The Peter Lynds Affair
***Warning: What follows may contain remarks that are nothing more than overly skeptical, hare-brained speculation. Or they may not be. But at the very least, the story that is told offers a curious object lesson in what happens when you start thinking about the problem of how hard it can be to verify the identities of people that we only read about or interact with online. This, despite the fact that we live in the 'Age of Information.'***
On July 31 a press release was issued that soon appeared on EurekAlert Science News as well as on other sites. It declared the imminent publication of a "Ground-breaking work in understanding of time." This work was authored by an until-then unknown researcher called Peter Lynds, who was described as a 27-year-old college dropout living in Wellington New Zealand.
The press release was written by one Brooke Jones, an 'Independent Communications Consultant.' The release contained some rather strong claims. For instance, it suggested that "Lynds' work seems likely to establish him as a groundbreaking figure in respect to increasing our understanding of time in physics." Rather strong language for a scientific press release. But perhaps strong language was needed for such extraordinary work.
News of this ground-breaking work soon spread around the world, sparking intense discussion among physicists. But people couldn't help asking, 'Who is Peter Lynds?' Is he perhaps just a hoax, a pseudonym created by another physicist? After all, no one had ever heard of Lynds before. Perhaps, people speculated, an established scientist was trying to pull a practical joke on his or her peers, much like Alan Sokal did in 1996.
The extravagant nature of the claims, especially the remarks comparing Peter Lynds to Einstein, seemed to invite such speculation. In addition, there were many who felt that there was nothing ground-breaking about the work at all. That it, in fact, seemed to be little more than curious, yet not terribly original, philosophical musings.
An article published in the Guardian on August 14 addressed these questions. The author of the article, David Adam, tracked down Peter Lynds and called him up at his home in Wellington. David Adam was convinced that Lynds was quite legitimate. Peter Lynds, in other words, appeared to be exactly what he claimed to be: a 27-year-old college dropout who had succeeded in getting an article published in a physics journal.
It's around this point that I got involved in this story. I posted a note remarking on David Adam's article in my weblog. A day or two later I then received a comment from a visitor about the Peter Lynds affair, and I posted this on my website also, in a separate section (it's reproduced at the bottom of this page). The visitor had pointed out that if one does a news search for the name 'Peter Lynds' references to a broker working in Wellington pop up. He also speculated that Brooke Jones was an alias that Lynds himself was using.
I thought nothing of this post at first, and three days passed. But then I received an email from Peter Lynds himself (and his father) asking that I remove the visitor's post from my website. I responded that while I sympathized with him (I thought it must be pretty weird to have people arguing about whether you exist or not), I didn't feel the post was inappropriate or slanderous, and so it should remain. In fact, I thought the argument over his identity represented an interesting sociological phenomenon, i.e. how do we establish a person's true identity when we can never actually see or meet them? And so I wanted to preserve the small piece of this argument that had spilled over onto my website. I also suggested that the best way to respond to inaccurate statements is not to censor them, but rather to counter them with accurate, more credible statements.
Soon after a response came from Peter: he still wanted the post removed. There was some other stuff thrown in there as well. Something about me being unethical for refusing to remove it. Anyway, tempers were soon raised and battle lines drawn. I was now determined NOT to remove the post. Peter was determined to make me remove it. And so I started to become suspicious. Why in the world did he want that post down so badly? Why not just ignore it?
This is when an idea occurred to me. Perhaps this idea was born in anger, perhaps because I tend to be a skeptical kind of person anyway. Whatever the origin of it, the idea was that perhaps people were asking the wrong question. Instead of asking 'Who is Peter Lynds?' perhaps they should have been asking, as the visitor to my site had, who that woman was who had written the press release about Mr. Lynds, thus generating so much attention for him. In other words, 'Who is Brooke Jones?'
This is when I began to do some detective work to track down Brooke Jones. The only information I had about her was that I knew she was the woman who had written the glowing press release about him, but a search in news databases (Lexis-Nexis) indicated that she hadn't written anything else during her career in public relations.
Her email address was listed as Brooke.Jones@australia.edu. Australia.edu is, of course, a provider of free email accounts, much like Yahoo or Hotmail. So that didn't provide much information about her. In fact, anyone could have created an australia.edu email account under the name Brooke.Jones. As an experiment, I created an account under the name 'Alex Jones.' It was no problem. Just took a minute. You can send email to me there, email@example.com, though don't be surprised if I never respond, because I doubt I'll be checking that account often.
I did a search in the New Zealand Yellow Pages for PR agencies based in Wellington. There was no 'Brooke Jones, Communications Consultant' listed.
Then I discovered that Brooke was registered with a wire service called News Wise. I found this by doing a google search for her name. It was through News Wise that she had disseminated the release about Peter. Her business address was also listed on their site. It was : XX XXX XXX, Paremata, Wellington, New Zealand. (I've blanked out the street address for privacy purposes, though you can see it by clicking on the link). So at last I had some info about Ms. Jones.
I decided to compare Brooke's information with whatever I could find out about Peter Lynds. Well, Peter said that he lived in Wellington, New Zealand. So I did a search for his address in the Wellington White Pages. There was no Peter Lynds, but I saw that there were some other people named Lynds, and then it caught my eye. One of these Lynds's lived at this address: XX XXX XXX, Paremata. I knew I'd seen that address before, and then it struck me. That was also Brooke Jones's business address.
Further investigation soon revealed that Peter had listed this as his own address in the contact info for his article published in the August issue of the Foundations of Physics Letters.
So now I had come across something weird. Brooke Jones's business address appeared to be the same as Peter's home address. Did this mean that Brooke really was an alias of Peter? Well maybe, but maybe not.
I posted my detective work on my site, and now Peter really went ballistic, firing off emails in rapid succession threatening to sue me if I didn't take the information down. Of course, I wasn't about to take it down because I was on the hunt now. I figured that I had found the smoking gun.
Peter explained to me that Brooke was his 'media representative' and that they had agreed to send all correspondence about the press release directly to him. That's why his address had been used for her contact info. This explanation didn't make me much less skeptical.
Now, a few days later, the excitement of it all is beginning to subside and I'm not sure what I've found. I sent an email to Brooke's email address (that australia.edu one) asking if she had a work address or phone number. She (or someone using that account) responded that she'd be willing to call me, but was uncomfortable giving me her contact info. I sent her my phone number, but she hasn't called yet. Even if she were to call, I'm not sure what it would prove. Kaycee Nicole Swenson happily talked to people on the phone. That didn't mean she existed. But I digress.
In the meantime, I'm entertaining a couple of different theories:
Here's a comment from Peter himself that he requested I post on my site in response to everything above:
The reference to his mother may not seem to make sense any longer. It's because the Lynds listed in the Wellington White Pages turned out to be his mother's name. Sorry about that. But I didn't bring Peter's mother into this intentionally.
Here's the original comment from the visitor that got the whole argument going in the first place:
A bit of research for you. Just a week ago, a Peter Lynds from an insurance broker in Wellington NZ was advising a top finance website on the state of the economy: "Broker Peter Lynds of Direct Broking said there were few signs of the market being affected by concerns about a suspected case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease case in the Waikato. "