Fake It Until You Make It

I have already written a couple of times about scientific misconduct. The “Plastic Fantastic” case has been by far the most shocking and relevant (in terms of my own research) example of how faking it can spiral out of control. “Fake it until you make it” is an adage that’s supposed to encourage a healthy dose of confidence. Jan Hendrik Schön apparently took it too far, fabricating data until he was the world’s top young researcher (but eventually was outed). There have been a few other remarkable and perplexing situations where smart people, scientists and others, did some not-so-smart things.
Shattered Glass

In the midst of the internet boom and the dot-com bubble, Stephen Glass knew that he found his story. Glass was working for The New Republic, a liberal American magazine now celebrating one hundred years of reporting. Glass was a rising star, writing stories in Rolling Stone and Harper’s along with his features for The New Republic. He had just interviewed 15-year-old Ian Restil, a computer whiz kid in the process of being recruited by a technology company called “Jukt Micronics”. The article recounted how the hacking prodigy threw a tantrum while negotiating his demands, channeling Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire: “Show me the money! Show me the money!” It was compelling; it was intriguing; it was pure entertainment – except, as you might guess from the introduction, it was completely fabricated.

A reporter at Forbes was curious as to how TNR managed to scoop the story before they could and was determined to figure it out. Naturally, he started with the company: Jukt Micronics, just another oddly named Silicon Valley technology start-up – except that he couldn’t even confirm the company’s existence. Then, he couldn’t find the kid. Nothing in the story seemed to exist. The Forbes reporter went to Glass’s editor, Charles Lane. Together, Glass and Lane visited the hotel and conference room where the interview was supposedly held. As it turned out, the conference room had been closed the day Glass said the interview took place. Glass still insisted his story was true; he gave Lane a number for the firm. It was a bona fide Palo Alto phone number, and a Jukt Micronics executive named George Sims answered. It was soon discovered that Sims was actually Glass’s brother, who was attending Stanford University at the time.

It wasn’t the first time Glass had made up some stories. The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) was the subject of one of Glass’s articles and claimed his writing was fabricated. The Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote a letter to the editor claiming that Glass had included numerous mistakes and various incidents of twisting and bending of the truth. Hofstra University was the target of another article and promptly complained about Glass’s inaccuracies. Glass was originally trusted by his employers, though; at one point, his editor demanded that his accusers apologize to him. Shattered Glass eventually was the

name of the dramatic film that portrayed his downfall and is an accurate description of the aftermath of Glass’s fraud. Glass was fired, of course, but not before misrepresenting facts in at least 36 of his published works.

Sokal Affair

Sometimes data fabrication reveals something about the system rather than the fraudster. New York University physics professor Alan Sokal published two papers important papers in 1996. The first one was submitted to the journal Social Text, which serves as a forum for debate on a variety of divisive social issues. Sokal wrote an article claiming that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct; there’s no physical meaning behind the scientific jargon. The second article that Sokal published was submitted to the Lingua Franca, a journal about intellectual life in academia. This article revealed that his first article was an intentional hoax.

Sokal wrote the first article, later describing it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense” noting that quotations and references were “the silliest he could find about mathematics and physics”. The first example of “faking it” was done to deceive readers and gain fame. In this case, Sokal was not trying to dupe the readers of Social Text. He was trying to make a point about peer review; the smart people doing not-so-smart things here were the Social Text editors. It was made apparent by Sokal that some journals will publish articles as long as they fit a certain format and include the right amount of jargon in the right order. Some even said that intellectual rigor was not necessary for publication as long as the appropriate political tilt was included in the article.

Sokal’s objective was not to deceive his readers or make the editors look stupid. He was hoping to point out that academics might be getting lazy. At the time, a so-called “science wars” was sweeping humanities departments across the United States. Postmodernists claimed that scientific theories and ideas were social constructs rather than a reflection of reality. Many of these debates featured authors with very little scientific background attempting to make claims about scientific concepts. These articles would be published without review from physicists, chemists, or mathematicians. The results would be a deconstruction of scientific ideas without a focus on the evidence or underlying concepts.

While this might seem like a reason to lose faith in academic research, it’s important to realize that journals like Social Text (which didn’t practice peer review in 1996) are not common modes of science communication. The peer review process in scientific journals is fairly rigorous. Still, isolated incidents sometimes still occur, and it’s important to be wary of these happenings.

Bogdanov Affair

On the opposite end of the spectrum were Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, French twins trying to earn their PhDs in the late 1990s. The first brother barely passed his PhD thesis defense; he was hoping to earn a PhD in physics, but his advisor said that mathematics would be more appropriate. His degree was granted when he removed the physics-based excerpts of his thesis. His twin failed his defense and was told he could earn his PhD if he published three peer-reviewed papers, which he did within the next three years. Both brothers were given the lowest passing grade, a seldom-given “honorable”.

While Igor was attempting to publish papers (with his brother’s help) to get his degree, the two published five papers in 2001 and 2002. Here’s an excerpt from one of the papers’ conclusion:

We draw from the above that whatever the orientation, the plane of oscillation of Foucault’s pendulum is necessarily aligned with the initial singularity marking the origin of physical space S3, that of Euclidean space E4 (described by the family of instantons Ibeta of whatever radius beta), and, finally, that of Lorentzian space-time M4.

Sounds smart, right? Now, I have no knowledge of topological quantum field theory, but John Baez, a University of California mathematical physicist, would insist that the above jumble of words is complete nonsense, along with the rest of the paper. As it turns out, Baez was the one who exposed the Bogdanov twins to the physics community. Originally, Baez thought that the twins’ papers were sort of a reverse Sokal Affair; the researchers were just attempting to point out the holes in peer review. None of their papers made physical sense and were just filled with long strings of complex physics jargon. The twins were adamant though, claiming that their work was honest and well-intentioned.

Shortly after the press found out about the Bogdanov’s deception, another incident involving the twins resurfaced. In the early 1990s, they had published a scientific book together in France. A professor from the University of Virginia claimed they had plagiarized his book and sued. They settled out of court, but the twins denied any wrongdoing. However, the back of their book was published indicating that they had already obtained doctorates. This, at the time, was false. While the case was still in court, the twins were desperately trying to enroll into doctorate programs, presumably to blame the mistake on a careless editor who confused their enrollment status with completion of the degree. This was the first evidence of possible immoral character for the two men.

To be fair, the twins still maintain that their theses and papers were genuine. Their advisors originally waffled on the subject, saying that they deserved PhDs for working for 10+ years as doctoral students and stating that the work was original and indicated a grasp of the physics jargon. However, the twins still seem to be backpedaling. In 2003, a mysterious Professor Yang emailed various critics of the Bogdanov papers asserting that the physics in the articles was sound. John Baez, the UC Riverside physicist, happened to be in Hong Kong where Yang said he was employed. However, the email from Yang was traced back to France – pointing to just another Bogdanov scam. The Bogdanov Affair seems a little more messy and muddled than the other two examples but is just another incident where smart people may have veered off the moral center of the road.

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