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.

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.

Epstein’s friends from the ‘Reality Club’

New York magazine has published an alphabetised list of the names of people that find mention in Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘black book’, a log book of sorts in which he kept track of the people he entertained, including at his residence and onboard his private jet, both venues of Epstein’s horrible exploitation of young women. The first name on the list is “Allen, Woody” and the last, “Zuckerman, Mort”; somewhere in between, there’s this about the ‘Reality Club’:

What seems new, in flipping through the reams of society photos of perhaps the world’s most prolific sexual predator that have been circulating over the past few weeks, is not the powerful and the beautiful who surrounded Epstein, but the intellectuals — the Richard Dawkinses, the Daniel Dennetts, the Steven Pinkers. All men, of course. But the group selfies probably shouldn’t have been a surprise — documents of an age in which every millionaire doesn’t just fancy himself a philosopher-king but expects to be treated as such, and every public intellectual wants to be seen as a kind of celebrity.

On point. The rituals of scholarship haven’t spared any man from the temptations of misplaced self-importance, if not outright power; in fact, on many occasions they have been the means to accrue it. Just ask Jorge Domínguez, Jeff Galindo, William V. Harris, Jason Lieb, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Katze, Geoff Marcy, Christian Ott, Thomas Pogge, John R. Searle or, perhaps most recently, Inder Verma – all of whom were passively protected by a network of academic institutions that financially benefited from the presence of these men on their campuses even as they continued to sexually harass, allegedly or decidedly, their coworkers and/or students. (Pinker and Dawkins have only helped this conclusion along with their displays of “poor scholarship” and “unthinking certitude”.)