Robert Trivers and Rutgers: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Robert Trivers is a giant in the field of evolutionary biology.  The brilliance of his work has not faded over time, and has been in a field that is highly relevant to us all.  He has greatly enhanced our ability to understand ourselves.  It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of his work.  I just started reading a copy of novelist Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and was amazed to find artifacts of Trivers’ famous parental investment theory in the opening chapters!  If he were Japanese, the man would probably be declared one of the country’s living national treasures.  Not here, though.  Here it seems his reward is coming in the form of a constant stream of abuse from the Rutgers administration.

I posted a bit about Trivers last year.  He had accused one of his graduate students of fraud in a scientific paper.  One of his colleagues who supported the alleged fraudster claimed that Trivers “frightened him in his office.”  For that he was banned from campus.  Now we learn he has aroused the ire of the Rutgers bureaucrats yet again.  Apparently Trivers objected to teaching a course on “Human Aggression,” claiming that he lacked expertise in the subject.  According to Kelly Heyboer of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, when forced to teach it anyway, “Trivers told students he would do his best to learn the subject with the students and teach the class with the help of a guest lecturer.”  For this, he was suspended.  According to Trivers, top university officials refused to even meet with him to discuss the subject.

Can anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 50 years possibly fail to understand why someone like Trivers would object to teaching a class on “Human Aggression” in the context of evolutionary biology?  It has been the subject of furious ideological battles ever since Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz’ publication of On Aggression.  Forcing a scientist of Trivers’ stature to teach a course on the subject amounts to setting him up as a target for the zealots on both sides of the ideological barricades.  It is hard to explain such an act by Rutgers as other than either a malicious provocation or stupidity.

I admire Trivers for fighting back.  As a professor with tenure nearing the end of his career, at least he’s in a position where he can fight back.  If you’ve ever seen the curriculum vitae of a young, tenure track assistant professor at a major university, you know the competition they face is fierce.  Without a gazillion publications, citations, invited talks, outside activities, prestigious awards, etc., they don’t even stand a chance.  For them, resistance to these bullies would be suicidal.  Trivers isn’t such an easy mark.

Still, it’s stunning to me that Rutgers can get away with this kind of abuse, and that it passes almost unnoticed, not only in the popular media, but in the science journals and websites as well.  Where are the other greats in the field?  Apparently, they “just don’t want to get involved.”  Trivers may not be the easiest man to get along with, but he deserves better.

Academic Left Update: Party Time at Swarthmore

Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published their now classic Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science almost two decades ago.  The book described the flipping and flopping of the various species of self-appointed saviors of mankind on campus left high and dry by the collapse of Marxism.  In the absence of that grand, unifying philosophy, the authors found them running about like so many chickens with their heads cut off, engaged in internecine warfare, and chasing after the various chimeras of postmodernism, eco-extremism, radical feminism, anti-racist racism, etc.  For some reason, perhaps because they were scientists and they objected to their ox being gored, Gross and Levitt were willing to subject themselves to the incredible boredom of attending the conferences, following the journals, and reading the books emanating from these various swamps.  Since they happened to be on the left of the ideological spectrum themselves, their book was also thoughtfully written and not just one of the usual rants from the right.

Unfortunately, no one with similar insight and tolerance for pain has published anything of similar stature in the ensuing years.  We have been reduced to scrutinizing the data points that periodically bubble up through the froth to formulate some idea of how close we are to being saved.  Based on the meager information at our disposal, we gather that no great new secular religion has sprung up in the meantime to take the place of Marxism.  The only thing on hand to fill the vacuum left behind by its demise has been radical Islam.  Since, in a sense, it’s the only game in town, we’ve been treated to the amusing spectacle of watching leftist “progressives” making eyes at the fanatical zealots of one of the most reactionary religious systems ever concocted by the mind of man, while the latter have been busily cannibalizing the revolutionary vernacular familiar from the heyday of Communism.

Other than that, it would seem that the scene today would be quite familiar to readers of Higher Superstition.  Consider, for example, the recent “revolutionary action” that took place on the campus of Swarthmore.  If we are to believe the somewhat overwrought account at National Review Online, it involved intimidation of the school administration and bullying of conservative students at what was advertised as an open Board of Managers meeting.  The ostensible goal of the disruption was to get the administration to agree to the divestment of stocks in fossil fuel companies, apparently based on the rather dubious assumption that nothing disagreeable would happen if all mankind suddenly stopped using them.  However, the divestment thing is hardly what is nearest and dearest to the hearts of the “academic left” at Swarthmore.  What is nearest and dearest?  According to NRO,

The radicals are demanding a massive expansion of Swarthmore’s politicized “studies” programs, with a new Latino Studies major specifically dedicated to Latinos in the United States, and mandatory classes for all Swarthmore students in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies.

I doubt that the gentry at NRO really understand what is going on here, because they lack the proper grounding in Marxist theory.  As Trotsky might have put it, they just don’t understand the dialectic.  What we are really seeing here is the emergence of a new exploiting class of gigantic proportions, cleverly attempting to obfuscate their true historical role behind a smokescreen of revolutionary jargon.  These people are exploiters, not exploitees.  Ensconced in their ivory towers, untouchable within their tenured cocoons, they are increasingly gaining a monopoly of the social means of education.  Like the bourgeoisie of old, who used the social means of production to suck the blood of the exploited workers, they use their own monopoly to feast on the sweat of the academic proletariat – their students.  They accumulate these useless “studies” courses for the same reasons that the capitalists accumulated money.

Little realizing that they are being reduced to debt-serfs, with lives sold out and mortgaged to maintain these academic vampires in their accustomed luxury, the student proletariat are kept docile with fairy tales about “saving the world.”  Now, if Marx was right (and how could he possibly be wrong?) this “thesis” of the academic exploiters will soon run head on into the “antithesis” of the developing revolutionary consciousness of the student proletariat they have so cynically betrayed.  At least the bourgeoisie used their monopoly to produce something useful.  The new class of academic exploiters fobs off its victims with “studies” that they will find entirely useless in their struggle against the slavery that awaits them, unless they are among the happy few co-opted into the exploiting class.  Where is this leading?  How will the exploited academic proletariat react when they finally figure out, crushed under a mountain of debt, with heads full of “liberating” jargon and no prospect of employment that the “radical and emancipatory” blather they were being fed really leads to chains and slavery?  I can but quote the ringing warning of Edwin Markham in his famous poem, Man with the Hoe:

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the Future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?

The pundits at NRO should relax.  If I’ve interpreted the Marxist dialectic correctly, the revolutionary climax will be followed by a brief period of the dictatorship of the academic proletariat, followed by the gradual withering of academic administrations, and a new era of universal wisdom based on enlightened self-education.

And what of the academic exploiters?  I think it goes without saying that it will be necessary to “expropriate the expropriators.”  However, being by nature a kindly and sedate man, I can only hope that it doesn’t come to the “liquidation of the academic exploiters as a class.”  On the other hand, I don’t want to be accused of “right opportunism” and realize full well that “you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”

The Strange Case of Dr. Robert Trivers

Anyone with a passing interest in evolutionary biology has heard of Dr. Robert Trivers.  He is a giant in the field, and the seminal papers he published in the 1970’s on reciprocal altruism, parental investment theory, and gene-level thinking inspired the work of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.  Well, I happened to look up a link for a reference to him in another post, and found to my surprise that he has been driven off the campus of Rutgers University!  He has been involved in a controversy lately over his accusation that one of his graduate students committed fraud in a scientific paper.  Apparently he was banned from campus because a colleague who supports the alleged fraudster claimed Trivers had “frightened him in his office.”

Now, I have no firsthand knowledge of any details of the case, but it does seem a bit rich that a university that tolerated a violent homophobe as basketball coach for three years would ban and humiliate an honored scientist with no history of violent or aggressive behavior because someone claimed he “frightened him.”  Amazingly, there’s almost nothing about this case on the Internet.  Here is Trivers’ side of the story:

I was involved in a case of academic fraud at Rutgers University concerning a very striking paper published in one of the top science journals of the world (Nature, 2005). I was a co-author on that paper and the head of the project in which the work took place. I was then a co-author of a short book proving that the prior paper was completely fraudulent. Indeed the chance that it was not fraudulent was less than one in ten billion.

 But a colleague who wished to preserve the results (Dr Cronk) took the opposite view. I was creating the illusion of fraud beyond one in a billion but there was actually no fraud at all. When the dust settled, I was ejected from campus, not permitted back to any of it except in the company of an armed police officer for almost five months, deprived of any contact with my two classes, then 90% complete, deprived of my research space for 20 months and found to be in violation of the University’s anti-violence policy (which can lead to suspension without pay) having done nothing more violent than call a man who had slandered and defamed me multiple times, a “punk”.

If this is true, it is certainly a high-handed abuse of authority by the Rutgers administration.  I would certainly like to hear Rutgers’ version of what happened, but can find nothing on the web.  All this didn’t happen yesterday.  Where are all the scientific heavyweights who have heaped praise on Trivers over the years?  Are their reputations too delicate for them to get involved?  They certainly don’t need to rush to judgment one way or the other, but at the very least they could insist that the public be given some rudimentary information about what’s going on.  I don’t doubt that Trivers rubs many people the wrong way.  He represents the exact opposite of the Blank Slater narrative according to which evolutionary biologists and psychologists are really all closet fascists and racists.  He was close friends with Huey Newton, former Chairman of the Black Panthers, who served as godfather for one of his children, and is a bitter enemy of Israel and supporter of the Palestinians.  However, his take on the reasons behind his punishment has the ring of truth.  In his words,

 As I later learned, my case showed many of the classic features of such cases in academia. Chiefly, there is no upside to fraud—at least not to admitting to it—the university in which the work takes place has no interest in revealing the fraud that occurs within its boundaries, nor does the journal that published the fraud.

The scientific journal claims to promote and publish the truth, but when presented with strong contrary evidence to work it has already published, it does not act at once to retract the results nor even call attention to their untrustworthiness—in fact, it often does nothing at all. Thus, a paper (Brown et al 2005 [PDF]) may easily survive un-rebutted in the literature for over seven years, accruing 127 citations, in spite of a small book (Trivers et al 2009 [PDF]) proving the fraud far beyond a reasonable doubt, yet to this day Nature refuses to publish even a reference to the book. For an account of Cronk’s early behavior regarding the fraud problem, see Chapter 12 of Trivers et al (The Anatomy of a Fraud [PDF]).

Since the work was supported by Federal funds (NSF), the rule is that when fraud is alleged concerning such work, the Institution that received the money must investigate and report back to the Federal government—otherwise the Federal government is happy to cut off ALL federally supported research until compliance is achieved. In short, Rutgers had no choice and its 27-month investigation duly confirmed that fraud was committed (RAB report 2012 [PDF]) exactly as alleged in our 2009 book.  Although Rutgers refuses to release the report publicly, I do so here because I am permitted to share copies of the report with whomever I choose. I was co-principal investigator and co-author on the fraud itself and I was co-author on a book proving the fraud. Rutgers’ official investigation merely bore out what our book showed.

Does Rutgers have a different version?  By all means let’s hear it.  Whether one agrees with his political opinions or not, Dr. Trivers has made mighty contributions to the advance of human knowledge.  If he has really deserved the punishment and humiliation meted out to him by the Rutgers officialdom, the public certainly has a right to know the reasons why.

UPDATE:  Richard Dawkins has apparently taken notice.  I also found a post by leftover Blank Slater John Horgan about a response from Trivers to one of his rants against evolutionary psychology.  According to Horgan, Trivers called it “shallow,” and accused him of “acting out the old Scientific American‘s long-standing inability to look at human sociobiology objectively.”  This at least demonstrates that Trivers hasn’t lost his originality, and ability to think outside of an ideological box.  Why?  Because in spite of the fact that he stands on the left of the political spectrum himself, it’s apparently clear to him that Scientific American is much better described as a political tract than a science journal.  He also isn’t afraid to offend the Horgan clones who still manage to maintain the ancient orthodoxy that there is no such thing as human nature in some of the more sequestered echo chambers of academia.  Perhaps this explains why it has been necessary for him, so far at least, to fight this battle alone.


Of Ancient Helots and Student Loan Scams: VDH Nails It

Victor Davis Hanson’s specialty is ancient history, and he’s quick to notice parallels with modern times.  In an essay entitled “The New American Helots,” he suggests that the student loan scam has reduced many young Americans to the status of the Greek Helots of old, who were held in a state of semi-slavery by the Spartans so they could concentrate on warfare.  As he puts it,

Over the last few decades, we’ve created our modern version of these Helots — millions of indebted young Americans with little prospect of finding permanent well-paying work, servicing their enormous college debts, or reaping commensurate financial returns on their costly educations.

Annual tuition keeps rising, as it has over the last 50 years, usually at close to twice the rate of inflation. It must, if colleges are to pay for a vast new administrative class that is excused from teaching to monitor sensitivity and diversity, raise money, and comply with ever more race/class/gender federal mandates.

In addition, students support a new grandee class of professors who teach lighter loads, enjoy better benefits, retire earlier — and now offer instruction in a vast array of courses and disciplines that simply were never part of the traditional curriculum.

I couldn’t agree more.  Student loans are one of the cruder forms of exploitation in American society.  Their easy availability seduces many young people into assuming massive debt to finance educations that many of them consider essential.  Most of them have never experienced what it’s like to bear such a debt, even if they are lucky enough to land a job.  Instapundit has been posting links to a lot of similar articles about what he calls the “higher education bubble.”  Recent examples may be found here, here, and here.

I can think of few things more mendacious than allowing a generation of young people to start their careers with a millstone of unsustainable debt around their necks, and one which they can’t even shed by bankruptcy.  We’ve been flattering ourselves about how “free” we are for so long that we’ve come to accept this form of slavery-lite with barely a murmur.  There is currently a debate over whether student loan interest rates should be allowed to increase from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1.  By all means!  Double and triple it!  The sooner the whole, rotten system comes crashing down, the better.  If it were up to me, student loans would be illegal.  Then the universities could jack up tuitions to their hearts content, but there would be no one around who could afford them.  Eventually, they would be forced to shed all the non-essential fluff, and the cost of higher education would descend from the stratosphere to affordable levels.

If you want to get an idea of what I mean by fluff, look at the curriculum vitae of an average young associate professor.  If you haven’t published scores of papers, you’re not even in the running for a job, not to mention tenure.  Beyond that, you’ll need to go to lots of academic conferences and schmooze with your colleagues, because you’ll need a respectable number of citations to go with the papers.  Beyond that, you’ll need to spend much of your time writing proposals, because if you can’t attract research dollars, you’re out of the running.  Finally, you’ll need a fistful of academic honors, plenty of outside activities to show your public spirit, hours of unpaid work reviewing other peoples papers, etc., etc., etc.  You have to hand it to these young professionals.  The level of effort and dedication they bring to their jobs is astounding.  It would be better if they could devote more of that commitment to what they’re actually supposed to be doing; teaching.