Fakes, frauds, and forgery. They’ve been around for centuries. Art by a great master proves to be a fake, or manuscripts are ‘discovered’ but no longer available for inspection. Science has had its fair share throughout the ages as well. For generations, alchemists tried to transform base metal into gold, enticing and mesmerizing people around them. In the early 20th century, anthropologists believed that Piltdown Man was the genuine article, until 1953 -- more than 40 years after the ‘discovery’ – when Piltdown Man was proved to be a composite of three different species. Most recently, Hwang Woo-Suk of South Korea falsified his lab experiments in stem cell research and dealt a severe blow to honest researchers. But those things happen only long ago and far away. Don’t they?
By 2002, several physicists began to take a closer look at Schön’s research data. No one had been able to replicate the results of any of his supposedly groundbreaking experiments. Even Schön himself could not reproduce his results in front of observers. Then a few scientists noticed that in three unrelated papers, the data graphs appeared to be identical. Rumors began to circulate. Bell Labs was forced to set up a committee, chaired by Dr. Malcolm Beasley of Stanford University, which launched a full-scale investigation into Schön’s research.
The committee’s final report found serious allegations in 24 papers published by Schön and his co-authors. The committee also found data that had been manipulated or falsified in 16 of the papers -- clear evidence of scientific misconduct. Six other papers were found to be ”troubling.” According to the committee, Schön’s misconduct fell into three basic categories: substitution of data, unrealistic precision of data, and results that contradict known physics.
Schön’s co-authors were exonerated, but he was released from his job at Bell Labs. In 2004, the University of Konstanz issued a press release stating that Schön’s doctoral degree had been revoked due to ”dishonourable conduct.” Although Schön appealed the ruling, it was upheld by the University in October 2009.
His motive? No one really knows for sure, not even Eugenie Reich, after years of investigating Schön’s case. Maybe there wasn’t one. But there definitely is a moral lesson here for everyone -- researchers, mentors, publishers -- anyone who may be beguiled by an alchemist’s promise. If the science seems too good to be true, beware.
So, where is Jan Hendrik Schön today? At last report, he is working for an air conditioning company in Germany. He has been barred from working as a scientist.
Whoever is detected in a shameful fraud is ever after not believed even if they speak the truth.
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