I have a great idea for a movie. Actually two movies based on two variants of a similar idea.
It all started when I saw this story:
Dr. Anil Potti, the controversial cancer researcher whose work at Duke University led to lawsuits from patients, is now a medical oncologist at the Cancer Center of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
When asked about Dr. Potti’s controversial appointment, his new boss said:
If a guy can’t get a second chance here in North Dakota, where he trained, man, you can’t get a second chance anywhere.
(Link from Retraction Watch, of course.)
Potti’s boss is also quoted as saying, “Most, if not all, his patients have loved him.” On the other hand, the news article reports: “The North Carolina medical board’s website lists settlements against Potti of at least $75,000.” I guess there’s no reason you can’t love a guy and still want a juicy malpractice settlement.
Second Chance U
I don’t give two poops about Dr. Anil Potti. But seeing the above story gave me an idea: what if somebody created an university and filled it entirely with disgraced academic frauds. Wouldn’t that be cool? I’m getting a Bad News Bears or Slap Shot kinda vibe: a crusty Walter Matthau or Paul Newman puts together this low-budget college full of talented washouts who know that the only way for them to succeed is to go all out, 200%, using every dirty trick they know.
The script could follow the classic three-part pattern: in the first act, Matthau/Newman gets the challenge (perhaps there’s some charming middle-aged lady who’s inherited a crumbling Faber College that’s about to lose its accreditation (cut to ragtag group of students including the sorority sister, the nerd, the goofy foreigner, the underachieving basketball player, etc.)) and they need to put together a shiny new faculty, pronto! So our hero scoops up Diederik Stapel, Frank Fischer, Michael Bellesiles, and about 15 guys from the back pages of Retraction Watch. Doris Kearns Goodwin could run the English department or the history department, I’m not sure which. There could also be a funny scene where Matthau/Newman runs into Laurence Tribe at the bowling alley and talks him into quitting Harvard to take up the challenge of singlehandedly staffing Faber Law School.
In the second act, the new college gets its act together, actually starts educating students and successfully bamboozles the accreditation committee. (I’m picturing a scene here where a stuffy inspector is checking out the law school, and Tribe is running around behind him, changing into different outfits, putting on a fake beard, at one point getting into a dress, in order to impersonate an entire law school faculty.) I’m also imagining some fun hijinks involving Mary Rosh—that would be the econ department, or maybe the policy school.
Finally, in the third act the fraud is revealed and everything blows up. Maybe there’s even a literal explosion when it turns out that the fake cold-fusion reactor in the physics lab really works! Cut to a split-screen happy ending where Matthau and his girlfriend are happily collecting, Producers-style, on all the student loan guarantees while, one by one, the graduating students are succeeding at various fast-talking sales jobs that use the shady skills they learned at Second Chance U.
The New Dirty Dozen
Or we could spin it slightly differently, so the setting is not a leafy college, it’s a secret U.S. government lab in a dank basement somewhere. Here’s the script: A maverick scientist (Wesley Snipes, perhaps?) is on some top-secret mission to cure a deadly epidemic before it wipes out the human race. He calls up the experts at Johns Hopkins, CDC, Mayo Clinic, etc., but nobody will listen. But they guy has some connections in the government—maybe he’s a retired military officer, or a counterterrorism guy or something. He convinces the Vice President to send some slush funds to put together a research team, it’s all done with plausible deniability, so the only people he can get are the discards.
We’re taking Dirty Dozen here. Anil Potti in the lab. Robert Gallo (is he still alive?) at the whiteboard figuring out how the disease works. You got Mark Hauser to run the live-virus tests on monkeys. And so on. All this research would be pretty energy intensive and you could have a subplot where a stubborn investigator for the local power company starts nosing around. (I’m thinking Coen Brothers.) The P.I. doesn’t want the secret to get out, though—the one thing you don’t want in this setting is mass panic, a run on Cipro, etc.—so at the last minute they have to install a cold-fusion drive to keep power consumption down. One of those cold-fusion guys is still alive, right? He’d be brought in at the midpoint of the movie, sort of a Kevin Spacey kind of thing where he only has a small role but he steals the show.
Usually the turning point in such a drama would be some discovery in the wet lab, maybe there’s a beaker that was accidentally left full overnight and then the next day, just as the hero is giving up, announcing to his research team that he was wrong all along, the beaker starts emitting some unexpected fluid in the background of the scene, then somebody notices: Hey! etc.
But I’m a statistician, so indulge me here. I’d prefer the turning point to be some data analysis, where an elderly statistician—some big Orson Welles-type guy whom everybody had forgotten about—he’s sitting in a corner looking at visualizations on an old-style computer terminal when . . . aha! He notices a pattern. And another pattern. And another. And, before you know it, they’ve unraveled the whole story.
But who’d this guy be? We’d need someone
(a) who’s a prominent statistician,
(b) who’s been discredited because of scholarly misconduct,
(c) who’s an expert on data visualization and computational statistics (recall the plot point above),
(d) who has some U.S. government connections, preferably military (recall the scenario of how the research team has been formed).
No way we could find one guy who has all the above characteristics. Too bad.
We could get
Stephen Glass Quentin Rowan to write the script—this whole spy thing is right up his alley—with Jonah Lehrer helping with the technical bits.
Help me out here!
I’d love to see the movie poster for either of these.
P.S. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that plagiarism or faking data or attacking one’s critics under a false name or allegedly stealing a virus or snagging millions of dollars for a cold fusion lab would be enough to put someone in the category of “disgraced academic frauds.”