Noam Scheiber’s report on the controversies surrounding the work of Francesca Gino is … well, it’s terrible. Let me count (some of) the ways.
Let’s start with the title: “The Harvard Professor and the Bloggers.” Now, journalists typically don’t title their own pieces, but throughout the report Scheiber refers to the people who run Data Colada as “the bloggers.” The point seems to be to contrast a Figure of Recognized Authority (“the Harvard professor”) with her online critics (“the bloggers”) — a tactic reminiscent of the days when journalists sneered at people who sit around in their pajamas typing on their laptops. But these critics are also professors, at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, the Wharton School at Penn, and the Haas School of Business at UC-Berkeley. It’s only late in the report, after an extensive and fawning portrait of the suffering Professor Gino, that Scheiber acknowledges the academic credentials of those who have called attention to apparent anomalies in Gino’s research. But he still calls them “the bloggers.”
Second: Scheiber writes, “Even the bloggers, who published a four-part series laying out their case in June and a follow-up this month, have acknowledged that there is no smoking gun proving it was Dr. Gino herself who falsified data.” What does “even the bloggers” mean? There’s nothing unusual or noteworthy about “the bloggers” not directly accusing Gino of dishonesty, because that’s not what they do. They point to apparent anomalies — often, inconsistencies between (a) the conclusions drawn by scholars and (b) the data they claim to be drawing on — in research papers; it is not their job to figure out how the anomalies got there. They aren’t looking for a “smoking gun” in the hands of Professor Gino.
In general, Scheiber seems to have seen it as his job to take up Gino’s sense of outrage. He says very strange things, like “She did not present as a fraud.” Well, of course. One cannot succeed in deceiving people if one presents as a fraud. The statement is an irrelevance. Similarly, Scheiber says that Gino often provided “a plausible answer” when he questioned her. But what his questions were, what her answers were, why he found them plausible, and how all that relates to the evidence provided at Data Colada — we’re not told any of that.
Finally: Scheiber seems not to have asked what, to me, would be the single most obvious question: Why is she suing “the bloggers”? Apparently the cause is “defamation,” but how does the think they have defamed her simply by pointing to anomalies in her published research papers? The closest Scheiber comes to approaching the issue is in this passage:
… the bloggers publicly revealed their evidence: In the sign-at-the-top paper, a digital record in an Excel file posted by Dr. Gino indicated that data points were moved from one row to another in a way that reinforced the study’s result.
Dr. Gino now saw the blog in more sinister terms. She has cited examples of how Excel’s digital record is not a reliable guide to how data may have been moved.
“What I’ve learned is that it’s super risky to jump to conclusions without the complete evidence,” she told me.
Nothing about this makes sense. First of all, what is “sinister” about noting a manipulation of data in an Excel sheet? If that’s wrong, what’s wrong about it? What “conclusions” did the Data Colada investigation “jump to”? And above all, even if all of her criticisms are correct, why not offer a rational refutation rather than file a lawsuit? Suing her employer, Harvard, makes obvious sense, since Harvard has suspended her from her job without pay and is seeking to revoke her tenure. Faced with similar circumstances I might also sue. But suing people for writing that the data meant to support certain conclusions seems to have been manipulated by person or persons unknown? That requires some explanation.
Scheiber doesn’t ask any of these questions. He’s not interested in anything except a profile of a wounded person. But I agree with the lawyer for “the bloggers” who says that such a lawsuit is “a direct attack on academic inquiry.” What Gino is doing certainly looks like a straightforward attempt to intimidate into silence anyone who might ask hard questions about her research. I came away from Scheiber’s pseudo-inquiry thinking that I need to contribute to Data Colada’s legal defense fund. I don’t believe that’s what Scheiber intended.