Ok, things have gone too far. I'm freaked out by the reaction to my story about Richard.
(Here are Part I and Part II.)
I went to so much trouble to mess around with the details to keep his identity secret, that I forgot to worry about myself.
The first responses were bad enough. But now I don't think I can handle it.
It started when my undergraduate tutorial students came to me last week to collect their exams results. That's always painful for a sensitive soul like myself. The whole point of becoming a scientist was to avoid other human beings, but it hasn't worked at all. They're everywhere. They come up to me and say things and wave their arms around and pull faces, and as far as I can tell I'm supposed to respond. That's fine: I can also say things, and I have a whole range of funny faces. But the things I say have an effect on people. Sometimes they become unhappy. Sometimes they even dislike me. And the facial expressions only make it worse.
As experiences go of direct human interaction, the return of exam results should be pleasantly ritualistic and mechanical. The student arrives, I tell them some numbers, they leave.
If only it was so simple!
There is no predicting what will happen. I brace myself to break the news of an especially poor performance, and they whoop, "Woohoo! I thought I was going to fail!" Or I set up my most jubilant face to offer congratulations, and they burst into tears.
And then this happens. My most talented and promising first-year student politely accepted her marks, and then announced, "I can't believe you told him to lie." It took me a few moments to work out what the hell she was talking about. I finally remembered my job interview advice for Richard. How could she possibly know about that? Oh yeah -- I publicly recounted it in last week's blog post.
This slow effort of memory recall was not the contrite reaction required.
"How can I respect a tutor who does something like that?" she demanded. She has since requested a change of tutor.
For someone so childishly sensitive and utterly spineless that I am regularly traumatised by confusion over tipping, this was devastating. It haunted me for days. The only way to deal with it was to become even more tedious than usual.
"But he was a brilliant scientist!" I complained to my colleagues. "He deserved that job."
"You don't know how scrupulously honest he was. Someone needed to give him some perspective."
"He was so disturbed by the experience that he was even more principled afterwards."
They were getting sick of me by now. "And what if he didn't? What if he turned into an asshole?"
I shrugged. "Then I wouldn't have told the story."
"And how do you know he's so upstanding? Maybe he fooled you, too."
Damn. I hadn't thought of that.
Now that I was on the defensive, it was their turn to become dull. All that bla bla bla about what a true and good and honourable profession science is. How privileged we are that it attracts such virtuous, conscientious students. Think of politics, they droned on. Think of all the idealistic do-gooders who should be entering public service. Instead it is so universally detested that they instead flee the country to dig wells in Africa. Is that what I want to happen to science? Do I want to drive away the good people, and wave in the swindlers and scumbags?
There was a raft of complex issues threaded through that argument, and it was difficult to address on the spot. But a well-trained intellectual and professional academic is never at a loss, and can always throw a tantrum.
I pulled a few faces and did some arm waving.
"Fine!" I snapped at them. "You want me to lie about science, to keep it honest. Fine!"
The whole experience put me in a foul mood, but then it all got much much worse.
It seems that half of the scientists I know thought the story was about them.
The emails flooded in.
"How dare you insinuate that my result was wrong! It has not been reproduced, but it's not my problem if everyone else is too incompetent to verify it." On and on, sometimes with many pages of indignant justification. You'd almost think they had something to hide.
Some carried veiled threats. "I rigorously checked and cross-checked before I published. To suggest otherwise -- to suggest that I knew it was wrong -- is tantamount to libel."
The most terrifying was a phone call from an extremely famous scientist, who I had never dared to dream would ever know my name, let alone speak to me. Now he was yelling.
"Did you think I wouldn't recognise your veiled accusations? Other people have spread these rumours before. I expect you haven't heard of them. There's a reason you haven't heard of them!"
He went on. "How would you like it if someone started spreading rumours that your papers were faked? How about if someone with lots of influence did that? And not just some nobody with a shitty blog!"
I could only jibber quietly back into the phone, while this maniac elaborated on his revenge.
"You'd probably keep your job. It would be touch and go for a while, what with the bad publicity, and the demands for your dismissal, and the embarrassment to the university. But in the end you wouldn't be worth the bother. You'd just be loaded up with all the dull administrative duties that no-one else wants, and a huge teaching load. And you could forget research! No-one would risk working with you, and only the most marginal journals would agree to publish you. You'd end up one of those losers who pretends to find teaching really stimulating. Because that's what happens when you fuck with the big shots."
That was the end of the conversation.
I informally asked people about this guy.
"He's a notorious bastard," they said.
I hinted that he was angry with me. "I guess he just needed to get it off his chest. Right?"
"Good luck with that," they said, as they backed away from me. "He doesn't give up. He likes destroying people."
Now I'm freaked out. I'm not sure if writing this blog is worth the trouble.
If I'm going to get so much harassment for telling a harmless story, what happens when I get to the really juicy ones? I could pretend that they're fiction. That's what I've started telling people about Richard -- I just made him up! Really! I did! But I don't think that's enough. I can swap people into different fields, change their nationalities, give them a moustache, but still the paranoid egomaniacs will come after me.
I'm going to give this blog a rest for a few weeks, while I work out what to do.
See you soon. Hopefully.
Postscript (October 2010):
A solution presents itself.