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Battle of professors: Lang irate, Kevles indifferent

By John Chin

Mathematics Professor Serge Lang can't understand how anyone could find his fury baffling. In his eyes, he has every right to oppose Yale's now irreversible offer of a tenured position to California Institute of Technology (Caltech) history of science Professor Daniel Kevles.

Lang is not without his accomplishments. A tenured math professor who has won the Cole Prize—America's top algebra medal—and the Humboldt Award, Lang attempted to utilize his clout on Thurs., Feb. 3, when he took out an advertisement in the Yale Daily News (YDN). The ad was four pages—at $819 per page, according to the YDN business office—and was a condensed version of Lang's 16-page piece entitled "On a Yale Kevles Appointment," opposing Yale's tenure offer to Kevles.
COURTESY OFFICE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
Math Professor Serge Lang has blasted Yale's offer of tenure to Caltech's Daniel Kevles.

Still, Lang remains frustrated by what he feels is the lack of an open forum. He submitted "On a Yale Kevles Appointment" to the Journal of Information Ethics recently, but the article was rejected. He decided finally on the YDN ad, he writes in the article's postscript, in order to make the article "available in full to the Yale community which can thus evaluate it directly."

Lang's ire was largely incited by Kevles' book, The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science and Character. The case arose when Margot O'Toole, a postdoctoral candidate working in David Baltimore's lab, challenged part of a paper Baltimore had co-authored in the independent scientific journal Cell, claiming that the work presented false data. The case underwent several investigations by the National Institute of Health.

Lang asserts that Kevles' book, and his later article in the New Yorker, are too soft on Baltimore. In his recent article, Lang writes, "Kevles' statement makes it appear as if objections to certain doings in Baltimore's lab were misplaced because these doings involved only inadvertent publication of false results. This is not the case." Furthermore, Lang fears that negative repurcussions would arise from a Yale-Kevles alliance. "The credibility of Yale as a whole institution is engaged," Lang writes. "A Kevles Yale appointment is especially serious, because it can be interpreted as [an endorsement of] Kevles' purported `history' of the Baltimore case."

Kevles is neither cow-ed nor amused. When speaking with the Herald, he referred to Lang's opposition as "somewhat irritating," but ultimately of no consequence. And he compared Lang's attack to that of a mosquito: "If it bites, you scratch the welt a bit; sooner or later, the itch goes away, leaving no mark."

In addition, Kevles challenged the factual basis for Lang's charges. He contended that Margot O'Toole "did not originally challenge the paper [because it contained false evidence]." Instead, Kevles continued, the challenge was based on "other [problems, which subsequent] inquiries at Tufts and MIT in the late spring of 1986 found to be without foundation." Kevles said, "During the course of those inquiries, it was discovered that the paper contained two inadvertently erroneous statements. I see no evidence that Lang has sought to come to grips with these technical issues or, for that matter, with any others in the case."

Kevles also says that Lang's objections will have no bearing on whether or not he ultimately decides to accept Yale's offer. "I see no reason why his opposition should have any bearing at all on my decision whether or not to accept Yale's offer," Kevles said. "So far as I know, Lang is pretty much a lone outlier in his views."

The Yale faculty members seem to overwhelmingly support Kevles' candidacy. Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield, chair of the Tenure Appointments Committee in the Humanities, said that the offer to Kevles "went through a very rigorous search procedure." First, Hockfield claimed, a search committee of distinguished senior faculty from both the history and science departments identified Kevles as a potential candidate. Subsequently, Kevles was reviewed by the history department, the Tenured Appointments Committee in the Humanities, and, finally, the Board of Permanent Officers, which is composed of senior faculty.

According to Hockfield, the whole body of a candidate's work as well as the opinions of many distinguished scholars are considered by the committee. This committee enables Yale to have one of the strongest faculties in the world. Hockfield maintained, "There is no question that Dan Kevles stands out as one of the preeminent historians of science in the country." She also noted that the committee was unanimous in its decision.

So why does Lang continue to pursue the Kevles case though Yale stands by its tenure offer? "Standards," Lang answered, his agitation apparent. In Lang's eyes, he is not a purveyor of personal opinion, but a champion of the lost art of scholastic and factual rigor. "How come you ask me why I am concerned about scientific and scholarly standards?" Lang asserted. "Let me turn the tables on you and ask you: why are you surprised? Why do you even ask the question?"

The case underwent several investigations. A Tufts ad hoc committee and a MIT investigation concluded that there was no evidence of misconduct, but there exists testimony by members of both committees to the Dingell subcommittee, a later- formed house subcommittee chaired by Representative John Dingell of Michigan, that suggests the investigations were not sufficiently thorough. The National Institutes of Health's Office of Scientific Integrity formed a committee against which Dingell and others raised objections because some members of the committee might have had a conflict of interest, having been closely associated with Baltimore. The NIH created a second investigative panel composed of scientists Joseph Davie, Hugh McDevitt, and Ursula Storb, and the panel determined that certain tables in the Cell paper presented, as O'Toole had alleged, data that did not exist.

But the Davie panel also reported, "...no evidence of fraud, conscious misrepresentation, or manipulation of data was found..." Davie later admitted to the Dingell Committee that the fabrication did in fact constitute misconduct, "I believe it (the fabrication) is misconduct...We called it a serious error (in the report)." Yet Davie, later in the hearing, contradicted himself, answering "No" when asked if there was misconduct.

Lang stresses these contradictions in Challenges. In "On a Yale Kevles Appointment," Lang writes that Kevles's book "distorts the central issue raised by Margot O'Toole, because she repeatedly emphasized that the issue was not one of `interpretations' but whether experiments which were claimed to have been done were in fact not done."

Lang is bothered over Kevles's statement in his book that "...the Board took seriously the stated definitions of misconduct...It was not misconduct if a scientist inadvertently published a false; it was misconduct if the result was the product of `falsification'..."

Now Lang has left copies of the article in Dunham Lab, and when a young man who has just taken a copy asks Lang, who happens to be passing by, if it's okay that he's taken it, Lang seems slightly annoyed. "Of course, that's why I put those out there!"

Lang also writes, "In my book Challenges, I document, describe correctly, and analyze paradoxes and contradictions arising from the legal viewpoint. Kevles's book and his New Yorker article do no such thing and thereby misinform and mislead readers. His work on the Baltimore case is therefore defective."

Hockfield cites also an editorial in the Yale Daily News published Mon., Feb. 7, where professors Jon Butler and Frederic L. Holmes, who chair the Department of History and Section of History of Medicine, respectively, write, "No reputable scholarly or popular journal has yet found Lang suitable to review any of Kevles's works, and many of Lang's writings, including those on the Baltimore episode and the Kevles appointment, are self- published."

Butler and Holmes write also that referees consulted in the Yale search "admired Kevles's fairness in explaining the many problems in the case," and they noted that the book has been widely praised, receiving the History of Science Society's 1999 Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize.

Lang has some support too, though most of it comes from outside Yale. Philip Weiss writes, "The article (Kevles's New Yorker article) portrayed Mr. Baltimore's adversaries as unstable zealots who failed to understand that error, which is common and necessary in science, is not representation..." Meanwhile, C.K. Gunsalus of the University of Illinois writes of Kevles's "willingness to gloss over (or deny) documented facts."

Lang also cites Paul Doty of Harvard, who criticizes Baltimore's behavior as going against the traditional standards of science. Lang sees it as relevant to Kevles because he argues that Kevles is not nearly as critical of Baltimore as he should be.

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