Friday, November 30, 2018

Letter to an apparently unreformed harasser on rejoining the scientific community

A researcher found guilty by CalTech of "unambiguous gender-based harassment" is threatening to take legal action against me for making truthful statements about him on social media. This is not the first time that a scientist has threatened to sue me and the publications I work for, and it goes with the territory of being a #MeToo reporter; nor is it the first time that someone found guilty of misconduct has similarly threatened the reporters who made the facts public. Nevertheless such attempts to stop exposure of misconduct and rewrite history must be countered whenever possible. Thus this blog post.

From 2008 to 2017, Christian Ott was a theoretical astrophysicist at CalTech in California. When he left in 2017, in the wake of the university's findings that he had harassed two graduate students, he was a full tenured professor. Ott was one of several scientists publicly exposed for harassment in 2015 and 2016; at that time, several science writers, including Jeff Mervis at Science, Azeen Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed, Amy Harmon at the New York Times, and myself (again at Science), broke a number of stories on this subject. The accusations against Ott were first published in Science by Jeff Mervis, who reported that he had been suspended from the university without pay for a year; Azeen Ghorayshi then expanded on this reporting in at least two important articles. In August 2017, Azeen reported that Ott had resigned from CalTech after his projected return to campus was met by student protests.

Ott subsequently obtained a two-year research position at the University of Turku in Finland. However, early this year, he was fired from that job after astronomers in Finland protested (Azeen Ghorayshi again reported this news.)

In October of this year, I saw a Twitter post claiming that Ott was now working at USC. In looking at Ott's Twitter home page, I saw that indeed he described himself as a "Computational & Data Scientist" at USC's Viterbi Data Analytics Certificate Program. I then Tweeted the news that he was at USC, and reminded readers of his history both at CalTech and the University of Turku. Why did I do this? Because I believe that reporters, and anyone else with knowledge of a known harasser's behavior and whereabouts, has a duty to warn possible future victims. To me, this duty to warn is a matter of principle and not just something one should do if it is convenient or lacking in personal risk.

On November 4, Ott emailed me and asked me to delete these "inaccurate tweets." (I am reproducing the full text of his email below in fairness to his position.) Upon learning that he was a student in the USC program and not "working" there, I immediately issued a correction but advised him that he should change his own misleading description of his role there. We then engaged in a series of email exchanges, each of which Ott insisted were private and not for publication. In the last few days, Ott made statements that were clearly intended to signal that he would seek legal action against me. I informed Ott, however, that I did not agree to put the communication off the record (both the reporter and source must agree that communication is "off the record" for it to be so.)

Here is my most recent email to Ott (which makes reference to an article I am planning about the subject of whether harassers can be reformed), and below it is his first email to me. I think they state things clearly. But the most important question is that raised by San Jose State University philosopher Janet Stemwedel in the commentary I link to in my letter to Ott: What does it take for a harasser to be "reformed" and rejoin the scientific community? At a minimum, acceptance of what he or she has done and the effect it has had on the victims.

Dear Mr. Ott,

I believe that the statements I have made about you are correct.

You were found guilty by CalTech of “unambiguous gender-based harassment” and suspended for a year. I used the term “harassment” in my Tweets which is correct. You were not suspended because you used “poor judgement” in advising students, although that might have been true as well, but because you engaged in harassment that seriously affected their lives.

You had hoped to come back to campus after your suspension, but your return was met by student protests. The overall context of events, and even the letter you sent me, make it clear that you did not leave to pursue other opportunities, but because you were no longer welcome on campus by much of the CalTech community. You were a full tenured professor of astronomy at CalTech; your claims that you left “voluntarily” are not credible and true only in a narrow, technical sense that belies the truth of the matter. I believe my statement that you were forced to resign captures that truth very well.

You were hired by the University of Turku and then fired after protests by astronomers in Finland.

The only thing I got wrong, which I immediately corrected upon your pointing it out, was that you are a student in the USC Viterbi program and not “working” there. However, you yourself bear responsibility for that error, due to the misleading description you have maintained on your Twitter home page. There you identify yourself as a “scientist” with the program and not a student. You might consider correcting that erroneous profile, although I have kept a screen shot of the original version.

It’s not my role as a reporter to offer you advice, but I don’t feel good about the fact that a talented astrophysicist such as yourself  now founds himself shunned by the scientific community. But you will have no hopes of rehabilitation as long as you continue to engage in denial about what happened. Might I suggest that you read this very wise commentary on the subject?

I will keep you informed about the progress of my article. As always, all of our communications are on the record as I have not agreed otherwise.

Best of luck,

Michael Balter

Ott's email to me of November 4, 2018:

Dear Mr. Balter,

I'm writing regarding your tweets of October 10. They are inaccurate and
don't reflect the truth.

I was not forced to resign from Caltech for harassment. Caltech did not
find me responsible for sexual harassment.

I made mistakes in the advising of graduate students and displayed poor
judgment. I underwent a program of retraining encompassing more than 100
sessions of executive coaching, mentoring, and counseling. I apologized
to the students involved. I was fully reinstated by Caltech on August 1,
2017 and resigned effective December 31, 2017 to seek opportunities

I don't work at the USC Viterbi Data Analytics Certificate Program. I'm
a student in this program. The other students are working adult
professionals like me. I don't interact with USC undergraduate or
graduate students. Your tweets may have a negative impact on my
participation in this educational program.

I kindly ask you to delete your inaccurate tweets.

Thank You and best regards,

  Christian Ott

Update: This week I had asked CalTech's press office for all public statements it had made concerning the Ott case. Although I had seen various communications distributed to the campus community, I wanted to have their public and official view of things. The press office got back to me today, saying that actually none of the communications had been intended for public dissemination; but that the following letter could be made public. I think it adds in a helpful way to the context I tried to provide above.

To:      The Caltech Community
From:  Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President
            Edward M. Stolper, Provost
Date:   August 1, 2017
Re:      Important Update

In previous notes from us to the campus community, as well as from Professor Fiona Harrison to the PMA division, we promised to keep you informed of the resolution of the disciplinary process regarding Professor Christian Ott and, in particular, his possible reinstatement as a professor. Today, we write to let you know the outcome of that process.
The committee chaired by Professor Jonas Zmuidzinas to evaluate Professor Ott’s readiness to return to campus consulted broadly with Caltech students, postdocs, faculty, staff, and with Professor Ott himself. It submitted a recommendation to Professor Harrison as Chair of the PMA division, who in turn provided her recommendation to the provost for final determination. The recommendations, including evaluations submitted by professional resources, acknowledged that Professor Ott made significant progress with regard to the issues that led to the disciplinary action against him, but also acknowledged that because of his past history at Caltech, Professor Ott remained a divisive element on campus. The recommendations were shared with Professor Ott, who has decided to resign from Caltech, effective December 31, 2017. Dr. Ott’s office will remain off campus through December 31, 2017.
This has been a difficult situation for our community. We appreciate the positive engagement and input of so many students, postdocs, faculty, and staff in the process and we remain committed to fostering an open dialogue on issues that affect the well-being of the Caltech community. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

After more than 20 years in the hands of one researcher, the nearly complete "Little Foot" hominin skeleton from South Africa will finally be open to other scientists at the end of November

Ron Clarke and skull of "Little Foot"/Wits - Wikimedia Commons
In 1994, Ron Clarke, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, was looking through some museum boxes filled with fossil specimens from the Sterkfontein caves, located about 40 kilometers northwest of the city. Beginning in the 1930s, a number of hominin fossils had been found there, mostly australopithecines, in what South Africans call the Cradle of Humankind.

Clarke quickly realized that four of the fossils, all small toe bones, had been misidentified as belonging to monkeys. They actually belonged to an early hominin, most likely another australopithecine. It quickly became known as "Little Foot."

Over the following years, Clarke, together with his collaborators Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi, searched the cave grotto from which the toes had come, trying to find more fossils. They eventually came across an almost complete hominin skeleton, encased in breccia. Under the official direction of the late Philip Tobias, the legendary Wits paleoanthropologist, Clarke and his colleagues began the slow task of extricating Little Foot's very fragile bones. It would take them nearly 20 years; the skeleton was finally put on brief public display last year.

Over this entire time, as he and his colleagues dug it out of the cave, Clarke had pretty much exclusive access to Little Foot, although he has so far published only very limited descriptions of the fossils. At the end of this month, however, Little Foot will become open access, or as the Wits fossil curator refers to it, "open collaboration." In other words, other teams will be able to study the skeleton and publish their own papers about it. Indeed, one research group, led by Wits paleoanthropologist Lee Berger--leader of the Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi teams in South Africa--has already had access to the skeleton earlier this year, and is expected to publish its results sometime after the open access date of November 28.

At this point I have to pause for a back story that provides important context, that of a long rivalry between Ron Clarke and Lee Berger well known to human evolution experts (even if they might not be aware of all the details.) When it came time for Tobias to retire in the mid 1990s, Clarke and Berger became the main contenders to replace him. During a visit to Wits in 2011 to profile Berger for Science magazine, I interviewed Tobias in his office and he told me the story.

Lee Berger and the cranium of Au. sediba

Tobias told me that the search committee could not decide between Berger and Clarke--individuals with very different skill sets--and so asked him for his opinion. Despite having earlier asked to be kept out of the process, Tobias told me, he agreed to do it. He made up a list of pluses and minuses for both men, and it was pretty close, Tobias said. But on balance Berger, who had done his PhD with Tobias, had a small edge, mainly because he was young, very enthusiastic, personable, and good at raising money; Clarke, very well respected and older than Berger, was a more experienced scientist, Tobias said, but less able to publicly represent paleoanthropology at Wits. (I think that anyone who has seen Berger give a public talk would see what Tobias saw; I was present when he talked to some middle school students in Johannesburg and it was quite amazing to see how brilliantly he conveyed his own enthusiasm for the science.)

But later, Tobias said, he soured on Berger, after he became convinced that the younger man had tried to steal credit for the discovery of Little Foot from Ron Clarke. Tobias told this story to many others, and before long, pretty much the entire biological anthropology community was convinced this was true. However, during my 2011 visit, I spent a lot of time in the Wits archives researching the question, as well as talking to both Berger and Clarke and many others about it. I continued this research for weeks after my return home. Most of my findings ended up on the cutting room floor, because Science thought it was inside baseball. But the bottom line was that the accusations were not true, as the university itself had found during its own, earlier investigation. I assume, however, that Tobias went to his grave still believing them.

That brings us back to the present. Berger had long argued, correctly I think, that the very long period during which Clarke had exclusive access to Little Foot was bad for science, especially after publication of the discovery of Au. sediba in 2010. Although the exact dating of Little Foot has been a matter of fierce controversy, Berger thinks they are relatively close to being contemporaneous. That means that a comparative study of Little Foot, Au. sediba, and other hominin fossils could help to illuminate a key period in human evolution, assuming that the South African hominins were not an evolutionary side show as some have argued. I've talked to many scientists who agree with Berger that it is long past time for Little Foot to be fully published and for others to be allowed to study it.

That is now happening. In a Skype interview earlier this year with Bernhard Zipfel, Wits' curator of fossils, and Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits' deputy vice-chancellor, the two men gave me the details of the open access plan. Vilakazi pointed out that Wits had an obligation under South Africa's heritage laws to make Little Foot available for study, but that policies were fairly loose concerning how long the discoverer of a fossil could have exclusive access. Zipfel said that normally a researcher would have seven years after a fossil was out of the ground, but that the long time it took to extricate Little Foot justified giving Clarke some extra time.

During the conversation, Zipfel said that he preferred the term "open collaboration" to "open access," because the university hoped to foster collaborative studies between different scientists--even between Clarke and Berger, although that does not seem likely to happen. Nevertheless, early this year, Berger's team, after submitting a research application, was given access to Little Foot, which in November 2017 had been moved from Clarke's lab at Sterkfontein to a vault at Wits in Johannesburg (more on that in a moment.)

Berger is understandably reluctant to discuss the situation, especially as his own study of Little Foot will not be published until sometime after the November 28 date and thus he is not free to talk about the results before then. And, according to Zipfel, beginning in 2016 the university had to negotiate a compromise between what Berger wanted--immediate access to Little Foot at that time--and what Clarke wanted, no access at all until he had published his own analyses and descriptions. The early access by Berger's team, but delay in publication, was the compromise arrived at by the university officials in consultation with outside experts.

But in a lengthy email to me relating his views on the process, Clarke made clear that the way it was handled had left a bitter taste in his mouth. Clarke said that Little Foot had been removed from Sterkfontein while he was giving some lectures in China, and that he was informed of this while he was there. (Zipfel confirms this account, adding that neither Clarke nor Berger knew the skeleton had been spirited back to Johannesburg until after it was done.)

Clarke also defended the long time it took him and his colleagues to get Little Foot out of the breccia, which had to be done with air scribes, needles driven by compressed air, to avoid breaking the fragile fossils. Clarke said that Berger's application to study Little Foot, in 2016, was "highly inappropriate" and that this should not have been allowed until after his own publications were in press. (Clarke told me that he expected those papers to be published by November 30.)

I've given this background because I think it is important to understanding how we have finally arrived at what most scientists will surely see as good news: Little Foot will be fully published at long last, and other researchers will be able to study it and draw their own conclusions. Science, and all of humanity, can only benefit.

Update Nov 8: Since this was published, some have pointed out to me that Ron Clarke did not use air scribes exclusively to extricate Little Foot from the breccia, but that he and his colleagues used hammers at least some of the time. This is illustrated in a YouTube video about the skeleton, and I recall seeing hammers used at least briefly during my visit in 2011. This story will be updated as it develops.