The White Man Non-Culpability Squad

The White Man Non-Culpability Squad October 19, 2015

There was some rare good news on the sexual-harassment front last week, with the news that Geoff Marcy has resigned. Marcy is a scientific pioneer in the field of exoplanet astronomy, who’s often been mentioned as a potential Nobel laureate. He’s also long been trailed by rumors of inappropriate, predatory behavior toward women. According to a former graduate student, now Harvard professor, John Asher Johnson:

“What’s really infuriating about this is that anybody of my generation in the field of exoplanets knows that Geoff does this… Everybody is so afraid of doing anything about it that they are afraid of speaking out, but everybody knows it.”

Then BuzzFeed broke the story that Marcy’s employer, UC Berkeley, found that he had repeatedly violated sexual harassment policies between 2001 and 2010, including by kissing, groping and touching female students. In spite of this, Berkeley took no action other than telling him not to do it again, without a single public statement or word of warning for his colleagues or his students. (Other women have accused Marcy of harassment going back to the 1990s.)

When the story broke, Marcy posted a vague apology acknowledging that at least some of the charges against him were true. A majority of his Berkeley colleagues called for him to resign, which he now has. But in spite of this, Marcy still has defenders ready to spring into action. Here’s one of them, commenting on the Chronicle story:


There have been documented cases of people developing pedophile sexual tendencies from brain tumors, going away with the removal of the tumor. This is merely to illustrate that Marcy could be suffering from a mental disorder which makes it impossible for him to stop his behavior. He might be in the need of help, not of ostracism from fellow professionals. There ought to be a way both to help him as well as use his intellectual potential for the advancement of science. It pains me to be a Russian and be appalled with the speed that my Western and supposedly tolerant friends want to crucify him with.

This person was clearly auditioning for the world’s worst superhero team, the White Man Non-Culpability Squad: the hordes of ignorant commenters who descend on every story like this and strain for any excuse, no matter how outlandish, rather than accept that a powerful and privileged white man might be a sexual predator. (Women and people of color rarely, if ever, get the benefit of the doubt to such an extreme degree.)

It’s not unknown for a brain tumor to affect behavior, but a) this is extraordinarily rare; b) there’s no evidence whatsoever that Marcy had any such condition, let alone that he lived with it, undiagnosed and with no other symptoms, for ten years or more; and c) according to those who witnessed or heard about it, his behavior showed a pattern of deliberate boundary-testing and gradual escalation:

Mr. Marcy, she says, would isolate a female student in his lab or find a way to talk to her privately on the campus, away from others. During the talk, he would make a slightly inappropriate comment, touch or kiss the student, and then apologize, according to what women told her. Depending on the reaction he got, she says, he would either back off or take another step forward. Students, she says, complained that he had given them rides home, taken them out to coffee, and told them he and his wife had an open relationship. The four women who complained, she says, are “just the tip of the iceberg.” (source)

This is uncharacteristic of people with behavior-altering brain diseases, who engage in inappropriate behavior frequently and compulsively, without regard for whether there are witnesses. But it is characteristic of sexual predators who groom their victims and slowly push the boundaries of how much they can get away with.

Another aspiring member of the White Man Non-Culpability Squad, though he wasn’t writing specifically about Marcy, was (surprise, surprise!) Michael Shermer, here quoting Jonathan Haidt:

Leaving aside any ulterior motives Shermer might have, this leaves unaddressed the question of what he thinks you’re supposed to do if you’re harassed or assaulted. Should you not speak out, not pursue justice, not call for systemic change, because that would be “making victimhood your identity”? Should you just try to ignore it, pretend it never happened? Needless to say, that response is something that harassers and predators would find very congenial.

Assuming Marcy’s career is over, will the scientific community be diminished by the loss of his “intellectual potential”? An honest answer would have to be yes. But that has to be weighed against a much greater loss: the intellectual potential of the women who’ve quit astronomy because they were unwilling to put up with harassment or casual sexism, from Marcy and those like him, as the price of a scientific career.

That could be a significant number of people, given the severe underrepresentation of women in astronomy as well as STEM fields in general. If this is even partially due to sexism, it represents a severe loss of talent to the field. At least one of the women who accused Marcy, Preet Dalziel, left astrophysics after she was discouraged from reporting it. And as another said:

“It could be that one of the students he chased off would have worked with him on the greatest paper he will now never write,” she said.

Behavior like this, in a very real sense, is a gross betrayal of science. When a prominent male scientist acts like this, he’s putting the satisfaction of his personal lusts above the quest to advance the frontiers of knowledge. It tells his female students and colleagues that they’re more important to him as a source of sexual gratification than as respected colleagues in the search for truth. And those who offer knee-jerk excuses for accused predators, whether they realize it or not, are sending the same message.

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