I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

Doctor Fox Lecture

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Dr. Fox lectures
listens to the question
answers the question

Forty years ago a singularly interesting lecture was held at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. The subject was "Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education." The speaker was Dr. Myron L. Fox from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a pupil of von Neumann and an authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior. The attendees were psychiatrists and psychologists (MDs and PhDs) who were gathered for a training conference. They listened to the lecturer with great interest, asked many questions and were satisfied with speaker's replies. They gave him flying grades in the satisfaction questionnaire. Nobody suspected anything wrong. In reality the speaker was an actor and knew nothing on the subject of his lecture.

Donald Naftulin, John Ware, and Frank Donnelly who wanted to find out whether student evaluations of teachers had any meaning conducted this experiment [1]. The actor was Michael Fox (few clips from his movies are included in the trailer). He based his talk on the Scientific American article on Game Theory [2]. He borrowed from the article some phrases, but not any sense. He mixed them up with allusions to unrelated subjects, which on purely verbal level may appear relevant. He conducted himself with great confidence and showed such a mastery of the aforementioned allusions that the audience was convinced that a luminary is standing before them. A 100% had answered in the questionnaire that Dr. Fox had stimulated their thinking, a 90% that he presented material in a well organized form, and 90% that he put his material across in an interesting way.

This is, of course, an old story. It is still worth repeating since it is almost forgotten and most readers never heard of it. However, I would not repeat it unless I had something new for everybody. I found Dr. Naftulin and got from him the video of the lecture.

My own interest in such phenomena started with the discovery that 80% of scientific citations are not read by the citing authors but copied from the lists of references used in other papers [3]. Thus, an act of scientific citing is not a result of independent evaluation of the quality of the cited paper, but merely a replication of other citer's selection. This way when a paper was once cited it is more likely to be cited again, and after it was cited again it is even more likely to be cited in the future. As a result of this chain reaction the paper can become highly cited independently of its content. The degree of authority of a scientist is determined by the number of citations to his papers. Thus a scientist can become an authority independently of the content of his papers. This conclusion seemed bizare to the people who could not imagine that a person who knows nothing can pass as an authority. Dr. Fox lecture demonstrates that it is quite possible. Thus, this forgotten experiment gives additional support to the conclusion of the theory of citing.

Mikhail Simkin
December 5, 2010

This article appeared in Significance, a magazine of The Royal Statistical Society.


[1] Donald H. Naftulin, John E. Ware, Jr., and Frank A. Donnelly, The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction. Journal of Medical Education, vol. 48, July 1973, p. 630-635. Available online here: http://www.er.uqam.ca/nobel/r30034/PSY4180/Pages/Naftulin.html/

[2] Anatole Rapoport, The Use and Misuse of Game Theory. Scientific American, 207: 108-118, December 1962

[3] Mikhail Simkin, Opium for Scholars

Michael Fox as Dr. Myron Fox
as a terrorist spy in Blackhawk (1952)

Michael Fox as the leadhead gangster in The Adventures of Superman (1957)

View the video of Dr. Fox lecture

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