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plastic fantastic

10 january 2010

For a book largely devoted to the organizational systems of esoteric experimental physics, Eugenie Reich's Plastic Fantastic has a curiously comic-opera quality. For several years in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, a young man named Jan Hendrik Schön dazzled the scientific world, and the popular press, with extraordinary experimental results. Some of his advances – fabulous new kinds of electrically conductive plastics, plastic lasers, transistors made of single organic molecules – fulfilled some of the farthest-out wishes of whimsical engineers. Schön seemed to do magic with old lab equipment that other researchers had stuffed into the backs of closets: much as if you went into your basement, spray-painted a gob of Silly String, and discovered that you had created the world's first artificially-intelligent neural network.

Except that Schön hadn't developed anything he said he'd developed. He hadn't even misinterpreted the results of experiments. As near as Reich can determine, Schön hadn't done any research at all. He had read about the fondest dreams of scientific speculators, and then sat down at his computer to fabricate experimental data that seemed to fulfill them.

Well, what's the harm; lots of us have a crazy uncle who claims to have built a 500 mpg biodiesel engine in his garage. The harm in this case was that Schön, under the aegis of the venerable Bell Labs, published his results in the most prestigious of all academic journals, Nature and Science. He won numerous prizes, saw his work featured on front pages and on NPR, and brought acclaim to his employers and co-authors. He was considered for chairs at Princeton and at one of Germany's Max Planck Institutes, and was touted for an eventual Nobel Prize. It's like waking up to find that your Aunt Velma's handwritten narrative of her abduction by aliens had won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Reich's book is a study of what went wrong at each stage of this fiasco. Jan Hendrik Schön himself, though enigmatic, comes across as the most intelligible of the actors. He seems to have wanted not money or power but simply a reputation for aloof genius. The way there was to give people what they wanted.

Increasingly, in a climate of budget pressures coupled with an ethic of continuous growth in "productivity" that has beset academics worldwide, what Schön's community wanted was miracles on demand: cutting-edge physics with immediate engineering applications. Bell Labs, shuttled from one corporate overlord to another in the deregulation era, fought for its survival by cultivating an aura of genius. As long as you were reporting newsworthy breakthroughs that kept the suits happy, senior research managers didn't inquire too closely about your methods.

If it were just a matter of one decaying institution spoiling the scientific apple-barrel, that mightn't have been too bad, either. But Reich shows a deeper, more systematic problem in the world scientific community. The prime guarantor of scientific authority in academe is the principle of peer review. Send a manuscript to Science or Nature, and they will send it out to the smartest, most disinterested anonymous experts on the planet. If said experts are happy with your work, you get the big prize of publication in the superstar journal.

(So magical is the term "peer review" that its prestige has crept across the faculties of universities to embrace the arts and humanities. My own university, which trumpets the ever-increasing productivity of its (presumably 100% honest!) researchers on its home page and in its newsletters, now demands from English professors a record of peer-reviewed publication so that we can reach our goal of Tier One research-university status. There's ample logic to that demand, of course: I do lots of peer review myself, and I have warned journals against sloppily-documented or unoriginal scholarship. But on the other hand, who can "review" a humanist's personal essay about a lyric poem? Are my critical sensibilities verifiable by other investigators? Should my creative writing about life in the suburbs be susceptible of independent replication?)

Anyway, the peer reviewers for Schön's nonsensical manuscripts thought that they were just the thing for the world's most authoritative journals of record. They thought this even though Schön would do things like take the same (fabricated) data table from one experiment he'd published and re-use it, after slapping on different captions, for a totally different experiment submitted to another journal. The Schön case shows, among other things, that leading peer reviewers for the top journals may not know the literature in their own fields well enough to detect patent fraud.

A few years ago, the cultural-studies community was mildly scandalized when a physicist named Alan Sokal sent a nonsensical essay to the humanities journal Social Text. The editors of Social Text printed the piece despite its silliness, whereupon Sokal revealed that he'd hoaxed them. The implication was that these armchair Marxists operate with infantile gullibility, whereas real hard scientists, with their rigorous system of expert peer review, would never be fooled by such banana oil. Well, scratch that idea.

Reich suggests that editors at Nature and Science were just as affected by pressures to perform as their tenure-track colleagues. When big science becomes a permanent feature of the news cycle, you gotta have big news in every issue to keep up with your "competitors." Schön gave these editors what they wanted.

The implication is not that the entire world of academic science is a house of cards. One assumes that the vast majority of scientific research is conducted thoroughly and with integrity. But that's the problem: "one assumes." The system depends on a mutual trust that borders on see-no-evil. Reich found that even the most vindicated whistle-blowers in the Schön incident were reluctant to crow about their actions. Scientists dropped a cone of silence over the Schön affair. The system worked, the malefactor was exposed, nothing to see here, move along please. But of course, for nearly a decade, Schön parlayed hot air into a position of enormous prestige before being exposed. Scores of person-years were lost at other labs by scientists trying to replicate research that never existed in the first place – all because nobody asked questions that should have been asked at the start of the process, not years on.

Plastic Fantastic is a highly technical book at times, but it is one of those non-fiction studies that, in the reviewer's cliché, "reads like a thriller." Reich presents herself as courageous, and it's hard to doubt her courage. She takes on an establishment that seemed intent to cover the tracks of its negligence, and she holds them accountable.

Reich, Eugenie Samuel. Plastic Fantastic: How the biggest fraud in physics shook the scientific world. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.