Melinda, Bill and Jeffrey (Epstein)

I’m not sure what to make of Bill Gates as he features in the New York Times‘s report on his divorce with Melinda French Gates, although it’s tempting to see hints of that attitude so often on display when the Jeffrey Epstein scandal broke in 2019: “I had to have known of the sort of man I’m doing business with but I’m going to pretend that stuff doesn’t exist – or if I can’t then I’m going to remember that it doesn’t bother me – and if someone asks I’m going to say ‘I didn’t know’, and if they don’t believe me I’m just going to offer some money.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s revelation on May 9 that Melinda had been speaking to divorce lawyers since 2019 made it hard to discount an Epstein connection, too.

Other people who came tumbling out of the closet at the time, crooning excuses of various degrees of similarity, include Joi Ito, John Brockman, Lawrence Krauss, George Church, Seth Lloyd and Jean-François Gariépy, plus MIT and Arizona State University.

Excerpts from the report:

And then there was Jeffrey Epstein, whom Mr. Gates got to know beginning in 2011, three years after Mr. Epstein, who faced accusations of sex trafficking of girls, pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution from a minor. Ms. French Gates had expressed discomfort with her husband spending time with the sex offender, but Mr. Gates continued doing so, according to people who were at or briefed on gatherings with the two men.

So, in October 2019, when the relationship between Mr. Gates and Mr. Epstein burst into public view, Ms. French Gates was unhappy. She hired divorce lawyers, setting in motion a process that culminated this month with the announcement that their marriage was ending.

About a year after the settlement – and less than two weeks after Ms. French Gates’s column in Time – The Times published an article detailing Mr. Gates’s relationship with Mr. Epstein. The article reported that the two men had spent time together on multiple occasions, flying on Mr. Epstein’s private jet and attending a late-night gathering at his Manhattan townhouse. “His lifestyle is very different and kind of intriguing although it would not work for me,” Mr. Gates emailed colleagues in 2011, after he first met Mr. Epstein.

(Ms. Arnold, the spokeswoman for Mr. Gates, said at the time that he regretted the relationship with Mr. Epstein. She said that Mr. Gates had been unaware that the plane belonged to Mr. Epstein and that Mr. Gates had been referring to the unique décor of Mr. Epstein’s home.)

LOL!

The Times article included details about Mr. Gates’s interactions with Mr. Epstein that Ms. French Gates had not previously known, according to people familiar with the matter. Soon after its publication she began consulting with divorce lawyers and other advisers who would help the couple divide their assets, one of the people said. The Wall Street Journal previously reported the timing of her lawyers’ hiring.

The revelations in The Times were especially upsetting to Ms. French Gates because she had previously voiced her discomfort with her husband associating with Mr. Epstein, who died by suicide in federal custody in 2019, shortly after being charged with sex trafficking of girls. Ms. French Gates expressed her unease in the fall of 2013 after she and Mr. Gates had dinner with Mr. Epstein at his townhouse, according to people briefed on the dinner and its aftermath.

The Daily Beast reported on May 7:

Melinda Gates met with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein alongside her husband, Bill, in New York City and soon after said she was furious at the relationship between the two men, according to people familiar with the situation. The previously unreported meeting occurred at Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion in September 2013…  The meeting would prove a turning point for Gates’ relationship with Epstein, the people familiar with the matter say, as Melinda told friends after the encounter how uncomfortable she was in the company of the wealthy sex offender and how she wanted nothing to do with him. Gates’ friendship with Epstein—who for years was accused of molesting scores of underage girls—still haunts Melinda, according to friends of the couple who spoke to The Daily Beast this week…

Again, a hint of the “the two things aren’t connected” logic.

And for his part: “A person who attended meetings at Epstein’s townhouse says Gates enjoyed holding court there. … Gates used the gatherings at Epstein’s $77 million New York townhouse as an escape from what he told Epstein was a ‘toxic’ marriage, a topic both men found humorous, a person who attended the meetings told The Daily Beast.”

Gates’s spokesperson has denied all these allegations, and others.

Back to the New York Times:

For years, Mr. Gates continued to go to dinners and meetings at Mr. Epstein’s home, where Mr. Epstein usually surrounded himself with young and attractive women, said two people who were there and two others who were told about the gatherings. Ms. Arnold said Mr. Gates never socialized or attended parties with Mr. Epstein, and she denied that young and attractive women participated at their meetings. “Bill only met with Epstein to discuss philanthropy,” Ms. Arnold said.

Read: “The other stuff didn’t bother him. Bill only met with Epstein to help launder Epstein’s reputation.”

Sometime after 2013, Mr. Epstein brought Mr. Gates to meet Leon Black, the head of Apollo Investments who had a multifaceted business and personal relationship with Mr. Epstein, according to two people familiar with the meeting. The meeting was held at Apollo’s New York offices. It is unclear whether Ms. French Gates was aware of the latest meetings with Mr. Epstein.

It seems the Bill-Jeffrey friendship wasn’t as benign as media reports have suggested, but while he was clearly bad news for the couple, Epstein was also the last straw – and not the sole cause of the break-up. As the rest of the Times article discusses, as do articles in The Daily Beast and Wall Street Journal, Melinda had been discomfited by Bill’s response to accusations of harassment against his money manager and his affair with an employee a year before he quit the Microsoft board in 2020.

Featured image: A photograph of Jeffrey Epstein in 1980. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

To read or not a bad man’s book

The Life of Science team uploaded the video of their webinar on July 10, about the construct of the genius in science, on YouTube on July 14. Please watch it if you haven’t already. I had also blogged about it. During the webinar, Gita Chadha – a sociologist of science and one of the two guests – answered a question I had posed, which in turn had arisen from contemplating whether I should read a soon to be published book authored by Lawrence M. Krauss.

Specifically, Krauss has been accused of being a predator and is also tainted by his association with and defence of Jeffrey Epstein. He will soon have a book published about the physics of climate change. I was and am inclined to boycott the book but this is an emotional response. More objectively speaking I didn’t/don’t know if my decision was/is as a matter of principle the right one. (More detailed deliberation, taking recourse through the stories of Geoffrey Marcy, Georges Lemaître, Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman as well, here.)

So at the time of registering for the webinar, I had recorded this question: “How can we separate scholarship from the scholar when the latter are ‘geniuses’ who have been removed from pedestals for abusing power?” Chadha’s reply follows (from 36:45):

I got the question as – how can you separate scholarship from the scholar? This is an extremely complex question.

I find it extremely difficult to argue for the non-separation. For example, after the #MeToo movement, a lot of us faced the following situation. Suppose I know that some scientist or social scientist has been named a predator. What do I do with their work? Do I stop using or teaching the work, or something else? These are dilemmas. I would argue saying that it is impossible to keep the work away. But when we know they are capable of unethical or non-inclusive practices, it becomes inevitable to call them out. Because in calling them out, you will also call out the culture to which they belong, which will help you to restore the balance of justice, if I may say so.

But I would push the question further and say that we need to critically start engaging with how the social location of a scholar impacts the kind of work that they do. It’s very important, the kind of things Shalini Mahadev [the other panellist] has been talking about. Why do we privilege a certain kind of abstract work? Why do we privilege a certain kind of abstract testing of intellect? Why do we [pursue] work in [some areas over others]? Why is ‘glorified work’ in mathematics in number theory? How is knowledge constructed by the social location of caste in India, for example?

This question about the knowledge and the knowledge-maker is a deeper question. I would think it’s important to keep the connection between the two alive. Them being on pedestals is a different question. This is exactly what I was trying to say: There is no talent, there is only the struggle for eminence, awards… [these are] ways of wielding power. And that power you wield, because you are an eminent scientist, will always give you the clean chit: “He’s a genius, so it’s okay if he’s a wife-beater”, “it’s okay if he’s a predator,” etc. His genius and his work needs to be preserved. That is where the problem arises.

This is all insightful, and partly helpful. For example, a lot of people have called out Krauss and he also ‘retired’ shortly after. The effects of the #MeToo movement have prompted some reforms – or at least reformatory tendencies – in a variety of fields, as a result of which more than a few scientists have been ‘outed’ thus. More importantly, abusing the power imbalance between teachers and students is today widely understood to be an implicit bad, at least in quarters from which other scientists have been already removed. We have not restored the balance of justice but we have surely, even if imperfectly, started on this path.

However, Krauss continues to stand his ground, and soon he will have a book. If in this context I’m intent on keeping the connection between knowledge and the knowledge-maker alive, I can read his book. At the same time the act of purchasing his book will make this predator-in-denial richer, financially more powerful, and as a scholar more relevant and therefore more employable. Considering Chadha only said we must call out the culture to which such scientists belong, and nothing about whether the scientist in question should repent, I’m still confused.

If I’m wrong or have lost my train of thought in some obvious way even as I mull Chadha’s words, just as well. But if you know the way out of these woods, please don’t keep it to yourself!

Redeeming art v. redeeming science

Recently, someone shared the cover of a soon to be released book, entitled The Physics of Climate Change, authored by Lawrence M. Krauss and expressed excitement about the book’s impending publication and the prospect of their reading it. I instinctively responded that I would be actively boycotting the book after the sexual harassment allegations against Krauss plus his ties with Jeffrey Epstein. I didn’t, and don’t, wish to consume his scholarship.

Now, I don’t think that facts alone can be redemptive – that if a book’s contents are right, as ascertained through dispassionate tests of verification, we get to ignore questions about whether the contents are good. There are many examples littering the history of science that tell a story about how a fixation on the facts (and more recently data), and their allegedly virtuous apoliticality, has led us astray.

Consider the story of Geoffrey Marcy. It does not matter, or matters less, that humankind as a whole has made great astronomical discoveries. Instead, it should matter – or matter more – how we go about making them. And Marcy was contemptible because his discoveries were fuelled not just by his appreciation of the facts, so to speak, but also because he pushed women out of astronomy and astrophysics and traumatised them. As a result, consuming the scholarship of Marcy, and Krauss and so many others, feels to me like I am fuelling their transgressions.

Many of these scholars assumed prominence because they drew in grants worth millions to their universities. Their scholarship dealt in facts, sure, but in the capitalist university system, a scholarship also translates to grants and an arbitrarily defined ‘prestige’ that allow universities to excuse the scholars’ behaviour and to sideline victims’ accusations. Some universities even participate in a system derisively called ‘passing the trash’; as BuzzFeed reported in the case of Erik Shapiro in 2017, “the ‘trash’ … refers to high-profile professors who bring status and money to universities that either ignore or are unaware of past scandals.”

So supporting scholars for the virtues of their scholarship alone seems quite disingenuous to me. This is sort of like supporting the use of electric vehicles while ignoring the fact that most of the electricity that powers them is produced in coal-fired power plants. In both cases, the official policy is ultimately geared in favour of maximising profits (more here and here). As such, the enemy here is the capitalist system and our universities’ collective decision to function on its principles, ergo singling scholarship out of for praise seems misguided.

This is also why, though I’ve heard multiple arguments to the contrary, I really don’t know how to separate art from artist, or scholarship from scholar. An acquaintance offered the example of Georges Lemaître, the Belgian Catholic priest and cosmologist who – in the acquaintance’s telling – attempted to understand the world as it was without letting his background as a priest get in the way. I was not convinced, saying the case of Lemaître sounded like a privileged example for its clean distinction between one’s beliefs as a person and one’s beliefs as a scientist. I even expressed suspicion that there might be a reason Lemaître turned to a more mechanistic subject like cosmology and not a more negotiated one like social anthropology.

In fact, Krauss also discovered the world as is in many ways, and those findings do not become wrong for the person he was, or was later found to be. But we must not restrict ourselves to the rightwrong axis, and navigate the goodbad axis as well.

In this time, I also became curious about non-white-male (but including trans-male) scientists who may have written on the same topic – the physics of climate change. So I went googling, finding quite a few results. My go-to response in such situations, concerning the fruits of a poisoned tree, has been to diversify sources – to look for other fruits – because then we also discover new scholarship and art, and empower conventionally disprivileged scholars and artists.

In this regard, the publishers of Krauss’s book also share blame (with Krauss’s universities, which empowered him by failing to create a safe space for students). If publishers are sticking with Krauss instead of, say, commissioning a professor from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, they are only embellishing preexisting prejudices. They reinforce the notion that they’d much rather redeem an unrepentant white man who has sinned than discover a new writer who deserves the opportunity more. So the publishers are only worsening the problem: they are effectively signalling to all guiltless perpetrators that publishers will help salvage what universities let sink.

At this point, another acquaintance offered a reconciliatory message: that while it’s unwise to dismiss misconduct, it’s also unwise to erase it. So it might be better to let it be but to take from it only the good stuff. Sage words, but therein lay another rub because of a vital difference between the power of fiction versus (what I perceive to be) the innate amorality of scientific scholarship.

Fiction inspires better aspirations and is significantly more redeemable as a result, but I don’t suppose we can take the same position on, say, the second law of thermodynamics or Newton’s third law of motion. Or can we? If you know, please tell me. But until I’m disabused of the notion, I expect it will continue to be hard for me to find a way to rescue the scholarship of a ‘tainted’ scholar from the taint itself, especially when the scholarship has little potential – beyond the implicit fact of its existence, and therefore the ‘freedom of research’ it stands for – to improve the human condition as directly as fiction can.

[Six hours later] I realise I’ve written earlier about remembering Richard Feynman a certain way, as well as Enrico Fermi – the former for misogyny and the latter for a troublingly apolitical engagement with America’s nuclear programme – and that those prescriptions, to remember the bad with the good and to remember the good with the bad, are now at odds with my response to Krauss. This is where it struck me the issue lay: I believe what works for Feynman should work for Krauss as well except in the case of Krauss’s new book.

Feynman was relatively more prolific, since he was also more of a communicator and teacher, than Fermi or Krauss. But while it’s impossible for me to escape the use of Feynman diagrams or Fermi-Dirac statistics if I were a theoretical particle physicist, I still have a choice to buy or boycott the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! (1985) with zero consequences for my professional career. If at this point you rebut that “every book teaches us something” so we can still read books without endorsing the authors themselves, I would disagree on the simple point that if you wish to learn, you could seek out other authors, especially those who deserve the opportunity of your readership more.

I expect for the reasons and uncertainty described earlier that the same can go for Krauss and The Physics of Climate Change as well: remember that Krauss was a good physicist and a bad man, and that he was a bad man who produced good physics, but even as other scientists stand on the shoulders of his contributions to quantum physics, I can and will skip The Physics of Climate Change.

Axiomatically, the more we insist that good science communication, an instance of which I believe the book is, is important to inculcate better public appreciation of scientific research, and in the long run improve funding prospects, increase public interest in science-backed solutions to societal problems, draw more students into STEM fields and hold the scientific enterprise accountable in more meaningful as well as efficacious ways, the more science communication itself becomes a stakeholder in the mechanisms that produce scientific work that universities capitalise on, that is currency of this whole enterprise.

A science for the non-1%

David Michaels, an epidemiologist and a former US assistant secretary of labour for occupational safety and health under Barack Obama, writes in the Boston Review:

[Product defence] operations have on their payrolls—or can bring in on a moment’s notice—toxicologists, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, risk assessors, and any other professionally trained, media-savvy experts deemed necessary (economists too, especially for inflating the costs and deflating the benefits of proposed regulation, as well as for antitrust issues). Much of their work involves production of scientific materials that purport to show that a product a corporation makes or uses or even discharges as air or water pollution is just not very dangerous. These useful “experts” produce impressive-looking reports and publish the results of their studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals (reviewed, of course, by peers of the hired guns writing the articles). Simply put, the product defence machine cooks the books, and if the first recipe doesn’t pan out with the desired results, they commission a new effort and try again.

Members of the corporate class have played an instrumental role in undermining trust in science in the last century, and Michaels’s exposition provides an insightful glimpse of how they work, and why what they do works. However, the narrative Michaels employs, as illustrated above, treats scientists like minions – a group of people that will follow your instructions but will not endeavour to question how their research is going to be used as long as, presumably, their own goals are met – and also excuses them for it. This is silly: the corporate class couldn’t have done what it did without help from a sliver of the scientific class that sold its expertise to the highest bidder.

Even if such actions may have been more the result of incompetence than of malice, for too long have scientists claimed vincible ignorance in their quasi-traditional tendency to prize unattached scientific progress more than scientific progress in step with societal aspirations. They need to step up, step out and participate in political programmes that deploy scientific knowledge to solve messy real-world problems, which frequently fail and just as frequently serve misguided ends (such as – but sure as hell not limited to – laundering the soiled reputation of a pedophile and convicted sex offender).

But even so, even as the scientists’ conduct typifies the problem, the buck stops with the framework of incentives that guides them.

Despite its connections with technologies that powered colonialism and war, science has somehow accrued a reputation of being clean. To want to be a scientist today is to want to make sense of the natural universe – an aspiration both simple and respectable – and to make a break from the piddling problems of here and now to the more spiritually refined omnipresent and eternal. However, this image can’t afford to maintain itself by taking the deeply human world it is embedded in for granted.

Science has become the reason for state simply because the state is busy keeping science and politics separate. No academic programme in the world today considers scientific research to be at par with public engagement and political participationa when exactly this is necessary to establish science as an exercise through which, fundamentally, people construct knowledge about the world and then ensure it is used responsibly (as well as to demote it from the lofty pedestal where it currently lords over the social sciences and humanities). Instead, we have a system that encourages only the production of knowledge, tying it up with metrics of professional success, career advancement and, most importantly, a culture of higher educationb and research that won’t brook dissent and tolerates activist-scientists as lesser creatures.

a. And it is to the government’s credit that political participation has become synonymous with electoral politics and the public expression of allegiance to political ideologies.

b. Indeed, the problem most commonly manifests as a jaundiced impression of the purpose of teaching.

The perpetuators of this structure are responsible for the formation and subsequent profitability of “the strategy of manufacturing doubt”, which Michaels writes “has worked wonders … as a public relations tool in the current debate over the use of scientific evidence in public policy. … [The] main motivation all along has been only to sow confusion and buy time, sometimes lots of time, allowing entire industries to thrive or individual companies to maintain market share while developing a new product.”

To fight the vision of these perpetuators, to at least rescue the fruits of the methods of science from inadvertent ignominy, we need publicly active scientists to be the rule, not the exceptions to the rule. We need structural incentives to change to accommodate the fact that, if they don’t, this group of people will definitely remain limited to members of the upper class and/or upper castes. We need a stronger, closer marriage of science, the social sciences, business administration and policymaking.

To be sure, I’m neither saying the mere presence of scientists in public debates will lead to swifter solutions nor that the absence of science alone in policymaking is responsible for so many of the crises of our times – but that their absence has left cracks so big, it’s quite difficult to consider if they can be sealed any other wayc. And yes, the world will slow down, the richer will become less rich and economic growth will become more halting, but these are all also excuses to maintain a status quo that has only exploited the non-1% for two centuries straight.

c. Michaels concludes his piece with a list of techniques the product-defence faction has used to sow doubt and, in the resulting moments of vulnerability, ‘sell science’ – i.e. techniques that represent the absence of guiding voices.

Of course, there’s only so much one can do if the political class isn’t receptive to one’s ideas – but we must begin somewhere, and what better place to begin than at the knowledgeable place?

Necessity and sufficiency

With apologies for recalling horrible people early in the day: I chanced upon this article quoting Lawrence Krauss talking about his friend Jeffrey Epstein from April 2011, and updated in July 2019. Excerpt (emphasis added):

Renowned scientists whose research Epstein has generously funded through the years also stand by him. Professor Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist …, has planned scientific conferences with Epstein in St. Thomas and remained close with him throughout his incarceration. “If anything, the unfortunate period he suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge,” says Krauss. “Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they’re not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.” Though colleagues have criticized him over his relationship with Epstein, Krauss insists, “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

Well, of course he felt raised by his friendship with Epstein. But more importantly, the part in bold is just ridiculous, and I hope Krauss was suitably slammed for saying such a stupid thing at the time.a It’s a subtle form of scientism commonly found in conversations that straddle two aggressively differing points of view – such as the line between believing and disbelieving the acts of a convicted sex offender or between right- and left-wing groups in India.

Data is good, even crucial, as the numerical representation of experimental proof, and for this reason often immutable. But an insistence on data before anything else is foolish because it presupposes that the use of the scientific method – implied by the production and organisation of data – is a necessary as well as sufficient condition to ascertain an outcome. But in truth, science is often necessary but almost never sufficient.

Implying in turn that all good scientists should judge everything by empirical evidence isn’t doing science or scientists any favours. Instead, such assertions might abet the impression of a scientist as someone unmoved by sociological, spiritual or artistic experiences, and science as a clump of methods all of which together presume to make sense of everything you will ever encounter, experience or infer. However, it’s in fact a body of knowledge obtained by applying the scientific method to study natural phenomena.

Make what you will of science’s abilities and limitations based on this latter description, and not Krauss’s insular and stunted view that – in hindsight – may have been confident in its assertion if only because it afforded Krauss a way to excuse himself. And it is because of people like him (necessity), who defer to scientific principles even as they misappropriate and misuse these principles to enact their defensive ploys, together with the general tendency among political shills to use overreaching rhetoric and exaggerated claims of harm (sufficiency), that the scientific enterprise itself takes a hit in highly polarised debates word-wars.

a. If Krauss insists on sticking to his scientistic guns, it might be prudent to remind him of counterfactual definiteness.

Accumulation then philanthropy

Peter Woit’s review of a new book about Jim Simons, the mathematician and capitalist who set up the Simons Foundation, which funds math and physics research around the world but principally in the West to the tune of $300 million a year, raises an intriguing question only to supersede its moral quandaries by the political rise of Donald Trump in the US. To quote select portions from the review:

In the case of the main money-maker, their Medallion fund, it’s hard to argue that the short-term investment strategies they use provide important market liquidity. The fund is closed to outside investors, and makes money purely personally for those involved with RenTech, not for institutions like pension funds. So, the social impact of RenTech will come down to that of what Simons and a small number of other mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists decide to do with the trading profits.

Simons himself has engaged in some impressive philanthropy, but one perhaps should weigh that against the effects of the money spent by Robert Mercer, the co-CEO he left the company to. Mercer and his daughter have a lot of responsibility for some of the most destructive recent attacks on US democracy (e.g. Breitbart and the Cambridge Analytica 2016 election story). In the historical evaluation of whether the world would have been better off with or without RenTech, the fact that RenTech money may have been a determining factor in bringing Trump and those around him to power is going to weigh heavily on one side.

This may be the Simons Foundation’s fate but what of other wealthy bodies that accumulate capital by manipulating various financial instruments – the way Jim Simons did – and then donate all or part of them to research? Bill Gates was complicit, as were his compatriots at Silicon Valley, in the rise of techno-optimism and its attendant politics and fallacies, but the foundation he and his wife run today is becoming instrumental in the global fight against malaria. Gates’s Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has a similar story, as did Jeffrey Epstein, as do many other ‘venture capitalists’ who had to accumulate capital – a super-sin of our times – before redistributing it philanthropically to various causes, benign and otherwise.

If these various organisations hadn’t acquired their wealth in the first place, would their later philanthropy have been necessary? A follow-up: There’s an implicit tendency to assume the research that these foundations fund can only be a good but is it really? Aside from the question of science’s, and scientists’, relationship with the rest of society, I wonder how differently research efforts would be spread around the world if the world had been spared the accumulation-then-philanthropy exercise. If there is a straightforward argument for why there’s likely to be no difference, I’m all ears; but if such an argument doesn’t exist, perhaps there’s an injustice there we should address.

Toppling Epstein’s intellectuals network

While there have been no other high-profile exits from the MIT Media Lab after Ethan Zuckerman and J. Nathan Matias submitted their resignations, the lab’s students had been demanding its director Joi Ito to resign over his ties with Epstein. While it is ridiculous that Ito pled ignorance in his August 15 note where he admitted he had received money from Epstein for the lab as well as as investments in his personal projects, tweets by Xeni Jardan and others only made his ignorance more implausible.

Peter Aldhous and his colleagues at BuzzFeed subsequently used tax filings to track down many of his elusive grantees in one frighteningly long list that includes biologists Martin Nowak and Robert Trivers as well as the publisher of Nautilus magazine.

According to a new set of updates that hit the news over the weekend, Ito had been letting on less than he knew, and he knew that Epstein was a convicted sexual offender who had preyed upon young, vulnerable women for his sexual pleasure as well as that of a bevy of celebrities (including Marvin Minsky, the cofounder of the Media Lab). The following articles – led by Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker, who apparently published the first article based on whistleblowers at MIT who had known of Ito’s and others’s (non-ignorant) ties with Epstein but whose notes the New York Times had turned down, possibly because Ito is on the Times‘s board of directors – have all the details:

  1. Jeffrey Epstein’s Donations Create a Schism at M.I.T.’s Revered Media Lab (NYT)
  2. How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein (NYer)
  3. Director of M.I.T.’s Media Lab Resigns After Taking Money From Jeffrey Epstein (NYT)
  4. The Epstein scandal at MIT shows the moral bankruptcy of techno-elites (The Guardian)

There is also this…

… and this (the whole thread is excellent):

Farrow goes into great detail in his story but the most revealing paragraph to me was this:

… the lab was aware of Epstein’s history—in 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution—and of his disqualified status as a donor. They also show that Ito and other lab employees took numerous steps to keep Epstein’s name from being associated with the donations he made or solicited. On Ito’s calendar, which typically listed the full names of participants in meetings, Epstein was identified only by his initials. Epstein’s direct contributions to the lab were recorded as anonymous. In September, 2014, Ito wrote to Epstein soliciting a cash infusion to fund a certain researcher, asking, “Could you re-up/top-off with another $100K so we can extend his contract another year?” Epstein replied, “yes.” Forwarding the response to a member of his staff, Ito wrote, “Make sure this gets accounted for as anonymous.” Peter Cohen, the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Director of Development and Strategy at the time, reiterated, “Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous. Thanks.”

While it was already ridiculous at the time of Ito’s first indication that he accepted Epstein’s money without knowing of Epstein’s crimes, it is absolutely certain now that Ito spent many, many years knowing what Epstein had done and expressed regret for his actions only when the heat became unbearable.

What’s more, MIT and the Media Lab are guilty of the same thing, descending to the moral cesspit occupied by universities around the country , and the world, that harboured exploitative professors who harassed their students, and purchased their employers’ silence with scientific expertise – whatever that stands for – and federal grants. This outcome also supports the view that without the right sociological safeguards, the naked scientific enterprise is hugely vulnerably to being instrumentalised to achieve extra-scientific goals. And Cesar Hidalgo, a former associate professor at the Media Lab and then its first and sole Hispanic member, said in a thread recounting his experiences that Ito had done just this, in his own way.

(Aside: Whenever a scientist is informed that he or she is a suspect in a crime in the TV show Elementary, their first response is often along the lines of: “But I’m a scientist!” I tend to burst out laughing at this point. It is fascinating how many people believe scientists are to be perceived as incapable of committing crimes by virtue of being scientists, as if they are not people too and – more importantly – as if they are people enslaved to the diktats of the natural universe and whose directions they follow in an unbiased and unemotional manner.)

Earlier, on August 22, Evgeny Morozov published an intriguing article in the New Republic, in which he shared an email he received from John Brockman in 2013 that showed Brockman knew about Jeffrey Epstein’s criminal activities as he continued to associate with him, and even tried to recruit intellectuals to interacting with him.

Brockman runs Brockman Inc., a literary agency that represents the who’s who of intellectual authors and writers, including Morozov himself, and now helmed by his son. More importantly, Brockman is the man behind the Edge Foundation, which runs Edge.org, an internet salon of sorts where he invites some of the world’s more renowned scientists and philosophers to discuss their ideas. Edge also hosts an annual event for the world’s billionaires, called ‘The Billionaires’ Dinner’.

Morozov’s contention was that Brockman has been awfully silent about his ties with Epstein, even though it has come to light that many of the intellectuals in Epstein’s orbit were launched there by Brockman, as well as that Epstein donated $638,000 (Rs 4.5 crore) to the Edge Foundation between 2001 and 2015. Morozov apparently fired Brockman Inc. as his literary agency until the man could clarify what his relationship with Epstein was, and emailed the notice to Brockman’s son, who currently runs the company, and shared that email on Twitter on August 26:

Morozov also encouraged other Brockman clients to speak up, and sever ties if need be with him, his agency and/or his foundation. While only a few people answered his call, it is to the whistleblowers’, Farrow’s and the Miami Herald‘s credit that being or having been associated with Epstein is finally acknowledged as a problem that isn’t subject to individual moral codes but is being recognised as an incontestable evil. I hope it is only a matter of time before more scientists recognise this, and subsequently that greater participation from their own ranks in the efforts to understand S&T’s role in society is the best way to keep such Epsteinian affairs from recurring in future.

Another exit from MIT Media Lab

J. Nathan Matias, a newly minted faculty member at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, has announced that he will cut all ties with the latter at the end of the academic year over the lab director’s, i.e. Joi Ito’s, association with Jeffrey Epstein. His announcement comes on the heels of one by Ethan Zuckerman, a philosopher and director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, who also said he’d leave at the end of the academic year despite not having any job offers. Matias wrote on Medium on August 21:

During my last two years as a visiting scholar, the Media Lab has continued to provide desk space, organizational support, and technical infrastructure to CivilServant, a project I founded to advance a safer, fairer, more understanding internet. As part of our work, CivilServant does research on protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment. I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple.

Zuckerman had alluded to a similar problem with a different group of people:

I also wrote notes of apology to the recipients of the Media Lab Disobedience Prize, three women who were recognized for their work on the #MeToo in STEM movement. It struck me as a terrible irony that their work on combatting sexual harassment and assault in science and tech might be damaged by their association with the Media Lab.

On the other hand, Ito’s note of apology on August 15, which precipitated these high-profile resignations and put the future of the lab in jeopardy, didn’t at all mention any regret over what Ito’s fraternising with Epstein could mean for its employees, many of whom are working on sensitive projects. Instead, Ito has only said that he would return the money Epstein donated to the lab, a sum of $200,000 (Rs 143.09 crore) according to the Boston Globe, while pleading ignorance to Epstein’s crimes.

Joi Ito’s nerd tunnel vision

On August 15, Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s famed Media Lab, published a post apologising for fraternising with Jeffrey Epstein. His wording mimics a bit of George Church’s as well, in that Ito says he “was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of”.

This ignorance is ridiculous coming from the director of an institution whose research draws from and influences different forms of media. Ito’s account exemplifies the ‘nerd tunnel vision’ that Church spoke about: where scientists are willing to ignore the adverse ethical or moral implications for them and their work if an endeavour will benefit them directly or indirectly. It’s like Epstein was looking for the sort of investments that would shield him from unfavourable attention and found it all among scientists because they don’t ask too many questions.

However, as Church is careful to note, there’s no excuse for not keeping abreast of the news. It seems Ito has known Epstein since 2013 – giving him six years to discover that one of his major funders is a notorious sexual predator. Instead, he chose to step up only after the American media turned a glaring spotlight on the scandal.

Indeed, Church noted that labs usually don’t have to bother about the moral/ethical quality of funding and that that is checked by a different part of the university administration. While this is suboptimal, I find it funny that Ito couldn’t have known when he was surely part of the MIT Media Lab’s efforts to identify and evaluate new funders.

The charade doesn’t end here. Ito’s apology is also rendered ineffectual in part by the fact that he didn’t choose to speak up until eight months after the Miami Herald‘s investigation resuscitated the case against Epstein, and only shortly after Marvin Minsky’s involvement came to light. (Ethan Zuckerman, a philosopher at the Media Lab, calls Minsky the lab’s “co-founder”.) Earlier this month, The Verge reported that Minsky was one of the men that Epstein had forced young women to sleep with.

On August 21, Zuckerman posted on his blog that he was going to leave the Media Lab at the end of the academic year because of Ito’s involvement with Epstein. “I feel good about my decision, and I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what it’s appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been part of has made terrible errors,” he wrote.

It sounds a bit ominous; is this going to be the end of the Media Lab itself? Ito hasn’t said anything about resigning as director. Instead, he wrote in his post: “I vow to raise an amount equivalent to the donations the Media Lab received from Epstein and will direct those funds to non-profits that focus on supporting survivors of trafficking. I will also return the money that Epstein has invested in my investment funds.”

The money Epstein poured into the lab itself will stay, of course, presumably because it can’t be removed without significantly affecting the lab’s academic and research commitments. Let’s see what the lab’s other members – about 80 in total – have to say.

Would you take Epstein’s money to fund your research?

Note: Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell on August 10, 2019. The following post was written before news of his death emerged.

In 2016, I attended a talk by a not-unknown environmental activist in Chennai (not Nityanand Jayaraman, before you ask) who had spent many years stitching together community efforts to restore water bodies around Tamil Nadu. His talk covered the various challenges of his work as well as the different ways in which he overcame them. The one that stood out was his being absolutely okay with receiving donations to support his work from any and all sources, irrespective of their rectitude. He encouraged others to not shirk from any opportunity to accrue wealth because, to rephrase him, you never know why you are going to need it or when it is going to dry up.

This particular activist was a man of simple means but one thing he did have, and arguably needed to have, was the conviction that his work was useful and necessary. Notwithstanding his personal character (only because I didn’t know him that way), most people in the audience that day judged his work — or what they had been told of it — to be important and, of course, good. Most of us are not so lucky. We often have to be very careful about the way we view our work — as a public good or, more precariously, the ‘greater good’, for example — and the things we are prepared to do to justify working on.

Recently, scientists have been in the news in connection to this question thanks to an unlikely cause: Jeffrey Epstein. On August 5, STAT News published an interview of George Church, the noted American geneticist, biologist and teacher, where he apologised for having “contacts” with Epstein “even after the financier pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution”. The interview has so many parts about the behaviour of scientists around billionaires worth chewing on; consider the following example:

Universities are supposed to vet potential donors who ask to meet with a faculty member, especially if they want to fund research. Epstein made a donation to Church’s lab for “cutting edge science and education” from 2005 to 2007. “My understanding is this [vetting] is the responsibility of the development office, which is yet another reason why scientists are a little bit more relaxed,” Church said. “They feel they have administrators, who in theory do the difficult job of figuring out who’s legit.” Epstein’s donation went into what Church called “a general account used to get new projects going before we have enough preliminary data to warrant a formal grant application.”

Later, the article continued:

As for whether Epstein’s 2008 conviction gave Church (a father and grandfather) pause, he said, “I did read a couple of news articles” a decade ago, he said, “but they weren’t clear enough for me to know there was a serious problem.” (The full extent of Epstein’s crimes came out in an investigation by the Miami Herald in 2018; in the New York Times, a 2006 story [described] Epstein’s not-guilty plea … and one in 2008 characterized the allegations as “involving massages with teenage girls”). “But that is still no excuse for me not being abreast of the news.”

How much can you blame scientists for receiving money from tainted sources? I am not sure of the answer. Receiving and using money from corrupt individuals, and certainly those as morally and ethically corrupt as Epstein, is a problem because doing so:

a) Allows the corrupted to claim a form of redemption, especially when they can exploit a shortage of funds required for risky projects

b) Encourages the scientist to harbour an exceptionalism: that she gets to define what ‘good’ is through her work, and

c) Creates the demand, so to speak, that sustains the problematic supply, but this is an admittedly weak contention in this particular case.

At the same time, funding for research has been hard to come by. How often would a scientist stop to check if money sourced through a different department in her university came from a convicted sex offender – money that would ensure she and her students would get paid for the next few months, and possibly provide a way for her to produce research to further ingratiate herself with the university? Not very, possibly because she hasn’t been habituated to check.

This said, the scientist doesn’t get off the hook because the larger argument to be made, or problem to be solved, here is that scientists shouldn’t assume their responsibilities are restricted to their labs. They ought to be as aware of whoever is funding them as, say, journalists are expected to be if only because the same standards should apply to everyone, or at least to every community that prizes independence and self-regulation. This is necessary beyond considerations of one’s relationship with the rest of society, and towards eliminating the imbalance of power that is sure to erupt between a donor who knows how consequential their wealth can be and the researcher who stands to be manipulated by it. For example, she could be tempted to design future projects in ways that are likelier to attract funding and, of course, ruffle fewer feathers.

(I am aware of the difficulties of working scientists, so I don’t say that the solution – such as it is – is to berate them until they make better choices as much as large-scale reform over many years.)

Notwithstanding (important) questions of financial independence, the use of tainted money for a self-proclaimed ‘good’ would at the least form a moral shield for the corrupt funder to hide behind. However, the extent to which this should concern the scientist is doubtful, especially if she is able to insulate herself and the products of her intellect from the influence a sizeable donation is likely to carry. Another argument could be that we should frame these narratives around those who do ‘good’ instead of obsessing over how they render those who do ‘bad’.

For a tangential example, India’s National Green Tribunal recently slapped Volkswagen with a hefty fine of Rs 500 crore ($71 million) for cheating on emission tests, up from the Rs 171 crore recommended by a special panel. This was because, to quote the tribunal’s principal bench:

… the measure of damages has to be fixed taking into account not only the actual damage but also the magnitude and the capacity of the enterprise so that compensation has deterrent effect. … [The] worth of the company is stated to be $75 billion. Thus, apart from actual damage by a conservative estimate, deterrent element has to be considered, specially in view of international unethical practice.

Let us ignore for a moment that the Supreme Court has stayed this order and assume that Volkswagen deposited Rs 500 crore with the Central Pollution Control Board. We would have considered this a great victory, since Rs 500 crore would have increased India’s environment budget for 2019 by 15%, and expected the board to put the money to good use. Similarly, if rich people commit crimes and are convicted, their punishment could carry a big fine in addition to a prison sentence and commensurate to their personal wealth, to be deposited with an independent body staffed by experts from different fields who decide how that money is spent.

This said, it might also be worth asking if the research project is so important or so urgent that its stewards can’t look beyond the first available source of funds, towards less controversial options. Think of it as a contest between the kind of example we want to set as a society about the foundations of our knowledge systems and if it matters that the funds are directed towards studies that are unlikely to be undertaken through other means. For example, on July 11, Peter Aldhous reported for BuzzFeed that between 2012 and 2014, Epstein donated to projects on melanoma, Crohn’s disease, consciousness research and one to develop open source software for AI. Is it possible to appreciate these contributions while condemning the enormity of Epstein’s crimes at the same time?

It might be useful to draw a line here between the likes of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the one hand and, say, community colleges on the other. The former already boast of multiple donors and don’t stand to lose much by forgoing $250,000. However, the latter don’t have nearly enough and even $50,000 to a single institution could make a big difference. It would be a tragedy if there are no alternatives to Epstein’s money, but when there are, it becomes harder to justify the need for it. It is also not lost on any of us that ties between professors at these privileged universities and Epstein run even deeper, to the extent that they fly on his private jet to attend TED talks and then defend him in public using “empirical evidence” shorn of all social context.

All of these questions disappear if government sources pay more for R&D; put another way, such are the questions that raise their heads when private sources of funding overshadow public ones. However, the early 21st century has been characterised by, among other things, an increasingly pervasive mistrust of experts, if not expertise. Leaders of large nations like India, Brazil, the US, the UK, the Philippines and Australia have consistently placed business interests above safeguarding their natural resources, flying in the face of scientific consensus and protest. Public investment in higher education, healthcare and R&D has stagnated or has fallen in the last few years, increasing researchers’ reliance on the private sector. (In India, the government has on occasion expressed interest to the point of dictating which questions researchers should and shouldn’t pursue.) At this time, what is the right thing for a scientist to do?

The answer isn’t necessarily a blanket policy that says ‘accept the money’ or ‘don’t accept the money’. Instead, what is okay and what is not has to be negotiated by those who receive it, with knowledge of their specific circumstances, the relative importance of their work, what they think the consequences could be, and inevitably informed by their personal moral compasses. So the first thing scientists ought to do is step out of the neatly organised lab and into the messy real world, and not leave their public image to be mediated by a university press office with potentially divergent priorities. To paraphrase Church, there is no excuse for not being abreast of the news.