In the movie "The Big Short," Mark Baum, one of the few investors who shorted the housing market and benefited financially from its near-collapse, says the following:
We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball. . . . What bothers me isn't that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.
The disillusionment is palpable, and something burdening the world of journals currently. We worry that we're part of this same era, this same problem, with retractions increasing in number, papers citing supernatural designers, and Ouroboros reproducibility arguments. Of course, the fraud in science is harmful in different ways, and science has more to lose perhaps than other professions with members who resort to fraud.
Incentives drive behavior, including committing fraud. So, it was surprising to see a story of cheating, fraud, and lying coming from the world of bridge in a recent issue of the New Yorker.
Apparently, no contest is immune to fraud.
Bridge has a long history of fraudsters, it turns out. A complicated game, there is a lot of pride in winning, and a lot of prestige, which certainly sounds familiar. With two sets of partners competing, communication between each twosome is forbidden, and elaborate safeguards have evolved in contract bridge especially -- dividers under the table to prevent foot signals, screens across the table to prevent hand signals, and so forth.
Yet, a new approach is alleged, this time by two young players who seemingly came out of nowhere and have won an inordinate number of top tournaments.
You can see their technique in a video on kottke.org.
Pulling back to this perspective on fraud in bridge may help shed light on why fraud exists in science -- it's because when humans are involved in any incentivized system, fraud inevitably occurs. The goal has to be to minimize the amount of fraud and its harm, as it's impossible to eliminate it entirely.
Are we doing what we can to minimize the amount of fraud in scientific publishing and communication? Are we minimizing its harm? Or can we do more?