Born to Sue?

by on March 20, 2004 at 6:03 am in History, Law, Science | Permalink

Frank Sulloway’s Born to Rebel (BTR) was a smash hit when it was published in 1996. Sulloway’s thesis, that laterborns are born to rebel while first-borns are conformist defenders of the status quo, was initially greeted with some skepticism among experts who knew of an earlier review of the large literature on birth order that had found little evidence for an effect on personality. The thesis struck a cord with the public, however, and Sulloway seemed to have gathered so much data from so many different sources (including scientific revolutions, political revolutions, religious revolutions etc.) that with a few exceptions (such as the great Judith Harris) the book won over skeptics and carried the day. Michael Shermer, Mr. Skepticism himself, said, for example, that Born to Rebel was “the most rigorously scientific work of history every written.”

Two devastating studies of BTR, however, have just now been published in the September 2000 issue of Politics and the Life Sciences (alas this issue is not online, perhaps for reasons discussed below). After exhaustive efforts, the studies failed to replicate key results in BTR – that is the authors tried to replicate what Sulloway said he did, on the data that he said he used and they could not reproduce anything close to his results. Now, you may be asking, how it is that the September 2000 issue of PLS has only now been published? And therein lies a story.

When Politics and the Life Sciences decided to publish the initial critique of BTR by Frederic Townsend, after peer review by four referees, it invited Sulloway to respond along with a number of others in a roundtable format that they had used in previous debates. Sulloway was guaranteed ample room to respond to Townsend and was invited to submit his own names for roundtable participants. He initially agreed but shortly thereafter he wrote to Gary Johnson, the editor of the journal, threatening that if the critique were published he would sue both the journal and the editor personally for what he considered to be defamation. Even if the Townsend article were thoroughly revised he insisted to the editor that it would be “appropriate – indeed legally mandatory – for you to preface his article with an editorial forewarning that reads more or less as follows”:

It is not normally the policy of this journal to publish data that are known, in advance, to be actually or potentially in error, especially when such data are being used in an attack on another scholar. However, as editor of this journal, I have decided…to publish these erroneous data in their present form. Readers are warned, however, that none of Townsend’s empirical claims, or the conclusions based upon them, can be trusted with any degree of certainty. Townsend has also made other blatant errors of fact and interpretation that are now known to the editor and that seriously affect the credibility of this paper….

Of course, the editor refused this absurd request. Sulloway later wrote to the president of the editor’s university (with copies to the chair of the Board of Trustees and the university’s legal counsel), saying:

…I intend to file charges of misconduct against one of your faculty members, Gary R. Johnson….these allegations include, but are not necessarily limited to: defamation/libel, false light invasion of privacy, fraud, promissory estoppel, and breach of fiduciary duty…I will also be blowing the whistle by filing formal charges of scientific misconduct against Gary Johnson with the American Political Science Association, the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, members of Congress who have shown a concern about science fraud, and all other professional organizations with which Professor Johnson or his journal….are affiliated.

Bear in mind that Johnson is only the editor of the journal and not even the primary critic! Naturally, Sulloway’s threats delayed publication of the journal, as more referees were involved and revisions took place, but the worst was yet to come. The journal’s publisher refused to publish the debate unless the parties involved committed not to sue him, his printer, his distributor, the journal, or the association. Of course, Sulloway refused. The heroic Johnson and the association then decided to publish the journal on their own. As a result, the final publication, including Sulloway’s response, is nearly five years late.

All of this, and there is much more that I have not reported, is from Johnson’s shocking editorial explaining the long delay. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the whole ordeal is that our legal system, sometimes described as Russian Roulette, has gotten sufficiently capricious and arbitrary that Sulloway’s abusive legal threats were nearly successful. Johnson writes:

The virtual terror that Sulloway’s legal threats have prompted in some of those associated – directly or indirectly – with the events described in this editorial suggests to me that contemporary science must adapt to a changed socio-legal environment if the capacity for open dialogue and critical exchange that is the lifeblood of science and scholarship is to be protected. Scholars, scientists, and publishers cannot focus properly on what should be their principal concerns if the threat of catastrophic legal costs hangs over them and their organizations and journals.

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