Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fraud 2 (Electric Boogaloo)

This is an update to my post from a few days ago about the Henrick Schön scientific fraud case. Amazon shipped me a copy of Eugenie Reich’s new book about Schön, and I plowed through it in a few hours.

First, for the non-scientists reading my blog: Ms. Reich does a nice job describing the science (or lack thereof) for non-specialists, and she describes the “drama” of the narrative reasonably well. Is this book still worth reading if you have little or no interest in nanoscience, Bell Labs, or the characters who appear in the book? I’m not sure. It ain’t Truman Capote. But it is still a reasonably compelling and well written read. [If any nonscientists (or even scientists who are very far from this field) do decide to read it I’d be extremely interested to hear what you think about it - drop me a comment in the comment section, or send me email.]

Now for the detailed discussion: I have so much to say about this, that I think I am going to have to break it into several sections to be posted over the next few days or even weeks.

Part 1: Overall Review

Overall, I think Ms. Reich did a decent job capturing the line of events and the issues that were raised. The vast majority of what she writes agrees with my memory of the events. Getting most of the details right is no small feat and I think she should be commended for doing so much research. (Fears expressed in the comments section of my earlier blog entry turned out to be ill-founded). There were, however, a few places in the book where I thought some key facts were slightly different from what she claimed (I’ll discuss a few of these in a longer and more boring post). For those keeping track, I do appear in the book in several places but very tangentially. (details of my cameos in yet another longer and more boring post).

The book has many footnotes to original sources, but a more complete job of sourcing statements of facts would have been better. It is impossible to find out how she concludes certain things about the timeline of events and who said or thought what when. Without such detailed sourcing it is hard to judge the reliability of her (possibly contentious) statements.

Since so much of the book is based on interviews, Ms. Reich had to piece together a coherent timeline from a Rashamon-like set of (possibly conflicting) stories. In quite a number of places it was clear to me “Oh yes, this must be from an interview with X because X would tell the story like this.” But had she asked Y, she would have heard something different. As I said in my previous post, there is a whole lot of revisionist history out there. There are several places where I thought to myself as I read “that person is telling a rather selective and biased history!” And one or two places where I thought “that person is just lying.” But overall I think Ms. Reich tries to tell the story from enough perspectives that some (but not all) of these biases get evened out, so overall the narrative ends up being not too far off.

As for her placing “blame” for the fraud: Obviously most of the blame lies with Schön himself. But rightly, she does not belabor this point, as it is clear by this time that the guy had some screws missing. Considering how heavily she could have hit, except for one or two places, I think she is pretty gentle on Schön’s co-authors. However, I think she is quite harsh on Schön’s management chain: Isaacs, Rogers, Capasso, Murray. Although hard to tell, it appears that most of these managers did not grant any interviews and therefore did not have a chance to defend themselves or tell their sides of the story. (See above comment on biases evening out). In many cases where management looks bad, I am certain they would have been able to effectively counter some of the negative things that were said (or implied) against them. By interviewing almost exclusively the “footsoldier” members of technical staff (was I the only manager who was interviewed?), there was a fair amount of perspective that was lost. I hope to post another blog entry on defending the Bell management – perhaps not in every instance, but in many.

Finally, I felt the book was lacking in giving any sort of conclusion or interpretation of how these problems might be avoided in the future: should there be changes to the system, and if not, why not. I would have liked a bit more discussion of this sort. My opinion is that things should more or less not be changed. Scientists have to trust each other. The cost of not trusting is that science will run much slower, we will all be much less productive, and continual mutual suspicion will make us all miserable too. When a scientist stands up and says “My measurement was X” or “I calculated Y”, it is a waste of everyone’s time to spend hours thinking about “well, maybe they are intentionally trying to fool me.” Yes, once in a long while a person will come along and take advantage of a trusting system. Unfortunate as that is, it is the price I think we should be willing to pay to allow the system to run more smoothly in 99.9% of the situations.

More sometime soon…

Oh, and if anyone is wondering why the title is “Electric Boogaloo”, let’s just say that Americans of my generation like to insert “Electric Boogaloo” after the number 2. ( See here for analysis of phrasal patterns "X_2 Electric Boogaloo")


Doug Natelson said...

Hi, Steve. As I mentioned on my blog, I looked over a copy in the store yesterday, and what I read was well-written and interesting. I happened to read a particular section that really came down hard on one of the managers in question. I also know of another, higher manager who reportedly said things like, "Well, even if the SAMFET stuff is flawed, he's a genius." So, given that, I'm curious about your forthcoming defense of management on this.

In the end, the whole management chain has done just fine, I think we can all agree. Even Bertram, who has a C4 position at ETH with its inherent perpetual funding. It's tough for me to feel too much like they've really been put upon.

Clearly I need to buy a copy and read the whole thing....

Steve said...

Hey Doug,

I'm glad someone commented on this post -- I put a lot of work into writing this "review" of the book and I hoped that at least someone would be interested in it (I found that doing a careful job of it required real effort).

Incidentally, I should have also added Stormer to the list of people who I think are unfairly treated.

I've been thumbing the pages of the book yet again, and I hope to have time to write my various further comments on this book sometime soon -- but see above comment regarding "real effort".

I think in reading or writing about the book one needs to consistently keep in mind the distinction between "flawed" work and "dishonest" work. If we eliminated all the Science and Nature papers that were flawed in some way, the journals would be awfully thin.

More on this soon, hopefully...

Don Monroe said...


I enjoyed your discussion, and look forward to more. I wrote a comment of my own on the book over at Doug's place.You imply that the managers were unfairly treated because they weren't given a chance to speak for themselves. I feel sure they author would have tried many times to interview them, so that omission must have been their own choice. That is a loss, because managers and colleagues of future fraudsters would have benefitted from learning more about the difficult choices that others had to make as they dealt with the uncertain facts in the case. And as Doug, says, they don't seem to have suffered much (although I don't agree that that can be said for Bertram).

Here's one calibration point for how Reich treated the managers:

There's a widely repeated story concerning an internal Bell Labs seminar on the SAMFET, in the spring of 2001. The story I've heard is that as questions from other MTS became more critical, Federico Capasso stepped in to cut off debate. Censoring of internal, technical criticism is something that I, as a previous MTS at Bell Labs, find rather shocking (although of course I wasn't there, so the details may have been different). Either on this occasion or another , Federico is said to have said something to the effect that it didn't matter if Schon's results were correct, as long as they stimulated further research.

Now, if Reich had been interested in doing a "gotcha" job, that quote would have been wonderful, and could easily have been used in a way that suggested that Capasso was tolerating or encouraging fraud. What she does instead is to avoid the use of the quote, and to very responsibly make clear that, however it was phrased, Capasso almost would have intended it to mean that honest mistakes, as well as unexpected results that conflict with current theory, can help to move a field forward and shouldn't be too hastily censored. So it looks to me like she worked hard to imagine how people might have responded if they had consented to be interviewed.

Steve said...

Since there is more discussion over at Doug's blog, I'm going to move my responses over to that page.

I think it is probably better to have all the discussion in one place.

Here is the link

More soon..