Tag Archives: Honesty

Misconduct and The Wire

Season five of the critically acclaimed TV show The Wire tackles the issue of journalistic fraud and misconduct. In particular, Scott Templeton, a young ambitious journalist at the Baltimore Sun, writes a series of articles where he embellishes details, conjures up quotes out of thin air and ultimately fabricates events. His articles win him wide praise among those in the journalism community. He also garners the Pulitzer Prize, one of the highest accolades one can earn in the field. Even though flags are raised by some of his peers at the Baltimore Sun, at the upper management level, Scott Templeton’s stories are celebrated with enthusiasm.

Of course The Wire is fictional, but at the time The Wire was written, there was precedent for such journalistic falsification. Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Janet Cooke at the Washington Post and Jayson Blair at the New York Times had all been found guilty of journalistic misconduct associated with either plagiarism or fabrication in effort to advance their careers. Cooke was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her stories, which she eventually returned.

The reason I bring this all up is because I saw a very strong parallel between the fictional events that occurred in The Wire surrounding Scott Templeton and the actual events that occurred with respect to Jan-Hendrik Schon. In both cases, their notebooks were empty, there were claims by both that their information (e.g. data and notes) had somehow been corrupted and their sources were a closely guarded secret. While working at Bell Labs, Schon famously claimed to use the evaporator in Konstanz, Germany, so that he could “work” in isolation, making it more difficult to for others to reproduce his methods.

The question as to why this kind of misconduct takes place is an interesting one. In the case of Jayson Blair, Wikipedia says:

On the NPR radio show Talk of the Nation, Blair explained that his fabrications started with what he thought was a relatively innocent infraction: using a quote from a press conference which he had missed. He described a gradual process whereby his ethical violations became worse and contended that his main motivation was a fear of not living up to the expectations that he and others had for his career.

As can be gleaned from the quote above, there is little doubt that there is a certain amount of careerism and elevated expectation that is tied in with these instances of misconduct. That these and similar cases occur with relative frequency and happen in different fields suggests that the root cause is societal — an emphasis on perceived career success rather than valuing honesty and hard work. Because this is a sociological problem, all of us have a role to play in correcting it. The solution to the problem may require us to emphasize different values: integrity, meaningfulness of labor and honest motivations. Often these are not the qualities that advance one’s career, but this is because of a lack of emphasis on these values. Perhaps they should.

While the Wire is a fictional show and some readers are no doubt a little fed up with my frequent references to it, I do think that one can learn a lot from its main themes. As Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, said:

That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.

What THE WIRE Taught Me About Science

The famous HBO series, The Wire, which many have called the greatest television show of all time (e.g. here and here), has a lot to say about urban decay, race relations, and the structure of power and organizations . There is one theme that is particularly relevant to us in the sciences that The Wire profoundly addresses: the competition between careerism and good work.

In the series, many that get promoted in the hierarchical structure of the police department are not the best policemen, but the ones that are the most career-oriented. In one of the more memorable quotes on the show (even though there are so many!), Lt. Daniels says to Detective Carver, who is about to be promoted:

Couple weeks from now, you’re gonna be in some district somewhere with 11 or 12 uniforms looking to you for everything. And some of them are gonna be good police. Some of them are gonna be young and stupid. A few are gonna be pieces of shit. But all of them will take their cue from you. You show loyalty, they learn loyalty. You show them it’s about the work, it’ll be about the work. You show them some other kinda game, then that’s the game they’ll play. I came on in the Eastern, and there was a piece-of-shit lieutenant hoping to be a captain, piece-of-shit sergeants hoping to be lieutenants. Pretty soon we had piece-of-shit patrolmen trying to figure the job for themselves. And some of what happens then is hard as hell to live down. Comes a day you’re gonna have to decide whether it’s about you or about the work.

There is advice there for both advisers and students alike.

Advisers: (1) Pick students whose motivations lie in doing good work. (2) Show your students that what you do is about the work, about producing good science and not about publishing x hurried papers. (3) Help your students careers (honestly and without too much hype) when they aren’t looking (e.g. nominate them for awards, talk them up when you get the chance, etc.).

Students: (1) The adviser you pick will ultimately have a strong influence on where you end up and how you think about science in general; choose wisely. (2) Ask older graduate students, postdocs and professors questions; a large part of scientific development is figuring how/where to find interesting problems. (3) Do good work: Do not cut corners, do not hurriedly publish, be thorough and do not be dishonest.

In The Wire, there is a constant battle between the higher-ranked officials in the police department (who want to bring in low-level drug dealers under pressure from even higher-ranked officials and politicians), and the lower-ranked officials (who want to work a case until the entire case is solved so that they can bring in the drug kingpin and not just low-level middlemen). Fight the pressure to publish (to the best of your ability), and publish well when you do (sorry if you can’t see the analogy here!)

Alright, I’ll get off the soapbox now and just make one last comment: I have tried my best to follow these principles in graduate school (and have not always succeeded), but I do still think The Wire outlines a simple code to follow.

In the end, even in a show as pessimistic as The Wire, often good police got promoted and did their jobs better than the career-oriented ones. It is possible to do good work and survive even in this academic climate.

Also, if you’re a fan of The Wire, I recommend reading this: http://aaronhuertas.com/2011/11/what-i-learned-from-watching-the-wire-three-times/

Plastic Fantastic

In the past year, I got the chance to read Plastic Fantastic by Eugenie Samuel Reich, a nonfiction work following the short career of Jan Hendrik Schon. Just in case you haven’t heard of him, Schon was one of the biggest fraudsters in scientific history. In a short period between 2000-2001, Schon published a series of  subfield-creating results ranging from superconductivity at 117K in intercalated buckyballs to light-emitting field effect transistors. Most notably, he also announced the discovery of self-assembled molecular field effect transistors (SAMFETs), which would have had the potential to revolutionize the processors in one’s computer and thereby the economy. Most of his results, including the ones mentioned, were found to have been fabricated.

It is quite remarkable that Schon was able to publish 15 first-author papers in either Nature or Science in a time frame spanning from 2000-2001, while also publishing a whole slew of papers in other journals as well.  Is this the absurd length one must go to for one to get caught? While physicists tend to be quite rigorous when trying to explain data, they tend to generally be much more trusting of colleagues that produce the data.

Although the book can be quite gossipy at times, it achieves the goal of imparting to the reader a sense of skepticism about published data. While he may have been the most egregious of the lot, Schon is not alone in perpetrating scientific dishonesty (the recent case of STAP cells comes to mind). It is pretty clear that many cases of “fudging” and/or fabrication occur that go unpunished and are never brought to light.

One aspect of the book that I found particularly disturbing is the effect that Schon’s results had on some careers of young scientists. Many graduate students spent years attempting to replicate his results without success in what is considered the most important years of one’s scientific development. Some young scientific careers were no doubt destroyed because of Schon’s outlandish claims.

One cannot stress enough the importance of scientific integrity and reporting accurate, reproducible data. This book may not be the best-written, but it serves an important purpose in opening one’s eyes to the ridiculous lengths to which one must go before being found out as a fraudster. This book has left no doubt in my mind that I have read papers containing “fudged” data and also that I will do so in the future. I just hope that I don’t spend years attempting to reproduce such a result.