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The relief of the paranoid October 16, 2008

Posted by dorigo in personal, physics, politics, science.
Tags: ,

Autumn is settling in, and it is election time again. No, I am not talking about the Obama-McCain match, which -although exciting- has little to do with my job. I am talking about the election of the next CDF spokesperson. The experiment has two spokespersons, and every year at about this time all eligible voters -those listed in the default author list- vote to change one of them.

The election proceeds as follows. Initially CDF authors may, if they so desire, send to the election committee a nomination for their favourite candidate -typically, a person they would be happy to see elected, whom they feel would represent them well, and whom they trust for the task of speaking on behalf of the scientific collaboration, organizing the experiment, keeping contacts with the lab director, the press, etcetera. Then, nominees are asked by the election committee whether they agree to run. And finally, a vote is cast: each voter is asked to list in decreasing order of appreciation the available candidates. The one who gets the largest number of first choices wins. In case of a tie, a complicated method is used to determine the winner; that is a detail that I believe was never necessary in past elections -typically, there is a clear winner. Or so I think!

I have spoken in the past about the fact that CDF is a incomplete democracy, because the above electoral system is flawed. The flaw is simple: the results of the election are not distributed! There is an election committee who determines the winner, and announces him or her to the collaboration. The number of votes obtained by each candidate remains known only to the election committee, their friends, and their relatives.

Instead of delving into that matter again, today I am going to explain why I felt defamed this week. It so happened that I received an e-mail from the election committee, announcing that I had been nominated to run for spokesperson, and would I please let them know whether I was available ?

I am no trying to be modest here if I say I immediately recognized that my nomination had been an hoax. It could not be otherwise: I stand no chance of being elected, given my past history in CDF. Many colleagues still look at me with suspicion because of at least two different issues.

One is the way I handled my charge as a member of the review committee which was charged with deciding on the publication of a few controversial papers. In two words, I interpreted my mandate literally (“get convinced whether an analysis is worth publishing, and if so push for its approval”). By acting as a reviewer-promoter in a slightly overzealous way, exposing the idiocy of the arguments supported by full professors who wanted to trash the analysis at the meetings when the approval was discussed, I earned a few enemies.

The other issue which still disturbs some of my colleagues is my activity as a blogger, which arises jealousy, fear, and causes discrimination. My most faithful readers know about this, so let me leave that aside here.

Having become convinced there was somebody in CDF who wanted to laugh at my back, I asked the election committee if they would please disclose to me the name of the offender. They politely declined, invoking a unwritten rule (“it is a tradition to keep that information undisclosed”). I insisted, claiming that the disclosure was not going to perturb the election since I was declining the nomination offer anyway, and that I would treat the information confidentially: to no avail. I was frustrated, and angry. I felt I was being defamed, and that the offender was secured anonymity through a non-existent, baroque, anti-democratic rule.

Then, this morning the sun shone on me again. I happened to have a chance to talk with a person -let me use the pseudonym Mr(s) X- for a totally unrelated issue, and then I mentioned to X my frustration for not getting to know the name of the moron who had nominated me. And X candidly replied: “I did!”.

That really left me speechless. X had not nominated me to defame me: (s)he meant it!

Now, it so happens that this person has been a spokesperson of CDF him(her)self; that (s)he is a very influential, brilliant, and accomplished physicist, and a veteran of our experiment; that (s)he is a person I highly admire (no, I am not giving the name away: these things apply in some degree to almost all our present and past spokespersons!).

X went on to assure me it had of course not been an hoax: (s)he thought I would be the right person for the job, since I know the physics, I have the experience, and I have no fear of saying what I think. I was dumbfounded, and I was not even able to thank X for his(her) words enough. I could only mutter I was honored to hear that, that it was a relief to hear I had not been defamed after all, and that unfortunately I had been forced to decline the nomination, for family issues and for a dozen other good reasons.

So: have I been paranoid in thinking that my nomination to spokesperson of CDF had been an hoax ? I think I haven’t, given that CDF has always been a snake pit. Hell, there’s even a meeting room with that name in our main building at the lab… Or maybe I erred because I underestimate the way others perceive me as a scientist. Oh well, whatever: X made my day today!



1. goffredo - October 16, 2008

If I were still in CDF I’d vote for you.

2. Kea - October 16, 2008

LOL! A pity you have too many commitments to be the spokesperson. I think you’d be great precisely because you are honest and outspoken. Can you reverse your decision, or is it really too late?

3. dorigo - October 16, 2008

Well, thank you Jeff, Kea, for your support. I think that the job of spokesperson is not for me, honestly. It involves too much politics and too little physics… I would be a “physics” spokesperson, and I would end up neglecting the politicking.

Maybe in ten years…


4. Guess Who - October 16, 2008

What’s not clear to me is how it would have been defamatory to run. Your final tally might not have been overwhelming (or it might, the story suggests that you overestimate the negativity about your persona) but since only the election committee (and their friends and relatives) would know, would it have mattered much?

A public vote resulting in only one vote cast for you, now that could have been a little embarrassing (but a little funny too).

5. Andrea Giammanco - October 17, 2008

But, in case it was a hoax, do you think that your reaction was proportionate?
If somebody wanted to laugh at your back, doing all this fuzz would have been very gratifying to him. The best reaction, under any possible point of view, is to take this kind of matter with humour.

(And, well, your election committee has behaved in the best possible way. If it were a hoax, in particular, since you were so manifestly upset about that, disclosing the name would have guaranteed that a silly but not so important joke escalated to some feud.)

Unfortunately the CMS electoral system is not so directly democratic… Only institute representatives can vote, so I will have to become one before having the opportunity to do some hoax 😉

6. dorigo - October 17, 2008

Well, GW, the defamation -but I agree it is an improper wording: better “mockery”- would have been nominating me, not having me run. It is a subtle one, also.

Andrea, my reaction was private -I only talked to a member of the election committee. No “fuzz”. And nothing would have escalated: on the contrary, knowing the name of the offender would have ended it.

When you’ll be a representative you’ll probably feel you have to do your duty, and that will take all the fun from it.


7. Andrea Giammanco - October 17, 2008

> on the contrary, knowing the name of the offender would have ended it.

Just imagine to have the point of view of a member of the election committee.
You ask to know the name of an “offender” (in the hypothesis of a hoax).
Basic game theory: you have to consider all options, and the “gain” for each, and your task is to maximize the gain.

Option A: they tell you the name.
Case A1: you are satisfied with that. Nothing happens, gain is 0.
Case A2: you are not objective anymore when interacting with that particular colleague, gain is -1.
Case A3: you make a lot of fuzz out of it, gain is -100.

Option B: they don’t tell you the name.
In any possible case, the gain is 0. As in the most favourable (and least probable a priori) case of Option A.

Now, what is the most rational choice from the point of view of the committee?

8. carlbrannen - October 18, 2008

“So: have I been paranoid in thinking that my nomination to spokesperson of CDF had been an hoax ?”

Yes. But more importantly, it’s really not a threat. You just decline. It’s not like they were suggesting you as the next sacrifice to Mt. Etna.

In general, it’s a better idea to imagine that the activities of other people are not “out to get you”.

9. Thomas Schwarz - October 19, 2008

Dorigo, I think you’re at your best discussing results and science politics. Leave the personal stuff out of it. I think it just ends up diminishing the blog, which on average is quite spot on about the physics you cover.

10. dorigo - October 19, 2008

Andrea, I understand your point, but mine is that a democratic institution cannot act according to what is more convenient: they
have to stick to rules. The fact is that some rules in CDF are unwritten ones.

Carl, probably I have not explained everything to you. The fact is, there are some things that happened in the past which made it simple to believe in the hoax hypothesis. However, I prefer to avoid discussing them here. You have, maybe, insufficient data to judge… Which is my fault.

Thomas, thank you for the appreciation of the part of this blog you like. I will keep your input in mind, but in general this blog contains everything I find fit to write about. It is not a monothematic site, as you well understand if you browse the category links. If the blog’s value is decreased, well, too bad – it is what it is, a web log. In it, I even put stuff I know nobody is interested about, but which I want to record for my own sake.

I am indeed sorry to waste people’s time when they find out they don’t care what they are reading, half-way into a post. But that is the reason for the category tags: you may decide to skip those with a “personal” tag below the title.

Cheers all,

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