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Two exciting movie ideas: “Second Chance U” and “The New Dirty Dozen”

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.”

25 Comments

  1. A Nine-Year Old says:

    I don’t give two poops about Dr. Anil Potti.

    Oh my god, thank you so much for this.

    • Andrew says:

      Believe it or not, I was not at all thinking of the name “Anil Potti” when I wrote that line about two poops. But maybe there was something subliminal going on.

  2. Sebastian says:

    “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).”

    sometimes I find it hard to distinguish between (semi-)serious parts and irony in your post. You’re being ironic here, though, right? No way you wouldn’t think of one of your all time favorites in this context: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Wegman

  3. Brent Buckner says:

    You wrote:
    “snagging millions of dollars for a cold fusion lab”

    That one’s still playing out (often rebranded as LENR – “low energy nuclear reaction”) – and some of the folks involved are not “disgraced academic frauds”. (e.g. Peter Hagelstein, George Miley)

  4. Manoel Galdino says:

    This is a post full of subtle references. I think I got one:

    “Most, if not all, his patients have loved him.”

    It remembers me of “Most, if not all, deaths are to some extent suicides”

  5. K? O'Rourke says:

    Would you not rather go with falsely disgraced academics (e.g. those who simply ran afoul of personal believes and sensitivities of powerful academics)?

    A possible for instance would be Newcomb and Peirce
    ( see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Newcomb#Peirce_family )

    Recently talked to someone doing serious reach on this sort of thing (which included Newcomb and Peirce as a for instance ) and he said it was not terribly rare – so you should be able to staff a small university (but a department with just one member faking to be other members still a good idea.)

  6. Nathan says:

    The ‘New Dirty Dozen’ definitely needs to feature Andrew Wakefield, the guy who faked data suggesting that vaccines cause autism. Perhaps this is the initial plot device for the start of an epidemic? An epidemic started by a disgraced scientist that can only be stopped by disgraced scientists!

  7. zbicyclist says:

    Just when things are getting dicey (e.g. when Tribe’s fake beard stops working), Yoshitaka Fujii (the anesthesiology researcher who had over 170 papers retracted by anesthesiology journals) puts any antagonists to sleep.

    http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/does-anesthesiology-have-a-problem-final-version-of-report-suggests-fujii-will-take-retraction-record-with-172/

    (I agree with Nathan that Andrew Wakefield is a must!)

  8. Andrew McDowell says:

    James Blish wrote “They shall have stars” in 1957. In it Senator Bliss Wagoner funds scientists of good reputations generally with obsessions that make others call them crackpots, because traditional science is dying of bureaucracy and classification. Some of his funding is wasted, but he gets a life extension drug and practical space flight. Working in a dysfunctional U.S. with its constitution corrupted by a fight against state-sponsored terrorism he is also convicted of treason for wasting money and executed by exposure to nuclear pile wastes (which mostly act as straightforward chemical poisons, by the way).

    • Roy Mendelssohn says:

      And irony or ironies, Blish worked for the Tobacco Institute for a few years (see previous post).

  9. Nick Cox says:

    I hope there is space for Dr Grant Swinger, the not mythical enough creation of Daniel S. Greenberg.

  10. Let us not forget Dr. Deborah Ellen Frisch!

  11. Shaun says:

    I thought Gallo was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

  12. julep2323 says:

    Give it a nice twist and have the setting at one of the new for-profit or distant off-shoot Universities in UAE or somewhere else in the Middle East. Faculty show up with no idea what theyre getting into. You can then add in a lot of slap stick cultural gaffes! Fun!

  13. Rafa says:

    To get more inspiration, spend some time at UNESP, Rio Claro (yes, where the africanized bees spread from), and you will get the picture…

  14. Åse says:

    Way to make a geeky old broad swoon

  15. Doug says:

    Your “New Dirty Dozen” script, very (very) loosely, matches the first season of The Wire. Team of supposed flunkies, guy sitting around apparently doing nothing, saying you have to find the meaning in the pattern of transactions you see / calls you hear.

  16. jsb says:

    Cue up the trailer voice: ” In a world of malignant consequences for cheaters, comes a story of redemption. At Second Chance U, Dr Anil Potti and his Faculty of Integrative Fraud injects a placebo of hope into his student body. SCU: Where the pain is real but the results are not. ” A Madoff/Maddog production.

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