Cut from the Same Psychological Cloth

"Scientific misconduct and sexual assault have more in common than you might think."

That's UCLA's Michael Chwe's provocative introduction to an April 2016 article at Retraction Watch, in which he explored a number of predatory behaviors that appear to be disturbingly common among both alleged junk scientists and individuals engaged in sexual harrassment.

For starters, in both scientific misconduct cases and sexual assault or sexual harassment cases, typically a weak person accuses a powerful person. The accused is usually much closer to administrators and the investigative system: the first administrator to confront Diederik Stapel with charges that he had faked his data played tennis with Stapel every Wednesday, and told him that he would “like nothing better” than to believe in Stapel’s innocence. After an investigation found that Sujit Choudhry, dean of the UC Berkeley Law School, sexually harassed executive assistant Tyann Sorrell, UC Berkeley Provost Claude Steele told Sorrell that he would not fire Choudhry because it might “destroy his future chances for higher appointment.”

In contrast, people who report scientific fraud and sexual assault and harassment typically do not have powerful friends, and decide to report at great personal cost. The students of Elizabeth Goodwin abandoned many years of graduate school study in order to report that Goodwin had faked data. As Sarah LaMartina told Science in 2006:

We kept thinking, ‘Are we just stupid [to turn Goodwin in]?’ . . . Sure, it’s the right thing to do, but right for who? . . . Who is going to benefit from this? Nobody.

LaMartina lost her appetite and fifteen pounds, while faculty members in the department all supported Goodwin. Similarly, sexual assault is one of the least reported crimes: In a 2015 survey of 23,000 college students, only 12.5 percent of rape incidents and 4.3 percent of sexual battery incidents experienced by women were reported to authorities. People reporting sexual assault face the possibility of violent reprisals, not being believed by authorities, and even being blamed for the assault.

A particularly insidious dynamic in both scientific fraud and sexual assault and harassment is that people who report it are made to feel that they themselves are implicated in the offense. In a 2006 survey published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, the vast majority of women who were raped did not report to authorities; the most common reason they provided (63 percent) was that they themselves would be blamed for the assault. Similarly, as pointed out in a 2010 editorial by the journal Nature:

A young scientist’s reputation is tethered to the successes and failures of his or her adviser, and when that adviser is accused of misconduct, trainees can also be viewed with suspicion.

Even for an established scientist, accusing another of fraud can be very costly. In her book about Jan Hendrik Schön, Eugenie Samuel Reich writes:

A whistleblower of scientific fraud once told me that he felt he needed the right to remain anonymous for the rest of his life. “Like a rape victim,” he said. . . . Thinking of a fraud allegation as if it were an allegation of sexual abuse, I could start to understand on an instinctive level why scientists might feel strongly and yet be very fearful about coming forward.

One of the things that stands out immediately is the extent to which the individuals who engaged in scientific misconduct exploited their personal connections and positions of authority to relentlessly attempt to denigrate the reputations and well-being of the whistleblowers who came forward to challenge their reigns of personal abuse.

Beyond that, it is very interesting to consider the behavioral similarities and parallels between those called out for having engaged in junk science prior to those being called out in today's scandal-ridden headlines involving the power-elite of both Hollywood and Washington D.C. Especially when those stories involve the unethical and systematic actions taken by the abusive personalities against the people who were willing to blow the whistle against their misconduct.

Consider the multiple stories that have come to light involving the recently convicted USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar or of Hollywood's Harvey Weinstein, the latter of whom reports indicate had his own personal "enemies list" of people he targeted for special and ongoing abuse.

The Observer has gained access to a secret hitlist of almost 100 prominent individuals targeted by Harvey Weinstein in an extraordinary attempt to discover what they knew about sexual misconduct claims against him and whether they were intending to go public.

The previously undisclosed list contains a total of 91 actors, publicists, producers, financiers and others working in the film industry, all of whom Weinstein allegedly identified as part of a strategy to prevent accusers from going public with sexual misconduct claims against him.

The names, apparently drawn up by Weinstein himself, were distributed to a team hired by the film producer to suppress claims that he had sexually harassed or assaulted numerous women.

The document was compiled in early 2017, around nine months before the storm that blew up on 5 October when the New York Times published a series of sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein.

Weinstein's enemies list was used to support the gathering of damaging information on his alleged victims and potential whistleblowers, which in turn, was planned to be used to both distract attention away from and to discredit any statements they might make about his personal conduct, to wreck their professional and personal reputations for the purpose of damaging their career prospects as a means to punish them for standing up to him, and to send a message to others about what might happen to them if they ever went public with allegations of misconduct on his part.

What kind of person is like that?

What kind of person engages in serial episodes of misconduct, whether it be cooking data to obtain predetermined results or engaging in acts of sexual harrassment or assault, then puts together an enemies list to facilitate their ability to further demean and diminish or to stalk and terrorize the targets of their personal abuse?

In our Examples of Junk Science series, we paid special attention to the kind of personality traits that characterized the unethical and ultimately antisocial and toxic behaviors that were common among confirmed pseudoscientists. As a hypothesis, we think that many of these are the same traits and characteristics associated with having a narcissistic personality disorder, which is indicated by their having five or more of the following symptoms of the spectrum condition:

  • Exaggerates own importance
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence or ideal romance
  • Believes he or she is special and can only be understood by other special people or institutions
  • Requires constant attention and admiration from others
  • Has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
  • Takes advantage of others to reach his or her own goals
  • Disregards the feelings of others, lacks empathy
  • Is often envious of others or believes other people are envious of him or her
  • Shows arrogant behaviors and attitudes
Psychology Today drills down deeper into each of these symptoms to provide more insight into how each might manifest itself (highly recommended reading, particularly if you ever have to deal with such a person and their abnormal behavior with any regularity).

Dealing with such a personality however can be an especially difficult challenge, because often, their go-to strategy to get away with their misconduct involves launching an unending smear campaign or other forms of social menacing against those who either have or who might expose their misconduct.

Most smear campaigners are highly narcissistic, and narcissists cannot ever be expected to apologize, come clean or admit any wrongdoing, even if caught red-handed in their lies. They truly believe, in their own way, that a smear campaign is the right thing to do to you, because you have opposed them, and you should have known better than to do such an unthinkable thing, so it’s simply all your fault they’re smearing you anyhow. They’re teaching you a lesson — agree with whatever they want, or else. You “asked for it”, and they’re teaching you better.

Smear campaigners are like spoiled playground bullies who kick another child when the teacher’s back is turned, just because the child doesn’t give them whatever they want. They cannot be made to empathize, and they are well-practiced in their abusive games, because they have been playing them all their lives.

In the quoted passage above, we've emphasized the first sentence with red boldface font because it largely agrees with the kind of behavior that we've observed on the part of several of the pseudo-scientists whose egregious academic misdeeds were referenced during our Examples of Junk Science series back in 2016, where they have not acknowledged the serious deficiencies that led to their work being dismissed as little more than junk science in the first place.

In place of that, we've often seen really unprofessional behaviors involving anything from simple namecalling on through to prolonged smear campaigns directed at their perceived enemies with the apparent intent of damaging their credibility, where new frenzies of smears often seem prompted by little more than the most minor of offenses that only they perceive.

How do you deal with that if you're on the receiving end of that kind of personal abuse?

Throughout this article, we've used the term "enemies list" rather than "hit list" because it harkens back to the days of Richard Nixon, whose paranoia drove the biggest political corruption scandal in the U.S. during the twentieth century, or more importantly, of Joseph McCarthy, whose enemies list had greater impact and whose name has become synonymous with unethically-inspired smear campaigns, thanks to what has been described as his "driven, sanctimonious, dogmatic behaviors that are hallmarks of narcissism with an authority attachment". Sadly, in our experience, the twenty-first century's pseudoscientists and sexual harassers would very much appear to be cut from the same psychological cloth, so if you ever come across someone who has a similar enemies list that they're so worked up about that they're acting out on it by engaging in a smear campaign, you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from that kind of personality.

Amy Tuteur, a critic and target of the pseudoscience anti-vax movement, has a unique perspective of what it means to make the enemies list of such people, which we've excerpted the following two points below (she makes a third point that's more specific to what she's encountered with the anti-vax "movement", but the following two points are applicable much more generally):

  • An enemies list is an implicit acknowledgement that the facts are not on their side.
  • The purpose of the list is to preemptively exclude list members from the echo chambers that are so vital to the propagation of pseudoscience.

We would suggest following a strategy that we hope would be an improvement on how Dwight Eisenhower dealt with Joe McCarthy's similarly unethical and unprofessional behavior, where ultimately, the narcissistic and paranoid McCarthy destroyed his own credibility with his obsessive conduct, which he either could not or would not constrain. Given sufficient time, the narcissistic pseudo-scientist or sexual harasser will publicly hang themselves with the rope from what is most often their own one-way campaign of abuse, where all you need to do as a target is to hang tough and act behind the scenes to limit the damage they might do as much as possible until that happens (Eisenhower's approach to the politically-powerful McCarthy), while making their ongoing unethical conduct as visible as possible to as many people as possible (the improvement), which makes it happen faster.

Whether they be pseudo-scientists or sexual harrassers, when the narcissistic misconduct and targeted abuse in which they've engaged becomes widely known - when everybody knows - is when the end is near for them. When all can see what they're doing and what they've done, and when no one sees them or their conduct as anything other than contemptible, is when they lose whatever power they had to intimidate others to get away with their misconduct without consequences.

Just follow the stories of the falls of Harvey Weinstein or of Joseph McCarthy to see how that works.

Harvey Weinstein / Joseph McCarthy

Image credits: New York City Media and Library of Congress.


Today (9 February 2018) is the 68th anniversary of the date that Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his "Red Scare" campaign. Coincidentally, 9 February 2018 marks the date that the Los Angeles Police Department referred three cases of sexual abuse allegedly involving Harvey Weinstein to the Los Angeles District Attorney. We had originally planned to present this post as our only Friday feature, but bumped it since we've been focusing on covering the turmoil in the U.S. stock market this past week.