That last satisfaction at the end of the career

November 7, 2012

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

I just finished reading an amusing but somewhat disturbing article by Mark Singer, a reporter for the New Yorker who follows in that magazine’s tradition of writing about amiable frauds. (For those who are keeping score at home, Singer employs a McKelway-style relaxed tolerance rather than Liebling-style pyrotechnics.) Singer’s topic was a midwestern dentist named Kip Litton who fradulently invented a side career for himself as a sub-3-hour marathoner. What was amazing was not so much that Litton lied about his accomplishments but, rather, the huge efforts that he undertook to support these lies. He went to faraway cities to not run marathons. He fabricated multiple personas on running message boards. He even invented an entire marathon and made up a list of participants.

This got me thinking about Ed Wegman (sorry!), the statistician who got tangled in a series of plagiarism scandals. As with Litton, once Wegman was caught once, energetic people looked at the records and found a history of violations.

Reading Singer’s story carefully, I recognized myself as being analogous to the marathoners who spent their own time tracking down Litton’s deceptions and mocking the poor guy. Why do that? He clearly has enough problems of his own, what with the serial lying and all. After some introspected, I decided that my problem with Wegman is that, as Dr. Anil Potti might say, he’s pooping in my sandbox. Similarly this is the marathoners’ problem for Litton. If you take statistics, or running, seriously, it’s infuriating for someone to brazenly fake it.

Litton also stole a page from the Wegman playbook by denying his fakery, even after he was caught. Again, I find that particularly irritating—but I do take Singer’s point, when he remarks that, once Litton was exposed, his story is all he had left, so why give that up too? Much as I feel that Wegman has the moral duty to fess up, I can see why he doesn’t. Confession is the only card left in his hand; once he plays that, he’s out of bargaining chips. (OK, ok, you know what I mean.)

Hence the cycle in which runners (and me) keep picking on Litton (and Wegman), in eternal frustration because these cheaters hold onto what remains of their dignity the only way they know how, by never letting go of their stories, no matter what. Life doesn’t always imitate Columbo; sometimes the sandbox-pooper keeps the satisfaction of never admitting guilt, even when the stinky trail remains on the web forever for all to see. [OK, that's enough for the poop analogies for today. --- ed.]


Maybe someone could convince Mark Singer to do a story on Wegman? Not so possible, I suppose, given that a lot fewer people are interested in statistics scandals than sports scandals (I assume). More likely, I think, would be a story on someone like Mark Hauser, the disgraced primatologist. I don’t want to see more on Hauser, though: he’s too much of a superstar, he’d be played by some smirking Brat Pack type in the movies, and even on the page I fear he’d jump out as a larger-than-life heroic figure shot down by his own hubris blah blah blah. It would just be too easy to glorify him.

And The Anil Potti Story would just be boring: the guy made stuff up to get and keep a good job. The only interesting character in the whole saga is the guy in Grand Forks, North Dakota, who wanted to hire Potti—after the fraud scandal had happened. What’s the story there, I wonder?

To, me the Wegman story has more human interest (and I say this without, as far as I recall, ever having met the man). The motivations for his repeated copying-without-attribution are complex and, I would guess, include a feeling of moral obligation. He agreed to write a report for Congress, then was unable or unwilling to do the work, so he cut corners. Perhaps he was too busy to write the report because he was busy with his duties as journal editor. Then he submitted plagiarized papers to his own journal, maybe because he was too busy doing something else, etc. And then, at the end, like Kip Litton, he held on tight and never let go, taking to the end of his career the satisfaction of never having said, “I’m sorry.”

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