Little white lies to the popular press (follow up).
Since my post-commute rant yesterday, there's been quite an interesting discussion at Panda's Thumb about whether fudging the discovery date of a dino for public consumption is a scientific sin or a tempest in a teapot. Moreover, one of the participants, Thomas Holtz (who was interviewed in the NPR story), posted this story from The Bozeman Daily Chronicle in which Jack Horner is quoted as saying all he messed with was the date of the announcement of the find, not the announced date of discovery.
So, you know, possibly the NPR story didn't get all the details right. (Given my propensity to get irritated about stuff like this, I'm now going to start working my connections in the world of radio journalism to give the reporter in question some grief.)
But, while it now seems that maybe the initial sin that got me fired up may not have been committed, I still maintain that if it had happened, it would have been a problem. Even if it seems like the least important fact to record accurately, it's important not to fudge it. Not just because it might turn out to be important in some unexpected way, but because scientists are supposed to be after the truth. And the funny thing about truth-telling is that if I catch you in a lie, and you say, "Dude, I only lie about the little things, and only to the people who don't really matter," that doesn't give me any good reason to believe you're not lying to me! Lying undermines the idea that I can count on any of the stuff you say to be true.
I can imagine a state of affairs where the tribe of science decided it was OK to lie to everyone else and to be completely honest with each other. I'm not sure I can imagine them pulling it off successfully (because when you see how easily and persuasively your coworker lies to people on the outside, it's hard not to wonder if she could put one over on you so easily). But then the only ones who would have any good reason to listen to the scientist would be other scientists. And, the tax-payers could fund something else.
Contempt for the public or the mass media, while it may sometimes (often?) be justified by experience, is a risky stance for the tribe of science to take. And being cavalier about the truth, even on the little things, could end up undermining the whole enterprise. Maybe it wouldn't, but it seems to me a pretty big risk to take for such a little payoff.