L’Affair Zakaria: Serge Lang on Fareed Zakaria

Today’s New York Times Business Section has two articles that make mention of Fareed Zakaria. A Media Personality, Suffering a Blow to His Image, Ponders a Lesson by Christine Haugh gives a good summary of the recent charges of plaigarism that led to Zakaria’s temporary suspension from Time magazine, and says in part:

But Mr. Zakaria’s career suffered an abrupt setback recently after bloggers discovered that his column of Aug. 20 for Time magazine had passages lifted almost entirely from an article by the historian Jill Lepore that appeared in The New Yorker in April.

Mr. Zakaria quickly apologized. But within minutes, Time had suspended him for a month and CNN, which had posted parts of the column on its Web site, removed the article and suspended him until further notice. Both began investigations of his work, as did The Post.

On Thursday afternoon, Time and CNN said they had completed their reviews, found no evidence of plagiarism and restored Mr. Zakaria to his demanding schedule. Just as quickly as his employers had questioned his credibility, they rallied around him.

“He’s one of the premier global intellectuals,” said Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time. “He will recover.”

Mr. Zakaria is also the subject of David Carr’s column Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth. It says in part:

Ten days ago Mr. Zakaria, who has a show on CNN and columns in Time and The Washington Post, acknowledged plagiarizing content for a column in Time. He apologized, was suspended, and Time and CNN investigated whether there was a deeper problem and decided there was not. He was reinstated on Thursday. End of story.

Mr. Carr later writes (emphasis added):

The now ancient routes to credibility at small magazines and newspapers — toiling in menial jobs while learning the business — have been wiped out, replaced by an algorithm of social media heat and blog traction. Every reporter who came up in legacy media can tell you about a come-to-Jesus moment, when an editor put them up against a wall and tattooed a message deep into their skull: show respect for the fundamentals of the craft, or you would soon not be part of it.

I once lost a job I dearly wanted because I had misspelled the name of the publisher of the publication I was about to go to work for. Not very smart, but I learned a brutal lesson that has stayed with me. Nobody ever did that for Mr. Lehrer, even after repeated questions were raised about his work.

It may not have made a difference: journalists are tasked as seekers of truth. Fabulists find the truth quotidian and boring, insufficient to convey them to the renown they seek.

But as rapidly as the Web can indict, it can also rehabilitate. Mr. Zakaria went from abject apology to justification to reinstatement in a matter of days, all in real-time bulletins. What was once a gallows, a place of professional execution, has become a kind of highly visible penalty box.

Reading the articles reminded me of a talk I once heard by the eminent Yale mathematician Serge Lang. Prof. Lang died in 2005. Were he alive today I know he would have written about this affair, because he mentioned Mr. Zakaria several times during his talk.

I was at the talk because my youngest daughter Jennifer is a Yale graduate (JE ’06). As with almost everything Yale does, the visiting days for parents were well-done and always a treat, as one had a chance to heard some of Yale’s best teachers in person.

One year, probably it was 2004, I noted that Serge Lang was speaking. I knew of his work, especially the clarity and vigor of his writing, and so went to the talk.

Lang was born in 1927. His family moved to California and he, like me, did his undergraduate work at Caltech. He went on to get his doctorate at Princeton under the great Emil Artin. He made many contributions, and among his awards was the Steele Prize for Mathematical Exposition, awarded by the American Mathematical Society. He was also a member of the Bourbaki Group. “Bourbaki” was the pseudonym used by a group of mathematicians who wrote a wonderful series of books on the mathematics of the 20th century.

He was also, as Wikipedia notes, an activist. He was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He was also later, and much less presciently an Aids denier, questioning the theory that the HIV virus caused Aids.

In the 80’s he initiated another affair, described by Wikipedia as follows:

In 1986, Lang mounted what the New York Times described as a “one-man challenge” against the nomination of political scientist Samuel P. Huntington to the National Academy of Sciences. Lang described Huntington’s research, in particular his use of mathematical equations to demonstrate that South Africa was a “satisfied society”, as “pseudoscience”, arguing that it gave “the illusion of science without any of its substance.” Despite support for Huntington from the Academy’s social and behavioral scientists, Lang’s challenge was successful, and Huntington was twice rejected for Academy membership. Huntington’s supporters argued that Lang’s opposition was political rather than scientific in nature

I had gone to his talk expecting he would tackle some topic of mathematics, as I was curious to see how he would present it to a group of parents, most of whom presumably had little training in mathematics.

However, he chose another topic, that of the difference between the “soft sciences” such as psychology and sociology and the “hard sciences” such as physics and mathematics. His main point, as best I can recall, was that too often social scientists claimed a rigor and certainty in reporting their findings as “science”; which he felt was unjustified in that they had not used the scientific method, at least as he understood it.

He spoke at great length on the Huntington affair mentioned above. I expect most parents there felt that they had wandered into the wrong talk. I cut him a good deal of slack due his reputation as a world-class mathematician.

He also made mention of Zakaria, who worked with Huntington.

Lang wrote about this in lang_on_zacharia.pdf (It’s easy to find via search for “Serge Lang on Zakaria” though I couldn’t get the exact URL.)

A thoughtful post on Lang can be found at Serge Lang vs. Bob Somerby in a BLOWOUT!, which says in part:

Besides math, Serge Lang is famous for two things: claiming that the link between HIV and AIDS has not been established, and keeping Samuel Huntington out of the National Academy of the Sciences. Lang gave me a few hundred pages of documents about the conflict, as he did with anyone who was willing to listen to him. He claimed that Huntington’s papers were “utter nonsense.” His biggest objection was to a paper Huntington wrote that purported to demonstrate the link between a society’s frustration and instability. One of his indices classed South Africa as a “satisfied society.” Lang thought (rightly) that Huntington’s effort to quantify oppression and instability didn’t correspond to reality. Huntington’s defenders typically turned this into a straw-man argument. They said that Serge Lang objected to any attempt to turn things like frustration and instability into numbers, and that the argument was caused by a mathematician’s resentment of the “soft” sciences. (See Jared Diamond’s Soft sciences are often harder than hard sciences in Discovery.) Lang didn’t actually have any problem with using numbers to measure satisfaction; his objection was that Huntington’s index in fact measured nothing. Lang particularly hated Fareed Zakaria, now the editor of Newsweek, who wrote a letter saying that it was “a fact” that in the sixties, there were no “major riots, strikes, or disturbances” in South Africa. Lang had a file of New York Times articles on South Africa, all contradicting Zakaria.

See also Domenico Rosa’s Pseudo-Science and Junk Scholarship , which says:

For many years Serge Lang, a professor of mathematics at Yale and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has been trying to expose the dangers posed by purveyors of pseudo-science and junk scholarship [these are his phrases].

It is unfortunate that he and others have not devoted some of their energies to speaking up about the flimflam being promoted by the “math reform” and “education research” leadership.

I met Lang once at the fall 1987 meeting of the Northeastern Section of the MAA, when he delivered an amazing address entitled: The effectof abuse of so-called “mathematics” in some social “sciences.”

In 1978, Ladd had exposed the defective Ladd-Lipset survey of the American Professoriate–a survey that he described as “invalid at best, dangerous at worst.”

In 1986-87, he blocked the election of Samuel P. Huntington, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard, to the National Academy of Sciences. Lang exposed all sorts of mathematical nonsense in Huntington’s book “Political Order in Changing Societies.” This book was required reading in Political Science 111b, which was taught at Yale by professor N. Bradford Westerfield.

Subsequently, Lang became the victim of a scandalous counterattack. In a letter dated June 8, 1987, the then provost William D. Nordhaus made
a poorly-disguised attempt to muzzle Lang. On July 27, 1987, Fareed Zakaria, a Yale graduate and Huntington underling, tried to discredit
Lang in an article published in The New Republic (“The professor’s vendetta. Blood Lust In Academia”). This diatribe backfired and
provided additional evidence of Huntington’s and Zakaria’s ignorance of ninth-grade algebra and South African history.

On Nov. 13, 1987, the Yale Daily News published a distorted article concerning Lang’s positions (“Lang cites lack of academic standards”). When Lang submitted a response, the editors attempted to censor him, and he was forced to publish his article as a paid advertisement on Nov. 19 (“Academic, Journalistic, and Political Problems”).

(I apologize for including so much text from the writing of others about Lang, but I didn’t take notes during his talk, and so have included these words about Lang because they reflect the strength of his passion and the force of his arguments.)



  1. Posted August 20, 2012 at 10:58 | Permalink | Reply

    … situations like Zakaria’s recent comments and apologies are no more than a “cleansing process” that journalist occasionally face. In my opinion, it’s now past (not necessarily forgotten), and we need to go on and appreciate the otherwise quality insights that this journalist has. Contemporary technology assists this process, and it will not go away for journalist, politician, author, or myriad other professions that engage in communication arts.

    • Jeanine
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 11:06 | Permalink | Reply

      Why do you think CNN, et al, took him back? Is he really that important and that valuable?

      • Posted August 20, 2012 at 23:15 | Permalink


        Nice to hear from you. As for why they took him back, I expect it’s all about ratings. They have, at least in their view, worked long and hard to promote him, complementing the strenuous effort of self-promotion on his part that is part and parcel one of the requirements of the career path he has chosen: to be a seer.

        Why should giving credit where credit is due — to say nothing of integrity — interrupt the PR kerfluffle?



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