[Marxism] Sociobiologist banned from Rutgers over threats to another professor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 3 06:22:18 MDT 2013

(This is an example of *real* threats of violence in academia.)

Chronicle of Higher Education May 3, 2013
Prominent Scholar Was Banned From Rutgers Campus
In fracas over charges of fraud, the accuser was penalized for 
threatening behavior

By Christopher Shea

A long-simmering feud between the prominent evolutionary theorist Robert 
Trivers and a colleague at Rutgers University took a strange turn last 
month, when Mr. Trivers revealed that he had been banned from the New 
Brunswick campus for five months last year for violent and threatening 

He says the accusations were trumped up, prompted by his efforts to 
bring an alleged academic fraud to light. Mr. Trivers says he was 
allowed back on the campus last fall, provided that he stay at least 20 
feet from the office of a colleague he'd argued with.

In "Fraud at Rutgers," an angry post on his Web site last month, he 
explicitly contrasted his treatment with that of the men's basketball 
coach, Mike Rice, who—at first—received a mere three-game suspension 
when the university became aware of his beaning players with basketballs 
and shouting slurs at them. (Mr. Rice was subsequently fired, in April.)

"Rutgers turns a blind eye to real violence by its basketball coach but 
uses its antiviolence policy to harass a professor with no violent 
tendencies but who is acting as a whistle-blower," Mr. Trivers wrote.

Lee Cronk, the anthropology professor from whose office Mr. Trivers has 
been banned, says that when Mr. Trivers confronted him in March 2012, he 
felt genuinely disturbed. The university declined to comment on the 
subsequent investigation, which—according to documents provided by Mr. 
Trivers in which he responded to the charges—found a pattern of violent 
or threatening behavior by Mr. Trivers.

The professor's reference to whistle-blowing opens the door to a complex 
saga of academic infighting, one that involves both substantive and 
personal issues. Since 2008, Mr. Trivers has contended that one of his 
six co-authors on a 2005 paper, "Dance Reveals Symmetry Especially in 
Young Men," published in Nature, had doctored the data, leading to a 
bogus result.

That researcher, William M. Brown, a statistical specialist and onetime 
Rutgers postdoc who left the university in 2005, now teaches at the 
University of Bedfordshire, in England. Mr. Cronk was another co-author, 
and he and Mr. Trivers had disagreed about how the case should be 
pursued, with Mr. Trivers pushing for a retraction and a declaration of 
fraud, and Mr. Cronk apparently defending Mr. Brown and the paper. Mr. 
Cronk says that only on Mr. Trivers's side did what might have remained 
an intellectual exchange turn into a bitter feud.

Out of frustration that Nature would not retract the paper, Mr. Trivers 
in 2009 self-published, with two new co-authors, a short book, Anatomy 
of a Fraud, making the case against Mr. Brown's work. The book, however, 
was little noticed, and the original paper continues to be cited.

In April 2012, more than two years after the university started an 
investigation of the matter, a Rutgers committee largely upheld Mr. 
Trivers's view of the paper: "Substantial (clear and convincing) 
evidence exists that research fraud has occurred in several areas," it 
concluded, rejecting defenses mounted by Mr. Cronk and Mr. Brown.

"The university sinned in resisting revealing the fraud for as long as 
possible," says Mr. Trivers.

Nature has not responded. A spokeswoman for the journal says it does not 
comment on debates over potential or pending retractions. Rutgers 
reported its findings to the National Science Foundation, which had paid 
for the study. Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Cronk said they would not comment 
on the methodological debate until an NSF review was completed.
Office Flare-Up

The dispute over the Nature paper erupted at Rutgers last March, after 
the committee issued its report, in an encounter in Mr. Cronk's office. 
According to documents provided by Mr. Trivers, university officials 
established the following: "When [Mr. Cronk] asked [Mr. Trivers] to send 
an e-mail and leave his office, Professor Trivers refused to leave and 
started yelling at his colleague, at one point referring to him as a 
'punk.'" Mr. Trivers "continued to yell" even as Mr. Cronk threatened to 
call the campus police.

Mr. Trivers says he sought out his colleague because Mr. Cronk, as 
acting chair of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies, had not 
replied to two e-mails requesting a meeting. He also says Mr. Cronk 
picked up the phone to dial the police even before he'd asked Mr. 
Trivers to leave.

The "you punk" comment, Mr. Trivers contended, was a last-second jibe on 
his way out the door—it was how he capped off a pointed comment to the 
effect that the university had sided with him on the fraud question. 
Given that four graduate students were in the room at the time, Mr. 
Trivers wrote last fall in a response to the university, "in no way was 
Cronk isolated or under any threat."

"In retrospect," Mr. Trivers says in an interview, "I would have 
preferred to have left off the 'you punk,' but he richly deserved it."

In an interview, Mr. Cronk disputed Mr. Trivers's account, saying he 
mentioned calling the police only as a last resort, when Mr. Trivers, 
with whom he hadn't spoken in three years, refused to leave the room 
while shouting abuse at him.

As a condition of taking over the leadership of the evolutionary-studies 
center, Mr. Cronk says, he was exempted from decisions involving Mr. 
Trivers. Still, he says, there was only one e-mail from Mr. Trivers that 
he did not reply to, a routine one that didn't demand a reply—a year 
before the encounter. And there were two graduate students in the room, 
not four, both of whom backed his version when interviewed by the 
university, he says.

A Rutgers spokesman says the university does not comment on personnel 

A Force to Reckon With

Mr. Trivers is widely recognized as a difficult genius. After a mental 
breakdown derailed him from law school—he has acknowledged a bipolar 
disorder—he entered graduate school at Harvard University in biology, 
and within a few years began to write widely influential papers on how 
natural selection, at the genetic level, fuels competition between 
parents and offspring, and on the dynamics of so-called reciprocal altruism.

In a 2004 symposium on Mr. Trivers's work, the Harvard psychologist 
Steven Pinker said that "the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary 
psychology, Darwinian social science, and behavioral ecology are in 
large part attempts to test and flesh out Trivers's ideas."

Mr. Trivers failed to earn early tenure at Harvard, however, and his 
productivity since then has been mixed. Since arriving at Rutgers, in 
1994, he has had two breakdowns, he said, the more recent in 2000.

Mr. Trivers and his friends, however, say his condition is well managed 
now. He has published not only the fraud book but also The Folly of 
Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Basic, 2011).

"He's been so stable for the last two years that it just reeked of 
ulterior motives," says Amy Jacobson, a research associate in 
anthropology at Rutgers, speaking of his recent punishment. She was also 
a co-author on the 2005 paper, although she mostly managed the lab, she 
says. She adds that Mr. Trivers was not violent even during his breakdowns.

He can be abrupt and gruff at the best of times, she says—"Anyone who 
tells you he's a pleasure and a dream to deal with doesn't know him"—but 
"that's the price of genius." In interviews he quickly switches from 
calm to irritated and back, and he swears epically.

Mr. Trivers made the news in 2007, when his hosts at Harvard canceled a 
talk upon learning that he'd sent a harsh letter to Alan Dershowitz, the 
Harvard Law School professor, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It 
read, in part: "If there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon 
and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly, look forward to 
a visit from me." Mr. Trivers told The Boston Globe that he was speaking 
entirely metaphorically.

Mr. Cronk says Mr. Trivers's past behavior contributed to his feeling of 
being threatened in his office.

The paper on dance and symmetry grew out of a long-term research project 
concerning symmetry and evolution based in Jamaica and directed by Mr. 
Trivers. The researchers used motion-capture technology to isolate the 
movements of dancers whose bodily symmetry had been measured in a number 
of ways.

Among other findings, more-symmetrical people were rated by observers as 
better dancers, and the association was stronger in men than women. 
Evolutionary biologists have theorized that symmetry is a signifier of 
physical robustness, and that people have long subconsciously used it to 
evaluate potential mates.

Soon, though, other researchers examining the 2005 paper starting asking 
skeptical questions. Mr. Trivers dug into the data with the help of 
others, including Brian G. Palestis, an associate professor of 
biological sciences at Wagner College. They found suspicious patterns.

One example: Before the dancers were rated by Jamaican participants, 
they were rated by one or two Rutgers undergraduates—information to 
which Mr. Brown had access. In putting together the "high symmetry" and 
"low symmetry" groups, Mr. Brown, the data showed, excluded dancers who 
were symmetrical but rated at Rutgers as low-ability—and excluded 
unsymmetrical but good dancers. That helped to create the result that 
was ultimately "discovered," concluded the authors of Anatomy of a Fraud.

The Rutgers committee agreed. It also found evidence that the ratings of 
symmetry had been systematically altered.

Mr. Cronk contested some of the allegations, although he himself was 
never accused of misdeeds. Indeed, Mr. Trivers thinks the split among 
the authors is one reason that Nature has not acted.

Citing the NSF's pending review, Mr. Brown makes only a brief comment, 
by e-mail: "I disagree with Professor Trivers's accusations. I feel that 
a full investigation needs to be conducted where the original data is 
re-entered by an unbiased party for reanalysis."

The other co-authors on the symmetry paper worked only on the 
motion-capture technology. Zoran Popovic, a computer-science professor 
at the University of Washington, says they were "pretty miffed that all 
that work will mainly be remembered for the controversy that emerged 
from the botched analysis of collected data."

Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard and 
a friend of Mr. Trivers, says he was "totally persuaded" by Anatomy of a 
Fraud. "It's been incredibly frustrating to Trivers to not see this come 
into the full light of examination," he says.

Of the allegations of violence, he says: "My sense of what's going on at 
Rutgers is that there have been very strong defensive reactions on the 
part of people who have been implicated."

'Slightly Inappropriate'

The incident in Mr. Cronk's office was not the only one cited in the 
investigation of Mr. Trivers's behavior, according to a document he 
wrote last September to defend himself before the university 
administration. He was accused of having carried a knife into class. He 
says he was just cutting open boxes. Mr. Cronk says, "He makes it well 
known—because he boasts about it—that he carries a large knife." Mr. 
Trivers denies that allegation.

Mr. Trivers was also accused of "verbally disseminat[ing] stories that 
emphasize his willingness to engage in physical altercations." Mr. 
Trivers says he merely spoke of a few dangerous encounters in Jamaica. 
As a high-school student, he was a boxer at the Phillips Andover 
Academy, and today he practices a Filipino martial art known as arnis.

Rutgers also accused him of physically accosting a female visitor from 
Harvard late at night in a New Brunswick restaurant, while drunk, just 
hours after his encounter with Mr. Cronk. In his rebuttal, Mr. Trivers 
quotes the following official account: "[Mr. Trivers] grabbed the hand 
and shoulder of a female potential postdoctoral fellow and would not let 
go. When a faculty colleague, who was visibly pregnant, attempted to 
separate them, Professor Trivers pushed the pregnant colleague away by 
putting his hand on her stomach and pushing her away."

But both the visitor, Rachel Carmody, now a Harvard postdoc, and the 
then-pregnant colleague, the assistant professor Erin Vogel, confirm to 
The Chronicle that they told the university that they had not felt at 
all threatened.

"It might have been slightly inappropriate," Ms. Vogel says. "There have 
been several times when I saw him with my pregnant belly and he says, 
'Hey, pregnant mama!' and touches my belly." On that night, she says, 
"he gently pushed me out of the way and said, 'Oh, get out of here.'"

A third participant in the restaurant scene, Robert Scott, an assistant 
professor, declined to comment.

Mr. Trivers does admit to being intoxicated that evening, but not 
violent. "Surely," he said, with typical irritation, "I am allowed to 
get drunk on my own time."

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