Elizabeth Kolbert Confronts Climategate

The New Yorker website has a weekly podcast called The Political Scene. I’ve listened to almost all of them. This week’s was unlike any other.

The brief description is “Elizabeth Kolbert and Peter J. Boyer discuss recent attacks on climate science.” Never before have the discussants been so far apart. They should have replaced discuss with debate. Boyer hasn’t written a word about climate science — or even science. He moved from the New York Times to The New Yorker after he wrote an (excellent) book about television. Recently he’s covered politics. Kolbert has written dozens of articles and a book about climate science. In spite of this, the moderator (Dorothy Wickenden, executive editor of the magazine), asked Boyer to describe the Climategate emails and their significance. They showed, he said, “an intolerance [by the scientists] of skepticism of their narrative . .  this was a real shock to the system and a real shock to the global warming consensus.” I think any unbiased observer would agree.

Then Wickenden asked Kolbert what she thought:

KOLBERT  I don’t agree with him [Boyer] . . . One of the things that comes out in these emails is the climate scientists’ frustration with having to deal with people who use the data in all sorts of irresponsible ways. . . I’m not aware of any instances where people have had to go back and had to say “you’re right and the conclusion we drew was wrong.”

BOYER Perhaps we could say that language was used in these communications that would allow for an interpretation that perhaps there was fudging or something going on that needed to be obscured. There was a whole tone of intolerance of questioning of their data or — and this was what was so disturbing to hear from scientists — any questioning of what sounded an awful lot like their mission.

Boyer went on and on — as if he were the expert. (And he clearly knew what he was talking about.) Then Wickenden turned to the United Nations IPCC report and asked Kolbert what she thought of recent criticism (which Wickenden learned about from the NY Times).

KOLBERT . . . [The error was in Part 2.] In [Part 2 of] this report, which was literally 986 pages long, there were a couple of things inserted that weren’t from the peer-reviewed literature. . . .

BOYER Well, Betsy, I’m sorry, these aren’t just 986 pages of Scripture, and then a couple of little awkward errant notations on the side. The IPCC isn’t an inconsequential body. Al Gore and Mr. Pachauri shared the Nobel Prize. They are granted a level of authority when they speak. These reports were certainly granted authority. . .

KOLBERT [interrupting] I guess I should ask you: What is your point? . . .

BOYER . . . The consensus about the consensus has begun to crack. That’s just the political reality . . . There is a crack in the consensus.

Kolbert has published hundreds of thousands of words about global warming in the most prestigious magazine in the world. That she is unable to see or at least say this basic truth but must have someone else say it is another sign of problems with her reporting.

Until now, all speakers on The Political Scene have sounded calm and confident. On rare occasions they disagree, but never like this. And the conversation always has a relaxed tone. Not this time. Boyer sounded calm and confident but I thought Kolbert sounded nervous and upset. With good reason: It struck me as a huge and public rebuke from her employer. She’s been the expert. Now someone with no credentials has been allowed to say she’s wrong — has been brought on the program, apparently, in order to disagree with her. As if it’s no longer clear she’s right. And her dismissal of the Climategate emails, as if they taught her nothing, didn’t help her. The debate with Boyer was preceded and followed by softball questions by Wickenden to Kolbert. They struck me as attempts to soften the blow, as did a comment at the end by Boyer about a Super Bowl commercial.

Insurance Group VP Questions Climate Science

Science journalists, like other journalists, have a built-in problem: What they write affects the careers of the scientists they talk to. So those scientists are unlikely to be honest. No doubt most science journalists realize this but cannot say it, for fear of damaging their own careers. Dirty little secret is the phrase.

This is why, when Climategate happened, the many claims of climate scientists that the emails meant nothing themselves meant nothing. “The reason for the denial was the need for it,” Thorstein Veblen was fond of saying. What the climate scientists really thought they were unlikely to make public. The faux-horrified reactions of the few who made a living on the other side of the debate also meant nothing.

And this is why this reaction to Climategate, from Robert Detlefsen, an insurance industry group vice president, is meaningful: what he says will have no effect on his career. He is disinterested.  And he makes some good points:

  • “The CRU e-mails show that a close-knit group of the world’s most influential climate scientists actively colluded to subvert the peer-review process [to prevent publication of disagreement]; manufactured pre-determined conclusions through the use of contrived analytic techniques; and discussed destroying data to avoid [FOIA] requests.”
  • He quotes from the Wegman report, which I hadn’t heard of. The Wegman report is by a group of statisticians.  It says: “‘ independent studies’ may not be as independent as they might appear on the surface”. It also says that when climate scientists were asked to explain their work, “the sharing of research material, data and results was haphazardly and grudgingly done.”

He concludes that the science is less certain than has been claimed.

Why I Love the Internet

Because it allows me to read stuff like the following, an anonymous comment on a post by Washington Post reporter Andrew Freedman. Freedman complained that 2009 saw “erosion of clarity about climate”:

Mr. Freedman, the expression you’re struggling to avoid with regard to your propaganda in support of “mainstream climate scientists” is one devised by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman in 1974.

The words are “Cargo Cult Science,” the advancement of scientific seeming without scientific integrity. Not just error but flagrant dishonesty. Fraud. Criminal conspiracy, too.

That’s your “mainstream climate scientists” in a neat little bundle of filth.

The Climategate revelations – the obvious work of an insider, a whistle-blower, not an outside hacker – show how the CRU correspondents cooked their data, manipulated their crooked computer models, and generally schemed to defy the UK and US laws covering Freedom of Information, including indications that Prof. Jones of the University of East Anglia suborned not only the compliance officers of his University but also one or more officers of Her Majesty’s government in the ICO.

Thirty wonderful years of duplicity, mendacity, “cork-screwing, back-stabbing, and dirty dealing.”

And you, Mr. Freedman, are defending this. Tsk. But what the hell have we any right to expect – other than this act of accessory after the fact in a multiple-count felony investigation – from anyone associated with The Washington Post?

Courtesy of Climategate, we now have stunning “clarity on climate.”

This isn’t exactly brilliant but it is better (better-written, better-argued, more heartfelt) than 99% of mainstream journalism, such as the Washington Post or New York Times. One big function of journalism is “to afflict the comfortable.” That includes science journalism. When a journalist, such as Elizabeth Kolbert, cannot form her own opinion but must accept what powerful people tell her, she cannot “afflict” them.

I think there is a psychological principle at work. It has different names. One is belief in a just world. The rich and powerful think they deserve their good fortune. Another is cognitive dissonance. If I did this crummy job for low pay, I must enjoy it. Yet another is Stockholm Syndrome. The science journalist thinks: If I trust this scientist, he must be trustworthy. But he isn’t. Outsiders, such as the anonymous commenter, are not subject to this effect and see things more clearly.

Will Sea Levels Rise?

This is from The London Telegraph several months ago:

If one thing more than any other is used to justify proposals that the world must spend tens of trillions of dollars on combating global warming, it is the belief that we face a disastrous rise in sea levels. The Antarctic and Greenland ice caps will melt, we are told, warming oceans will expand, and the result will be catastrophe.

Although the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) only predicts a sea level rise of 59cm (17 inches) by 2100, Al Gore in his Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth went much further, talking of 20 feet, and showing computer graphics of cities such as Shanghai and San Francisco half under water.

But someone who actually measures sea levels thinks otherwise:

The reason why Dr Mörner, formerly a Stockholm professor, is so certain that these claims about sea level rise are 100 per cent wrong is that they are all based on computer model predictions, whereas his findings are based on “going into the field to observe what is actually happening in the real world”.

When running the International Commission on Sea Level Change, he launched a special project on the Maldives, whose leaders have for 20 years been calling for vast sums of international aid to stave off disaster. Six times he and his expert team visited the islands, to confirm that the sea has not risen for half a century. Before announcing his findings, he offered to show the inhabitants a film explaining why they had nothing to worry about. The government refused to let it be shown.


Physicists Disagree about Climate Change

Here is a statement from Hal Lewis, a physics professor at UC Santa Barbara, in answer to a question from CBS News:

I know of nobody who denies that the Earth has been warming for thousands of years without our help (and specifically since the Little Ice Age a few hundred years ago), and is most likely to continue to do so in its own sweet time. The important question is how much warming does the future hold, is it good or bad, and if bad is it too much for normal adaptation to handle. The real answer to the first is that no one knows, the real answer to the second is more likely good than bad (people and plants die from cold, not warmth), and the answer to the third is almost certainly not. And nobody doubts that CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing for the better part of a century, but the disobedient temperature seems not to care very much. And nobody denies that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, along with other gases like water vapor, but despite the claims of those who are profiting by this craze, no one knows whether the temperature affects the CO2 or vice versa. The weight of the evidence [suggests] the former.

That’s reasonable. Here is a statement from another physicist, a friend of mine and Andrew Gelman’s:

Like a lot of scientists — I’m a physicist — I assumed the “Climategate” flap would cause a minor stir but would not prompt any doubt about the threat of global warming, at least among educated, intelligent people. The evidence for anthropogenic (that is, human-caused) global warming is strong, comes from many sources, and has been subject to much scientific scrutiny. Plenty of data are freely available. The basic principles can be understood by just about anyone, and first- and second-order calculations can be performed by any physics grad student. Given these facts, questioning the occurrence of anthropogenic global warming seems crazy. (Predicting the details is much, much more complicated). [He seems to miss the point here. The usual claim is that man-made warming is large relative to other global temperature changes. That’s not predictable “by any physics grad student” and to call it a “detail” is misleading. — Seth] And yet, I have seen discussions, articles, and blog posts from smart, educated people who seem to think that anthropogenic climate change is somehow called into question by the facts that (1) some scientists really, deeply believe that global warming skeptics are wrong in their analyses and should be shut out of the scientific discussion of global warming, and (2) one scientist may have fiddled with some of the numbers in making one of his plots. This is enough to make you skeptical of the whole scientific basis of global warming? Really?

At risk of sounding v smug, my views have changed only a little. I already thought the consensus was more fragile than it appeared. That’s just a general truth about modern science. I was already skeptical of climate models because I knew how easily modelers fool themselves. I began to believe the consensus was not just fragile but wrong when I heard the story of the Yamal tree ring data — the long refusal to supply the raw data and, when the researcher’s hand was forced and the data finally supplied, the way it contradicted the claims that had been made. Climategate didn’t vastly change what I thought; it provided more evidence for ideas I already had.

Another friend of mine used to be a math professor. He has views similar to the views of my physicist friend. “Look,” I said to him, “if you want to argue that humans are causing major global warming you should at least show it’s warmer now than in the past. Even that isn’t true. The Medieval Warm Period.” “That was only in Europe,” he replied. Actually, there is evidence of the same thing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Aynsley Kellow on Climategate

Anysley Kellow is a professor of political science at the University of Tasmania. In an interview five years ago, he said, about global warming, “we’ve got a much broader range of choice to respond to a problem that is much more uncertain than certain people who are pushing the issue would have us believe.”

As in a protection racket, the people trying to scare you benefit from you being scared:

I did a study of electricity planning, including here in Tasmania, the good old Hydro Electric Commission in the old days—and the logic was much the same; they would produce forecasts of [hard-to-meet] future demand which were then taken as immutable, and then they would try and justify particular policy responses to those. In the case here it was with hydro dam construction.

I learned about Professor Kellow’s work from a comment about status-trading among scientists. I wrote to him to ask what work of his was being referred to. He replied:

I think the reference is just to my 2007 book (Science and Public Policy: The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science), where I write about the shrinking size of groups which possess expertise, the effect of the communications revolution in establishing close networks of cooperation, and the effect of this on quality-assurance processes like peer review. The prevailing paradigm then becomes a ‘club good’ from the defense of which all members benefit (in status, grant success and career advancement).

The problem is exacerbated by some of the circumstances revealed by Climategate: not just pressure on editors, and influence in being IPCC lead authors, but peer review in climate journals where submitting authors nominate reviewers, the identity of authors is known to those approached to referee papers, and so on. I am so accustomed to double-blind peer review that I found it hard to believe that this was a common practice.
When we add this to the lack of disclosure of raw data and code, we have serious reliability problems underlying science upon which we are basing very costly policy. We know in social science research the potential for subjective factors to obtrude into data manipulation even when researchers do not consciously mean for this to happen, so we often see data preparation and analysis performed by independent teams, and emphasise transparency, disclosure of methods, double-blind peer review, and so on.

That’s a good point about single-blind peer review. I agree, it should all be double-blind, no exceptions. In psychology authors don’t know the name of reviewers but reviewers know the names of authors. You can request double-blind review but then your paper enters the review process with a “paranoid” label attached.

Kellow interviewed about Climategate.

What I’ve Learned From Climategate (So Far)

Google “Climategate” you get 31 million hits. “Obama” returns 40 million. Yet mainstream media, such as the New York Times, have said little about it. The New Yorker has said nothing about it. Given so much interest, that will change.

Some of my prior beliefs — that empirical support for the view that man has caused global warming is weaker than we’re told, that bloggers are a powerful force for truth — are stronger. But here are a few things I didn’t think of until now:

1. The truth leaks out before it gushes out. Laurie David’s children’s book — its egregious mistake, her blithe dismissal of that mistake — is an example of the truth leaking out. In the Ranjit Chandra case, little facts implied he was a fraud long before this became utterly clear. An example is the claim in one of his papers (published in The Lancet!) that everyone asked agreed to be in his experiment.

2. Teaching is even better done via scandals than via stories. The number of hits for Climategate is an indication of how much people are learning from it. As I blogged earlier, they’re learning a lot about science. A mere story about science would never attract so much attention. I should think more about how to use scandals to teach stuff. When Nassim Taleb is scathing about this or that, he has the right idea. Spy was the perfect example. It taught me a lot about New York City.

3. Jane Jacobs was wrong. Or at least missed something very important. In Dark Age Ahead, her last book, she pointed to a number of disturbing signs. One was the rise of crappy science. She was quite right about that  — as scientists have become more professional they have become more status-oriented and less truth-oriented. She didn’t foresee that the Internet would be an enormously powerful corrective force, as is happening now. Climategate is a (relatively) small example of even bigger force: the rise of the power of sophisticated amateurs/hobbyists. Who, unlike professionals, with jobs and status to protect, have complete freedom. The first big example was printed non-fiction books, as I blogged earlier (which are written with great freedom, usually); but now the Internet provides another great outlet, much faster, cheaper, and more accessible than books, for independent thought.

The Parable of the Children’s Book

In 2007, Laurie David, producer of An Inconvenient Truth, ex-wife of Larry David, and self-described “global warming activist,” published The Down To Earth Guide to Global Warming, a book for children. It contained a graph showing the very strong correlation over time between carbon dioxide levels and global temperature. The point was that carbon dioxide controlled global temperature. But there was a problem: The graph was mislabeled. The function labeled “carbon dioxide” was actually the temperature function. Correctly labeled, the graph showed that carbon dioxide changes followed temperature changes. Which meant that the temperature changes had caused the carbon-dioxide changes, rather than the other way around — which was one of the book’s main points.

David’s reaction to the mistake?

Thanks guys! We will correct the illustration in the next edition. We’re happy to learn that that was the only question SPPI had about the entire fact-filled book!

As if it’s trivial.

Moral: A sign of things to come.

More The fact that a producer of An Inconvenient Truth, the movie that arguably won Al Gore a Nobel Prize, could (a) make such a basic mistake and (b) dismiss it as trivial is the ladies-who-lunch equivalent of the fact that Jones and other CRU scientists were scared of a New York Times reporter.

Nature Editorializes on Climategate

It reads like something from Shouts and Murmurs in The New Yorker:

If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts.

If only all Nature editorials were this amusing. It ends with the same pompous reference to “science” as Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of Superfreakonomics:

The pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.

Thanks to Bruce Charlton.

More Here’s what James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard and President-elect of AAAS, has to say: “The content of a few personal emails has no impact whatsoever on our overall understanding that human activity is driving dangerous levels of global warming.” He is ignoring the fact that the data has been revealed to be a huge mess.

ClimateGate: An Inside Job?

As a commenter pointed out, the real scandal is the state of the data. University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit researchers were very reluctant to give anyone their raw data and now it is clear why: It would have been like opening a door and showing a giant mess. I wonder if the frustrated programmer who had to work with the data finally decided enough was enough. He was tired of his bosses (research scientists, such as Phil Jones) using his work to deceive the rest of world on a very important issue. Maybe he felt guilty. And decided to put an end to it. He could have easily told someone outside how to gain access. In the Ranjit Chandra case, one of his employees was the first whistleblower.

Professor Michael Mann of Penn State University, whose veracity has been called into question by the scandal, says he’s glad that he’s being investigated.

“I would be disappointed if the university wasn’t doing all [it] can to get as much information as possible” about the controversy, Mann tells the Daily Collegian.

Senator Grassley Asks Med Schools Their Policies On Ghostwriting

Medical ghostwriting is plagiarism with a bullet: not only do med-school profs get the benefits of a published article they didn’t write, that published article — written by a drug-company hack — is inevitably misleading, causing doctors to prescribe a drug that is worse than they think. (Which is the whole point.) Patients who take the drug are the big losers.

This sort of thing is so patently awful — especially the harm done to millions of sick innocent people — that you’d think everyone finds it repulsive. Quite the opposite. Living breathing med school professors, such as New York University professor Lila Nachtigall, have trouble seeing what’s so bad about it. The practice appears so common that Senator Grassley asked the ten top medical schools, such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and UCSF, to say their policies about it. He’s asking them: Do you consider plagiarism wrong? Except it’s much worse than plagiarism. Although several say on their websites that it’s wrong, Duke University says that “Severe and/or repeated offenses will result in formal disciplinary action”– in other words, non-severe examples are okay! At least the first time. “Formal disciplinary action” can be as mild as a letter. At Duke, at least, they have trouble grasping how awful it is.

This might seem to have nothing in common with self-experimentation. Self-experimentation can be done by anyone, costs nothing, and is a way to figure out helpful truths; whereas almost no one can get a drug company to write a paper for them (you need to be at a top medical school), drugs are a hundred-billion-dollar/year business, and this sort of ghost-writing is done to hide helpful truths. In a better world, they really would be worlds apart. But you are reading this not because I did self-experimentation but because I did self-experimentation that found out something useful and surprising — the Shangri-La Diet and new ideas about sleep and mood. A big reason it did so was that the experts in those fields — such as the relevant med school professors  — were utterly and completely asleep, so to speak. They were incapable of making significant progress. Extreme careerism — putting one’s career ahead of everything else — is no doubt one reason. They could have done what I did. Fat weight-control profs could have tested different diets on themselves, for example. But doing good research would be harmful to their career (e.g., not enough publications), so they don’t do it. Medical ghostwriting helps their career, so they take advantage of it. So what if millions of sick people are harmed by these decisions.

My surprisingly-productive self-experimentation and the staggeringly careerist decisions of med school profs are two sides of one coin: the profound stagnation in health care. The complete inability of those in charge to innovate effectively. Drug companies are businesses that make drugs. They are not going to explore non-drug low-cost solutions, such as those I explored. Nothing, however, prevents med school profs from doing so — at least, nothing except their extreme careerism. My self-experimentation shows what could have been done. It shows that the health questions we face (e.g., how to lose weight) have solutions much better than a new drug. The widespread practice of medical ghostwriting is one indication why those solutions haven’t been found. Failure to find new solutions means problems have stacked up unsolved, getting worse and worse (the obesity epidemic, the allergy epidemic, etc.). It’s usually called a healthcare crisis — but it’s really a health crisis.

A Fourth Thing Elizabeth Kolbert Didn’t Know

Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker staff writer, did not know that Phil Jones, a climate-change scientist, manuevered to keep hidden information that disagreed with his conclusions. Here is what one of the damning emails gathered from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit said:

From Phil Jones [head of the Climate Research Unit]. To: Michael Mann. Date: May 29, 2008
“Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise.”

To keep them from being exposed via a Freedom of Information law. Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen think this is no big deal. I disagree. Yes, I said before this happened that the consensus was likely to appear stronger than it is and that bloggers were a powerful force toward truth — both of which this episode merely supports rather than reveals. And, yeah, it’s just email; the really damning info is the tree-ring data reanalyzed by Stephen McIntyre.

The reason I think this is important is two-fold. First, this is not a smoking gun. Global warming does not equal the honesty of Phil Jones. But it is a powerful piece of evidence that climate skeptics can use to convince anyone that the consensus isn’t as consensus-y as it appears. Second, it exposes what Kevin Trenberth (a proponent of man-made global warming) really thinks. This is something that few knew until now. Here is what he really thinks:

The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.

The data are surely wrong. Trenberth, being human, is going to put the best possible spin on things, the spin most consistent with what he has said many times . . . and this is what he comes up with. Support for the idea of global warming is entirely based on climate models. No one has created a mini-Earth and done experiments. If the data and models don’t agree, there is no reason to believe the models. And if you don’t believe the models you have no reason to believe in global warming. Is Trenberth an ignoramus whose honest assessment of the situation (the models and the data profoundly disagree) should be ignored? Of course not. He doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion (the models are wrong) but nothing prevents the rest of us from doing so.

Just to be clear: I completely agree with Robin’s larger point that this sort of thing supports prediction markets. And I think reduced reliance on fossil fuel would be a very good thing.

Three Things Elizabeth Kolbert Doesn’t Know.

The Return of Charles “Disgraced” Nemeroff

So soon! Nemeroff, you may remember, took large sums of money from drug companies and failed to disclose them. What is that line about teaching an old dog new tricks? Here is what the New York Times said:

The program, conducted online, had been led by Dr. Charles Nemeroff, an Emory University psychiatrist who last year was removed as department chairman and lost federal grant financing for failing to report income from 16 drug companies.

Dr. Carroll said that the program concealed unfavorable data and side effects of drugs made by AstraZeneca, which sponsored it, and played down alternatives to those drugs. In his complaint, Dr. Carroll wrote that the program “appears to make a mockery” of standards against bias.

In an e-mail message Tuesday night, Dr. Nemeroff defended the program. “The program was peer-reviewed and found to have fair balance,” he wrote.

Thanks to Michael Bowerman.

NYU Begins to Look Very Bad

Nine months ago, the New York Times reported that Lila Nachtigall, a New York University professor of obstetrics and gynecology, put her name on an article ghost-written for her by a drug company. The article, when published, failed to disclose the ghost-writing. In response, New York University officials have done nothing, as far as I can tell.

In response to the same fact about one of their professors, McGill University opened an investigation. The same document that revealed what Nachtigall had done showed that Barbara Sherwin, a professor of psychology, obstetrics and gynecology, had done the same thing. Supporting my idea that medical school professors have different ethical standards than the rest of us, an article about the McGill case by Montreal Gazette reporter Peggy Curran used the word plagiarism. One comment was “plagiarism, pure and simple.” Does NYU president John Sexton find plagiarism completely acceptable? Apparently.

Thanks to Anne Weiss

JAMA Editors Go Nuts

Emory University professor Charles “Disgraced” Nemeroff was, you should remember, a respected psychiatric researcher. One of the most respected. What this says about academic psychiatry — and perhaps all academic medicine — is scary to think about.

Now comes a second episode along these lines: JAMA editors attack Jonathan Leo, a professor at Lincoln Memorial University, for daring to publish an article pointing out an undisclosed conflict of interest — exactly Nemeroff’s problem. In the most self-righteous editorial I have ever read, Catherine DeAngelis, JAMA‘s Editor in Chief, and Phil Fontanarosa, the Deputy Executive Editor,

  • say that Leo should not have contacted the New York Times
  • “A telephone conversation intended to inform Leo that his actions were inappropriate transformed into an argumentative discussion as Leo continued to refuse to acknowledge any problem with his actions.”
  • tell Leo to never submit anything to JAMA due to “his apparent lack of confidence in and regard for” the publication
  • “We felt an obligation to notify the dean of Leo’s institution . . . We sought the dean’s assistance in resolving the issue . . . “
  • “Our tone in these interactions was strong and emphatic . . . seriously . . . responsibility . . . fair process . . . integrity of science . . . We regret . . . “
  • make it more difficult to report future conflicts of interest

To make sure everyone understood this wasn’t temporary insanity, Catherine DeAngelis made similar comments to the Wall Street Journal:

“This guy is a nobody and a nothing” she said of Leo. “He is trying to make a name for himself. Please call me about something important.” She added that Leo “should be spending time with his students instead of doing this.”

Yes, nothing is less important than an unreported conflict of interest in JAMA.

The JAMA editorial, published a week after the WSJ article, claims that DeAngelis didn’t call Leo “a nobody and a nothing” but since the WSJ has not fixed the supposed error I conclude that the editorial claim of quote fabrication is wrong — not to mention highly implausible.

In their editorial, the JAMA editors write that “a rush to judgment [that is, Leo pointing out the conflict of interest himself rather than deferring to them] . . . rarely sheds light or advances medical discourse.” Au contraire. This “rush to judgment” has shed a hugely unflattering light on the very powerful doctors who run JAMA — and thus an hugely unflattering light on a culture in which such people, like Nemeroff, gain great power.

Plagiarism in Chinese Academia

I was glad to read this article in the Christian Science Monitor about an attempt to reduce plagiarism among Chinese professors.

The latest fraud to rock Chinese academia centers on He Haibo, an associate professor of pharmacology at the prestigious Zhejiang University. [Not very prestigious, since I haven’t heard of it.] He now admits to copying or making up material he submitted in eight papers to international journals and has been fired, along with the head of his research institute. The affair has drawn particular attention because a world-renowned expert in traditional Chinese medicine, Li Lianda, lent his name as coauthor to one of the fraudulent papers. His tenure will not be renewed when his contract expires soon, the president of Zhejiang University has said.

The Beijing Sport University, one of three sport universities in the world, is near my university. It has a Ph.D. program. To get a Ph.D. you must submit three books! As one of their graduate students told me, no way you can do that without plagiarism. He had noticed that a book by one of his professors was simply a copy of another book.

This paragraph, however, amused me:

Stearns [a Yale professor who taught at Beijing University] says that he and his colleagues at Yale “do not believe letters of recommendation from Chinese professors, for we know that many of them are written by the students themselves,” and merely signed by their teachers.

He thinks letters from Berkeley are different? My system for writing letters of recommendation was more nuanced, after I learned that students had great trouble writing these letters. I met with the student and we wrote it together. This had two great advantages: 1. It showed the student in the best possible (i.e., truthful) light. 2. It was easy. Trying to write a good letter by myself was tough.

Thanks to Sheila Buff.