Intuition, by Allegra Goodman

I read this novel, which is loosely based on various scientific fraud scandals from the 1980s. It was readable, sort of like John Updike in the general themes and similar to Scott Turow in writing style and characterization. (Everything fits into place a bit too cleanly, with each character given some small quirk, a sort of hyper-realism that is just a bit too reasonable to be quite convincing. But, as with Turow, this style actually helps in keeping the reader focused on the ideas of the story rather than on individual characters). Spoilers below . . .

The main plot twist was that there were no plot twists–what happened was exactly what I’d expected had happened (the postdoc who was under pressure to get results indeed fudged his data, in this case by hiding bad outcomes), with suspense arising only because, as a reader, I thought that plot twists might be coming. In any case, it was fun to read because of the scientific research setting. I had two main thoughts after finishing the book:

1. I was reminded how different things are in different areas of science. I have postdocs too, but statistics is nothing like biology. For one thing, we don’t work as hard as they do. And I think there’s less division of labor in statistics–maybe that means we’re a less developed science. The postdocs here aren’t washing pipettes, etc. Also, of course, the stakes are lower in statistics–we’re not curing cancer–and our environment is much much less competitive. There are just so many different things to work on in statistics that there’s essentially no worry about being “scooped” by another lab.

2. Once the book was over, I was really irritated at its apparent tolerance for fraud. The lab director is portrayed sympathetically–in the closing scene of the book she is presenting her new, brilliant research–but to me she seemed like one of the villains of the story. She is described as a detail expert who is a brilliant scientist, yet when one of her postdocs comes to her with clear evidence of fraud, she kicks the postdoc out and ignores the evidence. The lab director is portrayed as having a crisis of conscience at one point–should she publish their preliminary results–but to me it seemed reprehensible for her to shun the whistleblower–if she (the director) is really so brilliant, she should have been able to look into the case and see what was going on.

Related to this is the overvaluing of so-called brilliance. Science is full of people described as brilliant, people whose Ph.D. advisors think are geniuses, get millions of dollars from NIH, etc. If someone participates in fraud, I don’t have much sympathy for the idea that he or she should be taken seriously after that. There are plenty of brilliant people out there to take their place. And, as made clear in the book, the incentive structures are all wrong: whistleblowers get slammed and people who cover up fraud are rarely punished.

Now, I recognize that Goodman’s book is a novel, and she can have sympathy for whichever characters she wants–she created them, after all–but I really don’t like the message of ambiguity, that everybody’s under pressure, it’s the system’s fault, etc. Fraud is the responsibility of the fraudster, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the lab director’s responsibility to uncover fraud. But once it’s pointed out, it seems like very dishonorable behavior to look away and pretend it’s not there, thus relying on the scientific process (i.e., wasting thousands of hours of other people’s time as they try to replicate nonexistent results).

8 thoughts on “Intuition, by Allegra Goodman

  1. Hey Andrew,

    I read this earlier in the year, and gave up somewhere around page 100. (I seem to have grown crotchety in my old age.) I thought somewhat worse of the writing than you did, but the fatal defect was the bogus view of science. I still remember the description of the seminar in which the postdoc first presents his great results — there was literally no content, just the statement that he was spellbinding. My objection at the time was that this was lame storytelling, but it's also consistent with the general misconception you point to.

  2. Andrew: "Related to this is the overvaluing of so-called brilliance. Science is full of people described as brilliant, people whose Ph.D. advisors think are geniuses, get millions of dollars from NIH, etc. If someone participates in fraud, I don't have much sympathy for the idea that he or she should be taken seriously after that. There are plenty of brilliant people out there to take their place. And, as made clear in the book, the incentive structures are all wrong: whistleblowers get slammed and people who cover up fraud are rarely punished."

    A friend of mine recently completed his Ph.D. in psychology, at a top university. He recounted sitting in orientation, and finding out that several incoming Ph.D. students hadn't just been admitted there, but had been admitted at 2 or 3 of the top five universities in psychology (in the USA). He said that his reaction was that 'smarts is cheap'.

    In addition, as you pointed out, the question in such cases is not smarts, or even brilliance, but honesty. And brilliant people are at least as capable of being dishonest as ordinary people, IMHO.

  3. BTW, there are some obvious 'good' reasons for crushing a post-doc who's alleging fraud: it could be politically dangerous, as the fraudster might have the power to retaliate, and keeping discipline might be perceived as crucial, in a system which lives on large numbers of post-docs.

  4. Barry,

    I may be an idealist here, but I suspect that brilliant scientists are more likely to be honest than less-brilliant scientists, at least in their own field of research. I say this partly because science is, to some extent, about communication, and transparency is helpful here. Also, as illustrated (fictionally) in Goodman's book, fraud is often done to cover up unsuccessful research. If you're brilliant, it's likely that your research will be successful: even if you don't achieve your big goals–even brilliant people will, perhaps should, bite off more than you can chew–you should get some productive spinoffs, and the simple cost-benefit analysis suggests that cheating would stand to lose you more than you'd gain.

    The other thing is that it might make more sense to think of honesty as a behavior rather than a character trait. I'm pretty honest (I think), but that also makes me an unpracticed liar (and, unsuprisingly, a bad liar). So the smart move for me is not to lie–again, more to lose than to gain (in my estimated expected value). But if I worked in a profession where dishonesty–or, to put it more charitably, hiding the truth–was necessary, something involving negotiation or legal maneuvers or whatever, then I'd probably get better at lying and then maybe I'd start doing more of it in other aspects of life.

    Science seems to me like an area where lying isn't very helpful unless you're not good at it. This was one reason why I didn't buy Goodman's portrayal of the lab leader as admirable, brilliant, committed to science, and at the same time remarkably uncurious about potential fraud in her own lab. If she was really as brilliant as all that, I'd think she'd immediately want to get to the bottom of the potential fraud, rather than agnonizing over the ethics of when to submit preliminary results to a journal.

  5. Hi, Vance! Yeah, given that the book takes place 20 years ago, it shouldn't have been that hard for the author to put in at least a plausible version of the science that would make it clear why the work seemed so exciting.

    The funny thing is, I suspect that one reason for the book's amazingly positive reviews were that people were impressed that a readable book could be written about science. I think the literary standards are low for fiction about science: people read such a book for the fun of the ideas–not the scientific ideas as much as the quasi-philosophical ideas (What is Truth? Can Love coexist with Science? etc.). These sorts of books often seem to have sketchy plots and idealized characters, perhaps to better highlight the philosophical issues. That's why I drew the analogy to Turow: the clear characters make a better mystery story. Turow has better plots, though. (Also, as with Goodman, Turow has been perhaps overpraised–after all, his books seem damn realistic in a world where, until recently, "Spenser" was the standard.)

    P.S. As a statistician, I benefit every day from the soft bigotry of the low expectations people have for my writing.

  6. I read Goodman for her portrayal of characters' motives and the conflicts between characters, and I think she is consistently spot on. Seeing these characters in a fictional work highlights issues that it would be hard to get at in more obvious forums. Her plots are pretty ordinary, though, and like Vance I read the first chunk and then skipped to the end because I only had a few hours for it.

    What I found most remarkable here was the relationship between the PIs and the science, especially the PI who was the public face for the lab but doesn't have any involvement at all in the science. Usually people think enviously about the PIs' power and undue credit, but Goodman shows a lack of control and a detachment. The underlings control their supervisors' destinies just as much as their supervisors control theirs.

  7. Well, I have this case of a fairly recent PhD whose dissertation is a disaster. Beginning with the "sampling." He fudges numbers,presents useless statistics. No table shows an N. One table present overlapping income categories. He presents two quite idiosyncratic ANova (sic) tables, reports p values of zero. Fails to add correctly and to add insult to injury almost 40 percent of his reference in Chapter one are wrong or missing. One can only guess at what follows in the later ones. Clearly the PhD committee did not do its work.

    When I turned to a colleague and friend who before his retirement held very high administrative posts at the university here he counseled me to leave this alone as it could only cause me problems. (See above re whistleblowers). I wrote to his PhD supervisor, a very well known and respectable social scientist to make him aware of the problems with the dissertation and asked to inform the PhD to correct the many flaws in his work, and above all, not to use it in the present form in future work. He apparently did send a message to that effect.

    Now I find out that the very same brilliant Phd has published a paper in a minor (thank god) journal that consists of much of the PhD in verbatim form and carries the same misinformation. The only difference is that his uncertainties regarding his "sample" have now vanished and a rather bizzarre explanation for disappearing questionnaires has now been presented.

    I'm really sick of that sort of hucksterism as the person in question carries a "dog and pony show" from place to place. I am never invited to these events and only discover too late that this "research" has been presented to another spellbound audience.

    Whew, I had to get this off my chest.

Comments are closed.