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An apology and a note on Stockholm Syndrome

A few months ago I wrote a couple posts on Christian Hesse, a statistician who I referred to as “the plagiarist next door.” But as Christian correctly pointed out, the material in question was not plagiarized, or at least I have not been shown any evidence of such, and I have no reason to believe he has plagiarized. I apologized in the comment thread but it seemed only right to give my apology the same status as my earlier false claim of plagiarism, hence this post.

Just to clarify: the point of contention was that Christian took material that had been published elsewhere without matching his stories to their sources, which meant that there was no way for readers to track the stories down.

The problem came because several of the stories were false! Here’s Edward Winter:

From page 399 of The Joys of Chess by Christian Hesse (Alkmaar, 2011):

‘All in all Akiba Rubinstein played 1985 tournament games in his life, of which 1763 had rook endgames.’

The book’s author/compiler does not believe in using primary sources or in specifying his secondary sources for particular items (many positions and other material are taken from Chess Notes, in exchange for a one-line mention of our website in a list on page 427). Since The Joys of Chess gives no source for the Rubinstein statistics, we shall do so. The sentence was written by Irving Chernev on the inside front cover of the July 1952 Chess Review, was reproduced on page 270 of his book The Chess Companion (New York, 1968) and was an obvious joke.

And this:

In 1899 George Alcock MacDonnell died, a fact which did not prevent Christian Hesse from stating in a ChessBase article that MacDonnell lost a game to Amos Burn in 1910. (see C.N. 8276). On page 183 of The Joys of Chess (Alkmaar, 2011) Hesse had been vaguer and therefore closer to the truth, White being identified only as ‘MacDonald’. He was Edmund E. Macdonald.

Also this:

In 1900 Wilhelm/William Steinitz died, a fact which did not prevent Christian Hesse from quoting a remark by Steinitz about a mate-in-two problem by Pulitzer which, according to Hesse, was dated 1907. (See page 166 of The Joys of Chess.) Hesse miscopied from our presentation of the Pulitzer problem on page 11 of A Chess Omnibus (also included in Steinitz Stuck and Capa Caught). We gave Steinitz’s comments on the composition as quoted on page 60 of the Chess Player’s Scrap Book, April 1907, and that sufficed for Hesse to assume that the problem was composed in 1907.

Hesse told various false stories in his book with citations so vague that it would be difficult for a reader who didn’t already know the material to (a) realize that the stories were false, or (b) track down the sources of the stories. Poor scholarly practice—but then again this was not intended to be a scholarly book. When I read a nonfiction book, I like to feel confident that the stories are true and I like to know where the stories came from, but perhaps most readers aren’t like that. In any case, not plagiarism, just taking stories, and garbling some of them, without letting the readers know the source.

Commenter ogu wrote that Christian “takes other people’s material with little or no acknowledgement, often miscopies it, refuses to correct his blunders and then attacks, without any specifics, the very writers (Tim Krabbé and Edward Winter) from whom he has lifted the most material.” I can’t be sure of all this, but in any case it’s not plagiarism if Christian rewrites it in his own words.

If I published a book with false stories, I’d thank the people who pointed out my mistakes, but if Christian doesn’t want to thank Edward Winter, that’s his call.

Christian correctly pointed out that “Chess games, chess positions are in the public domain and can be written about by anybody giving his own take on them or telling new stories about them,” but this misses the point because in the excerpts considered in this discussion, he was not telling new stories, rather he was recounting old stories and getting some of them wrong. But, again, it’s not plagiarism.

Stockholm syndrome

What really interested me about this episode, was not my erroneous labeling of poor sourcing as plagiarism (for which, once again, I apologize), but rather this bit from Christian’s blog comment:

The blogs’ author and I also served together on the faculty of Berkeley. But while I moved on to a prestigious position in Germany being appointed by the Governor of a German State to a professorship, becoming the youngest professor nationwide, the blogs’ author got kicked out of Berkeley for reasons of not merely substandard research quality.

This bit strikes me as notable and a bit sad. Why? Despite overlapping in grad school and for a short time at Berkeley, Christian and I moved in different circles and did not know each other well (he now writes that we had “mutual animosity” at the time, but I don’t recall this at all, so I guess the animosity only went in one direction). But one thing we had in common was that we were not treated well by the senior faculty at Berkeley.

It is true that Christian went straight from Berkeley to a successful academic career in Germany, just as I later went off to a successful academic career in New York, but before that both of us were told by the Berkeley department that they did not want us around. Christian was asked to leave after three years in the department; I was asked to leave after six; and in both cases the senior faculty did not seem to show much interest at all in our research. They had hired us to do what we did, then when we did what we did, they told us it wasn’t what they wanted. Really we were treated quite similarly. As a junior faculty member at the time, I never learned all the details of Christian’s situation (but I do recall a conversation between Christian and the department chair, who was not being very nice to Christian), and of course I have no idea what second- and third-hand knowledge Christian has of my situation that makes him so sure I was “kicked out.” Actually I left voluntarily, but it was clear that most of the faculty in my department preferred for me to leave, so maybe “kicked out” isn’t such an inaccurate summary, just as it would be to describe Christian’s situation. When your senior colleagues make it clear they don’t want you around, it makes sense to exit.

Anyway, in reading Christian’s blog comment I was struck by what seemed to be a sort of Stockholm Syndrome on his part. The senior faculty mistreated him and forced him out, they didn’t take his research seriously—but then when they did the same thing to me, he just assumes they knew what they were doing and that my research quality was “substandard”!

OK, at a personal level, I understand. I falsely described Christian as a plagiarist; he has every reason to be mad at me and no particular reason to think highly of my research. I looked up Christian on the web and found some publications here and there’s essentially no overlap with my work, so unless he wanted to put in a bunch of effort he’d really have to take others’ word on my research quality (just as I could not easily judge the quality of one of his papers such as On the First-Passage Time of Integrated Brownian Motion). So, sure, on a personal level, it’s comfortable for him to believe my research is no good.

But, still, after the way they treated him at Berkeley, for Christian to be so sure that the Berkeley gang knew what they were doing in my case . . . that’s just sad. Those bozos don’t deserve Christian’s devotion. They can sit in their offices and prove theorems until the end of time, as far as I’m concerned (actually at this point most of them are retired or otherwise no longer around), no need for Christian to show them the respect they didn’t show him. It makes me sad to see someone take the side of the bullies who kicked him around.

Hey, Chrissy: Enjoy your prestigious position in Germany! You’re not the youngest professor anymore but you can still do good work. And I’m sorry for saying you plagiarized. That was a mistake on my part and I’m glad you pointed it out. You might also want to correct the errors in your book if there’s a second edition, and send a note to Edward Winter thanking him for pointing out the errors that crept in.

30 Comments

  1. levelheaded says:

    “I moved on to a prestigious position in Germany being appointed by the Governor of a German State to a professorship”

    If it was so prestigious, it would be in AMERICA.

    • Anonymous says:

      Agreed – I am a German and currently at a US University. Everybody in Germany gets appointed by the State Governor – that’s just how the system works. And it’s also typical to hire young people with tenure. In fact there might be a bias towards hiring younger folks in Germany. So this statement from Christian is describing a totally normal hiring process in Germany. And as far as I know the University of Stuttgart where he is, is not a top flight place in Germany (even though it could be for his discipline, I don’t know).

  2. Louis says:

    Hi Andrew,

    More than 99% of the time I am in your camp when there are disputes (of any nature) raised on this blog. Your evaluation of the book seems reasonable. But this does not sound like a real apology to me, it is a bit snide. I think it is than better not to apologize at all rather than throwing some remarks at the end (starting with “Hey, Chrissy” – you know there is a good chance the guy does not like that).

    Louisy

  3. zbicyclist says:

    It was appropriate and generous of you to give a public apology here, but perhaps you should have ended at the paragraph before “Commenter ogu wrote”.

  4. Andrew says:

    Louis, Zbicyclist:

    I apologized because I should not have described Christian’s behavior as plagiarism. That said, I still think his behavior was unscholarly: Winter pointed out errors that Christian had introduced into his book, after all. Finally, what interested me most here was the Stockholm Syndrome aspect, that Christian had internalized the values of these people who did not treat him well.

    Also, snideness is in the eyes of the beholder but let me assure you that everything I wrote in that post (and in this comment) is sincere.

  5. Ricky says:

    Well this was nice. Congrats Christian.

  6. Benson Honig says:

    It seems to me that many of us are carrying considerable baggage – the view of failure, when some top ranked institution fails to recognize our unique qualities. Sadly, I have observed that the damage done to professional egos lasts a lifetime. There should be therapy sessions included in tenure rejections, as standard policy. All of this professional angst helps drive the super-competitive nature of scholarship, including those willing to cut corners and trade in their ethics to recapture their lost sense of self. We really have to get over this, and begin evaluating ourselves on more personal and exceptional levels. You (Andrew) will always be vulnerable, in that people will expect you to live in some ethical castle high in the sky. When you don’t perform to their expectations, they’ll all do a dance. That’s the cost of being a whistle blower. Thanks for making the noise.

  7. Anonymous Coward says:

    I don’t want to to mock his university, because I’m sure they do good things there, but I literally LOL’d at his boasting that he moved up to a German university while you had to take a position at lowly Columbia. I’m reminded of George Costanza: “The jerk store called, they’re running out of you.”

  8. Ogu says:

    In the comments section of a ChessBase page (http://en.chessbase.com/post/hesse-threats-of-the-nth-degree#discuss) Christian Hesse wrote on 7 February 2016:

    “On a light-hearted note: On occasion, I enjoy introducing a tiny, but inconsequential inaccuracy into my chess stories, just to have a little fun with the self-appointed chess historians. So far, they have not found every single one of them, but I hope they will keep looking for and writing about them.”

    – Olimpiu G. Urcan

    • Andrew says:

      Ogu:

      Wow!. I hope he doesn’t introduce errors of that sort into his mathematical articles, just to have a little fun with the self-appointed mathematicians.

      In all seriousness, I suspect Christian did not introduce those errors into his chess books on purpose. I’m guessing he took material from other sources without carefully following up. It’s not that Christian ever believed that Steinitz made some remark in 1907, it’s more that he was puling up a bunch of material for his book and he didn’t check all the details.

      I’ve not read Christian’s book, and it might be a wonderful book. I’d guess it would be even better without the errors, but perhaps if Christian had been obsessive about fact-checking he wouldn’t have had the chance to make the larger points he wanted to make in his book.

      There’s a division of labor here. Christian Hesse is a mathematician and might have some interesting insights into chess. Edward Winter is a chess historian, he’s familiar with the history of chess backward and forward, and when he sees an error such as an attribution of a Steinitz remark to the year 1907, it jumps out at him. It bothers Winter and so he points out the error. I think it would be appropriate for Hesse to recognize the division of labor and to thank Winter for the correction. It is the chess historians such as Winter who provide the raw material for the book-writers such as Hesse. So why does Hesse need to be so grudging to the people who give him his material?

  9. cola says:

    I was taught — way back in days of yore — that there are three kinds of plagiarism.

    1) Straight out copying someone else’s words (without attribution).

    2) Copying someone else’s organization (without attribution), but writing your own words. (Imagine paraphrasing someone else’s article, sentene by sentence. That would be an extreme example.)

    3) Copying someone else’s ideas (without attribution).

    No, Christian did not engage in the first kind of plagiarism. But what he did could well fit the third kind.

    Should we consider it plagiarism? You termed it unscholarly? I think we can all handle the idea that there is more nuance to the idea of plagiarism than simple literal copying of another’s words.

    #NotMyChristian

  10. Rahul says:

    This is the sort of apology where I’m not sure that the person apologized to feels any better on reading the apology.

    Technically an apology but practically a rebuke or something.

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      Indeed my goal was not to make Christian feel better about how he’s behaved toward Edward Winter et al. That said, I’m serious about the Stockholm syndrome, and if Christian does happen to read the above post, I hope he will reflect a bit and recalibrate his thinking. Not about me—again, he has every reason to be annoyed at me for erroneously labeling him as a plagiarist—but about the value system of the Berkeley profs who disdained him.

  11. Rahul says:

    I think a system in which we were compelled to attribute every idea we used would very quickly become quite unwieldy.

  12. Chris G says:

    “Love your enemy. It’ll drive him nuts.”

    > They had hired us to do what we did, then when we did what we did, they told us it wasn’t what they wanted.

    That’s a headscratcher to me. It’s one thing if the department hires you to do [X] and then you don’t perform but if you succeed at what you said you were going to do? I don’t get that. Can you attribute it to rival political factions? A faction who liked your research was in power at the time you were hired and then they lost power to a faction who didn’t?

    • Andrew says:

      Chris:

      Yes, rival factions, but not just that. There was a faction against me but not really any factions on my side—all I had was scattered individuals. My impression was that I was hired because it was the consensus that I was the best of the applicants for the job that year. But many people in the department were never convinced that my work was good, so I guess they acquiesced in my hiring under some mix of hope that I would change and a feeling that they could get rid of me later if they wanted. Others liked my work in a vague sense but actually nobody in the entire department—and it was a big place—worked in my subfield. So even the people who were inclined to want me around were not really in much of a position to evaluate my research. Finally there was the majority of the department who followed what they saw as the consensus. The whole think was kinda weird because it was only gradually while I was there that I realized that most of my colleagues had no interest or understanding of my work.

      I don’t know the story with Christian—he was hired a couple years before me, and his research area was much different—but I think the story was similar, that they hired him because he was a strong candidate and then they got rid of him because his research wasn’t what they were looking for.

      Finally, in my case there was politics. The two profs who were on the committee to evaluate my work wrote a report for the department that was full of false statements—I don’t think they were lying, exactly, I think they were just too lazy to read my papers and too cocky to realize that it might be a good idea to actually read the research they were trying to trash. That said, had the committee been different, the result might have been similar; as I said, nobody in the department was working in any of my research areas so it would’ve been tough for them to evaluate my work. As it was, it might actually have helped my case that the report against me was so biased: even though the department voted against me, the university still sent my tenure case to an “ad hoc committee.” In the meantime, though, I’d taken the Columbia job, so that was that.

      Obviously I’ve thought way too much about all this over the years. What a waste of time. In retrospect, though, it was good for me, not just for the obvious personal reasons but also as it gave me insight into the process and made me more pluralistic in my attitudes. Had I gone through all promotions smoothly (as would’ve happened just about anywhere else, I’m sure), I might well have had a smug view of the entire system.

      • Simon Gates says:

        Was this a Bayesian/frequentist issue, or am I misreading that?

        • numeric says:

          My sources inside Berkeley stats indicate that it was Andrew’s “slumming” (political science in particular) that worked against him. You could do polysci in the stats department, but only if it was the right type (see Freedman’s work on ecological inference, for example). That being said, I still think Andrew gives too much of a pass to political scientists while coming down hard on the social psychologists (the Bartels thing aside, and even there Andrew backs off his criticism almost immediately).

        • Keith O'Rourke says:

          Mine was in someway similar – but much more clear cut.

          When I was interviewed for RESEARCH FELLOW IN MEDICAL STATISTICS, Centre for Statistics in Medicine, University of Oxford (2001-2003) I presented my likelihood based approach to obtain frequency based confidence intervals (that were described and used in ~ 12 publications) and how I anticipated it might deal with continuous outcomes. When I received their offer, I assumed I had been somewhat convincing.

          After I had been their about 9 months, the director informed me that when they decided to hire me, it was a discussion where they concluded that David Cox’s dismissal of Stephen Goodman’s talk in Oxford (just prior to my interview) on a likelihood only no frequency approach to meta-analysis would provide proof that my approach was inappropriate and that they planned to inform me of this after I arrived and then stipulate that I use their approach (inverse variance weighted formulas) in my work. At this point, I guess they had realized that David actually approved of my approach as it was a frequency approach and they thought they would just request that I use their methods. The incentives for this they had in mind, were to me, very objectionable.

          As I was enrolled as a DPhil in the Stats Department, I went to see my adviser to inform him that I would be leaving. He suggested that instead, I appease this group to the degree required to complete my DPhil. I went with his advice, though it may or may not have been the best advice. My sense in these situations, is that once you learn that you are playing with people who don’t want to play nicely with you, or your are playing with people whose motivations/methods you find objectionable – you should find better people to work with ASAP. On the other hand, if it is an honest disagreement about which approach, I do believe most people would help you leave and understand.

          As Anonymous Coward mentions, this happens often in academia, (of course I’ll mention it happened with CS Peirce) and it’s nice that it gets discussed somewhat on a blog like this.
          The worst I know of personally, was a junior prof I was co-teaching a course with, who had a senior member always encouraged them to use them as a reference – actually twisting their arm to do so. Fortunately, someone leaked one of those references back to the junior prof – roughly “on a rating from 1 to 10 I would give a -3, definitely a disaster to be avoided if at all possible. They traded up to a higher tier university and have since had a very productive career.

          But the idea that later one would internalize the values of these people who did not treat you well – is weird/interesting.

      • Anonymous says:

        “as would’ve happened just about anywhere else, I’m sure”

        I wouldn’t be so sure if I were you. You’re batting 500 in a game where most people bat 1000.

  13. Anonymous Coward says:

    Can I suggest a blog post on this? Not to present the details of your experience to the public, but because what you describe happens all the time, even outside the top departments.

    A department might have 30 faculty members, but the head of the department might be making a hiring decision by himself. Or maybe the search committee has three members, they push for a certain candidate, and the rest of the faculty goes along because they’re too busy to care. They don’t jump into the process until it’s time for decisions on reappointment or tenure.

    Politics? Happens all the time. One tenured faculty member can be enough to derail your case. Making decisions without considering the AP’s research? Sure. Faculty in one subfield decide that the retirement of the only full professor in that subfield is a good reason to eliminate it, and that means getting rid of the AP working in that area.

    I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. I think it would help others to hear it from you though. The nice thing about your story is that you landed at a place that’s just as good (at least the university, can’t speak to comparison of the statistics departments). Most of the stories out there involve someone going from Berkeley to Germany or out of academia entirely.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      The types of political, power, etc. things you mention do occur often enough. But there are also cases where, e.g., a denial of tenure can be considered more of the result of a stochastic process. One example comes to mind:

      In the departmental vote of whether or not to recommend the candidate for promotion to tenure, there was not much discussion; a couple of people spoke in favor of promotion, a couple in favor of not promoting. The pros said things like, “Has very good research and is an important part of our group in this field.” Those speaking against said things like, “Yes, but at this time we have a good chance of hiring better candidates in fields that we need to strengthen.”

      After the vote, the department chair called the candidate in to tell him the results of the vote. Shortly thereafter, the candidate cornered me in the hall asking why he had been denied. I answered as best I could, given the vagueness of the discussion and the ethical constraint that I should not divulge what any particular person had said. But he kept pressing for details that I could not give (“Was it because this? Who voted against me?). Finally, in frustration, I said, “There were thirty different people in that room with thirty different minds. I can’t say what they were all thinking.” Much to my surprise, he said, “Oh, that is very helpful,” and seemed quite relieved.

      He was subsequently offered a position with tenure at a comparable university, which he accepted (and is still at that university). That lends support to my opinion that in this case (and I’m sure in many others, though not all), the decision is well-modeled as stochastic: the candidate is well-qualified, but not stellar; different people have different prior beliefs about the importance of the field and whether the department is in a position to hire better qualified people. So the final decision depends on the “sample” of people voting on the decision. The luck of the draw here resulted in a sample with “no” votes prevailing, whereas the luck of the draw at the comparable university resulted in a sample with “yes” votes prevailing.

  14. Rahul says:

    Stupid question, but to hire someone because he is the “best of the applicants for the job that year” yet to later change one’s mind isn’t that what the whole tenure track, 5-year-review system is designed for?

    i.e. Liking someone but then changing ones mind at t0 + 5 years; is that a bug or feature?

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      Sure, but the problem was that in my case (and perhaps Christian’s too), I did just about what could’ve been expected given my track record. My work as a PhD student included Bayesian theory, computation, methods, and applications in political science and biomedicine; as an assistant professor I published papers on Bayesian theory, computation, methods, and applications in political science and biomedicine. So it’s not like they got a lot of new information about me; they just decided they didn’t want what they’d thought they wanted.

      Put it this way: it’s not like they ordered steak and got chicken and sent it back to the kitchen. And it’s not like they ordered steak and it was overcooked. It’s more like they really wanted chicken all along, they ordered a rare steak, they got a rare steak, and then they decided that, no, steak is no good, all they were ever going to eat was chicken.

      • Rahul says:

        Interesting. Have you had to turn anyone down for tenure later in your career? I wonder what your reasons were like.

        I’d be curious to know of your comments on the cases of justifiable tenure rejection, in your opinion.

        i.e. Should ordering steak & getting chicken be the only defensible reason for denying tenure? Isn’t reality messier?

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