Trouble On the Farm

We can require all the ethics classes in the world, but as long as we continue to reward people who don’t heed those lessons, it’s probably not going to budge behavior all that much.

The President of Stanford University, Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced this week that he would step down from his post after the university’s board of trustees found data manipulations in academic papers he co-authored. This seems like a fairly wishy-washy kind of allegation, or at least less salacious than the kind of misconduct that usually makes it to the public sphere. There was no sexual assault, nothing deliberately covered-up, and in fact, it’s not clear that Tessier-Lavigne even precisely knew about what was going on.

The most that people seem to be able to say about this is that he should have known, should have been on top of things, although even that is a little bit suspect, because the report itself says that Tessier-Lavigne “did not have any knowledge of any manipulation of research data.” According to their conclusions, he either “was not in a position where a reasonable scientist would be expected to have detected any such misconduct” or “was not reckless in failing to identify such manipulation prior to publication.” The heart of his crime is instead that he “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record.” 

In other words, he was offered a chance to come clean, to explain his mistakes, and he didn’t take it. And so, we come to this:  in a July 19 statement, Tessier-Lavigne said, “Although the report clearly refutes the allegations of fraud and misconduct that were made against me, for the good of the university, I have made the decision to step down as president effective August 31.” 

But even with all of that said, that isn’t what the beating pulse of the story is about. The exciting part of the story rests with the 18-year old student journalist who put the wheels in motion to “take down” the president of his university. Theo Baker, now a Stanford sophomore, won a prestigious Polk award for journalism for his investigation, which he began two weeks after joining the Stanford Daily, the undergraduate newspaper. (There is a great interview with him here.)

In a world where it often feels like one person can do little more than be one pebble in an avalanche of protest, here is a story of a young kid who managed to topple the powers-that-be by digging deeper, following leads, and asking good questions. Now isn’t that a story of inspiration?

And without taking anything at all away from that work, I am still going to find it a little bit curious that this is where the heart of the story is.

The thing is, when Baker started looking into these papers, it was because there were rumors of just this kind of misconduct that had circulated much earlier. Baker wasn’t a journalist searching through thousands of pages of documents, wondering if something was going to turn up. He was following up on what was, more or less, common knowledge, an open secret of sorts.

So let me say a few more things about why the resignation itself fails to be very exciting, at least for media coverage of the event. Tessier-Lavigne might or might not have known about the data manipulations, and maybe he should or shouldn’t have, but let’s at least stipulate that willful ignorance was very, very good for his career. His papers were in biotech, which is Stanford’s latest romance of a field (since it’s been several decades since computer science at Stanford helped launch Silicon Valley- or at least launch it into the stratosphere of wealth). And while the big biotech companies are a little bit north of Silicon Valley, the promises in terms of shifting human life are even more promising than they ever were for silicon chips. After all, not everyone needs a device (or three) in their hands, but everyone has DNA and biology. Choosing a biotechnology researcher as the president of Stanford was a powerful and purposeful choice for the university. Nobody’s incentive was to jeopardize this by looking too carefully at his past research. Certainly not Tessier-Lavigne’s own.

One of the women in my CrossFit class is a graduate student in the sciences at Stanford. She is adamant. “He should have known,” she says, even though the report itself said this wasn’t where the fault lay. 

But here’s what we both know: the system is set up to reward the most exotic, provocative research, whether or not the evidence lines up exceedingly well or only slightly uncomfortably. Because in the end, headlines are headlines, but p-values are only footnotes. Don’t know what p-values are? That’s a little bit my point. Data, which we like to think of as evidence in hard-form, turns out to be extremely subject to manipulation, and the way a researcher asks a question is going to hugely influence the answer you get. (Or in this case, where they draw their data from).

But the incentives aren’t quite as malleable. The incentives line up behind the most provocative way that the data can be reported.

Several decades ago, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt co-authored a book called Freakonomics, which offered a revolutionary-to-the-general-public way to think about human behavior influenced by incentives. The central idea is that you might predict how people would act depending on where the profit lies, not a matter of character or ethics. And I think this is the most useful way to think about this whole situation.

Because here is my assessment, for whatever its worth: We continue to set up systems that incentivize a person to act one way, and then kindly ask them to act another way. Researchers with knock-out research get more reward than those who make careful, attentive and cautious conclusions. The person who fudges data— a little, maybe— maybe declaring some samples inconclusive and dropping them from the study, or who declares something else outside the norm— these are normal processes that researchers need to use discretion to do. But what to make of the fact that sometimes, the rewards for making one judgment call over another are hard to resist?

I can hear the protests against this point of view now: we demand ethical behavior, some of those lines are drawn exceedingly clearly. I’m not going to suggest that we don’t demand it, or that his resignation isn’t a clear sign that we won’t stand for going along with it, or that researchers don’t know where the blurry lines are. Instead, I am going to suggest a deeper and more difficult truth: that ignoring the rules of ethics can be wildly rewarding. People who act against their self-interest need special, whistle-blower protections, and sometimes we have a difficult relationship figuring out if they’ve even done the right thing (Edward Snowden, anyone?). On the other hand, people who go along with bad plans seem to come out on top often enough.

There’s a quote that I like quite a bit, often attributed to Upton Sinclair. He wrote, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Upton Sinclair was born in 1878, and it’s a little bit quaint that the biggest reward he could conceive of for deliberately not understanding rules of ethics or the details of the limits of research could be a salary. He probably couldn’t imagine that if you just “never thought of it,” you might also enjoy private jets (Clarence Thomas), serving as a University president (Tessier-Lavigne) or just making billions of dollars from your investors’ pockets while your technology catches up to your promises (Elizabeth Holmes).

If you take care not to ask questions too deeply of the chief investigators of your labs, you too might be appointed the president of your university, while risking getting your hand slapped. We can require all the ethics classes in the world, but as long as we continue to reward people who don’t heed those lessons, it’s probably not going to budge behavior all that much.

At least in this case, the greater reward goes to Theo Baker. Bravo, kid!

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