|David Lordkipanidze/Wikimedia Commons|
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
A pattern of sexual misconduct in anthropology, and a fabulous fossil site.
|The site of Dmanisi in Georgia|
An exciting summer in the field ends with a sexual assault
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.
[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.”
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.