Friday, September 6, 2019

It's not where #MeToo allegations are published that counts, but the weight of the evidence behind them: The cases of Jean-Jacques Hublin and ESHE, and David Lordkipanidze and IPHES.

Earlier this week, I published a commentary in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled "I now publish #MeToo stories on my blog, for free. Here's why." I explain why, after investigating several cases of sexual misconduct for Science and The Verge, I decided to strike out on my own, without editors or lawyers involved in my reporting. I hope you will read it if you have not already. One reason I wrote it was to address a recurrent excuse for inaction in the face of clear abuses by many institutions, in situations where the allegations have not have adjudicated in a formal manner (such as a court of law, a US Title IX procedure, etc.)

Of course, if these criteria were applied universally, Harvey Weinstein (whose indictment on charges of rape has yet to be tried in a court) would still be a Hollywood producer, and many other abusers who have been forced to resign their positions under public or community pressure would still be in power. As is clearly recognized in Title IX cases, a "preponderance of the evidence" is enough to find that an alleged abuser is likely to be guilty in situations where he or she is not in danger of being deprived of life or liberty. No one has an absolute right to be a Hollywood producer, president of the United States, or, in the cases I usually deal with, head of a lab.

Nevertheless, in the cases I have reported of two alleged abusers in Europe--Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the department of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and David Lordkipanidze, director general of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia--organizations they are affiliated with have chosen to ignore the serious charges against them on the flimsy grounds that they were published online. The organizations in question are the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution (ESHE), of which Hublin is president, and the IPHES human evolution institute in Tarragona, Spain.

Let me take each in turn.

Even before I published the allegations against Hublin in January 2019, a number of anthropologists and archaeologists had begun to question his suitability as president of ESHE, as some of the allegations against him were fairly well known in that scientific community. The board of ESHE was definitely aware as well. But Hublin was able to squelch the movement to remove him, in part because he had obtained a court gag order against the principal alleged victim of his misconduct. That gag order also allowed Hublin to gaslight his friends and colleagues into thinking that an inappropriate relationship between a senior scientist and a student had been a purely private affair that turned bad. That went on for 18 months.

More recently, Tanya Smith, a highly accomplished and respected anthropologist at Griffith University in Australia, published a blog post detailing Hublin's attempts, some years ago, to wreck her career. This gave added impetus to a longstanding attempt to organize a boycott of ESHE's annual meeting later this month in Liege, Belgium, which received some important news coverage in The Scientist after Oxford University radiocarbon expert Tom Higham (another highly respected scientist) came out publicly in support of the boycott.

The ESHE board felt compelled to issue a statement to the entire membership (full disclosure: I am a member myself) justifying why they were taking no action. As you can see from the text below, the fact that the allegations have been published "on the internet" is the key excuse for not taking action. But this might not be the end of it, as the issue is likely to come up at the annual meeting.

To the members of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution,
The ESHE Board takes the issue of scientific misconduct, including sexual harassment and bullying, very seriously. As expressed in an email to our membership in May this year, we are of course fully aware of issues at recent conferences in our field (the SAA in particular) and of some concerns about ESHE. In light of these, we added to our Statement on creating a safe and open working environment ( that individuals who are currently sanctioned for assault or any form of harassment by an adjudicating institution will be barred from taking part in ESHE events.
We are also aware of the allegations about the current ESHE president that have been published online and have discussed these with the board. ESHE has not received any formal complaints or accusations to act on and following a detailed investigation the Max Planck Gesellschaft confirmed to ESHE that J.-J. Hublin has never been sanctioned for any form of professional misconduct. We feel strongly that ESHE cannot act based only on reports circulated on the Internet. Hence, we see no grounds to initiate a process that could change the current leadership of ESHE. Note that ESHE is a democratic society, with board members, including the President - elected by the members of the Society at the general assembly. The current President was re-elected during our September 2017 meeting and his term finishes September 2020.
One positive outcome of the debates of the last years about misconduct in the sciences is a strong awareness of the need for us all to create better, safer and healthier working environments in our field. ESHE remains fully committed to providing such an environment. Like other societies, we are not an adjudicating body and rely on the findings of institutional and criminal investigations, and we have in place a system for reporting concerns or accusations by our members that can lead to these investigations.
This is where we are now, and we will continue to discuss how best to handle scientific misconduct. We consider this a work in progress and something to be discussed at the next general assembly of ESHE.
We look forward to see you in Li├Ęge!
The ESHE Board

In many ways, the case against David Lordkipanidze, which is air tight and has none of the ambiguities that some might see in the Hublin affair, has generated a more decisive response. As I describe in the story, the German national academy of sciences cancelled an entire human evolution meeting after protests from other participants that Lordkipanidze had been invited; and more recently the Humboldt Foundation disinvited him as keynote speaker at an event after his reputation was pointed out to them.

But the accusations against Lordkipanidze have not stopped IPHES from naming him as president of its Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) (Lordkipanidze had previously served as a member of the board.) That decision led to the resignation of one board member, but one only. I think it is fair to speculate that the leaders of IPHES appointed Lordkipanidze to the SAB originally because there is an important Spanish team working at Dmanisi, the famous hominin site that he directs, and that to force him off the board would almost surely cut off that team's access to the site, its spectacular fossils, and the data from them. But why they needed to go one step further and appoint him president of the board, only they can answer.

Although the director of IPHES has declined to discuss the matter with me, I did have an exchange with one newly named board member, Erella Hovers, an paleoanthropologist at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I have known Erella for a long time, so I thought that it might be possible to at least present the case that the allegations against Lordkipanidze were solid. I am reproducing our exchange below, because I think it demonstrates the problem I am writing about in this post. (Although Erella's response to me was on the record, I offered in a followup email, not reproduced here to put it off the record if she asked me to do so. She did not, and thus I am ethically free to reproduce it.) Again, the same logic--or, in my opinion, illogic--is used to justify doing nothing in the face of clear evidence of misconduct.

Hello Michael

thank you for all the messages regarding the  IPHES  SAB and the participation of David Lordkipanidze. I trust that you shared similar emails with all members of the committee (males and females alike, and I cc all of them to this letter).

I read (again) your blog on this issue and gave it a lot of thought.

Yes, I am aware of the rumors regarding Lordkipanidze’s behavior. I am not aware of "strong evidence" - if it exists, it does not seem to be shared openly and transparently. So you are asking me to act on the basis of YOUR knowledge and judgement, not mine. I do not KNOW if David is or is not guilty of all that you accuse him of (keeping your sources anonymous). In my role on  the SAB I was asked to comment on the science of IPHES,  not the morality or lack thereof of David Lordkipanidze. I don’t think the pressure on me to resign from the committee because of his presence makes is justified. Or, in fact, yours to make in the first place.

If there were victims, that is terrible, and their case should be heard, their concerns treated,  but it cannot be anonymously and on the basis of what are (to me) rumors. You are conducting a public lynching in the digital town square. Even if The German Academy of Science, to whom you referred in your emails, feels comfortable acting as if Vox Populi, Vox Dei when they caved to the protestors - I personally am not comfortable with this way of action.

I regret that you ended your email with : "This is getting wide attention in the anthropology community and I think colleagues will have much more to say about it. I’m trying to keep you well informed as it will not reflect well on anyone who accepts his presence on the board.”  Frankly, i find this non-too-subtle threat also a type of harassment. 


My response:

Hi Erella,

Thanks for getting back to me on this.

Should I consider your response on the record or confidential? I am happy to accommodate your preferences on the content of the letter, although the choices of the individual board members to stay on the board or resign obviously are a matter of public record since all of you are listed on the IPHES Web site.

There are so many things both factually and interpretively wrong with what you have you written that there is probably little sense in pointing them out to you. But let me try briefly on a few issues.

1. Most of the sources are anonymous, but not all. The identity of "Diane" is well known because she publicly accused DL of assault as I point out in the story, and gave me permission to name her. I only did not do so in an effort to spare her further pain.

2. There are named witnesses who corroborate Diane's story in a contemporaneous way. The anonymous witnesses are all respected colleagues in anthropology and archaeology, and as the reporter on the story I can vouch for that. Unless you want to call me a liar, I would call upon you to believe me on that score.

3. There has, of course, been no official adjudication of these allegations because there is no judicial body that would hear them. Which one would you suggest--the court system of Georgia? Dmanisi is a source of national pride for Georgia and the nation is not likely to put the director of its national museum on trial.

4. Finally, I need to be just as harsh with you as you are being with me. In my opinion, your apparent moral outrage at what you call "harassment" is, in my opinion, a smokescreen for your own moral failure to do what is right in this situation. The allegations against DL are based on multiple victims, a large number of witnesses, and he has not chosen to bring legal action against me for them--even though he has a very competent attorney here in the United States and could easily do so.

In closing, I think, and I hope, that pressure will be brought to bear upon IPHES to do the right thing in this situation. It won't be me who will boycott events in Tarragona, meetings etc, but members of the anthropology community who believe the accusations against DL because they themselves know his victims and consider them to be credible.

Please let me know your decision on the status of your email.

best wishes,


[As I stated above, despite an additional email to Erella asking if she wanted to put her note to me off the record, she did not respond.]

Fortunately, in many cases, my reporting--whether for mainstream publications or for my blog--has led to concrete results. I hope that ultimately ESHE, IPHES, and other organizations will realize that it's not where the evidence is published, but how strong the evidence actually is, that really counts.

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