Three recent stories — one scientific, one political, and one literary — have been exposed as scams or hoaxes of epic proportions:
- North Korean Researcher DisgracedWhatever “cloning pioneer” Hwang Woo-suk had been clinging to is gone (HT Drudge):
Korean University Says Cloning Claim Faked
The now-disgraced South Korean researcher who stunned the scientific community with his claim to have cloned human embryonic stem cells faked his results, relying on “fabricated data,” his university said Tuesday.
The latest revelation doomed Hwang Woo-suk’s reputation as a cloning pioneer, already damaged by the finding that the veterinarian’s claim in 2005 to have developed 11 patient-specific stem cell lines was false.
Hwang “did not have any proof to show that cloned embryonic stem cells were ever created,” an investigating panel at Seoul National University said in a report Tuesday, disputing claims in Hwang’s 2004 paper in the journal Science purporting that he cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it.
- Student Admits Lying about Visits by Federal AgentsJust before Christmas, the hoaxster who made this claim retracted it (excerpt is of paragraphs 1, 2, and 5 of the linked Harvard Crimson story):
UMass Student Admits Inventing â€˜Little Redâ€™ Tale
The University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth student who said he was visited by federal agents after attempting to borrow Mao Tse-Tungâ€™s â€œLittle Red Bookâ€ through an interlibrary loan has admitted that his story was a fraud.
….. The UMass-Dartmouth student originally said two officials from the Department of Homeland Security had shown up at his home to question him about his interest in the â€œLittle Red Book,â€ the Chinese Communist leaderâ€™s seminal text. But in a meeting on Dec. 22 with two faculty members, a school official, and a reporter for The Standard-Times, the studentâ€™s story began to evaporate.
Pressed for details of the incident, the student described yet another encounter with federal agents at his familyâ€™s home, according to Brian G. Williams, an associate professor of history at UMass-Dartmouth, who attended the meeting. But Williams said that when he visited the studentâ€™s house, his family knew nothing about the supposed agents or their visits. Confronted by Williams, the student broke down and admitted that he had made up the entire story.
- Best-Selling Nonfiction Book Is Mostly FictionJames Frey’s autobiography about his life of crime and subsequent rehabilitation has been shown to be riddled with “fabrications, falsehoods, other fakery” in a devastating expose at The Smoking Gun (HT Lucianne):
A Million Little Lies
Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey’s book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw “wanted in three states.”
In additon to these rap sheet creations, Frey also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students. In what may be his book’s most crass flight from reality, Frey remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy’s third victim.
….. Frey appears to have fictionalized his past to propel and sweeten the book’s already melodramatic narrative and help convince readers of his malevolence.
….. But he has demonstrably fabricated key parts of the book, which could–and probably should–cause a discerning reader to wonder what is true in “A Million Little Pieces” and its sequel, “My Friend Leonard.”
Here’s what they all have in common–a characteristic of their victims (and check out who a couple of the gullible ones were):
They all SO badly wanted to believe.
All three scams fit neatly into the preconceived notions of their targets, who because of that fit, willfully surrendered any skepticism they might normally have had for these outlandish hoaxes:
- In the cloning fraud, it’s no secret that The Mainstream Media prefers to report progress in embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) over that made in adult stem cell research (ASCR), partly because of a belief that “breakthrough” results are more likely with ESCR, and partially because success with ESCR could undermine the ethic of human life that supports its protection from conception to natural death, in the process legitimizing abortion and euthanasia. This previous post (“Two ‘Breakthrough’ Stem Cell Stories Get Very Different Media Coverage: Guess Why”) documented press bias in the treatment of two breakthrough developments of similar impact, one relating to ESCR and the other to ASCR, that were announced in the same day. The former received extensive nationwide MSM coverage, while the latter story was mostly in local and regional papers, with very little national press attention. This predisposition to favor ESCR may also partially explain how Hwang’s research got past the now shown to be overrated process of scientific peer review.
- The UMass student’s hoax was a perfect fit for the fantasies of those, starting with the student’s professor noted earlier, then to reporters, and finally to opportunistic politicians, who want to see the current presidential administration and the Patriot Act as harbingers of a right-wing police state (excerpt is of paragraphs 3 and 4 of The Crimson story; bold is mine):
The bogus tale, first reported by The Standard-Times, a local newspaper in New Bedford, formed the basis for a front-page article in The Crimson on Dec. 19.
News that the story had been discredited came too late for the flurry of critics, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy â€™54, D-Mass., who had already seized on the story as evidence of the federal governmentâ€™s disregard for civil liberties.
Even after the hoax was exposed, the politician who had been duped would not totally concede:
Laura Capps, a Kennedy spokeswoman, said last night that the senator cited ”public reports” in his opinion piece. Even if the assertion was a hoax, she said, it did not detract from Kennedy’s broader point that the Bush administration has gone too far in engaging in surveillance.
- The person who was fooled by James Frey is none other than ….. Oprah Winfrey (excerpt is the first three paragraphs at The Smoking Gun link):
Oprah Winfrey’s been had.
Three months ago, in what the talk show host termed a “radical departure,” Winfrey announced that “A Million Little Pieces,” author James Frey’s nonfiction memoir of his vomit-caked years as an alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal, was her latest selection for the world’s most powerful book club.
In an October 26 show entitled “The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake At Night,” Winfrey hailed Frey’s graphic and coarse book as “like nothing you’ve ever read before. Everybody at Harpo is reading it. When we were staying up late at night reading it, we’d come in the next morning saying, ‘What page are you on?’” In emotional filmed testimonials, employees of Winfrey’s Harpo Productions lauded the book as revelatory, with some choking back tears. When the camera then returned to a damp-eyed Winfrey, she said, “I’m crying ’cause these are all my Harpo family so, and we all loved the book so much.”
Face it: Oprah loves to find sob stories. She’s built most of her fortune on them. She and her Harpo staffers cast aside all of their skepticism despite what appear to have been glaring holes in Frey’s “bad guy gone good” story because they so wanted it to be true (to be fair, a great deal of blame should also fall on Doubleday, Frey’s publisher).
And it’s not like there weren’t some red flags. Here’s one really good reason why Doubleday, Oprah, and many others should have had their antennae up:
While the book is brimming with improbable characters–like the colorful mafioso Leonard and the tragic crack whore Lilly, with whom Frey takes up in Hazelden–and equally implausible scenes, we chose to focus on the crime and justice aspect of “A Million Little Pieces.” Which wasn’t much of a decision since almost every character in Frey’s book that could address the remaining topics has either committed suicide, been murdered, died of AIDS, been sentenced to life in prison, gone missing, landed in an institution for the criminally insane, or fell off a fishing boat never to be seen again.
Thanks primarily to Oprah and Doubleday, a con artist is a millionaire, and untold numbers of people “inspired” by Frey’s lies have to psychologically deal with having been duped. Especially vulnerable are those trying to recover from drug dependency and other addictions who have until now seen Frey as a source of strength.
Though these three recent examples all happen to be from the “left” or “liberal” side of public opinion, there is no shortage of examples on the “right” or “conservative” side of similar breakdowns in vigilance leading to scams and hoaxes of similar proportions (think Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, and Jimmy Swaggart, for starters). I’d like to think that conservatives tend to be a bit better at sniffing out scams and hoaxes, but it’s probably closer to the truth that at least your vulnerability to being duped has an inverse relationship with the amount of power “your side” currently has.
Having said that, I don’t ever recall hearing “it doesn’t matter whether this one’s true or not” excuses like Kennedy’s from conservatives in similar situations. And further, because the people who are usually “first responders” to items like those described here (i.e., Mainstream Media journalists, academics, and entertainers) are overwhemingly likely to have liberal or left-wing biases, more scams and hoaxes that fit their ingrained prejudices will get traction before being exposed, as the three stories cited here certainly did.
So here’s an idea for everyone to begin with (and this certainly applies to personal finance, too): If it sounds too good to be true, it
probably almost definitely is.
Here’s one that’s even better for the sensational situations: If it sounds too good to be true, investigate the heck out of it before you embarrass yourself (see this for an “eating humble pie” example).
UPDATE 2: Other comments on Frey are coming all corners of the blogosphere — Gormania – “It’s publishing, folks, get over it. We’re no longer in the arts (major or minor take your choice) we’re in show-biz ad that’s a whole different task master”; Brian Noonan – “Nah, nah, nah, you believed the fake felon”; CKGarrett – “wow, sucks to be naive and trust people”; The Underpants Project – “Wow. Who knew that the key to riches was simply to write an allegedly heavily embellished memoir that gets the push of a lifetime from Oprah?”; Not the Life I Pictured – “So, it figures the day after I rave about a book being honest and true, it’s not”; Fac ut vivas – “What Frey is addicted to is his “self-will run riot” and his need for attention”; Jon Lowder – “New Literary Genre: BioFiction”; Liquid Logic – “James Frey has cheated the system by writing bad fiction then excusing it with the phony polish of truth”; Blanton’s & Ashton’s – ” Give them all cars!”; Independent Sources – “Oprah Winfrey will no doubt be employing damage control now that it is clear how duped she was into promoting Freyâ€™s book”; Crap Filter – “The jig is up!”; and Mainline Mom -“Say It Ain’t So, James”.
UPDATE 3: Wow — Miss Snark the Literary Agent smelled a rat back in July (HT Books Inq.) and lets loose — “My disgust with this whole foolish mess is not that James Frey lied; it’s that no one in publishing caught him, and now that he is caught, no one seems to care. Doubleday is ‘standing behind their author’ according to Publishers Lunch”.
UPDATE 4, Jan. 11: Frey defends himself on Larry King via USA Today, while Oprah is joining the Ted Kennedy “it doesn’t matter if it’s true” camp:
Winfrey said that the controversy is “much ado about nothing” and that the book’s message still resonates with millions of readers. She said she would continue recommending the book. She said she was “disappointed by the controversy, because I rely on the publishers to define the category the book falls into and the authenticity.
I for one am not surprised.
UPDATE 5, Jan. 13: Lou Schuler — “If Frey were a lone fabulist, it would be one thing. But when revelations about a made-up memoir follow revelations about made-up scientific research and a made-up encounter with federal agents over a book checked out of a library, it’s tempting to say there’s a trend.”
Jan. 10: Outside the Beltway Jammer.