When I read that former MIT associate professor of biology Luk van Parijs pleaded guilty last week to lying in a federal grant application, I wondered what would drive an intelligent human being to do something as self-destructive as cheat in science. His behavior wasn't just a one time anomaly; he repeatedly falsified data for papers and grants. The lies finally caught up to him in 2005, when MIT fired him. He will also face sentencing for fraud this June in a U.S. District Court in Boston.
Why did he do it? Wouldn't some self-preservation mechanism kick in to stop him from continuously falsifying data? A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the opposite can happen. For Van Parijs, and people in general, benefits from cheating may actually perpetuate self-deception. Zoë Chance and her coworkers conducted four experiments to determine if participants only justified their cheating, or if they went farther by actively deceiving themselves about their success. The authors report that "those who exploit opportunities to cheat on tests are likely to engage in self-deception, inferring that their elevated performance is a sign of intelligence."
If Chance's findings are applicable to scientists who cheat, then we can't expect scientists to simply correct themselves once they have started on an unethical path. Cheating doesn't seem to lead to self-reflection and remorse, as cheaters may actually have an overinflated impression of themselves. When we speak of ethics in science, we have to address this issue. If scientists are aware of Chance's study, they might have more success at keeping themselves honest and having realistic views of their achievements.