01 March 2011

The Fall of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg

The German defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has resigned following the exposure of plagiarism on a massive scale in his PhD dissertation.  The figure above shows the results of a page-by-page Wiki effort to "audit" his dissertation.  The black and red colors indicate text that was directly (black) or partially (red) copied from other sources.  The white parts were judged OK and the blue represents the front and back matter.

Guttenberg's defense of his actions, which were supported by Chancellor Angela Merkel, sought to focus attention on those critiquing him in an effort to downplay the significance of the academic misconduct:
[Guttenberg's] first line of defense, however, appeared to be his repeated insistence that the problems with his dissertation had no bearing on his position at the head of the Defense Ministry -- an effort that Merkel herself had supported, saying last week that she had chosen Guttenberg to head the Defense Ministry and not "as a research assistant."

In his brief statement on Tuesday, Guttenberg once again seemed to blame his critics and the German media for focusing so intently on his dissertation. "If, as has been the case in recent weeks," Guttenberg said in his Tuesday statement, "the attention of the public and the media is almost exclusively focused on the person of Guttenberg and his dissertation instead of, for example, the death and injury of 13 soldiers (eds. note: three German soldiers were killed in Afghanistan last week), then it ... harms the institution I have been tasked with leading."
But in the end, it appears that the presures brought to bear from Germany's substantial academic community made continuation for Guttenberg impossible:
But on Monday it became clear that academia is furious with the way the chancellor has handled the affair. In an open letter to the chancellor, some 20,000 academics from Germany and around Europe said Merkel's support of Guttenberg was a "mockery" of all those who "contribute to scientific advancement in an honest manner."

"If the protection of ideas is no longer an important value in our society, then we are gambling away our future," the statement reads. "We do not expect gratitude for our scientific work, but we do demand ... respect. The scientific community is suffering as a result of the treatment of the Guttenberg case as a trivial offense. As is Germany's credibility."
Even so, I expect that we will again see Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in German politics, and Germany will then re-engage a debate over science, politics, trust and legitimacy.