You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

I highly recommend Steve Myers’ article http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/184802/are-jonah-lehrers-scientific-errors-worse-than-fabricating-quotes/

Why is it that when a scientist makes up scientific information, he or she is fired, but when a journalist or writer makes up scientific information, he or she is promoted and ends up making lots of money with a best-seller? And why is mis-quoting Bob Dylan so vastly worse than widely mis-representing and twisting facts, even making up facts, about science and putting some of them in a book?

That Jonah Lehrer put multiple mistakes and perhaps inventions into a book called “Imagine” is highly amusing.  And remember his naive article in the New Yorker that was billed as “Is There Something Wrong With The Scientific Method?” Well, “Is there something wrong with my science journalism?” might have been the real question.

Malcolm Gladwell described Lehrer (on the “Imagine” jacket cover) as “knowing more science than a lot of scientists.”   I am afraid this now in turn raises serious questions about Mr. Gladwell’s own knowledge and judgment.  The New Yorker also has big questions to answer; I don’t think you should be too quick to get your science journalism there.

Meanwhile, what was Fareed Zakaria thinking?  The famous writer believing that he could steal paragraphs from another living and famous writer and not be noticed?  Of course he believed it, he’d gotten away with it before in broad daylight, and most of us hadn’t heard about it.  Suspension?  No, promotion! Note Added 8/15: The last bit here has been called into question by a commenter, referring me to this link that claims that the accusations made against Zakaria in the above link were unfair.  It doesn’t change the fact that Zakaria did pilfer from Jill Lapore, as he has admitted to doing, and that I’ve lost my trust in his work.  And I remain dubious that it’s the first time he’s ever done this in his long career.

“You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

Regrettably, I myself had a post on this site that linked to one of Zakaria’s articles; I no longer have any reason to trust the man’s judgment and integrity, and so I have updated the post to mark it as suspect.  And I would suggest you ignore everything he writes in future.  Same with Lehrer, of course.

It seems highly unlikely that these deceptions were aberrations; apparently these people managed to make their way to the top partially by subterfuge. And people currently at the top are allowing young charlatans to rise to the top, or at least are unable to prevent their rise.  That is extremely distressing.

In physics, fortunately, getting to the top by ruse and swagger and charm and exaggeration remains extremely difficult to do (though examples do occur; one of my friends caught this guy because his plots looked weird) — because your colleagues, knowing you are human and that you can make mistakes, don’t assume that you’re right when you make a claim about something.  At some point along the way, before they rely on your work, they check it.  (That’s why it is so important that TWO experiments at the Large Hadron Collider have such strong and largely independent evidence for the existence of a Higgs-like particle.) Such standards may need to be applied a bit more widely in the world; we should be a lot less gullible, and require a much higher standard of proof from news organizations, psychology and medical studies, and books mistakenly filed in the non-fiction section, than we do.

15 responses to “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

  1. Agree with the idea that we need to approach flashy journalism with suspicion. But I’d also say it’s a dangerous time to hold science up as the gold standard — current reports put retractions and fraud at all-time highs. (And yes, it probably is the case that the rise is due to more detection, rather than increased incidence. It’s still highlighting the point that there are major problems with research conduct and publishing.)

    • Your point is well-taken, but my point isn’t that science is a gold standard, nor has it ever been. In physics, we’re much more worried about errors than fraud, and most of the fraud that we catch comes because we’re checking for errors. We are more aware than the general public that if a result hasn’t been checked, it should not be believed; humans are fallible and the result is as likely (perhaps more likely) to be wrong than right. And a review of a paper and publication in a journal does not constitute a sufficiently reliable check; an independent check of the result, perhaps multiple checks, by independent individuals, is required.

      Compared to errors, fraud is relatively rare (I hope that is true in journalism and non-fiction writing also.) When it happens, the physicist in question generally pays a very heavy price. Maybe I should have emphasized more clearly that better error-checking also has the benefit of reducing fraud.

  2. Journalism has, among its objectives, to inform and to entertain. Historians prefer one, popular culture the other.

    • There’s a fine line between entertain and mislead. It’s best not to cross it, no? At least when writing for highly reputable institutions (of which we are in danger of having few or none.)

  3. I highly distrust science journalism (in particular about particle physics) done by non scientists since I`ve observed too many times that the media, such as popular science journals, news papers, TV channels, etc, are more interested in selling spectacular stories and fuel controversies and flame wars than reporting scientifically correct news. Broadcasting time on TV or space in written media is more and more devoted to people who are NOT experts in the field or topic the report is about, but who have a lot of wrong and misleading things to say anyway …

    I cute example is the reemission of the NANO spiezial titled the “Die Physik vor dem Kollaps”:

    http://www.3sat.de/page/?source=/nano/natwiss/161844/index.html

    featuring my “friend” Alexander Unzicker

    I did not have the stomach to watch the video but from paging through his book I expect that in this TV show Alexander Unzicker does, in the same way as he did it in his book, deny all of the 20th century physics, insult a large number of well known physicists, and conclude or “explain” why all of the modern and fundamental enough physics as done at present is BS (physics is collaping as the title says).
    No, I am not exagerating, this is what he actually writes in “vom Urknall zum Durchknall” and many people here in Germany boviously like it :-( ….

    So I take my physics news rather from physics blogs of physicists I trust (such as this nice site for example) than from other media.

  4. Professor, could there be a fifth force in Nature and we are confusing it by calling it quantum gravity? And this fundamental force is slowly diminishing faster than the spacetime is increasing due to the coalescing of more and more gases and hence there is a positive net expansion of the entire universe? This fundamental force is what’s preventing the vacuum from collapsing to zero, i.e. it is the lowest pressure possible based on the amount of total energy of the entire volume. Therefore if this force were to continue to diminish it will reach a point where the vacuum does collapse taking the entire universe with it and hence another Big Bang. This will not violate the second law of thermodynamics since the entire universe collapses and hence the total energy is conserved.

  5. One of my classmates went on to do a masters in journalism, and he once got a phone call from another journo who wanted some advice on science. My friend was happy to oblige, but as the conversation went on it became clear that the other journalist didn’t have even the most basic understanding of science. My friend suggested that he wasn’t really qualified to write about science if he didn’t even understand such basic things and the journalist then became indignant, asserting “I don’t need to be an expert on something to write about it!”
    It hints not so much at an ‘instant expert’ attitude as one of “All I have to do is regurgitate some words in the right order.” A computer could do as much.

  6. Alasdair Duncan

    I read the article, and all the sources you quoted. I also read “How to write” by Colson Whitehead, in the New York Times, which was funny and worth a peep.
    Plagiarism is a wretch of a thing. I’ve been plagiarized in a way: I did a cartoon for a newspaper ad once, got paid for it, and when it appeared, the whole thing had been redrawn, by a cat, as Patrick O’Brien might say..
    And as my Mum told me, “Tell the truth”. Enough said.

  7. Zakaria’s show “Foreign Exchange” was always amazingly insightful. I’d even say his was the single clearest, most useful voice on TV in that subject. I don’t know how you can plagiarize in-depth, on-the-spot conversation. He’s clearly a brilliant and well-educated man, and this incident doesn’t change that, though it certainly does make me wonder how it happened.

    Your “happened before” link doesn’t seem like plagiarism to me though. The way he phrased that, it was clear (to me, at least) that he was talking about an interview with someone else. If he had meant an interview with him, he would have explicitly said that. It would have been nice if he had remembered to say whose interview it was, but that still doesn’t seem terribly out of line to me.

    • You only get your integrity once. A brilliant and well-educated man he may be, but what he did is something every high school student knows is unethical. So he blew it. He won’t get my trust back.

  8. Michael Gaertner

    After reading your article I came across this article: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/08/14/plagiarism.html

    • Thanks. Will duly note it in the text. Doesn’t save Zakaria though; his willingness to make the mistake once suggests it has probably happened before, whether he’s been caught or not. In my experience, people either never lie or lie regularly; a one-time lie is very rare.

  9. to deceptively claim what is not your own,is a battle i have had more recent experience with than i would have though logical…having no academic experience,,but a passion for science,i had been attempting to develop some principles for time,and posting comments or blogs to receive feedback,and interact with a science community better suited to help with my development…during the process i had received some accusation of copying and pasting some of my comments,,,which i thought was quite funny considering my comments would be the last for anyone to reproduce,,as i was battling to even get them heard,,,;luckily for me,on the subject of time,,there were not too many works attempting to develop it as science,,,and the person in question,had little understanding of the words they were claiming as their own,,from there simple questions about my subject matter quickly exposed the truth,,,at the end of it though i couldnt help but feel somewhat sorry for them,,if only they had taken the time to understand what i was stating,they might have got away with it,,even then however all they would have received for it some complimentary remarks from young readers,and some cynicism from the well informed reader….that was all they could do without the ability to expand on demand for the subject matter….time the principles/laws in progress of development by me,is still in its infancy,,,suggesting some radical principles that come with more untested,and newly suggested observations,than most other,,,,so those who attempted to be fraudulent with my words,,did not only choose the newest least sought after subject,but also the least known,and scientifically credible author..(me)…made even more sad by the fact they failed,,,but i enjoyed their attention,and was flattered someone thought my work was that good,,,which of course i believe is much better,,,but not without the supporting paper work i have at home….

  10. Thanks for your addressing the area of “ethics” in your blog. I disagree with Ben Lillie above that the increased number of incidents has more to do with better detection than an actual increase. Instead, it has more to do with a lack of leadership, as journalism no longer provides accountability (checks and balances) and negative “written” consequences for those who are unethical. A lack of consequence is important as the journalism industry influences all of us, including scientists. Enough journalists don’t bring these cases to light in a systematic way, I propose. Instead, they follow the money trail to appeal to a broad readers’ base and try to help us all feel better about ourselves, our world – and in so doing they “make this stuff up.” The feelings won’t last for long. This broad readers’ base struggle to know what is ethically wrong and need leadership from each field to lead them in understanding reality in that field, not something that simply makes us feel better about ourselves (or our role in giving other nations a piece of the scientific discovery pie) and achievements.

    An example of lack-of-leadership, in my opining, is the response of IAU when it appeared that a Spanish scientist had been tracking the logs of coordinates for camera pointing (the IP address was traced to his university and student help) as Mike Brown was tracking an asteroid eventually named “Haumea”. Ortiz claimed discovery though it appears it was only because he saw Brown tracking the asteroid as Brown was gathering necessary ephemeris data. Although the IAU allowed Brown to name Haumea (the right of the discoverer) the IAU doesn’t acknowledge Brown as the discoverer with Brown’s name under that heading. When Brown followed up with Ortiz, Ortiz accused Brown of hiding data; Brown replied that scientists need time to accurately provide data. Where is the IAU’s support for the scientist and the need for time to do science adequately? Where is the scientific leadership in a time of falling ethical standards?

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