June 20th, 2015

Alex Rodriguez’ Story Reminds Me of a Case of Scientific Misconduct — Until It Doesn’t

If you’ll forgive me a bit of baseball-related rambling, there’s an incredible story going on this year with the resuscitation of Alex Rodriguez, both as a player and, even more remarkably, as a person in the public eye.

Or, to quote the play-by-play announcer Michael Kay, who on Friday got it perfectly when he commented on A-Rod’s 3000th hit (it was a home run):

In the space of about a year, he’s gone from persona non grata to the Man of the Hour.

To quickly recap A-Rod’s “crimes,” these included the use of steroids to boost performance, lying about it when caught, and then attacking his employers in court in a pointless effort to get his full-year suspension dropped. All that behavior led to the “persona non grata” part of the A-Rod story.

And while there are still some baseball fans who hate the guy (especially around this neck of the woods, see this play for a prime example why), there’s no doubt he’s been cheered plenty this year — cheered perhaps more than any time since the sensational start to his career as a brilliant young shortstop for the Seattle Mariners.

First, he’s having an excellent season, and second (and in some ways even more remarkably), he seems to have undergone a personality transplant. His previously awkward manner now comes across convincingly like sincere humility. Whatever genius is acting as his media coach — or seeing him for psychotherapy — should win a Nobel Prize in … something.

In short, A-Rod has remade his baseball career and, at least partially, his reputation.

Which got me wondering — would we be so forgiving for such behavior in academic medicine? Scientific misconduct, in particular fabrication of research data, has several parallels.

In both settings, the guilty parties start with genuine talent, widely recognized and praised. Soon after start the short cuts to success. And in both, after an initial period of denial, rationalization (“everyone is doing it”), and self-justification (“I am so gifted/brilliant that this is what I would have accomplished/found anyway”), the evidence of guilt becomes overwhelming. This is followed by swift public censure and various degrees of punishment.

The parallels end, of course, with the postscript. A-Rod is getting another chance by many because, well, it’s just a game. And we love comeback stories in sports.

In scientific misconduct — especially the egregious cases — the stakes are too high.

Forgiveness is just not part of the story.

And apologies to one of my readers from Germany, who told me he never gets it when I write about baseball.

4 Responses to “Alex Rodriguez’ Story Reminds Me of a Case of Scientific Misconduct — Until It Doesn’t”

  1. Mimi Breed says:

    And let’s not forget Harvard’s own John Darsee, perhaps the granddaddy of them all.

  2. Baseball in our country is not recognized so much like football and marathons where most of the runners have become millionaires through the same.

  3. Juan Pablo Caeiro says:

    Shouldnt you be a Red Sox fan instead of a Yankee fan?

  4. Excellent analogy! I am particularly intrigued by the similarities between parties with respect to the justification of “how much” the cheating helps if they are so gifted prior to it anyway. Case-in-point, Luk Van Parijs. As a rising star in the field of immunology after doing a postdoc in David Baltimore’s lab, Parijs fabricated data for a number of papers in Baltimore’s lab and then as an assistant professor at MIT. He was subsequently, and rightfully, fired for his corruption, but many of his hypotheses were later actually proven correct by others. This is a particularly great example for research ethics because it just goes to show that no matter how talented you are, you still have to do the work.

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

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NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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