It’s Time for Science to Take Down Bullies in Its Own Ranks

It's Time for Science to Take Down Bullies in Its Own Ranks thumbnail

Academics often use intellectual attainment as a justification for abusive behavior. Credit: Jaime Jacob

Credit: Jaime Jacob

In early 2012, Eric Lander, one of the most respected scientists in the world, was forced to resign as President Joe Biden’s science adviser and director of White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was forced to quit because of evidence that he had bullied staff members and created a hostile work environment. Lander, who was a leader in the successful effort sequence the human genome, was also the head of the prestigious Broad Institute of Harvard, M.I.T. Before being selected for the White House job, Lander was a leader in the successful effort to sequence the human genome. He joins a list of top scientists who have been sanctioned for behavior ranging from bullying and disrespect to sexual harassment.

Title IX violations are the most well-known cases. This federal civil rights statute prohibits sexual harassment in educational programs that receive federal funding. In 2015 astronomer Geoffrey Marcy resigned from the University of California, Berkeley, after a Title IX investigation found him guilty of sexual harassment, including kissing and groping students. In 2018 evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, a one-time president and chair of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, resigned from U.C. After an investigation revealed that Irvine had violated the university’s policies on sexual harassment, discrimination and assault, even though he was warned repeatedly. In 2019 geologist David Marchant–who had a glacier named for him–was fired from Boston University after an investigation concluded that he had repeatedly made sexual comments and used derogatory sex-based slurs against a former graduate student. The student claimed that Marchant had pushed her down a steep slope. However, the investigation didn’t confirm this. In a historic first, in 2021 the National Academy of Sciences expelled both Marcy and Ayala from its ranks. Marchant’s glacier was renamed.

But not all cases fall within Title IX. Lander’s case demonstrates that there are many types of bad behavior in science, even though they don’t rise above the level of illegality. Perhaps that is why colleagues often ignore them.

Why?

Why? However, there is another problem in scientific culture that is often overlooked: the acceptance of misconduct by high-ranking professionals.

Many academics believe brilliant people should be allowed to have some bad behavior. This can lead to an intellectual superiority complex. Arthur T. Hadley, president of Yale University from 1899 to 1921, offered this view in an influential 1925 text that argued intelligence should be “a determining factor” in deciding on allowable personal conduct. Your brainpower is a measure of your freedom to do what you want.

Hadley has been mostly forgotten, but his attitude remains. This helps to explain why academics rally around bullies, often arguing about how accomplished they are as biologists, anthropologists, or literary theorists. This is a logic error. It confuses intellectual greatness and human decency. This may also explain a common pattern in these cases: some people close to the suspect insist that they have never seen anything similar to the alleged behavior. In the Marchant case, a fellow geologist who had worked with him for 11 years insisted the accusations were “inconsistent” with his experiences. Marchant may have been a good friend to those he respected while being a bad example for people of lower professional standing.

Call it the Raskolnikov effect after the law student in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who justified theft and murder because he believed the crimes would let him overcome his poverty and fulfill his exceptional intellectual potential. Although bullying is not murder, the mindset that motivated Raskolnikov often underpins other forms antisocial behavior. Surveys show that this type of personal abuse in science is common.

It is a significant step forward for the research community to hold its most prominent members responsible for their actions. It’s not unfair, inexcusable or excessive. It’s only a matter of time.

This article was originally published with the title “Science Takes On Bullies” in Scientific American 326, 5, 88 (May 2022)

doi: 10. 1038/scientificamerican0522-88

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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    Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University. She is author of Why Trust Science? (Princeto

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