Since we’re talking about Watson again, I thought I’d recommend a post on BitchMedia about how genius is used as an excuse for sin in the arts (thought the article focuses on film specifically). Despite the seeming differences in the scientific enterprise and the artistic enterprise, the observations in that piece seem quite relevant to how our society treats Michael Shermer, James Watson, and Inder Verma.
Auteur theory, originating in French film criticism, credits the director with being the chief creative force behind a production—that is, the director is the “author.” Given that film, with its expansive casts and crews, is one of the most collaborative art forms ever to have existed, the myth of a singular genius seems exceptionally flawed to begin with. But beyond the history of directors like Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, and many more using their marketable auteur status as a “business model of reflexive adoration,” auteur worship both fosters and excuses a culture of toxic masculinity. The auteur’s time-honored method of “provoking” acting out of women through surprise, fear, and trickery—though male actors have never been immune, either— is inherently abusive. Quentin Tarantino, Lars Von Trier, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and David O. Russell, among others, have been accused of different degrees of this, but the resulting suffering of their muses is imagined by a fawning fanbase as “creative differences,” rather than as misogyny and as uncompromising vision rather than violence.
In experimental “hard” science (I’m told, I have no experience with this outside some limited experience in Psychology labs, which are different from biology, medicine, chemistry and physics labs) the scientist running the lab typically has the privilege of taking last authorship on any paper that comes out of that lab’s work, even if involvement of the head scientist was merely nominal. Though many scientists don’t choose to exercise that option terribly often, those who exercise it more than the norm aren’t criticized that I’ve noticed. There is very much a myth that credit for all the production of a lab can be assigned to a single person, despite science being very much a collaborative enterprise, often on scales that dwarf even large-budget movie-making.
If it were true that a single scientist would produce the same great science no matter who is hired to work in the scientist’s lab, then it might make sense to allow scientists like Verma to ruin careers or sabotage recruiting efforts. Tolerating a sexual harasser like Verma gives every appearance of being would not hurt an institution at all, so long as the harasser produced science on a scale and of a quality to please employers like the Jonas Salk Institute. But of course this is not true, and the actions excused by directors and human resource departments injure not only the careers of individual scientists, but ultimately the institutions that these administrators and bureaucrats work to protect.
Go read the BitchMedia article if you’re interested in their insights on how this plays out in the arts, but don’t think that the genius excuse isn’t used in far more places than Hollywood.
InvivoMark corrected me about lab traditions: the head of the lab is traditionally the last author on a paper, though in this post I originally said the first author. Corrected above.
Also, thanks Sarah00 for pointing out I’d forgotten to include a link to the BitchMedia piece.