What if a science hoax convinced students that honesty is vita

Will wanted his class to think about issues of integrity in science and to think about the role of preconceived beliefs.

“I introduced the case of the Piltdown Man (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/sci_nat/03/piltdown_man/html/the_skull.stm). In England in 1908, a workman came to see Charles Dawson, an archaeologist and fossil collector, with some bones that he said he had discovered in a quarry near Piltdown. During the next few years, Dawson showed them to his friends, including Arthur Woodward, curator of the Natural History Department of the British Museum; Martin Hinton, a museum curator; Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic priest fond of practical jokes; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who collected fossils and wrote mystery stories. The Piltdown Man story eventually broke in the newspapers in 1912. Britain had its own fossil man! This enabled scientists to make a link in the evolutionary fossil record. Eventually, in 1953, x-rays of the bones showed that they were much younger than claimed. More detailed examination revealed an elaborate hoax. No one is sure who was behind the hoax. I asked the students, ‘Why, in 1912, did people believe the Piltdown Man was genuine?’ Here are their suggestions:

  • It was an expert forgery.
  • The people who broke the news were respected scientists.
  • Science at the time could not check the authenticity of the Piltdown Man.
  • The scientists were looking for evidence that proved the evolutionary link, so they saw what they expected to see.

“The Piltdown Man shows us that we can be misled, not just by hoaxers but also by scientists who interpret the evidence in a way that fits their own ideas. It also raises questions about how students approach their own science experiments, and challenges their honesty and integrity in reporting experiment results and the conclusions they come to.”

What's going on here?

Will helped his students to see science in a new way, underlining that values and virtues applied in science.

He engaged students in focusing and reflecting on issues of integrity and connecting science and values.

Will reshaped his practice by addressing the ethos of his science lessons through the deliberate raising of ethical questions (emphasis on integrity).

What does this have to do with faith, hope, and love?

Honesty and integrity are essential to a Christian way of life and need to be demonstrated in every aspect of life whether in science, business, banking, retail, leisure, or service and caring work. Honoring truth and cultivating the virtues that enable us to seek it are important expressions of faith in the God of truth. Honesty and integrity generate trust, an aspect of faith. Without integrity and honesty, people fail to show love and respect for others and turn hope into cynicism.

What difference does it make?

Piltdown Man could be passed off as genuine because many people assumed that everything that scientists say is true—an idea that still is implicitly held by many people. Will challenged this by showing that while most scientists don’t deliberately mislead people, they may interpret evidence according to their own preconceived beliefs. When we acknowledge that integrity or its lack can affect scientific work, we can lay a basis for a realistic degree of trust in science.

Where could we go from here?

Teachers could explore other situations where scientists got it wrong because of their preconceived ideas or expectations. For example, in the 1970s NASA satellites were programmed to ignore odd results. As a result, scientists failed to spot the increasing hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, which later was identified by much less sophisticated equipment on a British Antarctic Survey ship. Connections also can be made to classroom scientific practices (e.g., making explicit the question as to whether students should write up experimental results in terms of what should have happened or in terms of what did happen, however unsatisfactory).

Digging deeper

Honesty and integrity are virtues related to truth, which is rooted in the character of God. Jesus said he was the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Living a truthful life is not just about avoiding dishonesty; it is much more positive than that. It is about an essential unity in a person: honest words, attitudes, and actions (1 John 3:18). It is the religious life and the professional life lining up, not one set of standards at work and another for home.

Scientists often are under enormous pressure to make a major scientific contribution and advance their careers while maintaining professional integrity. Our culture tends to reward “win at all costs as long as you aren’t caught” rather than “maintain your integrity.” We keep getting high-profile examples of those who get caught. The media doesn’t profile those who give up chance for “success” in order to maintain their integrity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hwang_Woo-Suk http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/20/climate-sceptics-hackers-leaked-emails

Science is built on honor and integrity. Robert Lanza

For Christians who are scientists, the virtue of servanthood should play a central role. Society grooms us into behaving as though acknowledged success is what matters. Unless we continually see the importance of our work in ensuring outcomes that seek the welfare of society rather than our own acknowledged success, integrity always will be the loser. Science education needs to build character not just for the sake of the students but also for science.