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When the science is good, but the scientist isn’t

| Wednesday, October 25, 2017

By now, we’ve all seen the #MeToo stories pop up on social media. The women who step forward to share stories of unwanted attention, harassment or abuse show exemplary bravery, and their goal is admirable: to raise awareness of the aggression against women that occurs every day. But what do we do with that awareness once we have it?

In the case of Harvey Weinstein, the man whose depravity initiated #MeToo, the response has been swift and serious. As stories of his predations pile up, actor after actor has denounced him, in addition to a slew of politicians he donated to. Weinstein has been stripped of titles and awards, fired from his own company and ousted from the Academy. This large-scale action has denounced Weinstein as a human and cast a shadow over his life’s work. Certainly people will not stop watching Weinstein’s movies, but audiences will now have to wonder what the scantily-clad starlets were being forced to do off stage. Weinstein’s art will be still be consumed, but it may spark fundamentally different questions than he originally intended.

But what if Weinstein had been a scientist?

The sad truth is that no field is free of degenerates. Weinstein is far from the first film guru to take advantage of struggling actresses; countless artists turned out to have ethically questionable habits, not to mention the music industry. Many of literature’s greatest classics were penned by men who later turned out to be morally reprehensible: “Lord of the Flies” author William Golding tried to rape a 15-year-old girl, Patricia Highsmith shaped the field crime novels but was was unapologetically racist, Orson Scott Card wrote the beloved “Enders Game” and was so homophobic he tried to reinstate sodomy laws. Yet art as a field can deal with these problems. Can we love the art and hate the artist? It’s a complicated, philosophical question, one that feels right at home in an English class discussion. It would not at all be inappropriate for my English professor to say, “Modernism was an incredibly important literary movement, but a lot of these authors were ragingly anti-semitic. So I felt conflicted about putting Ezra Pound on the syllabus — what do you think about that?”

Now try to imagine that conversation happening in the laboratory. “You know, this reagent is an ingenious way to isolate DNA, but the guy who invented it is now on trial for rape. Do you want to use something else instead?”

It would be absurd. And entirely impractical — science is built on efficiency, on the ability to get sound results. This seems to create a “what happens outside the lab stays outside the lab” mentality; when it comes time to conduct an experiment, scientists follow the work of others based on their scientific merit more than anything else.

This is as it should be. Much of science is geared towards improving people’s lives, even saving them. Just as those working with Weinstein have now left him, it may seem that ethical scientists should not pursue a line of research begun by someone who later turned out to be immoral. Yet imagine this research could lead to the cure for a disease or clean energy or cheaper food. Now the moral obligation runs the opposite way: Researchers must pursue good science, even if the other scientist is bad.

Thus, scientists don’t have the ethical luxury of sidelining someone’s work, or even caveating it. They have to find other ways to denounce degenerate members of their field — something they have begun to do with impressive success.

One example is James Watson, who helped discover the structure of DNA (alongside Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, though history has not remembered them all equally). Watson won a Nobel Prize, and his name is in every biology textbook published since 1953. Yet in a 2007 interview he made blatantly racist remarks about the intelligence of Africans. The scientific community was outraged; he had many talks cancelled and no one will now work with him. He apparently became so poor he had to sell his Nobel Prize.

Yet scientists still use the product of his life’s work. The structure of DNA is not something that can be ignored or boycotted, and of course it hasn’t been. James Watson has. This is just one example of researchers accepting the science and deploring the scientist.

The issue of moral degeneracy in science produces complicated questions, because a scientist’s work can’t just be ignored by their peers. Yet science is a field of innovation, where complex problems are met by impressive solutions. I expect this particular problem will be no exception.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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