We just hit the point in the semester where my “Ethics in Science” class discusses the novel Cantor’s Dilemma by Carl Djerassi. For those who inhabit the world of scientific research — and for those who don’t but are hungry for an insight to how human relationships and scientific activities are entwined — it’s a nice little novel. (Indeed, I’ve discussed it already in a couple other posts.)
What I’m going to discuss in this post is a situation that’s pretty much at the end of Cantor’s Dilemma, a situation where my view of what was most likely to happen after the last page (in Novel-land, where the fictional characters go on with their lives after we close the book and put it back on the shelf) turns out to be very, very different from my students’ views of how things would probably go for those characters. I’m curious to know whose reading of the likely outcomes seems most reasonable.
But, to lay that out, I need to give you details about where things are at the end of Cantor’s Dilemma.
If you have not yet read Cantor’s Dilemma, and if there is even a remote possibility that you might read Cantor’s Dilemma at some point in the future, and if knowing how the novel ends has any non-zero probability of taking the fun out of your future reading of this novel (as I imagine it would for me), then for goodness sake do not read any further in this post! This post will be loaded with spoilers. Not just minor spoilers, either. To really explain the situation at the end of the novel about which my students and I disagree, I need to spoil most of what there is to spoil.
I’ve warned you. Choose carefully.
OK, here’s the situation at the end of the novel:
Cantor, the title character, has just won the Nobel Prize for a revolutionary tumorigenesis theory. He shares the prize with his former post-doc, Jerry Stafford, an experimentalist with serious hand-skills who conducted a successful experiment supporting the theory.
About halfway through the novel, events push Cantor to question whether he can trust Jerry’s experimental work. One of those events is word from another scientist who is kind of a friend and definitely a competitor, Krauss, that attempts to reproduce the experimental results in the Krauss lab have not been successful.
Cantor gets squirrelly and devises another experimental test, conducting this experiment himself. Jerry is aware that he’s being frozen out by Cantor, so he bails, heading off to start another post-doc — with Krauss. The word that Cantor and Jerry have been awarded a shared Nobel Prize freaks Cantor out, since he’s confident about his theory (and his own experimental test of it, not yet published) but scared that the experiment Jerry did to “support” it might not hold up to scrutiny.
By the end, Cantor and Jerry have actually dealt with their issues. Jerry has essentially cleared up all the stuff that gave Cantor reason to doubt his work. But in the process, Krauss has figured out that Cantor had reason to doubt the bit of Jerry’s work that was the basis of the shared Nobel Prize he accepted.
Krauss uses this information to blackmail Cantor into nominating Krauss for a Nobel Prize, annually, until he wins one. Here are some of the key bits from his letter to Cantor:
Was there something not quite kosher about that first Nobel Prize experiment? And if there was, who did that experiment? And who was in my lab when Ohashi [Krauss's post-doc] finally succeeded on the third try? Admittedly, Ohashi himself told me about the scintillation counter calibration, but we all know only too well the save face syndrome. Maybe he just made that up to explain why he failed the first two times in Stafford’s absence. …
Jerry Stafford announced in his Nobel lecture that we did confirm his experiment but, fortunately for everyone concerned, our article has not yet appeared. I trust you will not be too shocked to learn that I have withdrawn Ohashi’s paper from publication. You need not worry — it was done in a very low-key fashion by just indicating to the editor that we wanted to check a few outstanding points. After all, it never hurts to be overly cautious …
On rereading this letter, I just realized that I neglected to write about the confirmation of your experiment [by Jerry Stafford in Krauss's lab]. Given the faint cloud hovering over Stafford (which, incidentally, you could dispel instantly), I suggest that we let that one dangle as well. There really isn’t any hurry — after all, you, like Stafford, have already reported your work in a Nobel lecture. (pp. 226-227)
My students seemed pretty unified in the view that it would be quite easy for Cantor to get out from under Krauss’s thumb. Just get some other lab to confirm the result (not that there would likely be a publication for them for a mere confirmation of someone else’s finding) and the theory is vindicated. What could Krauss do then?
But, I asked, what about the fact that Krauss had at least good circumstantial evidence that Cantor was in doubt about Jerry Stafford’s work and didn’t make any moves to investigate it, adopting a “see no evil” approach instead? Heck, the guy flew to Stockholm to accept a Nobel Prize awarded on the basis of a paper which privately he doubted — a lot. Wouldn’t that piece of information, if Krauss let it out, badly hurt Cantor’s own credibility as a scientist?
Eh, said the students, why should anyone believe Krauss? Now that Cantor and Jerry have talked through the misunderstanding, they just need to get their story straight about how the doubt was resolved … and, probably, agree upon a date by which it was resolved well before the Nobel Prize announcement.
Agree on a lie?. I asked. (This is an ethics class, after all.) Not a very important one, they replied.
Now, I’ll allow as how Krauss’s reputation might well be shot if he were revealed as a blackmailer of his fellow scientist. But I’m not convinced that all Cantor needs here to maintain his good reputation is empirical proof that his theory holds up. Surely some part of his scientific reputation rides on acting on doubts he may have about the work of his collaborators (where “acting” is something more rigorous than sticking his head in the sand). And to my mind, Krauss must be counting on Cantor’s concern to maintain his own scientific reputation, which is why he doesn’t seem worried that Cantor will expose him as a blackmailer.
But, it’s entirely possible that I’m overthinking this. What do you think?