at least in their own field of research. I say this partly because science is, to some extent, about communication, and transparency is helpful here. Also, as illustrated (fictionally) in Goodman’s book, fraud is often done to cover up unsuccessful research. If you’re brilliant, it’s likely that your research will be successful: even if you don’t achieve your big goals–even brilliant people will, perhaps should, bite off more than you can chew–you should get some productive spinoffs, and the simple cost-benefit analysis suggests that cheating would stand to lose you more than you’d gain.

Conversely, for a more mediocre scientist, cheating may be a roll of the dice, which, if it succeeds, can bring you to a plateau, and if it fails, you won’t be that much worse off than before–you don’t have such a big potential reputation to lose.  And if the stakes are low, the cheating might never be discovered:  you get the paper, the job, tenure or whatever, your findings are never replicated, and you move on.

Thinking of honesty as a behavior rather than a character trait

The other thing is that it might make more sense to think of honesty as a behavior rather than a character trait. I’m pretty honest (I think), but that also makes me an unpracticed liar (and, unsuprisingly, a bad liar). So the smart move for me is not to lie–again, more to lose than to gain (in my estimated expected value). But if I worked in a profession where dishonesty–or, to put it more charitably, hiding the truth–was necessary, something involving negotiation or legal maneuvers or whatever, then I’d probably get better at lying and then maybe I’d start doing more of it in other aspects of life.

Science seems to me like an area where lying isn’t generally very helpful, so I don’t see that the best scientists would be good or practiced liars.  The incentives, at least for the very best work, go the other way.

P.S.  Thanks for Robin for encouraging me to present arguments on both sides of the question.

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Arguing that people who are good at communication are therefore bad at lying seems a bit odd to me. Similarly, I don’t see why you think lying isn’t helpful in science. The best argument for honesty at the top is that idea that it is easier to cheat on the content of a paper if you don’t expect anyone to read your paper with much care. But when top people review the work of lower people, that review is not very likely to be checked. So by this argument top people should cheat more at stealing ideas from papers they review, and unfairly rejecting or accepting papers based on strategic considerations.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    A brilliant scientist will probably get a high reputations. That means he will have a lot to lose by being discovered cheating, but also probably a lot of power to prevent his cheating from being discovered (at least in the short-term). But this is still risky. The best option for a brilliant scientist is to cheat only in ways that minimise the potential damage to his reputation. That means leaving only circumstantial evidence behind, not hard evidence, so he can use his reputation against accusations of impropriety. Lastly, the cheater will be most likely to cheat when they can reconcile what they are doing to the ethos of their field.

    Robin gave an example – strategic reviewing and stealing ideas – where a cheater can use their reputation to make the risk of discovery acceptably small, and leave no hard evidence of their cheating. It is also more morally acceptable to the cheater, as no genuine scientific idea is being suppressed.

    For similar reasons, a brilliant scientist labeling a field of study “unpromising” is much more likely to be cheating than the same one labeling it “wrong”. Choosing the question after seeing the data will be a much more common that actually falsifying the data. In another approach, a brilliant scientist could pressure less renown contributors into talking up the significance of an experiment; if the experiment ultimately flops, then his reputation puts the main scientist at a huge advantage vis a vis the fall guy.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    Robin and Stuart,

    Your comments reveal a broader view of “cheating”: I was thinking only of people publishing lies (e.g., misrepresenting an experimental result as the entire data they saw, without revealing that they had other, discrepant, data that they were hiding). I agree with you that, in your broader definition–cheating as acting strategically in a setting where sincere behavior is the norm–you’re going to see a lot more of it. Robin makes a good point that successful scientists (who, presumably, are more likely to be brilliant) will have more _opportunity_ to cheat, for example by getting more papers to review, seeing more preprints, etc.

    In my own experience, stealing ideas is not an issue: what’s much seems much more common is that statisticians come up with new methods and then want other people to use them. We’d love if people would steal our ideas–at least then they’d get noticed.

    Things are different in other fields, though. When I worked in an experimental physics lab (over 20 years ago), I remember my boss telling me a story about some Japanese scientists who would go to conferences and steal people’s ideas.

    Finally, regarding the idea that open communication is in the opposite direction of lying: this is from my own experience. I find it hard to disguise my motives even in games such as poker and chess where this sort of deception is essential. I certainly can’t imagine successfully faking people out on a research paper.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    If we strip away subjective issues, and focus on verifiable literature and citation indices, the related question is:

    are more prolific authors more or less likely to plagiarize?

  • Andrew

    Jonathan,

    That’s an interesting question also. I don’t like to see my work plagiarized but it’s not the worst thing–at least it gets my ideas out there! The most frustrating thing about plagiarism is that the plagiarist can take the original idea and make it worse by destroying the context.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “The other thing is that it might make more sense to think of honesty as a behavior rather than a character trait. I’m pretty honest (I think), but that also makes me an unpracticed liar (and, unsuprisingly, a bad liar). So the smart move for me is not to lie–again, more to lose than to gain (in my estimated expected value). But if I worked in a profession where dishonesty–or, to put it more charitably, hiding the truth–was necessary, something involving negotiation or legal maneuvers or whatever, then I’d probably get better at lying and then maybe I’d start doing more of it in other aspects of life.

    Science seems to me like an area where lying isn’t generally very helpful, so I don’t see that the best scientists would be good or practiced liars. The incentives, at least for the very best work, go the other way.”

    I disagree. I think you’re a good and practiced liar. I think the narrative arc of your professional achievements is rooted in various inequalities that you have significant incentives to obfuscate -through lies (and lies of ommission).

    It’s significant hubris (if one had plausible deniability of self-awareness, one could frame it as lack of self-awareness) to claim in a forum like this “I’m pretty honest (I think), but that also makes me an unpracticed liar (and, unsuprisingly, a bad liar).” Unless you’re making the more narrow claim that this statement only refers not faking lab data to support a hypothesis.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    That’s not a very nice thing to say.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Andrew, I’m on this site in good faith to attempt to overcome bias, not to make my hopefully anonymous pseudonym popular.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Is any contributor willing to go on the record that they’re a fairly good and practiced liar? That, for example, they lie to obfuscate privelege and inequities from which they benefit? I think there are probably real problems with non-anonymous blogging and that kind of admission.

  • michael vassar

    My impression is that brilliant scientists are more likely to know the difference between cheating and not cheating. The ones who then become prominent scientists are either very lucky, very socially skilled, or willing to violate their principles and cheat because they have to in order to keep up with their less brilliant colleagues who always cheat because they don’t really know better.