When Rutgers evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers began to suspect that his co-author, William Brown, had faked the data on a widely circulated study, he was placed in the unenviable position of bringing the fraud to light. It has not been easy.
Trivers first began to suspect that something was amiss in 2007, two years after the study – which found Jamaican teens with a high degree of body symmetry were more likely to be rated "good dancers" by their peers – had been featured on the cover of Nature. As Nature News' Eugenie Samuel Reich reports, Trivers has been fighting since 2008 to have the results withdrawn from the scientific literature, at the occasional expense of his reputation:
In seeking a retraction, Trivers self-published The Anatomy of a Fraud, a small book detailing what he saw as evidence of data fabrication. Later, Trivers had a verbal altercation over the matter with a close colleague and was temporarily banned from campus.
An investigation of the case, completed by Rutgers and released publicly last month, now seems to validate Trivers’ allegations. Brown disputes the university’s finding, but it could help to clear the controversy that has clouded Trivers’ reputation as the author of several pioneering papers in the 1970s. For example, Trivers advanced an influential theory of ‘reciprocal altruism’, in which people behave unselfishly and hope that they will later be rewarded for their good deeds. He also analysed human sexuality in terms of the investments that mothers and fathers each make in child-rearing.
Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calls the dancing paper “a lark” and “journalist bait” that lacks a firm basis in theory. “It was cute rather than deep,” he says. But he describes Trivers’ earlier work as “monumental”, and says that it would be a travesty if Trivers became known for one controversial study rather than his wider contributions to evolutionary biology. “Trivers is one of the most important thinkers in the history of the biological and social sciences,” Pinker says.