Friday, August 17, 2018

genius and the permission of abuse "what do we do with the science of abusive men", a piece over at Slate

Even if he were a genius, we’d still be left to wonder how one might disentangle his accomplishments in science from his abuse of other people. This is just the most extreme example of a common problem, though. What about the other brilliant, Monstrous Men in Science? In recent years their ranks have swelled with bold-faced names. A number of these research legends have now resigned their academic posts and been humiliated before their peers. There’s no consensus, though, on how their misbehavior might affect the status of their past research.
It’s tempting to conclude that science ought to operate by different rules, in this regard, than other domains of creativity. When artists are alleged to be abusive, that information can be used to reinterpret all their work. A painting by Picasso is shaded by the artist’s well-established harmful tendencies with women. Woody Allen’s movies, watched again, show signs of cruelty and cynicism. Louis C.K.’s comedy of male enlightenment comes off, in retrospect, as naked propaganda for his decency. We’ve assumed, in all these cases, that the artist and his work are intertwined.
In science, though, we tend to treat the monstrous man as if he were composite: a brilliant Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego, the asshole Mr. Hyde. A researcher’s accomplishments and his depredations must be unrelated; after all, a finding is a finding, however vile its instrument. When James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA, said that women are “probably less effective” as scientists, and that black people are unintelligent, his outrageous bigotry did not reshape the natural world and force the double-helix to unwind. It only showed he was a jerk.
Yet even when it comes to molecular biology, I’m not sure that one can really tease these strands apart. It’s true, DNA is double-helical; that’s a fact about the universe, free of human values. But the discovery of DNA remains a social construct. Who came up with the idea, and how important was it? What accolades did that person merit for his work? The answers to those questions will always be subjective, and just as vexing, in their way, as those one might ask about Picasso, Polanski, or Pound.
And really, Watson’s outing as a sexist (and a racist) is hardly unrelated to the story of his science. It offers up some very useful context for his apparent theft of scientific credit from a female colleague, Rosalind Franklin. So, too, might STAT have used Anderson’s history as a child-abuser to better understand his work. When the details of his landmark research into gene therapy are inspected in the ugly light of his conviction, they seem to hint at something deeper in his character: Not his brilliance but his narcissism.
Elsewhere he’s described as a child prodigy who was slow to develop “people skills.” These same purported traits—his God-given brains and social awkwardness—have been adduced in favor of his innocence. At trial, Anderson told the prosecutor that he has an IQ of 178; that number also shows up in a recent article in the Beverly Hills Courier that takes his claims of persecution at face value. Anderson’s wife has said that his apparent confession, recorded in a confrontation with his victim, resulted from his lack of people skills. “It was frightening. … He just wanted to get away,” she told Wired’s Jennifer Kahn. Later she compares him to the troubled mathematician John Nash: “Only when one understands how different geniuses are can they be understood.”
His colleagues, too, have used his purported genius and strange temperament to explain away the accusation that he raped a child. The Courier quotes Anderson’s Harvard roommate (and fellow genius) Jared Diamond: “I think it’s very unlikely that he’s guilty,” said Diamond. “French has character traits … that make him very prone to be naïve or do foolish things.” The STAT piece notes that, ahead of his sentencing in 2006, several hundred prominent scientists wrote letters to the court “vouching for his integrity and character.”
His trial judge didn’t buy into this special pleading. In fact, he cited Anderson’s “intellectual arrogance”—not his genius—as a factor in his punishment. That’s what makes it so disturbing to see the article in STAT, which seems to take its subject’s view that he’s a genius, a “world renowned scientist” who just happens to have spent a dozen years in jail and now must wear an ankle monitor. Monstrous men of science shouldn’t get to frame their own identities, and they shouldn’t be allowed to fog their misbehaviors. Here’s another, better way to see the subject of this story: He’s not a scientist who ended up in prison; he’s a child-molester who ended up in science.
Ah, but on no account should we consider the possibility that a “puritan” response might be appropriate … that one's life and beliefs both actually matter.

Sorry, a little hobby horse there.  I just ... I just can't shake the sense that if you were to poll a bunch of Americans with a loaded question of whether they'd prefer to be a decent mediocrity or an evil genius the real answer would be that a lot of them would cheerfully or thoughtfully say they'd choose to be an evil genius.  It wouldn't be a matter of STEM or liberal arts, it might be more about .. the hero's journey (I'm slogging through Joseph Campbell, about which I may have more to say later).

In keeping with John Halle's lately blogged warning that we should not fall prey to a liberal arts stereotype type that it's the STEM bros who are most apt to harass, it's still important to note just how pervasive this harassment stuff seems to be.  Is it confirmation bias in some cases?  Not sure.  I don't know ... it's just not the least bit clear that when a James Gunn can get fired form a Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 project over tweets that the science field is necessarily "more" rife with this stuff.  Halle mentioned that what little studies there are may suggest there's LESS of it in the hard sciences and STEM. 

Whatever "genius" is surely cannot be taken as grounds for ignoring evil conduct ... but the struggles we seem to see playing out before us for the record have to do with the struggle between the corporate good and the individual's lot.  As individualistic as our society supposedly is it can seem as though an awful lot of the scandals in coverage have to do with what people's lives were harmed or ruined along the way to what might be called brand consolidation or brand burnishing. 

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