physicists behaving badly

Jenluc_piquant1_7Imagine the following scenario: a promising young physics graduate student discovers a novel solution to an important problem posed by his advisor. (Still smarting from the latest peer-review rejection of her crackpot scientific notions, Jen-Luc Piquant huffily points out it could just as easily be a "her," but let’s not quibble in the opening paragraph. Work with me here.) Unfortunately, his advisor proves less than trustworthy, pretends the results aren’t significant, yet secretly writes and submits a paper presenting those results for publication — without listing the graduate student as a co-author. The graduate student is, to put it mildly, upset by this development, but when he confronts the devious advisor, he is told he wasn’t quick enough in writing up his own research results, and this is the price of his procrastination.

Sounds like something out of a Hollywood drama, doesn’t it? Indeed, the TV series House recently featured a subplot in which an ambitious neurosurgeon did something very similar to a colleague, claiming (when confronted) that this was just the way of the world. But in our imaginary example, there’s a twist. The grad student takes the matter up with the department chair, who quite rightly asks for evidence of the advisor’s wrongdoing. The problem is, the grad student wasn’t quite as careful as he should have been in his record-keeping: he didn’t keep a dated notebook. The chair advises him to drop the matter in the absence of any kind of solid evidence.

Think something similar couldn’t possibly happen in real life? Think again. Sloppy records and professional rivalry gave rise to the so-called "Baltimore Affair." In 1985, a junior colleague accused MIT biologist Teresa Imanishi-Kari of falsifying data in a published paper. Congress held hearings on scientific fraud in response, and the entire mess was featured on the cover of Time. Imanishi-Kari was staunchly defended by her co-author, Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who paid a high price for his loyalty: he lost several friends and a prestigious appointment as Rockefeller University. In the end, she turned out to be guilty of little more than keeping sloppy records of her experimental data, but it took ten years for her results to be confirmed by other laboratories, and the press didn’t bother to report her exoneration nearly as widely as her suspected guilt. The obvious moral of the story: Be positively obsessive-compulsive when it comes to record-keeping, because you never know when you results may be questioned, for less than stellar motives.

Scientific ethics can be a tricky course to navigate. While certain cases of gross misconduct are easy to identify, there are plenty of murky gray areas where the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior are not as obvious, or clearly drawn. Incoming physics graduate students in particular are in need of a little guidance in this area, on their way to becoming practicing scientists.

Fortunately, help may be on the way, via the American Physical Society. Last year, the APS appointed a Task Force on Ethics Education to take a look at how the Society might encourage physics departments around the country to, well, do a better job of educating students, postdocs and faculty alike about scientific ethics. "Ethics education is essential to the intrinsic health of the enterprise, as well as for the need to assure public trust," the task force said in the introduction to its report. "The community cannot take for granted that all of its members will behave ethically."

There are a few resources out there. For instance, the APS has an official statement on the issue, while the National Academy Press published On Being a Scientist in 1995. And there has been the occasional workshop or introductory course on scientific ethics, as well as an Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science. Task force member Marshall Thomsen, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, also maintains an extensive online collection of ethics resources, gleaned from two workshops he organized in the late 1990s, plus materials from his own course on the subject.

The APS task force reviewed all these ongoing efforts and existing resources, and decided what was really needed was a central Web site devoted to ethics education, featuring not just links to useful materials, but also a series of case studies or scenarios. Some case studies would stem from real incidents, others would be entirely fictional, and the topics would run the gamut from publication practices, conflict of interest, data acquisition, mentoring, issues of bias, and health and safety. We here at Cocktail Party Physics think this is a terrific, creative approach to a knotty problem, and depending on how those case studies are written, they could be potentially highly entertaining. We revere Horace’s timeless dictum, "to delight and to teach." (We’re not entirely sure this was even Horace’s idea, but it sounds impressive to cite the Ancients, and besides, our point is that the concept of delight comes first.)

The Web site model that the APS task force proposes is decidedly dynamic, even interactive: users would be able to contribute their own case studies, and provide comments and suggestions, although these would be vetted by an oversight committee. The report included a lengthy Appendix with numerous sample case studies and discussion sections as to how each dilemma might be resolved. "The case studies have been selected to illustrate various ethical issues that are not necessarily easily resolved," explains task force chair Allen Goldman, who teaches physics at the University of Minnesota. "But these aren’t all-inclusive, hence the need to open the site to external contributions."

Our imaginary graduate student with the sloppy data records is just one such an example that might be included. Goldman emphasizes that "Keeping accurate and dated notes of your ideas is a critical aspect of good scientific practice," adding that such instances are likely to come up repeatedly over the course of one’s career in physics. The planned Web site would also point this out, and include suggestions for what the victim of such dishonesty might be able to do to redress the wrong.

Let’s consider another hypothetical case study: you are the co-author of a paper that was recently rejected, and the referee points out some valid questions regarding a section of the paper written by your co-author, who rewrites it. You review that revised section and discover said co-author — whom you know to be ambitious and desperate to rack up a few more publications before completing his degree — has changed some of the numbers, claiming he was correcting previously undetected errors. You’re skeptical of the explanation, but again, you can’t really prove anything. What should you do? Probably let the matter slide, in the absence of concrete evidence, but you can voice your concerns to your adviser, and/or re-check the data yourself. Honest errors do occur sometimes, and as long as they are corrected immediately when they come to light, in general, it’s no harm, no foul.

Fail to correct those errors, however, whether out of laziness, procrastination or stubborn pride, and you’re just asking for trouble. In his 1934 novel The Search
(now tragically out of print), physicist/author C.P. Snow told the story of a scientist who makes a careless error in
a paper and doesn’t correct it, thereby losing a presitious academic position.
Snow’s point was this: progress in science is only possible if the
truth is told at all times, and neglecting to penalize false statements
made in error opens the door to the possibility of doing so intentionially. It’s a point that the APS task force reiterated in its final report: "The currency of physics is truth. Anyone who does not understand this should not be allowed to continue in physics."

Snow’s stance arguably might seem a bit harsh, but there is
certainly a precedent for his pessimistic view. Give ’em an inch, and they just might take a mile. History is replete with the occasional example of not just physicists, but scientists in general behaving badly, manufacturing hoaxes, falsifying data, and indulging in lots of other untrustworthy antics. In antiquity, these charlatans often passed themselves off as magicians, such as the "smoke and mirrors" optical illusionists who used concave mirrors to cast "spectral images" upon the smoke of burning incense in early Greece and Rome. (Historians believe the trick was based on some early form of the camera obscura.)

Among the most famous of spectroscopic projections is "Pepper’s Ghost." In 1862, an English showman — "Professor" Henry Pepper — devised a scheme that used a large piece of plate glass, tilted at a 45-degree angle, to cast an image of an actual ghost on stage. An actor dressed as a ghost would be positioned offstage, and would then be illuminated by a lantern. His image would then be superimposed onto the angled sheet of glass, appearing (from the audience’s perspective) to interact with the live performers. Peppers_ghost_01_new
True, the glass partially blocked sound waves, so the ghost-actor was difficult to hear, but modern microphones solved that particular dilemma. Anyone who’s ridden the "Haunted Mansion" ride at Disneyland has seen the same effect: at the very end, it appears that a "ghost" is riding in the car with you, fully prepared to accompany you home.

Hoaxes aren’t always perpetrated in the name of good clean fun, however. In 1726, spiteful colleagues of a gullible German naturalist named Johann Beringer planted fake fossils of birds, frogs and spiders outside his hometown of Wurzburg, along with other faked stones beating the Hebrew letters of Jehovah. These so-called gensteine ("lying stones") were eventually unmasked as a hoax, but only after Beringer published a book claiming them as evidence of the relationship between God and nature. Copies of the book are now a valuable collector’s item, in part because Beringer frantically tried to buy them all up. He also filed criminal charges against his colleagues, and won, although it did nothing to salvage his tarnished reputation.

(Veering slightly off-topic for a moment — as is her wont — Jen-Luc Piquant points out that at least one modern-day wronged physicist has benefited from filing a lawsuit. Former Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee, once accused and illegally detained on suspicion of espionage (because of his careless handling of classified documents), agreed to drop his 1999 lawsuit alleging violations of his privacy, in exchange for more than $1.6 million in settlement funds from the federal government and five media organizations: the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, ABC News and the Associated Press. It’s a controversial decision, needless to say, precisely because it sets a dangerous precedent for the media’s traditional practice of protecting confidential sources.)

And sometimes a hoax is just outright fraud. A few years after Wilhelm
Roetgen discovered x-rays in 1895, a French
physicist named Rene Blondlot claimed he’d discovered another new kind
of radiation that he dubbed "N-rays." These could conveniently only be
detected with a special machine of his own devising. As mentioned in a prior post,
Blondlot was soon discredited by physicist Robert W. Wood.

temptation to massage, if not falsify data, or otherwise skew one’s results, is always there for any ambitious practicing
scientist, and physics is no exception. The physics community learned this firsthand with the
now-infamous case of Jan-Hendrik Schoen, as well as the subsequently
discredited 1999 discovery  by Victor Nimov of two new elements at Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory. Those two cases were certainly behind the APS decision to appoint an ethics education task force in the first place. In fact, Goldman was among the many scientists who wasted a great deal of time and resources trying to reproduce Schoen’s fraudulent results.

Goldman acknowledges that the planned website probably won’t stop malicious hoaxes or extreme cases of outright data falsification and fraud. "Lying, cheating and stealing are obvious violations of behavior, although some people do it anyway," he said. (Fortunately, physicists of Schoen’s and Nimov’s ilk are few and far between.) But such a resource may help heighten awareness of the most common ethical dilemmas professional physicists are likely to encounter, and hopefully assist new crops of graduate students navigate the murky gray areas. After all, if we don’t teach the next generation not just the basics, but also the fine nuances, of scientific ethics, who will?

12 thoughts on “physicists behaving badly”

  1. At the risk of responding to the catchy opening rather than the substance of the post, there was also a Law & Order episode along exactly those lines (advisor steals student’s idea, student sends letter bomb to advisor, ends up killing advisor’s ex-wife by mistake). The idea involved methods for searching for proton decay. The explanation given under interrogation about the various channels in which one might look for a decaying proton was much more clear than I have ever heard in an ordinary scientific documentary. (We’re talking Michael-Moriarty-era L&O, if I may date myself.)

  2. Considering that Law & Order reruns are featured nearly 24-7 on cable TV, you’re in little danger of dating yourself. You just claim you saw it “in syndication.” 🙂
    I’m guessing the planned Web site won’t suggest sending a letter bomb as a possible solution to the dilemma. I certainly hope note. Some things should stay in the realm of fiction.

  3. I believe there was a case almost exactly like this at Columbia involving a math grad student. As I recall he filed a complaint, but the panel sided with the prof.
    There was also an incident involving a prominent string theorist now at MIT who allegedly stole from one of his colleagues. This one was more or less hushed up.

  4. Hmm, I suppose this item is more about Piltdown Man than about Fleischmann and Pons.
    Or is it?
    Is it worse to be honest yet proven wrong, or deceitful yet believed?
    Do the ends justify the means?
    Sorry for the rhetorical questions; I may ponder this further over a DVD rental of “Rashamon” and a bottle of red wine.

  5. The post is about things like Piltdown Man AND Pons and Fleischmann, possibly even those wacky guys who made the crop circles, thereby inspiring all kinds of UFO rumors –all part of a big murky area where context can change everything. Here’s a few more rhetorcal food for thought? Is it okay to deceive if you later claim it’s a joke? Would you have copped to the joke if you hadn’t been found out?
    And I am one of those people who believe that the end does NOT always justify the means….
    “Rashomon” is one of the greats, along with “Seven Samurai.”

  6. Interesting to read about the Columbia math dept case and the other hypothetical scenarios….
    In my own field of condensed matter experiment, such an act of a professor stealing outright from a student is not only almost unthinkable, but in fact almost unworkable being that the nature of the work is usually very collaborative. Professors cannot hope to raise funds, teach, stay abreast of the literature, brainstorm brilliantly about data interpretation, etc. etc. and also babysit an apparatus 20 hours a day. There is no expectation of that, so there is no sense in which anyone would benefit from an idea or data stolen. The student typically gets first authorship and the professor the final slot. The community knows who is in charge of the lab.
    Moreover, after you have your full professorship and a few prizes, prestige eventually accrues to those who have placed and promoted people in OTHER departments. If you are the sort where prestige and power matters much, such narrow self-interest is not served by hogging all the credit for oneself.
    This is not to say that students are not mistreated in other nasty ways; by being overworked, having their summer stipends cut, getting displaced from first authorship on a paper for a postdoc, or never being sent to Tahiti on a conference boondoggle…but I think outright stealing essentially never happens in the US and Europe. I do know of a few ocassions in Asia where students were not included on a major paper after having made the discoveries themselves.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this blog item (and watched Kurosawa’s classic), and I’ve decided that It’s All About Marketing.
    For the most part, people believe what they want to believe.
    Many people believe that the Earth and the Heavens were created in 6 days roughly 6,000 years ago.
    Some folks believe that if they die trying to kill infidels, that they’ll go to Paradise (featuring 72 hourii service).
    With the right Marketing Strategy and Campaign, people can be led to believe such things as an invasion of Iraq is justified because the government there has close ties to al Quaida *and* posseses WMDs, that a Third Reich and Lebenstraum managed by the Nazis was a holy destiny, that the Monkees are a REAL band, that Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is a must-see movie, that Paris Hilton has anything of value to add to Western Civilization, that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father, that we REALLY need a Constitutional Ammendment banning same-sex marriage, or that Woo Suk Hwang was able to make significant advances in transferring human cell nuclei.
    Do scientists have higher ethical and moral standards as anyone else? We’d like to think so, but first and foremost, they’re human, and as succeptible to temptation and compromise as any other person. As long as human minds have financial and political value, some people will continue to do damn near anything to get us to believe them. Marketers earn a living employing methods – some of them rather scientific – to do just that.
    I believe I’ll have another bottle of wine.

  8. Be positively obsessive-compulsive when it comes to record-keeping, because you otherwise you won’t remember precisely how you had the experiment set up when you come back from vacation!

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