The Court of Scientific Integrity

by Scott Aaronson

Note: I was amused to come across this piece, which I wrote about two years ago, when my worries were rather different from my present ones. -SA (2002)

Gazing into his bedroom mirror in near-total darkness, Quinlon pinched the skin above his right eyebrow with his two index fingers and shifted it back and forth. There was only a penny-sized contusion and a tingling of pain that ebbed unsatisfyingly at two- or three-second intervals. “But what right did I have, is the question,” he muttered to himself, whispering aloud just a few syllables. “The issue isn’t my humiliation, stupidity, unworthiness—it’s more fundamental than that—it’s about one’s right, or lack of it, to make so ignorant a mathematical claim. There must be a thousand Ramanujans in India, Russia, China, who make some errors to be sure, but never ones as public and pigheaded as mine, and who nevertheless fail for want of money or education. But for one who has every opportunity! By what right?”

Trembling and biting his lower lip, Quinlon pounded his forehead more decisively than before into the edge of the wooden dressing table. Recoiling onto the thin stubble of the carpet, he rolled over on his side and clenched his face with both hands. The pain was more acute now, and he felt a bump growing.

“Every subhuman halfwit at Hillsborough High, every petty thief in prison, every orangutan, every earthworm writhing across a driveway on a rainy day, every driveway, is a better theoretical computer scientist than I am. My track record is negative, consisting solely of an error. How would one write a c.v. having a negative number of pages? By whiting out a sheet of imagined accomplishments?”

Quinlon slowly removed his hands from his face and placed them on the carpet. His eyes, turning toward the ceiling in contrition, met with Russell’s severe glare on the wall above the bed. “That’s one thing religion has over science, isn’t it, Bertie? When you’ve sinned against scientific understanding, to whom do you repent?”

Russell’s expression, unmistakable even in the darkness, didn’t soften. “Now I know what you say, Bertie. You say I’m being nutty. You say that even the best scientists make mistakes all the time, that I’m just a goddamn high school student, that there’s no need to repent, that having acknowledged my error and learned from it, I should move on. But you say this with no conviction in your voice. You know that were I genuinely gifted, I wouldn’t have made such an injudicious blunder—and that it was arrogant beyond measure to suppose that I, a wretched sixteen-year-old, had solved an open problem of Ari Nussbaum—and that I wasted the time of some eighty students, not to mention that of Nussbaum himself, with my spurious ‘theorem’—and most importantly, that after Sasha and Hong explained why the result was wrong, and I understood them, I persisted for five more minutes in claiming it was correct! The last is really my unpardonable offense, the one that shows I lack even the most nebulous shadow of a scientific attitude, that I am a duplicitous cretin, a pseudoscientist, differing from Uri Geller and Deepak Chopra and Shirley MacLaine only by my obscurity.”

Quinlon then reflected that the Russell with whom he was speaking was merely an invented spokesman for rational thought, not a likeness of the dead philosopher, that “his” Bertie didn’t speak in droll Russellian prose or even with a British accent, and this reflection served to remind him even more starkly of his own penchant for twisting reality to suit his fantasies. He felt correspondingly more miserable.

After lying still a few more minutes, stewing in self-loathing, Quinlon finally could bear it no longer, and with a muffled wail he flung his jaw against the sharp metal frame of the bed. It was an act requiring that he not only stifle prudence for an instant, but preemptively deter it from regaining control for the quarter-second it took his jaw to traverse the distance. Imprisoning prudence, and throwing away the key, was a task at which the other parts of his mind were growing more adept.

On impact, Quinlon supposed that he could distinguish the individual nerve endings to the right of his mouth, that each one relayed a unique pain signal that stood out from the cacophony. It felt like static, like snow on a low-res television, with each nerve a phosphor dot on the screen. But still his action hadn’t been so rash, had it? He pressed his palm against his chin. It was warm and viscous. Looking down he could dimly perceive a small dark puddle accumulating on the carpet. Should he search the bathroom for some iodine or a Band-Aid? No!—he deserved infection.

Meanwhile the pang in his jaw seemed to call for a new bout of self-abnegation to justify it, and so Quinlon moaned, as loudly as he could without waking his grandfather: “Pairing axiom—power-set axiom—axiom of infinity—forgive me, ZF, forgive me for I have sinned!”

Only after this futile appeal to the foundations of mathematics did Quinlon realize the melodrama of his penitence. Confession, even to an axiom system, clearly would not suffice: to persuade Ari Nussbaum that his remorse was sincere required a more decisive and irreversible act. With the barest tinge of a smile on the blood-encrusted corner of his lip, Quinlon rose from the carpet and tiptoed to the door. Still cupping his chin with his right hand, he turned the knob with his left: methodically, in punctuated intervals, to minimize creaking.

Having opened the door halfway, Quinlon stepped into the hall. The varnished wood panels of the floor felt cold, though not unpleasantly so, to his bare feet. The door to his grandfather’s room on the left was ajar, so Quinlon peeked in momentarily, but could see nothing. Turning around, he treaded softly past Gabrielle’s room and the bathroom and continued to the kitchen.

Counter, fridge, open cereal boxes, and craned faucet asserted themselves in the darkness one by one. The fridge, which had heretofore been silent, spontaneously began humming as though to herald its new visitor. For some reason, thought Quinlon, a kitchen is the eeriest room of a house at three in the morning. Nevertheless, after hesitating a few seconds, he crossed the divide between wood paneling and kitchen tiles, walked to a drawer to the left of the sink, and opened it with his left hand. Arrayed in a plastic yellow silverware container were forks, teaspoons, soup spoons, grapefruit spoons, butter knives, assorted serving implements—ah, yes. Quinlon dug out from beneath the serving implements a ten-inch stainless steel carving knife.

He brought the knife’s riveted black handle up to his nostrils; it had the pungent smell of a recent purchase. He then twirled the knife around a few times, assaying the blade; satisfied, he rounded the counter and carefully placed the instrument on the edge of the kitchen table. After deftly grasping a napkin from the counter and pressing it against his chin, he drew the chair nearest the knife and took a seat.

Suddenly Quinlon thought, “Why the napkin? Am I serious?” He unbuttoned his bloodstained flannel pajama shirt and laid it in a crumpled bundle on the table. Beads of sweat had collected on the hairs of his chest. With his left hand he found his heartbeat, which was rapid. Then, putting the napkin down, he clasped the knife handle with both hands and aimed the blade where his hand had been before.

A minute passed, then five, then ten. The wound dried; the pain subsided. Quinlon’s arms grew tired; three times his elbows rested on the table and had to be raised by a strenuous effort of will. What was wrong? Did his mind lack some essential quality needed to finish the job? No, that was misguided, he scolded himself: every qualitative distinction is merely a disguised difference in quantity. Somewhere in his brain was a threshold for despondency, or compunction, or self-loathing, and once the threshold was exceeded the blade would go down easily. What he needed was a new stimulus to push him over the edge.

Quinlon closed his eyes. Amorphous ghosts of variegated pattern encircled him, taunting him. After a few minutes the ghosts coalesced into black-robed and grim-faced men, sitting behind a bench fifteen feet above him. Quinlon’s first instinct was to count them: there were three to the left, three to the right, and one in the center. As a collective these ethereal justices were resolutely faceless, yet if Quinlon examined them one by one he could recognize them from the dust jackets of his books. Arrayed on the left were Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Weinberg; on the right, Martin Gardner, Steven Pinker, and James Randi. The chief justice, gavel in hand, was Russell. The irony of the twice-imprisoned radical sporting a magistrate’s garb occurred to Quinlon momentarily, but was dismissed as irrelevant, for this was a court of scientific integrity, not of law.

“Will the defendant please rise,” Russell announced, this time with a British accent.

Quinlon rose, quietly pushing back the kitchen chair.

Russell began reading from a prepared text:

“For originating an idea that the feeblest critical faculty would readily have rejected as worthless;

For fretting about how others would react to the idea, and to what extent it would enhance his own esteem, instead of whether the idea was valid;

For taking pride in the organization, formatting, sentence structure, and style of a paper describing the hollow idea;

For foolishly presenting the idea before teacher and classmates, squandering their time and desecrating a hall of learning;

For continuing to defend the idea after he understood why it was wrong, in the forlorn hope that a mist of vagueness would conceal his unmistakable error;

For displaying such abysmal academic dishonesty before Professor Ari Nussbaum, a man for whom honesty is instinctual;

For carelessness; for pomposity; for disregard of scholarly ideals; for fraudulent intent;

For seeking the legitimacy of science while eschewing the rigor of its methods;

For professing to stand for clarity of thought and against obscurantism, yet practicing the latter;

For failing as a theoretical computer scientist, not because of constraints imposed by teachers, principals, or any others, but because of his own inadequacy;

For each of these offenses, we find the defendant—Guilty!

Russell twice pounded his gavel. The fridge stopped humming. With quaking hands Quinlon brought down the knife. Yet imprisoned prudence contrived to break free of its cell at the last moment, and the knife veered sideways, the dull end striking Quinlon’s nipple and scratching him harmlessly.

Quinlon sat down. What a ridiculous choice of weapon!—why was he making it so difficult? His thoughts meandered; he thought of how and where he might obtain potassium cyanide; whether he should leave a note, and if so what it should say; how Professor Nussbaum, Gabrielle, his grandfather, Ray would react to the news; how much space he’d get in the newspaper; whether the article would include any details about the false result; what Richard Dawkins would think if he learned of Quinlon’s brief life and its pitiful accomplishments; which parts of Quinlon’s mind were guilty and which innocent; why it wasn’t possible to destroy only the guilty parts.

An hour passed. The doorbell rang.

Hallucination? Prank? Telepathy?

It rang again. Startled, Quinlon ran into the foyer, leaving knife and napkin where they lay, and peered through the front door windows. He could discern the contours of a human figure but nothing else. Nervously he opened the door.

He was greeted with a jolt of recognition—yes, he should have expected this, it couldn’t have been otherwise. “Ray!” he cried. “What the hell are you doing here? It’s four AM!”

“I couldn’t sleep after—Shit, what happened? There’s blood on your chin. And your forehead’s ... Oh God. Don’t tell me. You stay right here, Quinlon. I mean it. I’m gonna look in your bathroom for a Band-Aid.”

Ray marched purposefully into kitchen, turned left, and disappeared. Quinlon remained in place as instructed, and reflected on not exactly the luck, but just the naked improbability of having Ray as a friend. Of all the eigenstates of the great Superposition in which there existed a recognizable Quinlon—reticent, weak, pusillanimous, skilled at nothing of value but theoretical computer science, skilled not even at that—in how many did there exist another who regarded this miserable specimen as his closest companion? Two percent at most, Quinlon figured.

After a few minutes Ray returned with Band-Aids, iodine, a wet paper towel, and a yellow kitchen towel stuffed with ice. He gestured towards the living room, to the right of the kitchen, and Quinlon followed him there.

“Should I see what’s on TV?”

“No!” Quinlon cried. “I’ve committed enough crimes of the intellect today.”

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