Truth Telling and the Risk of Reputation

This morning I took the time to read this story about a Poli Sci PhD student who cracked a big case of academic fraud. As a story it was compellingly chronicled. The wrongdoer first appears as an admirable and ambitious academic upstart eager to make his mark in the field. The eventual hero is introduced to us as a honest bloke trying to play by the rules of traditional academia and do good things in the world through conscientious critical thinking.

As in any good story there are supporting characters who pose hurdles to the hero’s quest for truth (even if they all celebrate the revelation of that surprising truth in the end). There are unwitting accomplices to the wrongdoer’s scheme. The journalistic flair for drama and intrigue shine through in this piece which might otherwise interest only a small slice of academia.
What made me read the full article?
1. Scandal and higher education – those are easy hooks for me.
2. Strong writing – I was drawn into a well told story complete with surprises, twists and turns.
3. I kept marveling about how much of the narrative turns on the importance of reputation: having a strong one (i.e., the sponsoring big name academic who helped get the results published in Science) versus putting one’s emerging reputation at risk of near fatal damage (our hero, Mr. Broockman).
4. Increasingly fascinated by the voices which argue against questioning results publicly. (Reminded of women in sexual harassment cases who are counseled to remain silent.)
5. Raises questions about who gets the free rides in academic circles based on reputation and numerous beneficial biases in recruitment and publishing practices. (My own guess is upper middle class white males, but that is pure conjecture.)
6. In the end I suppose I was glad for the hero as he could claim a righteous victory over fraud and institutional negligence.
But really I just kept wondering, could female professors and researchers of color get away with as much? This story makes me wonder.
The story tells me a lot about the types of dysfunction within academia which persist and remind us that the academy is perhaps just as, if not more prone to poor judgment, elitism and willful blindness to its own shortcomings than the rest of society.
It’s a frustrating story and yet not really surprising. “Highly educated” has never been a reasonable proxy for stronger moral behavior although those who typically control the narrative in the media, our textbooks and in popular memory work hard to have us believe that it must be so.

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