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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.