Monday, May 14, 2012

The PI's Nightmare

In the last post, I described a nightmare situation for any PI.  A trusted postdoc has turned out to be a fraud and has skipped town after fabricating data for a major project of yours. The postdoc also turns out to have lied about his Ph.D. degree--he never received it.

At this point, you may be thinking about all the things the PI could have done to avoid landing in this situation, and I could go through these points one by one.  However, at this stage in the situation, none of that is going to help.  Also, one could argue that taking all possible precautions does not guarantee that such a situation will never happen.  Especially if you are dealing with a real con artist. 

The term, "con", comes from confidence, which is what a con artist gains from his victims and allows him to succeed.  Such people are highly skilled at social manipulation and understand how to gain people's confidence.  Fortunately, there are not that many con artists who end up in the field of science.  However, scientists may on occasion encounter such people, either people within the field of science or people peripheral to science. 

For the latter situation, there is a very interesting film called House of Games, written and directed by David Mamet.  You may be more familiar with Mamet's other films, such as The Spanish Prisoner.  Both films are about confidence men (and women).  House of Games, however, features a female psychologist, Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) who becomes the target of a group of grifters led by Mike (Joe Mantegna). 

Margaret has published a successful book, which has led to professional recognition, modest fame, and a small fortune.  It's this book and consequent fortune that have attracted the attention of this gang of con artists.  Their leader, Mike, designs an elaborate con to ensnare Margaret and eventually relieve her of her money.  They play on her professional interests and desire to find another subject to research and write that may lead to another successful book. 

The set-up is initiated by a young, small-time gambler, who goes to Margaret for treatment.  He tells her that he owes a large sum of money and will be killed unless he pays (which he can't).  Margaret decides to intervene and visits the man the gambler owes. Turns out that it's Mike, the con man.  Mike agrees to forgive the young gambler's debt if Margaret agrees to accompany him to a poker game as his girlfriend and help him spot the "tells" of the other card players.  Margaret immediately sees an entry into an underworld that she can exploit for her own professional goals.

Margaret falls headlong into the trap set by this gang of grifters and eventually loses a large sum of money.  The con is so clever that Margaret does not realize she's been first.  By chance, she discovers the ruse and proceeds to turn the tables on Mike.  I won't reveal all that transpires, except to say that the film is intriguing on many levels and carefully crafted to keep you guessing until the end. It's not as well done as Mamet's later films, and one could quibble about the acting, especially Lindsay Crouse (see previous posts about female stereotypes in film). 

My point in describing this little film is that it is a cautionary tale about a successful female professional who is taken in by unscrupulous people, even though she knows she's dealing with people who are basically criminals.  Despite that knowledge, she's still fooled by Mike, who cleverly gains her confidence.  And that's all it takes.

How likely is it that a science professional might be victimized by a con artist?  Although the Mamet film is fictional, the postdoc story I described in the previous post is not.  The situation I described happened to my adviser (I was one of the graduate students working on the project).  I also was fooled once by a student worker who was falsifying his time sheets and forging signatures on them.  Fortunately for me, the student worker's actions did not threaten my entire research program or my job.  These experiences tell me that such situations are not that unusual in science, although perhaps not as prevalent as in other professions. 

Credit: Still image from House of Games, Filmhaus

1 comment:

Jean Norton said...

I love this post and your next 3 posts! Thanks so much for sharing. Being in Real Estate Investments it's very easy to fall prey to such actions. Too many shady characters out there - I'm off to watch those movies and read that book you mention!