September 23, 2006

The Path to Poincaré

The article was presented under the heading of "The New Yorker: Fact". The authors were Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber, the category was "Annals of Mathematics" and the title was "Manifold Destiny: A legendary problem and the battle over who solved it" (New Yorker, 8/28/2006):

But according to a 12-page letter from Todd & Weld LLP, dated 9/18/2006, this gripping morality play, starring the saintly, reclusive genius Grigory Perelman and the pushy, over-the-hill careerist Shing-Tung Yau, was mostly fiction. Or at least, the damning "facts" and "quotes" dealing with Shing-Tung Yau were mostly fabricated, selected from unreliable sources, or presented as uncontested truth despite substantial contrary evidence.

In other words, despite the New Yorker's reputation for diligent fact-checking, it's claimed that this piece of reportage is roughly as accurate as ABC's much-contested mockumentary The Path to 9/11.

I won't review the whole Yau story here -- it's complicated, you can read about it for yourself, and like it or not, I expect that we're going to hear a lot more about this over the next few months and years. But there was one particular passage in the Todd & Weld letter that definitely rang my bell:

... [Y]ou offered purported "facts" in supposed support for your stated conclusion. The centerpiece of this effort was your inclusion of quotes set forth at page 56, which you attributed to Dr. Yau and the "acting director" of his Beijing mathematics institute from a June 3, 2006 press conference held by Dr. Yau in China which you claimed had taken place in order "to explain the relative contributions of the different mathematicians who had worked on the Poincare[.]" Based on the quotes, you represented to reader that Dr. Yau had claimed that he, Professor Zhu and Professor Cao were entitled to "thirty percent" of the credit. To add insult to injury, you pointed out that the numbers supposedly used by the "acting director" did not add up to 100% (e.g., "Evidently, even simple addition can sometimes trip up a mathematician").

The problem is that Dr. Yau did not utter the words you attributed to him and you were so informed prior to the publication of your article. Likewise, there was no "acting director" of Dr. Yau's mathematics institute in Beijing in June of 2006 (or at any other time) who spoke the words you placed in his mouth. (There was a deputy director, Yang Le, but he apparenty did not even attend the June 3rd press conference).

Here's what Nasar and Gruber's Manifold Destiny said about the news conference:

By early June, Yau had begun to promote the proof publicly. On June 3rd, at his mathematics institute in Beijing, he held a press conference. The acting director of the mathematics institute, attempting to explain the relative contributions of the different mathematicians who had worked on the Poincaré, said, “Hamilton contributed over fifty per cent; the Russian, Perelman, about twenty-five per cent; and the Chinese, Yau, Zhu, and Cao et al., about thirty per cent.” (Evidently, simple addition can sometimes trip up even a mathematician.) Yau added, “Given the significance of the Poincaré, that Chinese mathematicians played a thirty-per-cent role is by no means easy. It is a very important contribution.”

A note dated 9/7/2006 in the New Yorker Forums, from the husband of a Science Times reporter who covered the Beijing news conference, supports the Todd & Weld picture of what happened:

About the contrversy around the credit for solving the Ponicare Conjecture.
The Xinhua News Agency first reported on June 4 that Professor Yang Le told the reporter a division of 50%+25%+30% credit between Hmilton, Perelman and Chinese Scienctits. The news is here: (in Chinese)
However, on June 9, the same reporter of the Xinhua News Agency
wrote another news in which Yang Le specificly emphasized that he was not an expert in the field to make such judgment and that he was against any attempt to make such judgment. The news is here: (in Chinese)
Why there were such two completely opposite reports by the same reporter from the Xinhua?
The truth is that before the first news was wrote, Professor Yang Le was not interviewed by the reporter. And after Professor Yang Le’s protest about report to the XinHua reporter, the Xinhua reporter offered in order not to retract the first report he was willing to make a real interview with him in exchange. Believe or not, such unprofessional practice sounds strange, but it does really happen in China. I do not know how such strange number was reached at the beginning, but the truth was that Professor Yang Le was not intviewed by the Xinhua reporter before the interview for the second report.

And the same note indicates that there is a recording:

From the recording of the press conference, where 8 reporters from five Chinese media, including the reporter from the XinHua News agency, were pesented, some reporter asked Professor Yau whether Cao-Zhu’s paper can claim all the credit, and Professor Yau specificly said that Hamilton and Perelman’s contributions were the most important, Cao-Zhu’s paper just presented the complete proof and closed the case, and the proof of the Poincare Conjecture was a group effort. There was no mentioning of the division of credit in the press conference. Professor Yang Le was not present at the press conference.

After the press coference, my wife and one of her colleague at the Sciencetimes had an exclusive interview face to face with Professor Yang Le in the same day. There was no such mentioning of percentage in that interview.

The author of that note says that

I then spent some time a few days ago on the inernet to do my own research on the 30% credit story. Such research should have been done by Ms. Nasar and her associates. I have to say after going through all this materials, I learned how wrong and the New Yorker article was.

I have aways been telling my wife how unprofessional many of the reporters in China are, and how unfortunate that I have to live with this fact. But I have never expected that people like Professor Nasar can be so unprofessinal in writng the article in the New Yorker magazine.

But as regular readers of this and other weblogs know, the effective standards for accuracy in quoting sources in print these days are so low that they're nearly non-existent -- see this post for a list of some of the examples we've documented over the years. It's a small step from these leading questions and misleadingly selective or approximate answers to the alleged Chinese pattern of just making up something that the source might plausibly have said, if they'd ever been asked. (And of course, the Chinese might claim to have learned the technique from high-profile U.S. journalists such as Jason Blair and Stephen Glass -- except that no one needs to be taught laziness, ambition and fakery.) Similarly, doctored and staged photographs are ubiquitous (Tom Glocer, Reuters CEO, speaking on CNN: "I would think it's extremely uh likely that there are incidents all around us of manipulated images and um staged images").

So here's a modest proposal, which might help abate the flow of falsehood by at least a small percentage. When news agencies interview sources on the record, or at least when they cover news conferences, how about recording everything and putting it up on the web? You could fake the recordings, I guess, but that's a lot more work than just using accurate quotes would be.

[This case also reminds me of an earlier episode of allegedy faked quotations at the New Yorker -- the case of Janet Malcolm and Jeffrey Masson. Malcolm interviewed Masson extensively for the New Yorker articles that became her book In the Freud Archives; Masson claimed that Malcolm fabricated many quotations that put him in a bad light, and the legal case dragged on for many years. One of the most curious aspects of this curious affair was the resonance with Malcolm's next project, The journalist and the murderer, a case study of a journalist's relation to his sources in a murder trial, whose theme was that "every journalist knows that what he does is morally indefensible".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 23, 2006 04:15 PM