Psychiatric Annals

Personal Reflections 

A Coefficient of Suspicion

Howard P Rome, MD

Abstract

I t was in the halcyon days of the 1920s, infused by the burgeonings in the field of colloidal chemistry, that I was for a brief time an apprentice to a wise man - Prof. William Seifriz. He was a strange, aloof man: brilliant, reserved, and, as we learned later, a frustrated, melancholic soul - a fish in a strange pond, as he once put it.

His professorial chair was, of all places, in a department of botany, in which he considered himself an ausländer despite very substantial bona fides. Those few of us who were privileged to putter about in his laboratory, in a kind of repayment, performed duties of setting up and putting away equipment. It speeded the process to gossip and concoct fantasies, as all junior assistants are wont to do, about the private life of their seniors - of which, of course, we knew absolutely nothing.

On the odd day, he would invite those of us who were slow in finishing these timeconsuming chores to have lateafternoon tea in his private laboratory. He brewed the infusion, as he properly termed it, in a specially reserved Erlen - meyer flask using as the diluent triple-distilled water. Tea was served, and consumed steaming, in small Pyrex beakers that required no mean feat to hold while one gingerly sipped the piping-hot brew. The affair took on a Zen tea-ceremony atmosphere complete with koans, as I now think of it, propounded by the Professor-as-Master, always clad in an immaculate white lab coat as if for the special occasion.

More often than not, what I now call koans would in fact be variations of an account of an infamous scientific hoax. The denouement would conclude with the admonition: "Be chary about swallowing draughts said to come from the Pierian Spring." Then, no sooner than it took to think "Alexander Pope," the Professor-as-Master would turn yet another metaphor, prompted by his insistence on personally washing the flask and the beakers ". . . to be sure that there will be no vestige of tannin to adulterate our next infusion." The ritual ended with the sage advice: "When you check the results yourself, you can be reasonably assured that your coefficient of suspicion is within acceptable limits."

It has recently come to public notice that a very large coefficient of suspicion has to be entered in our estimation of the validity of the long-accepted work of Sir Cyril Burt on IQ test data. A summary of the exposé is reported by Nicholas Wade in Science (Vol. 194, Nov. 26, 1976, pp. 916-919).

Burt's surveys of separated identical twins first reported 21 pairs in 1955; then the number was augmented to "over 30" pairs in 1958; a final report in 1966 with 53 pairs has been revealed to have the "improbable" IQ correlation of 0.944 through three different sample sizes!

Prof. Leon Kamin of Princeton says of Burt's work: "It was a fraud linked to policy from the word go. The data were cooked up in order for him to arrive at the conclusion he wanted. . . . The moral of the tale is caveat emptor! The people who buy social science should remember that those who have collected the data may have axés to grind." Shades of Professor Seifriz!

Unfortunately, the same allegation holds for realms other than that of social science. In 1953, Kenneth Page Oakley published what he termed the final solution to the 1912 hoax of the Piltdown man - the hypothetical Eoanthropus. Lysenko's "vernalization" hypothesis of plant breeding denounced chromosomal genetics as bourgeois; it alleged the validity of…

I t was in the halcyon days of the 1920s, infused by the burgeonings in the field of colloidal chemistry, that I was for a brief time an apprentice to a wise man - Prof. William Seifriz. He was a strange, aloof man: brilliant, reserved, and, as we learned later, a frustrated, melancholic soul - a fish in a strange pond, as he once put it.

His professorial chair was, of all places, in a department of botany, in which he considered himself an ausländer despite very substantial bona fides. Those few of us who were privileged to putter about in his laboratory, in a kind of repayment, performed duties of setting up and putting away equipment. It speeded the process to gossip and concoct fantasies, as all junior assistants are wont to do, about the private life of their seniors - of which, of course, we knew absolutely nothing.

On the odd day, he would invite those of us who were slow in finishing these timeconsuming chores to have lateafternoon tea in his private laboratory. He brewed the infusion, as he properly termed it, in a specially reserved Erlen - meyer flask using as the diluent triple-distilled water. Tea was served, and consumed steaming, in small Pyrex beakers that required no mean feat to hold while one gingerly sipped the piping-hot brew. The affair took on a Zen tea-ceremony atmosphere complete with koans, as I now think of it, propounded by the Professor-as-Master, always clad in an immaculate white lab coat as if for the special occasion.

More often than not, what I now call koans would in fact be variations of an account of an infamous scientific hoax. The denouement would conclude with the admonition: "Be chary about swallowing draughts said to come from the Pierian Spring." Then, no sooner than it took to think "Alexander Pope," the Professor-as-Master would turn yet another metaphor, prompted by his insistence on personally washing the flask and the beakers ". . . to be sure that there will be no vestige of tannin to adulterate our next infusion." The ritual ended with the sage advice: "When you check the results yourself, you can be reasonably assured that your coefficient of suspicion is within acceptable limits."

It has recently come to public notice that a very large coefficient of suspicion has to be entered in our estimation of the validity of the long-accepted work of Sir Cyril Burt on IQ test data. A summary of the exposé is reported by Nicholas Wade in Science (Vol. 194, Nov. 26, 1976, pp. 916-919).

Burt's surveys of separated identical twins first reported 21 pairs in 1955; then the number was augmented to "over 30" pairs in 1958; a final report in 1966 with 53 pairs has been revealed to have the "improbable" IQ correlation of 0.944 through three different sample sizes!

Prof. Leon Kamin of Princeton says of Burt's work: "It was a fraud linked to policy from the word go. The data were cooked up in order for him to arrive at the conclusion he wanted. . . . The moral of the tale is caveat emptor! The people who buy social science should remember that those who have collected the data may have axés to grind." Shades of Professor Seifriz!

Unfortunately, the same allegation holds for realms other than that of social science. In 1953, Kenneth Page Oakley published what he termed the final solution to the 1912 hoax of the Piltdown man - the hypothetical Eoanthropus. Lysenko's "vernalization" hypothesis of plant breeding denounced chromosomal genetics as bourgeois; it alleged the validity of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. Its endorsement was a factor in Khrushchev's fall from power in 1964. It forever branded the term "Lysenkoism" synonymous with politicized pseudoscience.

And you may recall the case of Dr. William Summerlin, the young dermatologist formerly of Sloan-Kettering Center, who admitted: "I darkened the skin on two out of 18 mice which had been previously allotransplanted. . . . When confronted ... I admitted this terrible incident. . . . My error was not in knowingly promulgating false data but, rather, in succumbing to extreme pressure placed on me by the Institute Director to publicize information. . . . Time after time, I was called upon to publicize experimental data and to prepare applications for grants from public and private sources. There came a time in the fall of 1973 when I had no new startling discovery and was brutally told . . .that I was a failure in producing significant work. Thus, I was placed under extreme pressure to produce."

Professor Seifriz' admonition to enter a coefficient of suspicion in all equations brings to mind yet another quatrain from Pope's "Essay on Criticism":

In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold.

Alike fantastic if too new or old:

Be not the first by whom the new are tried.

Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

10.3928/0048-5713-19770101-04

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