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).