Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 197–214 | Cite as

Good to the last drop? Millikan stories as “canned” pedagogy

  • Ullica Segerstråle


In recent literature, the famous Millikan oil-drop experiment appears as a case of “good scientific judgment” on the one hand, and scientific misconduct on the other. This article discusses different interpretations of the fact that Nobel laureate Robert Millikan’s notebooks show that he eliminated a number of oildrops in his published 1913 paper on the charge of the electron, while reporting that he had included all the drops. Starting with the common source of all Millikan stories, historian of physics Gerald Holton’s 1978 paper, I discuss recent “canned” versions of Millikan-as-misbehaver in books on scientific fraud. Then I examine some versions of Millikan-as-good-scientist, particularly the reconstruction by historian of physics Allan Franklin, and the views of some practicing physicists. Finally, we have an instructive head-on collision between the two standard treatments of Millikan. The problem with canned stories is not only insufficient information; we also lack a realistic evaluation of the role of ethics in science. As a fundamentally knowledge-seeking enterprise, science may harbor an inherent, perhaps irresolvable, conflict between scientific and ethical concerns.


error in science/scientific error scientific misconduct scientific judgment data selection scientific standards for reporting of data scientific reward system 


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Notes and References

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    Leon Lederman, personal communication. For more statements by scientists about the importance of careful measurement and reporting, see the special issue ofPerspectives on the Professions (1991),10 (2): What is Good Science? What is Good Engineering? (Guest editor: Segerstråle, U.).Google Scholar
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    Gert’s suggestion that the correct result may have been produced even more quickly had Newton and Millikan freely disclosed all their results (Gert, 1993, p. 168, this paper p. 207), could indeed be characterized as a knowledge-oriented rather than ethical concern. But Gert is not interested in loss of information of the type discussed here. Rather, he is worried about the amount of possible “futile research” that may result when experienced scientists suppress disconfirming evidence for hypotheses they strongly believe in. He is concerned about scientists’ potentially diminished trust in one another’s results (Gert (1993) p. 170 and this paper p. 206).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Opragen Publications 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ullica Segerstråle
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Social SciencesIllinois Institute of TechnologyChicagoUSA

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