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Friday, September 7, 2018

#MeToo investigation of famed paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze sees light of day at long last

David Lordkipanidze/Wikimedia Commons
Introduction

It probably does not happen often that a six-month long journalistic investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct against a leading scientist (or any leading figure, for that matter) ends up on the reporter's personal blog. Indeed, it did not have to happen this way. But the series of events I will now describe left only two choices: Bury the story forever, or post it here, where at least I have total control over its contents.

After this introduction, I will post the story itself, modified to fit the current circumstances. But first the history of the investigation, as briefly as I can manage.

In the spring of 2017, a student in Europe sent an email to several hundred anthropologists, accusing a well known human evolution researcher of misconduct during a relationship he had with her. The Verge (Vox media), for which I had already conducted a couple of key sexual misconduct investigations, assigned me to look into it. By then I already had a track record for doing this kind of reporting, largely on the strength of a lengthy investigation for Science focusing on the curator of human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History. 

Then, two weeks later, an anthropologist I will call "Diane" posted a personal account on a well known science blog about an experience she had when she was a graduate student. According to Diane, she had been sexually assaulted by the principal investigator at a well known human fossil field site. She did not name her aggressor in the original blog, but later identified him on social media as David Lordkipanidze. After discussions with editors at The Verge, we decided to combine these two stories since they both involved human evolution researchers.

(Note: Although "Diane" gave me permission more than once to name her in my article, as long as I did not directly quote out of her blog post nor refer to its contents more than just briefly, I have decided to spare her extra grief by using a pseudonym. She is aware of this. I have also eliminated any details of the sexual assault she suffered, but the contemporaneous witnesses I cite back up her account of it. For more thoughts on the question of whether victims/survivors of sexual misconduct should be named, please see the Epilogue of this story.) 

After some months, however, it became clear that these were two very different stories, and we decided to split them into two. (The original story has not yet been published, for reasons relating to protecting the student involved. That is all I can say about it here.)

As the investigation wound down and we prepared for publication, I approached Lordkipanidze--whom I have known personally for nearly 20 years--and asked him to comment on the allegations. Lordkipanidze retained an attorney in Atlanta, famed for his aggressive and successful pursuit of defamation claims: L. Lin Wood, perhaps best known for representing the parents of JonBenet Ramsey, and Richard Jewell, who was falsely accused of bombing the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Wood sent a 62 page response to my editors and The Verge's attorneys, in which he denied all of the allegations against Lordkipanidze and cast serious aspersions on my reputation, credibility, and ethics. He also questioned the credibility of Diane and other alleged victims. Wood concluded by assuring The Verge that publication of the story would lead automatically to litigation. Nevertheless, my editor and I continued for at least a couple of additional months preparing the story. But when we had prepared a near-final draft, the attorneys recommended killing the story.

I have promised my editors and the attorneys at The Verge not to discuss the details of why the story was killed, although I was told that I could say we were still on good terms and that the accuracy of my reporting was not being questioned (I was paid in full for it.) And I am confident that the article is fully and multiply sourced. I would be remiss, however, if I did not say that the threats of litigation from L. Lin Wood were highly relevant to the decision not to publish the story. There is no question about that.

After some reflection, I sent the draft to my former editors at Science, even though the publication and I had separated on bad terms--after 25 years of a very close relationship--in the spring of 2016. After about a week, Science got back to me to say they had decided to pass, on the grounds that with a story like this they prefer to work with a reporter from the beginning of the investigation. I have no quarrel with that reasoning and appreciated them considering the story.

I then, late last year, sent the story to David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, to whom I had pitched previous stories. I had known Remnick since 2009, when he and the magazine were on the receiving end of a somewhat negative story about them for Science. To his credit, although he was not happy that Science did that story, he apparently no longer held it against me by the time I began pitching ideas to The New Yorker.

Remnick passed the story to the magazine's online science editor, who got in touch. We had a series of lengthy discussions about it, and at least twice The New Yorker appeared to come close to publishing it, with some additional editing and fact checking. But after three months, the magazine finally decided to pass. One reason for the delay in making a decision, I was told, was that the magazine's fact checking department was badly stretched by the big effort needed to handle Ronan Farrow's #MeToo stories (an effort I certainly applaud.) I don't want to disclose my other discussions with the editors there, but again the accuracy of my reporting was never questioned; other considerations came into play, with which I did not agree, but that was that.

That brings us to the present, and the story you will read below. I decided not to try yet another publication, for my sake as well as, mostly importantly, the sake of the victims and other sources who had thought for many months that it would eventually be published. Now it will be, on my terms, although the version here is based largely on the final version we prepared for publication at The Verge

Important note: All sources cited in this story, whether named or not, have given permission for the information attributed to them. I will have some final thoughts about my experiences trying to get this story published at the end of the article.


A blog post, an accusation, a denial

With every passing day, more and more women, and a smaller but significant number of men, are coming forward to describe the myriad ways in which they were victimized by sexual predators. Few areas of human endeavor have been spared: The entertainment industry, the political world, the media, academia, as well as the workaday world where men and women work hard for very little pay. The sciences have not been spared either. Astronomy and astrophysics, molecular biology and microbiology, neuroscience and psychology, are just some of the research fields that have had to confront allegations of sexual misconduct. In many cases, the charges have led to the resignations or firings of high-profile researchers with stellar scientific reputations and long publication records.

For the past three years, researchers who study human evolution have been forced to confront serious allegations of sexual misconduct in their own field. The most visible case was that of paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, who in December 2016 was forced to resign as curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, after a long investigation into accusations that he had sexually assaulted a colleague and harassed a number of students. Only this summer, after a long search, was the museum able to replace Richmond, with a talented female researcher.

Yet while the Richmond case was ongoing, both women and men in paleoanthropology and related fields such as archaeology were quietly discussing other longstanding allegations of misconduct. Last year, one colleague suddenly decided to go public. On May 2, 2017, Diane (not her real name), an anthropologist at a university in the northeast United States, posted a description of her own experiences on a popular science blog to which she is a regular contributor. Under the heading “In case this helps you: This happened to me while I was trying to become a paleoanthropologist,” Diane described being sexually assaulted in 2003 by the director of a Homo erectus field site.

Diane did not name the site nor the director in her original blog post. But as the link quickly spread on social media, she invited colleagues to ask her who she was talking about. They did, and she responded, “David Lordkipanidze.” He is the leader of excavations at the famed site of Dmanisi in Georgia, about 55 miles southwest of the capital, Tbilisi. Lordkipanidze, who rose to prominence after the discovery of numerous early human skulls and other human fossils at Dmanisi, is also the general director of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.

Diane later deleted her blog post, although she has left Lordkipanidze’s name visible on social media and she has not withdrawn the accusation. (In fact she has made it clear to me and to the anthropology community that it was not because anything in the post was inaccurate.)  Meanwhile, my investigation for The Verge uncovered numerous other allegations of sexual misconduct by Lordkipanidze, including a serious charge that he sexually assaulted a colleague in his hotel room during a scientific event in the United States.

Lordkipanidze flatly denies assaulting Diane as well as other women who have made similar charges against him. And a number of Lordkipanidze’s colleagues working at Dmanisi have come to his defense, insisting that they have never observed him engage in misconduct. But others describe a chronic pattern of harassment and inappropriate behavior with women, stretching over a period of at least 15 years. And Diane’s claims are supported by at least four contemporaneous witnesses who say she told them about the alleged assault either immediately or shortly afterwards.


A pattern of sexual misconduct in anthropology, and a fabulous fossil site.

Even before the allegations first surfaced against Richmond in 2015, anthropologists and archaeologists knew their domain of research, which relies heavily on field studies in cradles of human evolution such as Africa and Asia, was particularly susceptible to sexual misconduct. In 2014, four anthropologists published a “Survey of Academic Field Experiences” in the journal PLOSOne. The so-called SAFE study, based on an anonymous online survey, found that 64% of the 666 respondents reported they had suffered sexual harassment while doing the kind of fieldwork fundamental to anthropological and archaeological research. (A sequel to this study, based on interviews with researchers engaged in fieldwork, was published late last year in American Anthropologist.) Thus a number of the alleged episodes involving Richmond took place in Kenya, which, like Dmanisi, hosts a field school which attracts young students from all over the world.

“When the Richmond allegations initially became widely known, the field was already at a heightened state of awareness,” says David Strait, a paleoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “The SAFE study had forced men in our field to confront the sobering fact that sexual misconduct, including assault, was a very real problem in our discipline. Women already knew this, of course." 

Researchers have been digging at Dmanisi since the 1980s, when they found remains of ancient plants and animals. In 1991, prehistorians from Georgia and Germany launched a new round of excavations at the site. They got lucky that first year, finding the jawbone of an early human just above a layer of volcanic rock that had earlier been dated to about 1.8 million years old. But other scientists were skeptical: conventional wisdom at that time held that humans had not left Africa much before 1 million years ago. The skepticism persisted even after a human foot bone was found at Dmanisi in 1997.

The site of Dmanisi in Georgia


Two years later, however, the Dmanisi research team—now led by Lordkipandize, the son of a famous Georgian archaeologist—discovered two human skulls in equally old volcanic layers. (I was present at a May 2000 meeting in the south of France where Lordkipanidze presented the skulls publicly for the first time, and I coauthored a news story for Science that accompanied the publication of the skulls in that journal the week after the meeting.) The new finds silenced the skeptics, and established definitively that humans had left Africa much earlier than anyone realized. Most scientists now recognize the skulls as belonging to early members of the species Homo erectus. Further work at Dmanisi, which is still a very active research site, has now uncovered a total of five H. erectus skulls, along with many other early human fossils.

The new discoveries put Dmanisi on the scientific map; researchers and students from all over the world flocked to the site. They also turned Lordkipanidze into a top scientific celebrity, a status greatly enhanced by his power to decide who could work at Dmanisi and who could have access to the fossils and other data.


An exciting summer in the field ends with a sexual assault

In 2003, Diane was a graduate student in the anthropology department at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. She had been fascinated by Homo erectus, friends and colleagues say, and planned to make this pivotal human ancestor her life’s work. She had already published her own studies of H. erectus, and had landed a prestigious graduate student fellowship that allowed her to travel to Dmanisi, the world’s most important H. erectus site. “She was glowing with excitement,” says one of her closest friends from that time, a fellow grad student at Penn State. “She had been so thrilled about her planned PhD project with the Dmanisi material.”

Although Lordkipanidze was still director of the Dmanisi excavations, by 2003 he was spending most of his time at the museum in Tbilisi and not at the site, say several researchers who were working at Dmanisi at the time. His usual habit, they say, was to come shortly before his birthday, which would be celebrated by a large dinner and a party--a Dmanisi tradition that continues to the present day.

One female researcher who was present recalls the events that led up to Lordkipanidze’s alleged assault on Diane. “We went to lunch with [Lordkipanidze] and [Diane] and...one other person,” this researcher says. “He was clearly interested in talking to [Diane.] He enjoyed [Diane's] company. But she was not interested.” The researcher says that she and Diane discussed the situation after lunch and decided to make a plan to protect her, because it seemed clear that during the evening Lordkipanidze’s attentions to Diane were “going to be an issue.”

Sure enough, the researcher says, during the evening party Lordkipanidze “kept trying to get her alone. All evening.” Finally, she says, Diane went upstairs to bed. The researcher followed her up minutes later, but Lordkipanidze had already followed Diane up the stairs and allegedly assaulted her. “We had spent the whole evening trying to avoid that,” she says, describing how upset Diane was at the time.

Adam Van Arsdale, an anthropologist now at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and a graduate student at Dmanisi from 2002 to 2005, relates a similar version of events.

“The field team hosted a celebration of our work and of David’s birthday,” he says. “Following the dinner, a group of us were sitting at the large, common table at the field house with David. It was late in the evening at this point and dark outside, but a generator was providing light. At some point the generator went off and the porch area which housed the table more or less went dark.” Van Arsdale says it was not uncommon for the generator to either run out of fuel or be turned off, so he was not alarmed at the time. “With the lights suddenly out, people began moving off in various directions. I moved to the front of the house to continue hanging out with several of the other students. Some short time later, I recall [Diane] joining us, in a clearly agitated state.”

Diane, Van Arsdale says, then described having been assaulted by Lordkipanidze while the lights were out, and gave the group details of what had happened. (Diane described the episode in a similar way in her now deleted blog post.)

“We talked about the event a few times in the days that followed,” Van Arsdale says, “at which point another female graduate student who was with us at the time said that she had been groped by David during [that] evening as well.” (Van Arsdale, who continued to work at Dmanisi until 2011, has published several papers about fossils from the site, including some papers on which Lordkipanidze is a coauthor.)

When Diane returned to Penn State at the end of the summer, she immediately confided in a few trusted colleagues about what had happened. One of them was Pat Shipman, an anthropologist at the university and a well known science writer. “[Diane] talked to me about it,” Shipman says. “She was upset. Sure, now and then an attractive female grad student could expect to receive passes. This went beyond that, an assault, unwanted.” Diane told colleagues that she was not going back to Dmanisi. “It was untenable to continue working at the site” or on the fossils, Shipman says. “That would put her right back in that situation again. It was a potentially dangerous thing to do.”

Diane also talked to her close friend, the Penn State graduate student, about the assault. “She said she was not going back,” the friend recalls. “She was heartbroken. I realized this dream she had was not going to happen. Some man had taken advantage of her and ruined it.”

When Diane went public with her accusations last year, friends and colleagues praised her courage and expressed support on social media. One supporter--anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann of the University of Cape Town in South Africa--tried to draw a broader lesson from Diane's alleged experience and the effects that sexual misconduct have on scientific progress. Addressing Diane on Facebook, Ackermann pointed out that sexual misconduct “can shape not only the life and career trajectory of the victim, but also the direction of the science. Without you studying H. erectus, questions that would have been asked were not. And while you obviously have done remarkable things in other specialties, nonetheless paleoanthropology is poorer for losing your voice.”

Although Lordkipanidze denies assaulting Diane, I spoke with a number of researchers who worked at the site around the same time, during the first half of the 2000s. Several of them described behavior by Lordkipanidze that they considered inappropriate. One female researcher, from a European country, says that in about 2001 or 2002—she cannot recall the exact year—she had to physically shove Lordkipanidze away when he made advances towards her. “He approached me with his hand on my cheek, wanting to kiss me. I pushed him, shoved him, slapped him.”


An alleged sexual assault in the United States

But Lordkipanidze's behavior was not restricted to Dmanisi itself. Another woman says he attacked her at a conference in the United States in 2011. The alleged victim says that following a dinner meeting with Lordkipanidze, he asked her to stop by his hotel room so he could retrieve some literature about Dmanisi for her. Inside the room, after rebuffing one advance from him and thinking he had accepted that she was not interested, the victim suddenly found herself pinned down on a couch with Lordkipanidze forcibly kissing her. "I was terrified," the victim recalls, noting that Lordkipanidze is big and strong. When he finally released her, she jumped off the couch and left the room, returning to her hotel. The victim confided in a friend shortly after the alleged attack, a researcher she knew well. That friend confirmed to me that she had told him about the incident at the time.


Lordkipanidze's colleagues come to his defense

Lordkipanidze has defenders, especially among other members of the Dmanisi team who are still doing research there. Jordi Agusti, a paleontologist at the Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution in Tarragona, Spain, says that he has worked at Dmanisi every year since 2000 yet has “never observed the kind of [inappropriate] behavior” described by some other colleagues. Agusti adds that “this kind of behavior is also highly improbable coming from a Georgian person. Georgians have a deep feeling of the family.”

Lorenzo Rook, a geoscientist and paleontologist at the University of Florence in Italy, who has also worked at the site since 2000, says that “in almost 20 years of working at Dmanisi I have never heard, neither as rumor nor as a direct report, [a] case of sexual misconduct and harassment.”

A third team member, a female anthropologist who asked not to be named, also says that she never saw Lordkipanidze engage in inappropriate behavior. “I did not see anything like that. [Lordkipanidze] was always supportive to me,” she says. “He always respected me. If there was something there I did not know about it.”

During my investigation, I was contacted by three Georgian members of the Dmanisi team, who are also coordinators of a summer field school for students the team has conducted since 2009. In several email exchanges with me, the three—Teona Shelia, Gocha Kiladze, and Ann Margvelashvili—insisted that there was no basis for misconduct allegations against Lordkipanidze or any other member of the team. (Kiladze, in 1999, was the first to spot the glimmer of a human skull in the archaeological sediments at Dmanisi.)

“Since 2010, we continuously collect an anonymous feedback from [field school] participants, where anyone can speak out and address any topic they wish to,” the three wrote, adding that “During these surveys, we never had any complaint in regard to any type of harassment, assault or any displeasure toward the Field School organizers, research members, or participants.” And they vouched for Lordkipanidze’s good character in the most emphatic terms. “Anyone who has ever personally met him can attest that he is always trying to be kind, respectful and helpful to everyone visiting the site, to both female and male scientists.”

As for the specific allegations that have been made against Lordkipanidze, the three stated in a later email, “we cannot exclude a possibility that we must deal with a carefully planned malicious plot to discredit some of the major architects” of Dmanisi’s success. They did not, however, respond to repeated requests to provide evidence for such a plot or possible motivations for why some alleged victims might be falsifying their stories. (And some of these team members helped Lordkipanidze's attorney, L. Lin Wood, and his law firm prepare the 62 page response to the allegations referred to above. In their eagerness, they compromised the identity of at least one possible victim of Lordkipanidze's inappropriate behavior, someone whose name I did not know previously.)

To get a better idea about the atmosphere at Dmanisi in more recent years, I contacted 15 former field school students to ask them about their experiences, including both men and women. Eight of them responded, and of those, four said that they had not seen any behavior they considered inappropriate—although some added that Lordkipanidze was rarely at the site when they were there.***

But the other four, all women who attended the field school in 2015, told a somewhat different story. Each of the four described situations that made them uncomfortable. One says that on the evening of Lordkipanidze’s birthday party, two men she had not seen before arrived for the celebrations. “I had no idea who they were or why they were at the field school, but all the Georgians seemed to know them, so I assumed they were part of the Georgian Museum. It became evident, very quickly, that the only reason they were there was to pick up girls.” The student says that the men focused their attention on two students in particular, although she was not one of them.

A second student says that one evening, in the midst of some heavy drinking, a young Georgian man who was working on the excavations pulled one of her female fellow students away and got her in a location that was out of sight of the others. Shortly afterwards the woman could be heard yelling, and her colleagues had to intervene to pull the man from on top of her. They did not report this episode to the leaders of the field school, however.

A third student says that Lordkipanidze himself engaged in behavior with her that she considered inappropriate. “On a few occasions, under the influence of alcohol, he got a little handsy with me. Not to the point where he couldn’t feign ignorance but enough to make me uncomfortable.” Asked to clarify what she meant by “handsy,” the student added: “He would touch my back casually, and then slide it much lower than is appropriate, at which point I would distance myself pretty fast.”


Dmanisi: An atmosphere charged with sexism and harassment?

While the allegations against Lordkipanidze himself are very serious, the ambience at Dmanisi seems typical of that at many archaeological and paleontological field sites. Some researchers say that the ubiquitous presence of alcoholic beverages exacerbates the problem, providing both an opportunity and an excuse for misconduct. Such a view is expressed by the European researcher who says she had to physically rebuff Lordkipanidze’s advances in 2001 or 2002. The ubiquitous availability of alcohol at Dmanisi, she says, including chacha, a Georgian brandy with at least 40% alcohol content, creates an atmosphere that blurs the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. “When you are drunk you lose the boundaries,” she says.

A male scientist who worked at Dmanisi also describes the party atmosphere at the site. “There were quite often large parties at the field house, especially when international teams would come visit, with music, dancing, and drinking competitions.” During these parties, a second researcher who attended them in those early days says, “whenever I would see [Lordkipanidze] he would be sitting as close as he could sit to a female student or kissing her on the cheek or the neck.” This researcher says that the women would typically be wearing tense smiles, “trying not to offend him. I saw this on a number of occasions, at least five times.” In one case the researcher remembers particularly well, the student “was cringing, cowering into a ball, trying to close off her body physically.”

A third Dmanisi team member from that time says that while he did not directly witness any incidents, Lordkipanidze’s visits “were usually preceded by warnings from senior graduate students, male and female, about his behavior. I think at some point we may have started being more careful about not letting female graduate students get into a situation where this might happen, that is, always being in groups and not letting them get separated or isolated.”

“It was common knowledge that Lordkipanidze was a sexual predator at the field house at Dmanisi, and that sexual harassment was basically institutionalized there and facilitated by his staff,” says another archaeologist who also worked at the site in the early days. “Often times my fellow archaeologists would commiserate about his predatory behavior, but we were very aware that we were guests in a foreign country. To impose our values and ethical standards on another culture, albeit reprehensible in our view, is against a foundational principle of anthropology, the concept of cultural relativism, where we accept cultures on their own terms without judgement.”

[Please see clarification below about the meaning of cultural relativism, which several anthropologists have pointed out is incorrectly defined in the paragraph above]

Added to that concern, a former Dmanisi team member says, was the sheer scientific excitement about working at such an important early human site. “There were about 40 archaeologists there, it was the golden era,” he says. “The sheer number of hominin fossils we were finding in the early and mid 2000s was absolutely staggering, which, like the constant flow of alcohol at Dmanisi, intoxicated all of us, blurring our senses and our ethics.”

It remains to be seen whether public exposure of the long hidden allegations against Lordkipanidze will sharpen the senses of researchers who work there. “Culture change is hard and is dependent on smaller and larger everyday actions by members of the group,” says Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University and immediate past president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. While high-profile cases such as Richmond’s and Lordkipanidze’s allow “discussion of a once taboo subject,” she says, too much focus on individuals “runs the risk of allowing each of us to avoid individual responsibility for our role in producing our culture.”

During my investigation, a number of current Dmanisi team members expressed considerable concern that publication of the allegations against Lordkipanidze would damage the important excavations there, and possibly lead to international colleagues shunning the site. Just how the accusations will affect the future of the research at Dmanisi remains to be seen. Yet, as we have seen with the Weinstein case and so many others in recent months, that future may depend heavily on whether those individual team members choose to believe the accusers, or the accused.


Epilogue

Over the months since The Verge killed this story, I have been determined not to let it be buried. While trying to interest another publication in publishing the investigation, I have used social media repeatedly to warn researchers--especially female students--about the danger I see if Lordkipanidze managed to get them alone. In the meantime, the testimony of Diane--who is highly respected in the anthropology community, and whose allegations are widely believed by her colleagues--has raised the consciousness of anthropologists about the situation at Dmanisi and Lordkipanidze's behavior in particular.

As an example, earlier this year the German Academy of Sciences organized a human evolution meeting in the German cities of Leipzig and Halle, which was supposed to take place this coming November. Many illustrious researchers were invited. However, when some of them learned that Lordkipanidze was scheduled to speak during the very first session, at least a half dozen wrote to the Academy to protest and said they would not attend if he was present. In the end, the Academy cancelled (or at least postponed) the meeting rather than face the embarrassment of a boycott and a public scandal.

Moreover, the story I tell above is not complete. There were other victims who told me their stories but are not yet ready to see them in print, even anonymously. They are still recovering from the trauma of their experiences, and they still fear retaliation if they go public.

As for me, my experience with this story has led me to conclude that, since the Weinstein revelations, editors have raised the bar too high for victims who want to speak out about their alleged abuse. When I began writing about sexual misconduct, the longstanding journalistic rule that victims of sexual assault did not have to name themselves to have their stories told was still in force. Indeed, in my article for Science about Brian Richmond, we did not name the principal victim nor others who were victims of harassment (although a brief episode, during which my editors pushed me to pressure the victim into going fully public--which I refused to do--was a major factor in the breakdown of mutual trust between me and that publication.)

Post-Weinstein, most editors I have worked with, and I think others as well, have begun insisting that at least some victims be named. That puts incredible pressure on both victims and reporters, because this really should be a choice. It's a kind of "Me Too" in the worst possible sense, in which the priorities of the publication are privileged over the needs of the victims. I hope that an open discussion of this can take place soon. But for that to happen, the problem has to be identified and recognized.

*** This section involving the students at the field school has been updated based on new information that came to light since the story was first published.


Clarification: Several anthropologists, including one who writes in the Comments below as "Anonymous," have pointed out that the archaeologist quoted in that paragraph was using the term "cultural relativism" in an incorrect and misleading way. As one expert put it, cultural relativism is about understanding a culture, not necessarily accepting all aspects of a culture uncritically. A very interesting discussion of these issues can be found in this post by Jason Antrosio in the blog Living Anthropologically (Full reference: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Cultural Relativism 2011 – DSK, Guinea, & Mike McGovern.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/cultural-relativism-anthropology-101/. First posted 20 July 2011. Revised 7 September 2017.) A key quote from this article: "...cultural relativism is a method, a way of understanding, but not a philosophy. It is not a way of avoiding judgment, but may actually lead to better judgment.”

Thus the archaeologist quoted also assumed that by harassing and assaulting women, Lordkipanidze was acting according to the norms of his own Georgian culture, which is insulting to that society. I personally agree that this appears to have become an intellectual excuse for not protesting clearly unprincipled and abusive behavior, so as to retain access to the fossils and other data (and to further one's own career.) There is considerable evidence that some non-Georgian members of the Dmanisi team are continuing to overlook bad behavior at the site out of this kind of expediency.

Friday, August 31, 2018

University of Bath paleontologist loses 1 million pound Leverhulme grant over bullying complaints

Some readers will have seen my Tweets over the past week about Nick Longrich, a paleontologist at the University of Bath with a reputation for bullying students and postdoctoral researchers in his lab. This has raised serious concerns among members of the paleontology community, who are worried about both current students in his lab as well as several new ones who are reportedly scheduled to begin working with him this fall (in academic terms, that means imminently.)

According to sources familiar with the situation, Longrich's bullying behavior has included shouting and screaming at his students and postdocs, and belittling them and their scientific abilities. Issues have also been raised about the quality of the supervision he gives to his junior colleagues.

In response to my initial queries about this, the university press office issued a curt statement on August 22:


“All staff and students have a right to be treated, and have an obligation to treat others, with dignity and respect. We can confirm that an investigation has taken place following allegations of bullying and appropriate disciplinary action has been taken. In fairness to all those involved we will not be commenting further at this time.”


But after I began widening my queries, including contacting the chair of Longrich's department and the head of Bath's Milner Centre for Evolution--with which Longrich has an important affiliation--the university got back to me with a more detailed statement as follows:


“In fairness to all those involved and taking into account our obligations to staff and students under legislation relating to General Data Protection Regulation we are providing further information only where we are satisfied that the privacy of individual students and staff would not be compromised and the necessary consents have been obtained.

“Following a formal complaint made at the end of May 2018 in relation to a potential breach of the University’s Dignity and Respect Policy, which applies to all students and staff, a formal investigation began at the beginning of June and was concluded at the end of July. The investigation was conducted by a senior academic from another University Department with professional support from our Human Resources team. The investigation panel considered written and oral statements, taking evidence from the complainant, the subject of the complaint and a number of others.

“The conclusion reached was that though there had been no malicious intent, the formal complaint should be upheld. Having considered the range of options available to the university and the evidence provided to the investigation panel, disciplinary action was taken and formally communicated to the subject of the complaint.

“An oral warning was given as to future conduct. Changes have been agreed to supervisory arrangements for current students which will apply to future students.”


It appears from this that Longrich will still be allowed to supervise students even if some arrangements to protect them have been made (that is not entirely clear.) Will those arrangements be as effective as necessary? Have the students been warned about his behavior and given the choice of switching to other labs?

I do not yet have the answer to those questions, but I am not the only reporter looking into this. All we journalists can do is shine a light at misconduct; it's up to the scientific community to do something about what our reporting reveals.

Update Sept 3: I am told by the communications officer of the Leverhulme Trust, from which Longrich is the recipient of a large grant through the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, that they are now aware of the bullying allegations and are investigating. Longrich is the holder of a Research Leadership Award from the Trust in the amount of 998,815 British pounds.

Update Sept 4: In discussions with more sources for this story, three important facts have emerged. First is that some of Longrich's new students (there are at least three) have already arrived in Bath and begun working in his lab, even though the new term does not officially begin until October 1. He reportedly asked them to come early, or required them to. Second, the formal complaint which the university investigated (see above) involved several students and not just one. Third, the main targets of the alleged bullying were women.

Update Sept 7: I have asked the University of Bath press office (Media Manager Chris Melvin) whether the incoming graduate students, some of whom have already arrived, were told that the university upheld a complaint of bullying against Longrich. After two days I do not have a response. Will update again once I do.

Breaking news Sept 18: I am now told by the Leverhulme Trust that Longrich has lost his nearly 1 million pound Research Leadership Award (which normally covers 4-5 years) but that his current doctoral students "will not be disadvantaged by this." That presumably means the university has made alternative arrangements for their supervision; will update as I learn more. Hoping that Science and Nature will now do the coverage of this they should have before. Update: Glad to see that Nature News has now covered the story and look forward to others doing so as well.

Sept 19: University of Bath outlines how Longrich's current students will be protected. What will Longrich's own fate be?

A big question in this episode has been what the university is doing, or will do, to protect and help students who have come into Longrich's lab this fall. The good news is that the Leverhulme Trust will continue to support those students financially, according to their statement yesterday and confirmation from the university today (see below.) A large portion of Longrich's 998,815 pound Research Leadership Award was intended for support of students and postdocs, and that will apparently continue. It also appears that students will be able to choose new supervisors if they wish to. As for Longrich: Sources in the scientific community tell me that the big grant was a major boost for Bath's Milner Centre for Evolution, which has just been inaugurated, and with which Longrich is prominently affiliated. With his grant pulled and the possible loss of students and postdocs, what is Longrich's future at Bath (or anywhere else?) Without severe consequences for misconduct, the culture will not change, even if the careers of individual abusers sometimes come to an end (most of Longrich's bullying victims were reportedly women.) I will continue to report on this important case.

Here is the statement today from a university spokesperson:

“We respect this decision by the Leverhulme Trust and appreciate the fact they will continue to support the existing PhD students.

“All staff and students have a right to be treated, and have an obligation to treat others, with dignity and respect. The University has previously issued a statement about the result of a disciplinary hearing. We have been supporting students and staff throughout this period.

"All affected students have had one-to-one meetings with senior staff where alternative supervisory arrangements have been discussed.”




Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sexual harassment investigation at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand

Wits campus
For the past several months I have been tracking an investigation by the university into allegations of sexual harassment against three scientists affiliated with Wits (as it is often called.) The university has completed its investigation and the results have been conveyed to me today by Shirona Patel, Wits' spokesperson.

I personally looked into the allegations against two of the individuals who were investigated, talking to multiple witnesses, and found them to be credible. Although the university did not name the individuals, I am doing so below.

Michael Balter


STATEMENT FROM WITS UNIVERSITY

The University’s Gender Equity Office (GEO) led an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment involving three individuals associated with the palaeosciences. The GEO was unable to find any recent sexual harassment allegations or incidents involving the three individuals. However, in the case of two individuals, there is evidence that they may have in the past been involved in inappropriate or unwelcome behaviour. At the time of the alleged incidents, there were no University policies or regulations in place reproaching such behaviour and the general knowledge and understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment was less prevalent. Despite this, the GEO has recommended that both individuals be issued with letters advising them that such behaviour is no longer tolerated at the institution, in line with the University’s current progressive gender equity policies.  

However, the GEO has also suggested that it may be necessary to conduct a further inquiry into the extent of sexual harassment in the palaeosciences and recommends that the Faculty undertakes extensive work to make the scientific environment welcoming to all. It further recommends that an internal ethics code be developed or strengthened within the Faculty. The University’s fieldwork policy has already been reviewed and strengthened and was recently passed by the University’s Council. It is in the process of being implemented.


Update and correction:

The two who were given warnings are Rob Blumenschine of Rutgers University and Ron Clarke of Wits. The third was Steven Churchill of Duke University. Some details based on my own reporting:

Rob Blumenschine: During my investigation for Science of the Brian Richmond case at the American Museum of Natural History, several women who had worked with Blumenschine in earlier days told me stories of being personally harassed by him. I did not follow up on these reports, nor do an investigation of Blumenschine, but found the allegations credible given the reputations of the women who told me about it.

Ron Clarke: During my investigation of the Richmond case, three women told me they had been harassed by Clarke on the Wits campus in South Africa. Two of them were willing to discuss their allegations in detail. I find their stories to be credible.

Steven Churchill: While investigating the Richmond case, numerous anthropologists told me that Churchill had been disciplined in earlier days for at least one inappropriate relationship with a student. I did not investigate those claims at the time although they were widely known in the anthropology community. More recently, however, sources approached me who felt that Churchill had not been adequately disciplined by Duke for that alleged behavior. I began to investigate and found a number of sources, currently at Duke and no longer there, who gave me details. The essence of the allegations was that Churchill had engaged in a series of inappropriate relationships with students (mostly undergraduates) during the 1990s, and into the 2000s. As a result of complaints, he was lightly disciplined in about 2007. His position as chair of the evolutionary anthropology department at Duke was not renewed, and according to sources, he was put on paid leave for a semester. He then returned to Duke.

Recently sources at Duke told me that there had been, and still was, concern among numerous colleagues that Churchill's punishment had been too light and that the university had swept it under the rug.

Also recently, this past history was made known to Lee Berger's team in South Africa, with which Churchill is associated. According to multiple sources, Churchill was required to make full disclosure to the team so that team members would be aware. These sources indicate that Churchill apologized and claimed that he had not behaved in such a way since the original episode at Duke.

However, two sources indicated to me that more recently, ie within the last 5 years or so, Churchill did engage in behavior in South Africa that could be interpreted as sexual harassment. No complaints were made about this behavior at the time, nor since.

Update August 21

As some may know, Wits has been grappling with cases of sexual misconduct over the past few years, and several faculty members in various academic fields have been fired for violating the university's "zero tolerance" policy. Today a source brought to my attention another situation close to anthropology home base, however, that of a Wits lecturer in archaeology, Geoffrey Blundell, who allegedly had an inappropriate relationship with a student. The original report in the university newspaper did not name Blondell, but the parties were named in a public decision by South Africa's Press Council after complaints about the article (the Council dismissed most but not all of the complaints.) This episode apparently lead to a new policy by Wits prohibiting such relationships between faculty and students. This is an increasing trend in US universities as well, as the power imbalances in such relationships--which makes actual consent difficult if not impossible--becomes more widely recognized.

A case of bullying in the UK?

Word also reaches us that the University of Bath has investigated charges of bullying students and postdocs by paleontologist Nick Longrich. A university spokesperson released the following statement:

“All staff and students have a right to be treated, and have an obligation to treat others, with dignity and respect. We can confirm that an investigation has taken place following allegations of bullying and appropriate disciplinary action has been taken. In fairness to all those involved we will not be commenting further at this time.”

I will have updates on this developing story as they are available.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Truth and Consequences: A #MeToo Saga Finds a Happy Ending, and an Alleged Abuser is Sent Into What Seems to be Permanent Exile

Brian Richmond
Since I began writing about sexual misconduct in the sciences nearly three years ago, I have rarely had good news to report--although many might see the exposure and banishment of alleged sexual predators as a positive sign that academia is coming to grips with its #MeToo problems. My own reporting
--for Science and The Verge-- has led to the banishing of two talented scientists from museums on the U.S. East Coast: Brian Richmond, former curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), who was forced to resign in December 2016 in the wake of allegations that he sexually assaulted a colleague and sexually harassed students; and Miguel Pinto, a mammalogist from Ecuador who was accused of sexually assaulting a student at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and was eventually banned from its premises. (During the Smithsonian investigation, I uncovered considerable evidence that the biology department where Pinto began his graduate work, at Texas Tech University, was a hotbed of sexism and sexual harassment.)

Yesterday, in an online article published by Scientific American, I had the pleasure of writing about Richmond's replacement, anthropologist Ashley Hammond from George Washington University. Ashley will take up the post of curator of biological anthropology beginning June 1. Although I necessarily had to provide the history and context for the position falling open in the first place, this was largely an upbeat story. It was also a milestone for me personally, because the Brian Richmond investigation has had a very big effect on my own life. It led to my banishment from Science, for which I had worked for 25 years, the culmination of a series of events that resulted in a breakdown of trust between me and my editors (I won't link to my blog posts on those events, which you can find by looking at a string of posts from spring 2016, and also include links to an earlier episode in which I publicly protested Science's brutal firing of four women colleagues.)

But what I really want to talk about today is the fate of Brian Richmond and others in biological anthropology and paleoanthropology whose alleged reputations for sexual misconduct have followed them for years, and have resulted in sometimes severe consequences. Because Richmond, as many anthropologists have pointed out to me (a point also made in the SciAm story) is far from the only person in the field whom women have accused of sexual misconduct. Recently, Duke University anthropologist William Hylander, an expert in the evolution of the human and primate face with a long history of harassing women at scientific conferences, was forced by Duke to resign his emeritus status in the wake of a new episode of harassment the university undertook to investigate. Other investigations are currently under way; I will be reporting on them soon.

And, if you navigate to the pinned Tweet on my Twitter homepage (@mbalter), you will find a thread concerning David Lordkipanidze, general director of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi and leader of the important excavations at the key Homo erectus site of Dmanisi. As I explain there, Lordkipanidze is already being shunned by the biological anthropology community as a result of the allegations against him. Recently, the German National Academy of Sciences was forced to cancel a human evolution meeting it had organized for this coming November in Leipzig and Halle, Germany, after some invited speakers protested the inclusion of Lordkipanidze on the program.

As for Brian Richmond, I do not feel any sympathy for him, nor do I expect anyone else to. Without going into details here (see the original Science piece, which, to protect sensitive sources, did not include all of the allegations concerning him) he reportedly made a lot of women suffer, and in various ways he will remain part of their lives for a long time to come. Some see his downfall as tragic, because he was widely regarded as a talented researcher (the co-discovery and study of hominin footprints in Kenya were his claim to fame) and his sociable manner made him a good choice for the AMNH's curator position, which required a lot of public outreach. (Richmond never really got going on that outreach, because he was accused of assaulting his colleague just a few months after he was hired.) Yet Richmond's attempts to rehabilitate himself have gone nowhere, at least as far as anyone in the anthropology community knows--although not for lack of trying. 

I have linked a number of times to San Jose State University philosopher Janet Stemwedel's wise and incisive article in Forbes, "Advice For the Reformed Harasser on Rejoining the Scientific Community." I would urge you to read it if you have not already. Perhaps if Richmond had followed her advice he might have gotten further in his efforts, but there are few signs that he has.

Richmond’s resignation from the American Museum of Natural History was effective at the end of 2016, and as part of the departure deal he received an additional year of salary during 2017. When the museum announced his resignation, Richmond minimized the charges against him, telling Science that there had been only one formal complaint. “I plan to focus on my family and the next steps in my career,” he told my colleague Ann Gibbons.

Although a number of anthropologists have told me that it is unlikely Richmond will ever get an academic position again, he apparently has not given up on that goal. Early last year, Richmond emailed women he might have suspected were anonymous sources for Science’s original investigation and offered to apologize. “I hope you are well,” Richmond wrote. “I would like to apologize to you and thought this might be best done over the phone.” Richmond went on to ask if it was okay to call and offered his own telephone number in case anyone wanted to call him.

Nevertheless, some senior researchers, concerned that Richmond might be trying to identify those who had given evidence against him to the AMNH’s outside investigators, put a stop to these efforts.

“I don’t think he gets it yet,” one colleague who has known Richmond for some years told me. “He’s more sorry for being caught.” (Richmond did not respond to repeated requests from me for comment about his efforts to contact the women, nor about the episode described below.)

Shortly after he resigned from the museum, Richmond began talking to Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the department of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, about coming to Leipzig at least temporarily. Hublin convened a meeting of his department to discuss the possibility. Two members of the department who were present talked to me about the meeting, although they asked that their names not be used. According to one of these sources, Hublin read part of an email from Richmond asking if he could come to Leipzig, using a research award that he had earlier received from Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. However, the Humboldt Foundation had suspended Richmond’s award when the sexual misconduct allegations against him first surfaced, according to a statement the Foundation provided to me. Richmond was reportedly hoping that if Hublin and the Max Planck Institute supported his visit to Leipzig, the Foundation would lift the suspension.

“Several members of staff raised concerns about the [institute] supporting Brian’s request for the suspension to be lifted, and concerns about him coming to the institute,” one of the sources told me, adding that “several female PhD students spoke about their concerns.” The group then decided to hold a secret vote on the matter, open for 48 hours, which Hublin announced to the entire department. Although Hublin made clear at the meeting that “the vote would not be the deciding factor, but ultimately he would make the decision,” according to this source, the vote went decisively against Richmond’s visit. Hublin then decided Richmond would not be coming.

According to one researcher who knows Hublin well, when the allegations against Richmond surfaced in 2015, Hublin was “obsessed” with the notion that the charges were unfounded and felt he was getting a bad deal. “Jean-Jacques talked about Brian Richmond endlessly. He was very emotional about it.”

In an emailed statement to me about this, sent in connection with another article that has not yet been published,  Hublin said that Richmond was a “top scientist” and admitted that he had “struggled to come to terms with what was reported about him and then what happened to him.” But Hublin denies ever saying that Richmond was “not guilty of wrongdoing. In fact, when I had a chance to talk to colleagues, I privately and publicly said just the opposite.” Hublin also confirmed the basic account provided by the departmental sources about the meeting and the vote. “I took the results of this survey and the opinions of many I talked to, and in the end decided not to invite [Richmond] for this visit.”

I will not speculate here about why Hublin thought it might be appropriate to bring Richmond to Leipzig, even temporarily, despite the allegations against him. (Richmond's resignation from the museum came after a full year of investigation by an outside firm, T&M Protection Resources, which the AMNH had contracted with to conduct the inquiry after its own half-hearted investigations kept him in his job. A look at their Web site will give you an idea of the seriousness and competence that T&M brings to its work.)

I don't feel good about the fact that Brian Richmond has become the poster boy for sexual misconduct in anthropology, even if I think that he is fully and personally responsible for his forced resignation and banishment from the scientific community.  Like other, more high-profile #MeToo abusers such as Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose, he has suffered severe consequences for his actions--and as the reporter on the story, I obviously played a decisive role in making that happen. Some (especially men, but some women too) have questioned whether it is right to close the door entirely on sexual predators and give them no path back into the communities they were once part of. I would refer them back to Janet Stemwedel's Forbes post: There is a path, but who can name a single sexual predator who has chosen to follow it, rather than falsely proclaim his innocence to anyone who will listen?

To change the culture in the future, the consequences for misconduct in the present must be severe. Save the sympathy for later. For each abuser who has been exposed and banished from his former life, there are hundreds of women who have been forced to flee from beloved jobs and positions, or who never got the chance to pursue them at all.