Seven Deadly Sins for Scientists

New Seven Deadly Sins

Given recent pronouncements from a certain organisation based in Rome, I thought it was time to list the Seven Deadly Sins for Scientists. Science is often referred to as being without morals and behaving unethically. Well, science itself cannot be either immoral nor unethical, it is only humans who can have those characteristics in how they choose to use science.

But first a quick mention for some fellow sinners. Over on Depth First, the morals of scientific publishing come under the spotlight, while Eye on DNA gives us the Seven Deadly Sins of Genetics. Carol Goble, about whose myGrid work I have written several times, shares her Seven Deadly Sins of Bioinformatics. A rather bizarre Seven Deadly Sins of Obesity appeared in Aussie publication ScienceAlert on March 7 – Consumption obsession, Time pressure, Parenting pressures, Technology, Car reliance, Marketing of unhealthy food, and Confusing advice – only a couple of which look like personal behaviours while the others are simply properties of one’s environment.

The traditional sins are: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride. (In the original Latin: Superbia, Avaritia, Luxuria, Invidia, Gula, Ira, Acedia, as listed by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century AD. Of course, they’re pretty much standard behavioural characteristics most of us do not want to see in others, but are loathe to recognise in ourselves. Incidentally, it is no coincidence that the words, dissolution, solvation and salvation are connected.

A visual update of this centuries-old moral code was posted on Sciencebase in February 2007 (Seven Deadly Sins) but has been receiving renewed interest because of the Pope’s own update to the capital vices. His new list is as follows: 1. genetic engineering, 2. polluting, 3. drug dealing, 4. abortion, 5. causing social injustice, 6. pedophilia, 7. obscene wealth. They’re not quite as catchy as the original list of cardinal vices, are they? I wonder how quickly the phrase genetic engineering will become redundant as science advances over the next few centuries.

Anyway, after all that waffle, here is a first draft of the six deadly sins of science, I’m leaving a slot empty for Sciencebase readers to fill…what’s the seventh sin of science?

  1. Plagiarism
  2. Lying
  3. Self-plagiarism
  4. Vanity
  5. Vituperation
  6. Procrastination
  7. ?

43 thoughts on “Seven Deadly Sins for Scientists”

  1. I think my 7th to add to the list would have to be “Embarrassing Short-sightedness”, although it’s arguable that my examples were in fact planned amid sniggers.

    A Google search for a ChemComm paper on copper nanotubes, for example, will show you what I mean. Not to mention the Proton Enhanced Nuclear Induction Spectroscope. Those crazy scientists and their hilarious acronyms/initialisations.

    – Jon

  2. Someone in my field published a paper, and then a couple of years later published a paper criticising his own work! Two bites at the cherry and giving the impression of being self crtical at the same time.

  3. Michelle, yes, indeed publications are the coinage of the scientific realm. Taking that metaphor to its obvious conclusion duplication and salami publishing can lead only to runaway inflation. The issue of duplication was covered widely earlier in the year, after Errani and Garner published on the topic in Nature (just the once, mind you!)


  4. Papers are the coin of the realm for many, if you wrote a grant to fund some piece of this huge project, you need a publication to provide proof you were a contributing member. Perhaps this multiplication of authors and “salami publishing” are just the scientific incarnations of gluttony. I sometime feel as if I’m choking on the literature, particularly the “methyl, ethyl, propyl…” genre.

    If we’re bridging math and theology – there is a fascinating riff in St. Augustine on the significance of 153, where he uses a series to arrive at that value. I keep meaning to dig in to find out how far back the description of summations of series goes in the literature. And by no means am I suggesting a list of 153 deadly scientific sins!

  5. Randall, I think with those kinds of particles physics papers that are carried out at multiple huge research facilities, such as the Argonne National Laboratory, there really are hundreds of people involved in making any single discovery, but it does beggar belief that they all could have made as significant a contribution to the paper itself.


  6. Its hard to judge its validity as I can’t afford to buy papers… However, I didn’t recognize a single name in the list, so first impression to me is that they are operating under a misconception that a whole bunch of names would add to its credibility and it is a collaborative attempt to write themselves into history.

    i watch it happen frequently in the Science Fiction world, authors doing big PR campaigns, forming alliances and declaring themselves to be the next Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, etc and then their books end up to be unimaginative or poorly written.

  7. @David, Checked out the link… ROFL – I think there are less names in the credits for the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

  8. @Randall – Yep, the words per head count can be very low. The early papers that came out of the Human Genome Project, I believe, broke some records with huge numbers of co-workers. I can only assume that some of the people cited didn’t even know each other’s emails let alone share a lab bench. Then there’s a physics paper from 1998 that has well over 400 authors (estimated from a quick scan just now) who are at 41 different laboratories. There’s a whole blog post in this subject alone.

    Of course, a simple Latin phrase added after the first author name hides a multitude of sins – et alia


  9. @David “…having more than 200 authors…”

    LOL… on most papers I’ve read, that would make about a 1-10 word contribution by each.

  10. @John – related to that exploitation angle is the sin of having more than 200 authors on a single paper, which seems to happen with increasing frequency in particle physics and genomics where everyone from Prof to tea trolley operative gets a mention.


  11. Maybe “Exploitation” is the word Mitch is looking for. Exploitation can also be the more egregious sin of claiming one’s own grad student’s or post doc’s work as one’s own work and minimizing their contribution — that’s a bit more than just plagiarism.

  12. I would put something like not unfairly using others to do your own work. But, I don’t know how to summarize that succinctly. Damn postdocs…


  13. @ David

    antipathy perhaps, as in a natural aversion of exploring paths that may contradict their work/theory.

  14. From what I just read on Dr. Mercola’s site sin #7 is claiming that studies that contradict your view are insufficient. Especially when you don’t have any studies that confirm your view. Topic excessive vaccination side effects.
    Hans Albert Quistorff, LMP
    Antalgic Posture Pain Specialist

  15. @David – could call on credulity, there are many cases of the received wisdom being, well, received, and then later shown to be way off the mark

    @Randall – perhaps a word meaning a lack of empathy, then?


  16. 7. Credulity: readiness or willingness to believe especially on slight or uncertain evidence.

    A horrific example of this is the diet-heart hypothesis, the belief that consuming saturated fat causes arteries to clog. The late Ancel Keys is largely responsible for the current widespread acceptance of the saturated fat/heart disease connection.

    The diet-heart hypothesis was formulated before the tools required for accurate analysis of cholesterol fractions were developed. All that was known at the time was that very high cholesterol levels were associated with heart disease, that increased fat consumption of animal products correlated with increased mortality from heart attacks, and that saturated fat tends to raise cholesterol levels. Later, scientists found that higher LDL cholesterol was associated with increased risk of heart disease but higher levels of HDL Cholesterol were artery protective. More recently it has been shown that saturated fat raises both HDL and LDL cholesterol but the LDL cholesterol associated with saturated fat consumption is of the large fluffy sort which is not associated with clogged arteries. Interestingly, if sugar is exchanged for saturated fat on an isocaloric basis, LDL cholesterol levels remain unchanged. However, the character of the LDL cholesterol is altered. Sugar promotes production of small LDL particles that ARE associated with increased risk of heart attack. So why are so many still afraid of saturated fat? Perhaps it’s because the USA has the best nutrition education program corporate advertising dollars can buy.

  17. I’m not a scientist nor a student but I would have to say that one of the seven sins for science would be that often the repercussions (consequences) are not dug into deep enough.

  18. @Wayne – Submitting the same research paper simultaneously to two or more journals for review is a big no-no in science, but has become an increasing problem. Apparently Japan leads the way, according to recent report.


  19. @Allan – I saw a great example of salami publishing in my past professional life, it was along the lines of the methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl thing I mentioned. The Prof in question basically thought he deserved a Nobel Prize on the basis of being so prolific!


  20. @JohnX – I think you’re right in one sense that 1-3 in my list basically amount to lying, but then the original seven sins list could equally be shortened by removing the redundant entries. Like you say, though, the number is arbitrary. It’s funny that it’s ten commandments but seven deadly sins. Meanwhile, the beautiful number 23 seems to have some status as a mystical number, but I don’t fancy extending the list that far.


  21. David,

    With all due respect, sins 1 and 2 or possibly 1, 2 and 3, are all the same. That is, one who indulges plagiarism is simply an unqualified liar, not to be trusted as to anything she or he states. Could it be entertained that we are down to four deadly sins of science, looking for the fifth? After all, the number “seven” merely has mystical roots, as does the number six. There’s no reason not to to have five or 11 or, forbidding to some, 13.

    Much of what some call science is plain old mysticism. Perhaps that could be added.

    When I practiced as a mathematician (no longer do so), a deadly sin was making a fallacious assumption, either at the onset or during the process of the “proof”. The latter is very deadly in that it can be hidden. This holds true throughout science. So, to boil it down to one word, Assumption, while I prefer Fallacious Assumption.

    Then there is the deadly sin of having an agenda. Fit the data from observations to meet the agenda. So, how about Agenda. Science should be free of agenda.


  22. I’d have to agree with Michelle – I think the 7th is ‘salami publishing’ – dividing work into its smallest publishable units

  23. David,
    You well know that many sins grow out of exggerated virtues. Openmindedness has its limits too.

    Anyway, if I understood correctly you have to choose finally Sin No. 7 and put it in the list? What is your option? I want to convey the complete list to my readers at Info Kappa- a romanian websearch and real life problem solving e-zine. They know you well.

  24. @Peter – Yes, narrowmindedness is a good one, but you’ve got to be cautious of not opening your mind so much that all sense leaks out (as we’ve seen recently with hype about perpetual motion machines)

    @Michelle – In my time at the Royal Soc of Chem I saw several instances of that, infinitessimal publishing, dozens of papers essentially identical differing by only the alkyl side chain: methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, pentyl etc etc

    @Jami – Good one, but can you distill that phrase to a single word?


  25. It is Self-limitation: to be closed to alternatives, to use a single theory, an unique experimental method/avenue to reject strange(r) hypotheses.
    To use the same favourite solution, to any problem, to know and not to search. Self limitation is the easiest way for a scientist to be both stupid and non-creative.

  26. @Russ – thanks for your suggestion

    @Adam – to slightly paraphrase the late, great Peter Cook: Whenever I look at the stars I get an overwhelming sense of just how insignificant they are.


  27. If so, then the Pope (and all his predecessors back to, I think, that same Gregory who came up with the idea of infallibility) is fallible.

    This has never really been an issue with Catholics. The Pope has never been considered infinitely infallible. That would be rather presumptuous. We believe only one person has ever walked the Earth and been infallible – Jesus.

    In the very specific circumstance that the Pope issues a proclamation ex cathedra, then that specific teaching is considered to be infallible. A proclamation of that magnitude has only been issued perhaps a dozen or so times (the exact number is in question, as the phrase and definition of ex cathedra was not laid out until the first Vatican council in the 1800s).

    The last time an ex cathedra teaching was issues was in 1950 with Pope Pius XII defining the Assumption of Mary. This is the only ex cathedra teaching in the entire 20th century.

    You are correct that this is a fun and interesting subject to mull over (although, I consider it fun for everyone, not just mathematicians). If you uncover the Pope’s list a bit, however, all 7 are really just specific examples of either one of the original 7 sins or of the 10 Commandments. Nothing really novel here, just current-world examples of Catholic teachings.

    Genetic engineering = playing God = Commandment 1. Polluting = Pride/Sloth take your pick. Drug dealing & Abortion = killing = Commandment 5. Social Injustice = Wrath Pedophilia = Lust or Adultery = Commandment 6 or Coveting = Commandment 10. Wealth = Greed/Gluttony

    One thing I particularly appreciate about Catholicism is its ever-humbling attitude. We are always called to remember that we never have been the most important, we are not currently the most important, and we never will be the most important thing in the universe. The 7 Sins are an excellent chance to take a step back and self-examine to see how and where we are conducting our lives perhaps a bit presumptively or egotistically. They are an opportunity to practice a bit of humility – a refreshing feeling in a ‘me first’ world.

  28. Self plagiarism is publishing the same paper in two or more different journals. It happens, it’s not in the spirit of good science and is against the submission rules of most peer-reviewed journals.

    Yes, indeed, the philosophical implications of this are deep indeed. Imagine a fallible God! Such a revelation would explain away much of the evidence with which one usually counters the Intelligent Design brigade, such as blood vessel overlay of the retina, parasitic wasps, etc etc


  29. I”m not even sure what self-plagiarism IS, but I’m pretty sure that computer scientists regard it as a cardinal virtue (code re-use…).

    As for number 7….. inflating the budget proposal?

    Of course, for a mathematician, the fun part is the theology behind the Pope’s pronouncement. Were all those “new” sins also sins last week? If so, then the Pope (and all his predecessors back to, I think, that same Gregory who came up with the idea of infallibility) is fallible. If not, then God is fallible.

  30. 7. Working your Grad Students slavishly (not a problem with my boss, thankfully)

    or more seriously

    7. Pride or Egotism or Inflated Self Worth

  31. Thanks for that one AnonyMousey…perhaps it could be summed up in a single word – Bureaucracy. That’s a double sin in my book. My book, which is kept fastidiously neat and tidy and duplicate copies of each leaf made under rule 3.4.viii, section 46a/4.ii, paragraphs 7-9b… ;-)


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