Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World
by Eugenie Samuel Reich
New York: Palgrave Macmillan
The scientific enterprise is built on trust and accountability. Scientists are accountable both to the world they are trying to describe and to their fellow scientists, with whom they are working to build a reliable body of knowledge. And, given the magnitude of the task, they must be able to trust the other scientists engaged in this knowledge-building activity.
When scientists commit fraud, they are breaking trust with their fellow scientists and failing to be accountable to their phenomena or their scientific community. Once a fraud has been revealed, it is easy enough to flag it as pathological science and its perpetrator as a pathological scientist. The larger question, though, is how fraud is detected by the scientific community -- and what conditions allow fraud to go unnoticed.
In Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World, Eugenie Samuel Reich explores the scientific career of fraudster Jan Hendrik Schön, piecing together the mechanics of how he fooled the scientific community and considering the motivations that may have driven him. Beyond this portrait of a single pathological scientist, though, the book considers the responses of Schön's mentors, colleagues, and supervisors, of journal editors and referees, of the communities of physicists and engineers. What emerges is a picture that challenges the widely held idea that science can be counted on to be self-correcting.
Archive for: August, 2009
This week, while I hunkered down for the start of classes, Dr. Free-Ride's better half took the Free-Ride offspring camping.
They camped near Big Sur, which provided ample opportunities to hike near the ocean (and to swim in it). Indeed, on one of these hikes the first day out, they spotted some otters:
Regular commenter S. Rivlin emailed me to describe a distressing situation in academia and to ask for advice:
I write to you to solicit your opinion on a recent grievance case I am privy to at my university. I hope you'll find the time to respond, considering that you are back from your Sabbatical and fully engrossed in teaching and mothering.
The grievance was filed against a head (a man) of a research institute for harassment, and against the chairman of the department of which that institute belongs to and the dean of the medical school, for not taking action to stop the harassment. The grievant is a faculty member of the institute (a woman and a close friend of mine) who did everything possible to avoid the grievance process by attempting to resolve the issues internally, but to no avail.
All the men against whom the grievance was filed are considered administrators by the university and as such were provided with legal council by the legal office of the university. Faculty members have the choice of going through the grievance process with or without a legal council of their own however, if they choose to have a legal council they must hire an attorney from outside the university and be responsible for their own legal expenses. The grievant here chose to have an attorney to represent her in the proceedings.
Now mind you, the grievance process main aim is to resolve internal disputes by dealing with them in-house without resorting to the outside court system. Actually, the bylaws by which all faculty members and administrators agree to abide include the grievance process. It is thus understood that any grieving faculty member must use this process and prove to the grievance committee members assembled for the hearings that the grievance is justified and that the wrong done must be corrected. Once the proceedings are over, the committee must decide whether or not the grievant has proved her allegations and if she did, must conclude that the wrong must be corrected. If the grievant has failed to prove her case, she could still decide then to proceed through the court system on her own time and expense.
In this particular grievance case, the grievant proved, using documents and witnesses, that harassment had occurred and that she had suffered emotional, financial and professional damages. The grievance committee agreed that the harassing party had used his power of authority to hinder the grievant's career, including her ability to apply and secure NIH grants, and that the Chairman of the department and the Dean of the medical school did not follow the grievant request to intervene on her behalf. Actually the Chairman and the Dean ignored an action advice by outside experts' that they themselves had sought and received.
The whole affair, from the beginning of the harassment until the grievance committee final decision was reached, lasted almost five (5) years. Since the Dean of the medical school was one of the administrators involved in the grievance, the university Provost had been informed regularly during the proceedings and the final report of the grievance committee was sent to her. However, it is not part of the grievance committee's mandate to recommend steps to correct any damage the grievant had suffered. It is generally understood and accepted that once the grievant had proved that wrong has been done to her, it is up to the university administration to act to correct that wrong.
Thus, the grievant in the above case sent a letter to the university Provost in which she asked that the university will allot her at least a two-year budget to allow her lab staff and to be paid and supplies to be purchased (all her grants ran out) and also that the university will pay her attorney fee, which amounted to $25,000. Below is the Provost's response, which was sent on August 7, 2009, almost 40 days after receiving the faculty member's letter:
In case you hadn't heard, the State of California is broke. (Actually, probably worse than broke. This is one of those times where we find ourselves glad that our state does not have kneecaps.) As a consequence of this, the California State University system (one of whose 23 campuses is my own fair university) is now dealing with a $585 million reduction in funding. (At my own fair university, the cut is about $40 million.)
None of the options for addressing the budget cuts are wonderful. They have included yet another round of student fee increases and layoffs of significant numbers of lecturers (although they aren't being counted as layoffs because the lecturers were classified as "temporary" workers, this despite the fact that many of them have been teaching here for a decade or two). And, this academic year, they also include furloughs for the remaining faculty and staff.
A furlough is a period of time for which the employee is not paid, and on which the employee performs no work. Thus, an immediate consequence of a furlough is less pay (for CSU faculty in my bargaining unit, 9.23% less pay for the academic year). However, a furlough is distinct from a salary reduction -- it does not effect our health benefits, retirement benefits, and the like, and, at present, the reductions in pay cover only the year from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010. Despite getting less pay during this period, the furlough doesn't reduce anyone's base salary. As well, the assumption is that our taking these furlough days (for faculty in my bargaining unit, nine days per semester, 18 for the academic year) saves enough money overall to save some jobs.
We're shouldering our share of the pain. But, we're not shouldering an inordinate share of the pain by working on those unpaid furlough days. If the State of California cannot pay for a full academic year of teaching, research, and service activities from us, the State of California will not receive a full academic year of teaching, research, and service activities from us. This is what sharing the pain is about.
In discussing the general issue of faculty and staff furloughs before, I noted the tendency to assume that academics will figure out a way to do the same amount of work (or more) with fewer resources. This is just the kind of assumption that can lead administrators to regard furloughs as a de facto salary cut that needn't do much to disrupt the operation of a university. Academics unwittingly feed this kind of thinking by prioritizing the needs of others, like our students, over our own needs. But working for free just isn't sustainable, especially when faculty workload has consistently ratcheted upward and hard-won increases in compensation have never been in proportion to the increased workload.
When the budget is broken, being honest about what kind of faculty workload is sustainable is essential to fixing it.
And here, we're actually in a reasonably good position because our furloughs are the result of an explicit agreement between the CSU administration and the California Faculty Association. This means that there are clear parameters, accepted by both sides, for how we are to honor our furlough days. Especially helpful is the Furlough FAQ which the CFA has compiled. Among other things, this FAQ emphasizes that furlough days are not workdays with no pay:
Because we're all in the same exploding monkey factory together.
So far, no paper jams of consequence to report at the department photocopier, but the toner ran out at 11:58 AM Pacific Time. We are hopeful that the student assistant who comes on duty at 1:00 PM will be able to change the toner swiftly while whispering soothing words to the photocopier.
(Faculty are not allowed to change the toner, because as a group we have demonstrated little competence at this messy task. Also, the crying makes onlookers uncomfortable.)
Today's policy ponderable:
In my inbox today:
I'm curious, what credentials (academic or otherwise) does one need to become a philosopher?
For the purposes of employment in a university philosophy department, a graduate degree in philosophy (usually a Ph.D. but sometimes an M.A.) is standard. Kind of like a chemist can be expected to have a degree in chemistry, or a biologist to have a degree in biology.
If you're an off-the-books philosopher, I imagine this requirement might be relaxed.
Now, whether there are good reasons to accept the degree-linked-credentialist status quo (for philosophy or any other academic field) is a separate question. Commenters are welcome to take a swing at that if they so choose.
This week the New York Times reported on the problem of drug company-sponsored ghostwriting of articles in the scientific literature:
A growing body of evidence suggests that doctors at some of the nation's top medical schools have been attaching their names and lending their reputations to scientific papers that were drafted by ghostwriters working for drug companies -- articles that were carefully calibrated to help the manufacturers sell more products.
Experts in medical ethics condemn this practice as a breach of the public trust. Yet many universities have been slow to recognize the extent of the problem, to adopt new ethical rules or to hold faculty members to account.
The last time I blogged explicitly about the problem of medical ghostwriting, the focus on the coverage seemed to be on the ways that such "authorship" let pharmaceutical companies stack the literature in favor of the drugs they were trying to sell. Obviously, this sort of practice has a potential to deliver "knowledge" that is more useful to the health of the pharmaceutical companies than to the health of the patients whose doctors are consulting the medical literature.
This time around, it strikes me that more attention is being paid to the ways that the academic scientists involved are gaming the system -- specifically, putting their names on work they can't legitimately take credit for (at least, not as much credit as they seem to be claiming). When there's a ghostwriter in the background (working with the company-provided checklist of things to play up and things to play down in the manuscript), the scientist who puts her name on the author line starts moving into guest author territory. As we've noted before, guest authorship is, at its core, a deception.
Deception, of course, is at odds with the honesty and serious efforts towards objectivity scientists are supposed to bring to their communications with other scientists.
Dr. Free-Ride: So, where do you think land comes from?
Younger offspring: Land comes from ... I don't know.
Dr. Free-Ride: If you had to guess ...
My guess is that the first faculty meeting after one's sabbatical year is never an easy one, but when that faculty meeting happens during a state budget implosion the likes of which no one can recall, it's kind of like parachuting into an exploding monkey factory.
The high point:
At Philosophers' Playground, Steve Gimbel ponders the pedagogically appropriate way to label William Dembski:
I'm wrapping up work on my textbook Methods and Models: A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science and have run into a question. ...
The evolutionary biology track's final piece deals with William Dembski's work on intelligent design theory. Therein lies the question. The way the exercises are laid out is in three parts labeled The Case, The Scientist, and Your Job. The second part is a brief biographical sketch (a paragraph, just a couple sentences about the person's life). Not every case study has a bio -- for the discovery of the top quark, for example, there is no "The" scientist -- so the question is whether I should have one for Dembski.
On the one hand, having it seems to beg the question I am asking the student -- is it science. By labeling him "the scientist" in the text is to send a signal to the student. At the same time not doing so seems to send the same sort of message in the opposite direction. It also seems to be a political statement whether I do or don't. If he had a Ph.D. in biology or had done some other work, that would make it easy, but he has a Ph.D. in mathematics and another in philosophy and teaches philosophy at Southwest Baptist Seminary. He did have an NSF research fellowship at one point, but then so have many philosophers whom I would not call scientists. His arguments are aimed at the discourse within evolutionary biology, that is, he sees himself as doing science and it is his clear intent to do science. Is that enough to be a scientist? Would being a mathematician with a professional interest in complexity theory, applied statistics be sufficient? Does the applied nature, the world-pointing orientation of those field make one a scientist? What is a scientist and is William Dembski one?
That question of who is properly counted as a scientist resurfaces yet again.