The Dangerous Myth of the “Great Man of Science”

I’ve waited quite a while before writing anything substantial about the Geoff Marcy case, partly because I was too angry to reflect properly and partly because this is something impossible to write about with raising some very unpleasant ghosts. The scandalous behaviour of Geoff Marcy – whose repeated sexual harassment of a number of female members of his Department went unchallenged by the University of California at Berkeley for fifteen years – resulted in a  slap on the wrist and a “don’t do it again” from the authorities followed by a badly misjudged email from the Head of the Department of Astronomy (where Marcy worked) which includes the following statement:

Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer (this wouldn’t include endorsement of the mistakes he acknowledges in an open letter on his website). I ask that those who have the room for it (now or later), hear him out and judge whether there is room for redemption in all that will transpire.

No. It just isn’t “hardest for Geoff”. It’s hardest for the women he harassed, some of whom had to wait 15 years for some semblance of justice. This comment displays a lack of compassion for Marcy’s victims. This not only compounds an already disgraceful episode, but also gives a very clear indication of an attitude that explains why nothing was done earlier. It’s hard to believe that nobody knew what Marcy was up to, but it seems he had powerful friends to protect him.

Subsequently, however, a majority of faculty in the Astronomy Department composed a strongly worded statement concluding that Marcy could no longer perform the functions of a faculty member. I suspect it was that, rather than the feeble actions of the University authorities that persuaded Marcy finally to resign. He should, of course, have been sacked forthwith. He has now gone, but the fallout from this episode will last a very long time. Hopefully out of the debris some good will emerge, not just for Astronomy at Berkeley – because this problem is by no means unique to that place – but for science as a whole. I’d love to believe that Geoff Marcy is an isolated example, but I’m afraid that just isn’t the case.

I think it’s important not to let this case slip from our collective memory before lessons can be learned – hot topics grow cold so quickly these days. So many things are desperately wrong about this case that it’s impossible to comment on all of them, so I’ll just pick up on a few and make some personal comments and hopefully some suggestions. I’m focussing on sexual harassment because of the Marcy case, but what I say applies equally to other forms of harassment (e.g. racially motivated or homophobic) and bullying in the workplace.

The first issue I want to raise is that of procedure. I wish harassment and bullying didn’t happen, but sadly they do. If all members of a University department (staff and students) are to work together in an atmosphere of dignity and mutual respect then there has to be some sort of code of conduct and a process for dealing with behaviour that is unacceptable under the code. But it is not enough for these to exist. Staff and students also have to be aware of their existence and also to believe that the disciplinary process will be enforced rigorously. I have no doubt that UCB has a code of conduct, but the process of enforcing it failed lamentably. It’s not hard to see why given the attitude of the Department Chair.

In my opinion as soon as an allegation of sexual harassment is made it should always be given to an independent person to investigate. By “independent” I mean from outside the Department concerned and preferably someone who has no direct personal knowledge of the individuals involved. That would at a stroke prevent pals of the perpetrator from closing ranks. This is what we do in my own institution, in fact. I’m not saying that there are no instances of sexual harassment here but I really don’t believe anything would be allowed to go on as long here as it did at UCB.

A properly enforced disciplinary procedure shouldn’t just protect the person making the complaint; it needs also to protect innocent individuals from malicious allegations. It must also realise that people do make mistakes. Who can say that they have never made any inappropriate remark in jest that may have inadvertently caused offence? I certainly can’t. Likewise it is possible simply to misread a situation, to misinterpret a remark or body language, or to take a straightforward comment as a flirtation of some sort. We’re all humans and we can’t read each other’s minds. I don’t think such errors need to go to a full disciplinary hearing; an informal warning should do for a first offence, as long as there is an apology. Repeated offences are a different matter. A first offence of sexual harassment of the kind committed by Geoff Marcy should at the very least have received a final written warning, followed by summary dismissal for any further offence. Any difference in seniority must also be taken into account. All cases of harassment are unacceptable but harassment of a student by a senior Professor takes “unacceptable” to an extreme.

Failure to act strongly when such behaviour is proven just sends out the message that the institution doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. Confidentiality is needed during an investigation – to protect both sides – but if the conclusion is that misconduct has taken place, it must be ackowledged publicly. Justice has to be seen to be done. Sexual assault, of course, is another matter entirely – that should go straight to the police to deal with.

So far I’ve just talked about protocols and procedures, but these can only ever apply a sticking-plaster solution to a problem which is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

This hierarchy of power suits those – usually men – who style themselves as “Great Scientists”. These individuals generally flourish at the head of a team of students and postdocs, but take as much as credit as they can for themselves, often actively hindering the career prospects of junior collaborators. They usually bring in large amounts of grant funding or other awards and possibly even the prospect of a Nobel Prize. In this way they convince their employers that they are indispensible to their institution, which encourages the bosses to turn a blind eye to their transgressions. They may be flawed humans but they are perceived to be great scientists. They are untouchable. Power corrupts, but it’s also too easily acquired by those who are corrupt already.

In reality the only reason why such people may appear indispensible is that they have made themselves so by neglecting (or abusing) their responsibilities to junior staff and students by (for example) not allowing them opportunities to pursue their own research. I’ve many stories of this type of controlling behaviour, which usually results in postdocs and students being discarded or forced out of research for lack of wider experience.

The fact of the matter is that the “Great Man of Science” is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. I’m not saying that there are no great scientists (male or female). I am saying that the elevated status awarded to some eminent individuals is deeply unhealthy and can lead to abuse of power, as recent events have revealed all too clearly.  They are also an increasingly distorted reflection of how science actually works, which is more often than not through collaborations of equal but complementary efforts.

The unhealthy power structures I’ve discussed will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements. On the other hand, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and the existing arrangements clearly suit those who benefit from them. If things are to change at all, however, we’ll have to start by recognising that there’s a problem.

P.S. For the record I’ll just state that I’m obviously not a “Great Man of Science”. Nor am I a great scientist. I’m not a great manager of people either. But I like to think that I’ve done my job as Head of School sufficiently well that I now consider myself entirely dispensible!

25 Responses to “The Dangerous Myth of the “Great Man of Science””

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    You distinguish between bogus and genuine great scientists. I have no knowledge of which of these Marcy is but I suspect that a junior lecturer who did the same things would have been promptly sacked. ANY scientist who behaved like that should be sacked, but permanent unemployment of a genuinely great scientist impoverishes not only him but the research community. I am not saying that such a man should be re-employed elsewhere, but I welcome discussion.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t know much about the scientific standing of Geoff Marcy so can’t directly judge whether he’s bogus or genuine. In fact I had barely heard of him until a week or so ago. Since then, however, I’ve heard enough to suggest he’s more of the former than the latter.

  2. The person who wrote the email from which you quoted was also a co-signatory on the strongly worded statement. I haven’t seen this pointed out before and it confuses me.

    I can only suppose that because they are dated two days apart that he changed his mind during those two days.

    • One day later he told a colleague of mine that he was being quoted out of context. Three days later he signed the letter. I can imagine the kind of messages he received from his peers in between…

    • telescoper Says:

      Thanks for pointing that out. I hadn’t spotted it. I suspect he realised his own job might be on the line after his gaffe….

      • The department chair has spent a career fighting for issues of inclusion, equity, and diversity. He sent one horribly-worded email. Geoff is/was a personal friend of his, and he was momentarily blinded by seeing his friend in genuine distress. This doesn’t excuse his email, but it’s worthwhile to keep in mind the context of his career of working to make astronomy a more inclusive place.

      • I would second this. He made a bad mistake which hurt the victims, realized it and changed. You can give all kinds of interpretations but I have not seen evidence that it was more than this. It would be more fruitful to hear who protected Marcy all this time, and why. If this was the same person, his position would be untenable. But the previous incidents may well have been handled much higher up in the university.

      • The previous complaints were handled by a variety of people other than the current (interim) department chair, including higher-ups in the university and previous (non-interim) department chairs, not to mention Geoff’s department at UCSF back when he was there.

      • Mr. Chair Says:

        “It would be more fruitful to hear who protected Marcy all this time, and why.”

        and what makes you think it wasn’t a series of misjudged little protective actions from his friends (in positions of power) that added up to prioritise his comfort and career?

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    Harassment and bullying are wholly unacceptable.

    There is some comfort in the partial resolution of the Geoff Marcy case. The departure of Marcy from Berkeley will offer some sense of justice to those women affected, though it will not take away the painful memories. The publicity will deter some potential perpetrators from committing acts of this type in the future. Marcy will presumably move to some other institution, where he will rebuild his career, somewhat chastened.

    A central problem in academia, as Peter (Telescoper) has pointed out, is the severe imbalance in power between many members of the academic community. The broken, overcompetitive, academic careers system, and the employment of many people on short-term contracts, often make it difficult for people to take action when they are the victims of harassment or bullying.

    Peter is absolutely right that there has to be a mechanism for dealing with complaints of harassment or bullying. All staff need to be aware of the existence of these mechanisms, and they need to be confident that starting a complaint will not make things worse.

    • The mechanisms will in most universities already exist. But I have noticed an unwillingness to implement them. The usual procedure is to first have an informal investigation, to find out whether the harassment was perhaps not intentional. Cultural background may play a role. In such cases, a strong but informal message to the perpetrator may suffice (if the victim agrees). But I found that this can be used as an escape mechanism, where HR refuses to deal with cases and just state it should be resolved informally ‘as per procedure’, while discourage official complaints being entered. Berkeley got away with this for 15 years.

      • Bryn Jones Says:


        Another issue is that fixed-term staff and students might not know about the mechanisms, which deters them taking action.

      • If you work in a collaboration with people from other Universities they would not be subject to the mechanisms though if a bullying issue ever arose? Many people nowadays mostly work in large collaborations in various fields where day to day work would involve people external to the university at which they are employed.

      • telescoper Says:

        If it’s a staff disciplinary matter – ie short of a criminal offence – then the only power to pursue it rests with the employer of the person accused. A person from Institution A cannot be disciplined by Institution B, even if both Institutions have similar regulations.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, I agree. However, I suspect bullying (as opposed to sexual harassment) by somebody from another institution occurs less frequently. A feature of bullying is power imbalance, and people in another institution will have less control over people of more junior status. And therefore bullied people in a different institution will find it easier to stand up for themselves. They can respond verbally as the case requires, loudly if necessary.

        What is more difficult to handle is when a person in a more senior position acts to undermine the career opportunities of another person behind closed doors. This can involve actions within committees, and informal negative comments to other members of the research community. There tends to be no outward evidence of this and taking action is impossible. I’m not sure, however, that the word bullying applies to this – it is more subtle than bullying. It is a form of professional misconduct.

      • telescoper Says:

        It is tricky. While there is a fairly clear legal definition of “harassment” there is no such definition of “bullying”, which makes things much more subjective.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    Incidentally, I came across some relevant articles on the Women in Astronomy blog. There are many that discuss harassment.

    I found two particularly useful articles about workplace bullying: part 1 and part 2.

  5. telescoper Says:

    I’m not saying that it’s easy. As you say, most instances take place away from witnesses, so it basically bowls down to credibility of testimony.

    In disciplinary investigations the standard is that of a civil court, i.e. “on the balance of the evidence” rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”. It’s possible, at least sometimes, to discern enough from interviews etc to form a reasonable opinion who, if anyone, is lying.

  6. What is your plan for dealing with those who would abuse the system with malicious intent? In the scheme you suggest, you empower any two accusers to instantly end the career of anyone whom they choose to conspire against. Why do you so easily accept the illegitimacy of the direct masculine action while ignoring the same potential for illegitimate, indirect feminine action?

    • telescoper Says:

      Have you even bothered to read the piece? I stress the importance of protecting people from malicious accusations.

      If there is no balance of evidence then disciplinary action can not be taken. The point is that that judgement should be made by an independent person, not by a friend of the alleged perpetrator.

    • Mr. Chair Says:

      incredibly sexist of you to assume that harassment of male students by female faculty could never occur, jonathan.

  7. Like many areas of science, astronomy relies on collaboration and field work. Do you have procedures in place if a student, say, from University A were harassed/abused/bullied by a more powerful person at University B? A few of my science writing colleagues have been having this discussion and the employers’ HR policies seem to differ in this case.

    • telescoper Says:

      This would be taken up by University B’s disciplinary procedure as it concerns one of their staff. How evidence would be gathered from outside the institution and the outcome would be communicated is another matter.

      I will just say that it is even more likely that an institution will close ranks in such a situation. My personal experience – not of sexual harassment I should add – backs this up.

  8. C. Mundell Says:

    A long track record; passed from one institution to another:

  9. […] I’ve blogged before about the difficulties surrounding confidentiality and other issues discip…. In that piece – which was actually about science department – I tried to stress the importance of sticking to proper procedure, but I also explained that dealing with such matters after the fact is never going to provide a fully satisfactory remedy. What is needed is to change campus culture to ensure that abusive harassing and violent behaviour doesn’t happen in the first place. But applying procedures properly would at least be a start… […]

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