Lawrence Krauss, of all people, defended Geoff Marcy on the pages of Quillette last week.
Well, that’s a sentence that probably killed all further interest.
That Richard Dawkins then waded in to accuse people who oppose the abuses of power of being
pathetic, posturing little wimps probably doesn’t help.
I went ahead and barreled right in, and even compared their defense of sexism to the revelations that emerged from the recent documentary, Secrets of Hillsong. The good ol’ boy network is often deployed in the name of god, but sometimes it’s fired up in the name of science.
Transcript coming up!
This weekend I watched a Netflix documentary, the Secrets of Hillsong, about the evangelical/pentecostal church that was founded in Australia. It was immensely popular for a time; Justin Bieber was a follower, they were influential in promoting a youth message for a conservative denomination of old fogies, the Assemblies of God. One of the reasons an awful lot of churches now have pop-rock bands in front of the congregation is Hillsong — it was a powerful tool for drawing in attendees, and was the rock upon which many megachurches were built. It grew from a regional Pentecostal church under Frank Houston, into an international network of megachurches under his son, Brian Houston.
The documentary begins with the story of Carl Lentz, a dynamic, charismatic preacher who trained at Hillsong, who led their first church in the United States in New York. While the new church grew phenomenally, it was also the beginning of the end. While it was a popular church among Black communities, it was noticed that very few Black people had prominent roles. It was the usual story: white leaders spoke a good game, talking up the importance of the Black community, while not following through.
The end of Lentz, though, was the discovery that he was burying stories of abuse in the church, and was cheating on his wife. Brian Houston denounced him and Lentz was dismissed.
Then it was revealed that Brian Houston had also been engaged in inappropriate behavior. It’s hypocrisy all the way through.
Brian Houston eventually resigned as evidence of two affairs was revealed, and even worse, his father Frank had been abusing children for at least 30 years, and Brian had known about it and covered it up. Frank was dead by then, so I guess he got away with it.
It’s the layers and layers of duplicity that were gradually unfolded that made the documentary interesting. These Christian characters were shown denying the accusations repeatedly, and then, eventually, admitting their truth: “I was having sex with that woman,” and “Oh, yeah, Dad was a pedo.”
The church has since imploded and splintered, with various branches cutting all ties, and attendance shrinking rapidly. It’s still around, but it’s influence is vastly diminished. It’s becoming a familiar story, with a similar collapse of Mars Hill, the Seattle-based megachurch. In that case, it was the arrogance and bullying of the lead pastor, Mark Driscoll, that led to its catastrophic collapse.
The lessons I learned:
- Authoritarian leadership is bad. Humans are humans, and when given unconstrained power within an organization, they will abuse it.
Noble goals, even when I disagree with them, like the idea of bringing people to Christ, are never enough. You need rules and discipline for everyone — it’s when you’ve got a select few thinking they are above the rules that you get disaster.
Transparency is essential. The unsavory secrets will eventually burn their way through whatever you’ve hidden them behind, and then there will be a reckoning.
Everyone is an unreliable narrator when it comes to telling their own story. Cross-check everything.
This is not all I want to say, though. You know I already detest religion, especially Christianity, and especially evangelical Christianity. You could argue that what I’m saying here is also an example of unreliable narration — can you really trust my opinion when it comes to religion? You know I’ve got biases.
But then, right after I finished the Hillsong documentary, someone sent me a link to an article defending Geoff Marcy. It sounded very much like the apologetics offered by the perpetrators of the Hillsong debacle, but it has nothing at all to do with religion. It has to do with academia.
The article was a bit odd, coming out of the blue EIGHT YEARS after the Marcy affair was closed. The story is that Marcy was a prominent astronomer at Berkeley who was famed for his research on exoplanets. No one has questioned his research — it was great stuff, with many collaborators. But he was handsy with women. Multiple women came forward with stories of Marcy being inappropriately personal with them. Said one:
“He’s had a long history of behaving inappropriately, especially with undergraduates,” said Kirkpatrick, who at the time was a graduate student at Berkeley studying astrophysics. “Women discouraged other women from working with him as a research advisor. It was just something that was talked about pretty frankly among the women in the department.”
Kirkpatrick, who has since left academia, continues to run the Women in Astronomy blog, through which she says three other women have approached her with accounts of their experiences with Marcy.
The whisper network had identified him long before. Notice also that some women left the field because of his behavior. Said another:
One of the women, known as Complainant 3, studied astronomy as a graduate student. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she did not want her involvement in the matter to affect her current job.
According to her account to Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, she was at a post-colloquium dinner with her graduate department at the University of Hawaii when Marcy placed his hand on her leg, slid his hand up her thigh, and grabbed her crotch.
She didn’t register an official complaint until eight years later, by which time she’d left astronomy — in part, she said, because of the sexual harassment she and other female astronomers experienced. “When you’re a student and you see every complaint being ignored, and every male professor who has violated that have zero consequences, it really makes you not want to step forward,” she said.
Marcy abused his influence to shield himself from the consequences, and he was protected by other senior scientists.
“What’s really infuriating about this is that anybody of my generation in the field of exoplanets knows that Geoff does this,” Johnson said. “Everybody is so afraid of doing anything about it that they are afraid of speaking out, but everybody knows it.”
After investigations confirmed the problems with Marcy’s behavior, he eventually resigned. He was expelled from the National Academy of Science. He still publishes papers, and still raises controversy. The latest is that he was co-author on a paper that excluded credit to the graduate students who did much of the work.
Here is that paper, on which he is third author. It’s been withdrawn.
Notice the comment at the end, from the lead author: “It has come to my attention that there are significant concerns about the author list of this manuscript. It is very important to me that I honor everyone’s contribution to this work appropriately. Accordingly, I am revisiting the author list, with the goal of setting a standard for authorship that fairly acknowledges everyone’s contribution.”
It’s an authorship dispute. The grad students felt unfairly overlooked, so the author list is being reviewed. Seems reasonable. However, this has sparked unwarranted anger on the right. Here’s the headline for the complaint:
Campus Puritans Come for an Astronomer—And His Byline
By demanding that morality tests be imposed on scientific journal authorship, Geoff Marcy’s critics are creating a dangerous precedent.
Let me put this in context, though. This article was published in Quillette, the online journal that specializes in publishing slanted articles from aggrieved conservatives, race pseudoscientists, and people who are outraged at the existence of gay and trans people. The joke is that if you want to publish your positive views on craniometry and phrenology, it will be beloved on Quillette. It is not a reputable site, quite the opposite actually. The choice of venue instantly calls into question the content of the article.
Also, note the author, Lawrence Krauss. Krauss faced his own scandals, accused of behaviors that “range from offensive comments to groping and non-consensual sexual advances.” He was notorious for defending Jeffrey Epstein, a precedent that ought to make Geoffrey Marcy uneasy about being defended by him. His position as the head of the Origins project at Arizona State University was not renewed, because ASU agreed that the preponderance of evidence showed that he had violated their policies against sexual harassment. However, he did not get fired from his job; instead, he waited a year and quietly resigned.
So basically what we’ve got here is a harasser trying to defend a harasser on the pages of a disreputable racist website. Yeah, I think we can dismiss this one out of hand.
I will comment on one thing, though, this idea of demanding morality tests on authorship. From what I’ve read, that isn’t a question here: some graduate students are unhappy that their names were left off the paper, while the notorious harasser was left on. It’s a complicated question of what we’re going to value.
But also, why shouldn’t we consider moral values in this sort of thing? Why should known offenders be allowed to gather fame and reputation from scientific research, especially when it’s at the expense of students? Both Marcy and Krauss have been cast aside by the scientific community as unworthy contributors, so what advantage is there to welcoming them to the pages of our journals? Another point that their coauthors ought to bring up: they’re being asked to share a byline with someone who is a known predator. They have the right to object to the association.
It is right and necessary that people who abuse the system should not be allowed to profit from it.
Which brings us back to Hillsong. They too built a hierarchy with flawed people at the top; they wanted to hide away the abuse; they tried to silence critics; they considered their authorities too important to question. And look where it got them! It led to them being so thoroughly discredited that their organization crumbled beneath them. Near the end of the Hillsong documentary they talked with some of the featured workers in the group, and it was impressive how well they had been alienated. Some were still religious, but switched denominations. Some of them rebuked the megachurch experience and had found belonging in small community churches. Some had lost their faith. One even declared that he was now a happy atheist.
Science, at least, is not reliant on a single hierarchical authority so it’s not going to collapse as suddenly as a church. Still, though, keep in mind that Geoffrey Marcy was driving women out of astronomy. This is an incalcuable loss. I don’t care how great Marcy’s research was — that information is still there — but we cannot continue to prop up researchers who are harming the discipline as a whole. Exoplanet science is not dependent on any one person and will continue to progress, probably even at a faster rate as the selfish disruptors are weeded out.
None of this is about “puritans” or even “pathetic, posturing little wimps”. It’s not even about sex at all. It’s about checking an abuse of power. If you’re concerned about the detriment to science that losing Geoff Marcy has had, think about this: what if, early in his career, one of his peers had taken Marcy aside and explained that his behavior was troubling, that people see what he’s doing, and he should stop it. Maybe then he wouldn’t have gone on to damage himself and the careers of the women he worked with, he wouldn’t have lost his job, and we’d all be in a better place.
As long as there are people like Dawkins and Krauss who make excuses for predators and accuse anyone who protests abuses of power, though, the problem will persist and grow. I’m sure we can all think of other examples of this unfortunately human phenomenon.