||The neutrality of this article is disputed. (May 2015)|
|Igor and Grichka Bogdanov|
August 29, 1949 |
Saint-Lary, Gers, France
|Alma mater||University of Burgundy|
|Thesis||Fluctuations quantiques de la signature de la métrique à l'échelle de Planck (1999)|
|Doctoral advisor||Moshé Flato, Daniel Sternheimer|
|Known for||Popular science communications|
The Bogdanov affair is an academic dispute regarding the legitimacy of a series of theoretical physics papers written by French twins Igor and Grichka Bogdanov (alternately spelt Bogdanoff). These papers were published in reputable scientific journals, and were alleged by their authors to culminate in a proposed theory for describing what occurred at the Big Bang. The controversy began in 2002 when Max Niedermeier, a physicist at the University of Tours, emailed Ted Newman, a physicist at the University of Pittsburgh, alleging that the twins—who had previously had celebrity status for a science fiction television program in France—had spoofed their PhD theses. Rumors spread on Usenet newsgroups that the work was a deliberate hoax intended to target weaknesses in the peer review system employed by the physics community to select papers for publication in academic journals. The story spread like wildfire in public media, prompting Niedermier to offer an apology to the Bogdanoffs, admitting that he had not read the papers firsthand. While the Bogdanov brothers continued to defend the veracity of their work, a Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) internal report was conducted in private. The conclusions of their reports are confidential and only released to the parties involved. Some physicists have also treated this as evidence of the fallibility inherent within the peer review system. The debate over whether the work represented a contribution to physics, or instead was meaningless, spread from Usenet to many other Internet forums, including the blogs of notable[who?] physicists. The ensuing dispute received considerable coverage in the mainstream media.
The authors have Ph.D. degrees from the University of Burgundy; Grichka Bogdanov received his degree in mathematics, and Igor Bogdanov received his in theoretical physics (in 1999 and 2002 respectively). Both were given the low, unusual, but passing grade of "honorable"; Igor initially failed and was required to publish three papers in peer-reviewed journals before being given a degree. When later challenges to the legitimacy of the papers submitted by the Bogdanov brothers arose, the debate spread to the question of whether the substitution of a "publication requirement" by university professors when they do not understand students' work is a valid means of determining the veracity of a paper. However, the intrinsic complexity of topics like quantum groups and topological field theory—in addition to the extensive use of jargon by those who study these areas—makes it difficult to avoid such delegation, since often specific expertise is necessary in order to fully understand and evaluate the claims made in papers on these topics. The validity of their work was supported after independent reviews by several physicists such as Jac Verbaarschot of Stony Brook, Roman Jackiw of MIT, and Robert Coquereaux. Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit has said, "The Bogdanoffs' work is significantly more incoherent than just about anything else being published. But the increasingly low standard of coherence in the whole field is what allowed them to think they were doing something sensible and publish it."
Since 1979, Igor and Grichka Bogdanov have been widely known in France as television-show hosts. Their shows like Temps X (and more recently Rayons X) deal with topics in popular science and science fiction, and have attracted a large number of viewers.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Origin of the affair
- 3 Reports and comments from scientists
- 4 Internet discussions
- 5 Media involvement
- 6 Reflections upon the peer-review system
- 7 Comparisons with the Sokal Affair
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
The Bogdanov brothers were born in 1949 in the Commune of Saint-Lary, in the Gascony region of southwest France. The brothers claim that their parents came from aristocratic Russian and Austrian families, and that their maternal grandfather was noted African-American lyric tenor Roland Hayes.
Origin of the affair
They each studied applied mathematics in Paris, but then began careers in television, hosting several popular programs on science and science fiction. The first of these, Temps X (Time X), ran from 1979 to 1989.
In 1991 the Bogdanovs published a book, Dieu et la Science (God and Science), drawn from interviews with the philosopher Jean Guitton. It became a French bestseller. This book provoked a dispute of its own when University of Virginia astronomy professor Trinh Xuan Thuan accused the Bogdanovs of plagiarizing his 1988 book The Secret Melody: And Man Created the Universe. After a legal battle in France, Thuan and the Bogdanovs settled out of court, and the Bogdanovs later denied all wrongdoing. Thuan suggests that the plagiarism suit pressed the brothers to obtain doctorates as fast as possible, since (according to Thuan) the back cover of the book claimed that the Bogdanovs held doctorates when they did not.
In 1993, the brothers began work toward doctorates, first working under the mathematical physicist Moshé Flato of the University of Burgundy. Flato died in 1998, and his colleague Daniel Sternheimer (of CNRS) took over the job of supervising the Bogdanovs. According to Sternheimer, the twins viewed themselves as "the Einstein brothers" and had a propensity to voice vague, "impressionistic" statements; he considered guiding their efforts "like teaching My Fair Lady to speak with an Oxford accent." As he told The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sternheimer did not consider himself an expert in all the topics Grichka Bogdanov included in his thesis, but judged that those portions within his specialty were Ph.D.-quality work.
Grichka Bogdanov was given a Ph.D. by the University of Burgundy (Dijon) in 1999, though this doctorate is sometimes erroneously described as having been granted by the École Polytechnique. He originally applied for a degree in physics, but was instead given one in mathematics, and was first required to significantly rewrite his thesis, de-emphasizing the physics content. Around the same time, Igor Bogdanov failed the defense of his thesis. His advisors subsequently agreed to allow him to obtain a doctorate if he could publish three peer-reviewed journal articles. In 2002, after publishing the requisite articles, Igor was given a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Burgundy. Both of the brothers received the lowest passing grade of "honorable," which is seldom given, as Daniel Sternheimer told New York Times science reporter Dennis Overbye. In justifying the conferring of doctoral degrees to the Bogdanovs, Sternheimer told the Times, "These guys worked for 10 years without pay. They have the right to have their work recognized with a diploma, which is nothing much these days."
In 2001 and 2002 the brothers published five papers in peer-reviewed physics journals, including Annals of Physics and Classical and Quantum Gravity. The controversy over the Bogdanovs' work began on October 22, 2002, with an email sent by University of Tours physicist Max Niedermaier to University of Pittsburgh physicist Ezra T. Newman. Niedermayer suggested that the Bogdanovs' Ph.D. theses and papers were "spoof[s]," created by throwing together string theory and theoretical physics jargon: "The abstracts are delightfully meaningless combinations of buzzwords ... which apparently have been taken seriously." Copies of the email reached American mathematical physicist John Baez, and on October 23 he created a discussion thread about the Bogdanovs' work on the Usenet newsgroup sci.physics.research, titled "Physics bitten by reverse Alan Sokal hoax?" Baez was comparing the Bogdanovs' publications to the 1996 Sokal affair, in which physicist Alan Sokal successfully submitted an intentionally nonsensical paper to a cultural studies journal in order to criticize the incoherence of postmodernism. The Bogdanovs quickly became a popular discussion topic, with most respondents agreeing that the papers were flawed. The Bogdanovs' background in entertainment lent some plausibility to the idea that they were attempting a deliberate hoax, but Igor Bogdanov quickly denied the accusation. The online discussion was quickly followed by media attention; The Register reported on the dispute on November 1 and stories in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature, The New York Times, and other publications appeared soon after.
Reports and comments from scientists
One of the scientists who approved Igor Bogdanov's thesis, MIT's Roman Jackiw, spoke to New York Times reporter Dennis Overbye. Overbye writes Jackiw was intrigued by the thesis, although it contained many points he did not understand. Jackiw defended the thesis:
All these were ideas that could possibly make sense. It showed some originality and some familiarity with the jargon. That's all I ask.
In contrast, Ignatios Antoniadis (of the École Polytechnique), who approved Grichka Bogdanov's thesis, later reversed his judgment of it. Antoniadis told Le Monde,
I had given a favorable opinion for Grichka's defense, based on a rapid and indulgent reading of the thesis text. Alas, I was completely mistaken. The scientific language was just an appearance behind which hid incompetence and ignorance of even basic physics.
In May 2001, the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity (CQG) reviewed an article authored by Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, titled "Topological theory of the initial singularity of spacetime". One of the referees' reports stated that the article was "Sound, original, and of interest. With revisions I expect the paper to be suitable for publication." The paper was accepted by the journal seven months later.
However, after the publication of the article and the publicity surrounding the controversy, mathematician Greg Kuperberg posted to Usenet a statement written by Andrew Wray and Hermann Nicolai of the CQG editorial board. Originally sent via e-mail, the statement read, in part,
Regrettably, despite the best efforts, the refereeing process cannot be 100% effective. Thus the paper ... made it through the review process even though, in retrospect, it does not meet the standards expected of articles in this journal... The paper was discussed extensively at the annual Editorial Board meeting ... and there was general agreement that it should not have been published. Since then several steps have been taken to further improve the peer review process in order to improve the quality assessment on articles submitted to the journal and reduce the likelihood that this could happen again.
The paper in question has, however, not been withdrawn by the journal. Later, the editor-in-chief of the journal issued a slightly different statement on behalf of the Institute of Physics, which owns the journal, in which he insisted on the fact that their usual peer-review procedures had been followed, but no longer commented on the value of the paper. In particular the sentences "...it does not meet the standards expected of articles in this journal" and "The paper was discussed extensively at the annual Editorial Board meeting ... and there was general agreement that it should not have been published" were removed. The former phrase was, however, quoted in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Nature. Moreover, Die Zeit quoted the journal's co-editor Hermann Nicolai as saying that had the paper reached his desk, he would have immediately rejected it.
In 2001, the Czechoslovak Journal of Physics accepted an article written by Igor Bogdanov, entitled "Topological Origin of Inertia". The referee's report concluded: "In my opinion the results of the paper can be considered as original ones. I recommend the paper for publication but in a revised form." The following year, the Chinese Journal of Physics published Igor Bogdanov's "The KMS state of spacetime at the Planck scale". The report stated that "the viewpoint presented in this paper can be interesting as a possible approach of the Planck scale physics." Some corrections were requested.
Not all review evaluations were positive. Eli Hawkins, acting as a referee on behalf of the Journal of Physics A, suggested rejecting one of the Bogdanovs' papers: "It would take up too much space to enumerate all the mistakes: indeed it is difficult to say where one error ends and the next begins. In conclusion, I would not recommend that this paper be published in this, or any, journal."
Criticism of the papers
After the start of the Usenet discussion, most comments were critical of the Bogdanovs' work. For example, John C. Baez stated that the Bogdanov papers are "a mishmash of superficially plausible sentences containing the right buzzwords in approximately the right order. There is no logic or cohesion in what they write." Jacques Distler voiced a similar opinion, proclaiming "The Bogdanov's [sic] papers consist of buzzwords from various fields of mathematical physics, string theory and quantum gravity, strung together into syntactically correct, but semantically meaningless prose."
Others compared the quality of the Bogdanov papers with that seen over a wider arena. "The Bogdanoffs' work is significantly more incoherent than just about anything else being published", wrote Peter Woit. He continued, "But the increasingly low standard of coherence in the whole field is what allowed them to think they were doing something sensible and to get it published." Woit later devoted a chapter of his book Not Even Wrong (2006) to the Bogdanov Affair.
Eventually, the controversy attracted mainstream media attention, opening new avenues for physicists' comments to be disseminated. Le Monde quoted Alain Connes, recipient of the 1982 Fields medal, as saying, "I didn't need long to convince myself that they're talking about things that they haven't mastered." Nobel laureate Georges Charpak stated on a French talk show that the Bogdanovs' presence in the scientific community was "nonexistent".
The most positive comments about the papers themselves came from string theorist Luboš Motl. Writing in his blog almost three years after the heyday of the controversy, Motl stated, "[T]he Bogdanoff brothers are proposing something that has, speculatively, the potential to be an alternative story about quantum gravity ... What they are proposing is a potential new calculational framework for gravity. I find it unlikely that these things will work but it is probably more likely than loop quantum gravity and other discrete approaches whose lethal problems have already been identified in detail".
In addition to a few articles in print media, the Bogdanov Affair has been discussed extensively in various newsgroups, webpages and blogs; the Bogdanov brothers have often participated in the discussions, sometimes using pseudonyms or represented by friends acting as proxies. They have used these methods to defend their work and sometimes to insult their critics, among them the Nobel prize recipient Georges Charpak.
In October 2002, the Bogdanovs released an email containing apparently supportive statements by Laurent Freidel, then a visiting professor at the Perimeter Institute. Soon after, Freidel denied writing any such remarks, telling the press that he had forwarded a message containing that text to a friend. The Bogdanovs then attributed the quoted passages to Freidel, who said, "I'm very upset about that because I have received e-mail from people in the community asking me why I've defended the Bogdanov brothers. When your name is used without your consent, it's a violation."
At the start of the controversy in the moderated group sci.physics.research, Igor Bogdanov denied that their published papers were a hoax, but when asked precise questions from physicists Steve Carlip and John Baez regarding mathematical details in the papers, failed to convince any other participants that these papers had any real scientific value. New York Times reporter George Johnson described reading through the debate as "like watching someone trying to nail Jell-O to a wall", for the Bogdanovs had "developed their own private language, one that impinges on the vocabulary of science only at the edges."
Participants in the discussions were particularly unconvinced by a statement in the "Topological origin of inertia" paper that "whatever the orientation, the plane of oscillation of Foucault's pendulum is necessarily aligned with the initial singularity marking the origin of physical space." In addition, the paper claimed, the Foucault pendulum experiment "cannot be explained satisfactorily in either classical or relativistic mechanics". The physicists commenting on Usenet found these claims and subsequent attempts at their explanation peculiar, since the trajectory of a Foucault pendulum—a standard museum piece—is accurately predicted by classical mechanics. The Bogdanovs explained that these claims would only be clear in the context of topological field theory. Baez and Russell Blackadar attempted to determine the meaning of the "plane of oscillation" statement; after the Bogdanovs issued some elaborations, Baez concluded that it was a complicated way of rephrasing the following:
However, Baez pointed out, this statement does not in fact concern the Big Bang, and is entirely equivalent to the following:
No matter which way a pendulum swings, there is some point on the plane in which it swings.
Yet this rephrasing is itself equivalent to the statement
Any plane contains a point.
Urs Schreiber, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hamburg, noted that the mention of the Foucault pendulum was at odds with the papers' general tone, since they generally relied upon more "modern terminology". (According to George Johnson, the Foucault pendulum is "an icon of French science that would belong in any good Gallic spoof.") Schreiber identified five central ideas in the Bogdanovs' work—"'result' A" through "'result' E"—which are expressed in the jargon of statistical mechanics, topological field theory and cosmology. One bit of jargon, the Hagedorn temperature, comes from string theory, but as Schreiber notes, the paper does not use this concept in any detail; moreover, since the paper is manifestly not a string theory treatise, "considering the role the Hagedorn temperature plays in string cosmology, this is bordering on self-parody." Schreiber concludes that the fourth "result" (that the spacetime metric "at the initial singularity" must be Riemannian) contradicts the initial assumption of their argument (an FRW cosmology with pseudo-Riemannian metric). The fifth and last "result", Schreiber notes, is an attempt to resolve this contradiction by "invok[ing] quantum mechanics". The Bogdanovs themselves described Schreiber's summary as "very accurate"; for more on this point, see below. Schreiber concluded,
Just to make sure: I do not think that any of the above is valid reasoning. I am writing this just to point out what I think are the central 'ideas' the authors had when writing their articles and how this led them to their conclusions.
The main result of this paper is that this thermodynamic equilibrium should be a KMS state. This almost goes without saying; for a quantum system, the KMS condition is just the concrete definition of thermodynamic equilibrium. The hard part is identifying the quantum system to which the condition should be applied, which is not done in this paper.
Damien Calaque of the Louis Pasteur University, Strasbourg, commented adversely about Grichka Bogdanov's unpublished preprint "Construction of cocycle bicrossproducts by twisting". In Calaque's estimation, the results presented in the preprint did not have sufficient novelty and interest to merit an independent journal article, and moreover the principal theorem was, in its current formulation, false: Grichka's construction yields a bialgebra which is not necessarily a Hopf algebra, the latter being a type of mathematical object which must satisfy additional conditions.
As mentioned above, among the most positive comments on the papers came from physicist Luboš Motl:
...Some of the papers of the Bogdanoff brothers are really painful and clearly silly ... But the most famous paper about the solution of the initial singularity is a bit different; it is more sophisticated.
...it does not surprise me much that Roman Jackiw said that the paper satisfied everything he expects from an acceptable paper—the knowledge of the jargon and some degree of original ideas. (And be sure that Jackiw, Kounnas, and Majid were not the only ones with this kind of a conclusion.)...Technically, their paper connects too many things. It would be too good if all these ideas and (correct) formulae were necessary for a justification of a working solution to the initial singularity problem. But if one accepts that the papers about these difficult questions don't have to be just a well-defined science but maybe also a bit of inspiring art, the brothers have done a pretty good job, I think. And I want to know the answers to many questions that are opened in their paper.
Motl's measured support for Topological field theory of the initial singularity of spacetime, however, stands in contrast to Robert Oeckl's official MathSciNet review, which states that the paper is "rife with nonsensical or meaningless statements and suffers from a serious lack of coherence," follows up with several examples to illustrate his point, and concludes that the paper "falls short of scientific standards and appears to have no meaningful content."
Claims of pseudonymous activity
For months, the domain name of the "International Institute of Mathematical Physics" created by the Bogdanovs,[clarification needed] th-phys.edu.hk, created erroneous suggestions amongst forum participants as to a possible link with The University of Hong Kong (HKU) or the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).
The participation of an unidentified "Professor Yang" provoked additional confusion. Using an e-mail address at the domain th-phys.edu.hk, an individual publishing under this name wrote to a number of individuals and on the Internet to defend the Bogdanov papers. This individual wrote to physicists John Baez, Jacques Distler and Peter Woit; to New York Times journalist Dennis Overbye; and on numerous physics blogs and forums, signing his name "Professor L. Yang—Theoretical Physics Laboratory, International Institute of Mathematical Physics—HKU/Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong." It is HKUST which is located in Clear Water Bay, not HKU, whose main campus is located in the Mid-levels of Hong Kong Island.
The Bogdanovs have claimed several times that the "domain name 'th-phys.edu.hk' was officially owned by Hong Kong University." This was not confirmed officially by HKU and no Prof. Yang existed on the roster of the HKU physics department.
Suspicions were consequently raised that Professor L. Yang was actually a pseudonym of the Bogdanovs. However, Igor Bogdanov has maintained that Professor Yang is a real mathematical physicist with expertise in KMS theory, a friend of his, and that he was posting anonymously from Igor's apartment.
Following this pattern, another academic domain name was also registered in Latvia (phys-maths.edu.lv), hosting the "Mathematical Center of Riemannian Cosmology". Again, this apparent educational institution was registered by Igor Bogdanov. When asked why the Center's website had a Latvian top-level domain, Igor claimed that it had been established and hosted by the University of Riga, after the brothers had attended a conference there in either 2001 or 2002.
Spread of the dispute
At the beginning of 2004, Igor Bogdanov began to post on French Usenet physics groups and Internet forums, continuing the pattern of behavior seen on sci.physics.research. A controversy began on the French Wikipedia when Igor Bogdanov and his supporters began to edit that encyclopedia's article on the brothers, prompting the creation of a new article dedicated to the debate (Polémique autour des travaux des frères Bogdanov—"Debate surrounding the work of the Bogdanov brothers"). However, the dispute merely spread to the English-language Wikipedia. In November 2005, this led the Arbitration Committee—the English Wikipedia's highest decision-making body short of project leader Jimmy Wales—to ban anyone deemed to be a participant in the external dispute from editing the English Wikipedia's article on the Bogdanov Affair. A number of Wikipedia users, including Igor Bogdanov himself, were explicitly named in this ban. In 2006, Baez wrote on his website that for some time the Bogdanovs and "a large crowd of sock puppets" had been attempting to rewrite the English Wikipedia article on the controversy "to make it less embarrassing to them". "Nobody seems to be fooled", he added.
Criminal prosecution of Alain Riazuelo
Alain Riazuelo, an astrophysicist at the Institut d'astrophysique de Paris, participated in many of the online discussions of the Bogdanov's work. He posted a version of Grichka Bogdanov's PhD thesis on his personal website, along with his critical analysis. Rather than suing Riazuelo for defamation, Bogdanov filed a criminal complaint of copyright (droit d'auteur) violation against him in May 2011. The police detained and interogated Riazuelo. He came to trial and was convicted in March 2012. The sentence was lenient: a fine of 2000 euros the court imposed was suspended, and only one euro of damages was awarded. But in passing judgement the court stated that the scientist had used poor judgement in criticizing such a well-known person.
The verdict outraged many scientists, who felt that the police and courts should have no say in a discussion of the scientific merits of a piece of work. In April 2012, a group of 170 scientists published an open letter titled L'affaire Bogdanoff: Liberté, Science et Justice, Des scientifiques revendiquent leur droit au blâme (The Bogdanov Affair: Liberty, Science and Justice, scientists claim their right to blame).
At the start of the controversy in 2002, numerous articles on the subject were published in worldwide media, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Economist, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as Pravda, Die Zeit and Le Monde.
In 2002, the Bogdanovs launched a new weekly TV show Rayons X (X Rays) on French public channel France 2. In August 2004, they presented a 90-minute special cosmology program in which they introduced their theory among other cosmological scenarios. They were also frequently invited to numerous TV talk shows to promote their book. The French mainstream media, in both the press and on the Internet, covered the renewed controversy to some extent; media outlets that have reported upon it include Europe 1, Acrimed, and Ciel et Espace.
In 2004, the Bogdanovs published a commercially successful popular science book, Avant Le Big Bang (Before the Big Bang), based on a simplified version of their theses, where they also presented their point of view about the affair. Both the book and the Bogdanovs' television shows have been criticized for elementary scientific inaccuracies. Critics cite examples from Avant Le Big Bang including a statement that the "golden number" φ (Phi) is transcendental, which the Bogdanovs allege to be an editorial misprint; an assumption that the limit of a decreasing sequence is always zero; and that the expansion of the Universe implies that the planets of the Solar System have grown farther apart.
In October 2004, a journalist from Ciel et Espace interviewed Shahn Majid of the University of London about his report on Grichka Bogdanov's thesis. Majid said that the French version of his report on Grichka's thesis was "an unauthorized translation partially invented by the Bogdanovs." In one sentence, the English word "interesting" was translated as the French "important." A "draft [mathematical] construction" became "la première construction [mathématique]" ("the first [mathematical] construction"). Elsewhere, an added word demonstrated, according to Majid, that "Bogdanov does not understand his own draft results." Majid also described more than ten other modifications of meaning, each one biased towards "surestimation outrancière"—"outrageous over-estimation." Majid said that his original report described a "very weak" student who nevertheless demonstrated "an impressive amount of determination to obtain a doctorate." Later, Majid claimed in a Usenet post that, in an addendum to Avant Le Big Bang, Grichka intentionally misquoted Majid's opinion on the way this interview had been transcribed.
Additionally, in the same addendum, a critical analysis of their work made by post-doc Urs Schreiber, and affirmed by the Bogdanovs as "very accurate", was included with the exception of the concluding remark "Just to make sure: I do not think that any of the above is valid reasoning", thus inverting the meaning from criticism into ostensible support. Moreover, a comment by physicist Peter Woit written as, "It's certainly possible that you have some new worthwhile results on quantum groups", was translated as "Il est tout à fait certain que vous avez obtenu des résultats nouveaux et utiles dans les groupes quantiques" ("It is completely certain that you have obtained new and useful results on quantum groups") and published by the Bogdanovs in the addendum of their book.
In December 2004, the Bogdanovs sued Ciel et Espace for defamation over the publication of a critical article entitled "The Mystification of the Bogdanovs". In September 2006, the case was dismissed after the Bogdanovs missed court deadlines; they were ordered to pay 2500 euros to the magazine's publisher to cover its legal costs. There was never a substantive ruling on whether or not the Bogdanovs had been defamed.
Bogdanovs are professors at the Megatrend University in Belgrade, Serbia where they hold the Chair of Cosmology and they direct the Megatrend Laboratory of Cosmology. Megatrend University rector and owner Mica Jovanovic came into media focus because of his forged PhD at London School of Economics (LSE). This academic forgery affair exploded when it was confirmed by LSE that rector Jovanovic never got PhD at LSE. Jovanovic, formally educated as an economist, is a coauthor of Bogdanovs in their Serbian cosmology editions.
Reflections upon the peer-review system
During the heyday of this affair, some media coverage cast a negative light on theoretical physics, stating or at least strongly implying that it has become impossible to distinguish a valid paper from a hoax. Overbye's article in the New York Times voiced this opinion, for example, as did Declan Butler's piece in Nature. Posters on blogs and Usenet used the affair to criticize the present status of string theory; for this reason, Woit devoted a chapter of Not Even Wrong, a book strongly critical of string theory, to the affair. On the other hand, George Johnson's report in The New York Times concludes that physicists have generally decided the papers are "probably just the result of fuzzy thinking, bad writing and journal referees more comfortable with correcting typos than challenging thoughts." Furthermore, as physicist Aaron Bergman pointed out while reviewing Not Even Wrong, Woit's conclusion
is undermined by a number of important elisions in the telling of the story, the most important of which is that the writings of the Bogdanovs, to the extent that one can make sense of them, have almost nothing to do with string theory. ... I first learned of the relevant papers in a posting on the internet by Dr. John Baez. Having found a copy of one of the relevant papers available online, I posted that "the referee clearly didn't even glance at it." While the papers were full of rather abstruse prose about a wide variety of technical areas, it was easy to identify outright nonsense in the areas about which I had some expertise. ... A pair of non-string theorists were able to get nonsensical papers generally not about string theory published in journals not generally used by string theorists. This is surely an indictment of something, but its relevance to string theory is marginal at best.
The much-anticipated New York Times article on the Bogdanov scandal has appeared. Alas, it suffers from the usual journalistic conceit that a proper newspaper article must cover a "controversy". There must be two sides to the controversy, and the reporter's job is to elicit quotes from both parties and present them side-by-side. Almost inevitably, this "balanced" approach sheds no light on the matter, and leaves the reader shaking his head, "There they go again..."
Many comments have been made on the possible shortcomings of the referral system for published articles, and also on the criteria for acceptance of a thesis and subsequent delivery of a Doctorate of Philosophy. Frank Wilczek, who edits Annals of Physics (and is now a Nobel laureate), told the press that the scandal motivated him to correct the journal's slipping standards, partly by assigning more reviewing duties to the editorial board.
Prior to the controversy, the reports on the Bogdanov theses and most of the journal referees' reports spoke favorably of their work, describing it as original and containing interesting ideas. This has been the basis of concerns raised about the efficacy of the peer-review system that the scientific community and academia use to determine the merit of submitted manuscripts for publication; one concern is that over-worked and unpaid referees may not be able to thoroughly judge the value of a paper in the little time they can afford to spend on it. Regarding the Bogdanov publications, physicist Steve Carlip remarked:
Referees are volunteers, who as a whole put in a great deal of work for no credit, no money, and little or no recognition, for the good of the community. Sometimes a referee makes a mistake. Sometimes two referees make mistakes at the same time.
I'm a little surprised that anyone is surprised at this. Surely you've seen bad papers published in good journals before this! ... referees give opinions; the real peer review begins after a paper is published.
Similarly, Richard Monastersky, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, observed, "There is one way...for physicists to measure the importance of the Bogdanovs' work. If researchers find merit in the twins' ideas, those thoughts will echo in the references of scientific papers for years to come." As of August 2013, the Bogdanovs' six published papers had been cited four times in INSPIRE-HEP, a database of particle physics articles. For comparison, a somewhat controversial cosmological model known as the "ekpyrotic universe" was published in 2001 and had been cited 784 times by August 2013. Before the controversy over their work arose, the scientific community had shown practically no interest in the Bogdanovs' papers; indeed, according to Stony Brook physics professor Jacobus Verbaarschot, who served on Igor Bogdanov's dissertation committee, without the hoax rumors "probably no one would have ever known about their articles." As of 2009, the Bogdanovs have not published any scientific papers since 2003.
Comparisons with the Sokal Affair
Several sources have referred to the Bogdanov Affair as a "reverse Sokal" hoax, drawing a comparison with the Sokal Affair, where the physicist Alan Sokal published a deliberately fraudulent and indeed nonsensical article in the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal's original aim had been to test the effects of the intellectual trend he called, "for want of a better term, postmodernism". Worried by this "more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment", Sokal decided to perform an experiment which he later cheerfully admitted was both unorthodox and uncontrolled, provoking a maelstrom of reactions which, to his surprise, received coverage in Le Monde and even the front page of The New York Times. The physicist John Baez drew a comparison between the two events in his October 2002 post to the sci.physics.research newsgroup.
Both Igor and Grichka Bogdanov have vigorously insisted upon the validity of their work, and possess academic degrees in the fields in which they are publishing, although the bona fides of their credentials are a bone of contention. In comparison, Alan Sokal was an outsider to the field in which he was publishing—a physicist, publishing in a humanities journal—and promptly issued a statement himself that his paper was a deliberate hoax; indeed, Sokal published the article to expose the weakness of the journal's editorial process. Replying on sci.physics.research, Sokal referred readers to his follow-up essay, in which he notes "the mere fact of publication of my parody" only proved that one particular journal's editors were "derelict in their intellectual duty". (According to The New York Times, Sokal was "almost disappointed" that the Bogdanovs had not attempted a hoax after his own style. "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander", he said.) Baez, who made a comparison between the two affairs, later retracted, saying that the brothers "have lost too much face for [withdrawing the work as a hoax] to be a plausible course of action".
In a letter to The New York Times, Cornell physics professor Paul Ginsparg writes that the contrast between the cases is plainly evident: "here, the authors were evidently aiming to be credentialed by the intellectual prestige of the discipline rather than trying to puncture any intellectual pretension." He adds that the fact some journals and scientific institutions have low or variable standards is "hardly a revelation".
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- Initial discussion
- Theses and papers
- Scientific publications by Igor and Grichka Bogdanov
- (French) Grichka Bogdanov's PhD thesis
- (French) Igor Bogdanov's PhD thesis
- Critical websites
- John Baez's discussion of the Bogdanov affair
- «Pot-Pourri» from Igor & Grichka Bogdanov's Before the Big Bang by Jean-Pierre Messager
- A small journey in the Bogdanoff universe by Alain Riazuelo