One of the many reasons why I love being a science blogger, is it lets normal people peek into the lives of scientists and our culture. I joked at a recent OKC Atheists meeting that no one would ever make a reality TV show about my lab work– while it is conceptually awesome, its just not fun to sit and watch (someone needs to do a montage of a Western Blot to the ‘Rocky’ theme). But I can do little blog posts about the scientific culture, like this one.
If there is one word I would use to summarize being a scientist, its ‘trust’.
Yes, we are highly critical of one anothers work. But we fundamentally trust that the scientist we are being critical of is honestly presenting the data they honestly obtained.
Though most of the scientists I have met and interacted with are wonderful, pleasant people, there are some who are just flat out assholes. How can they get away with that? How can they still be successful? Because in science, whether you are cute as a button or screaming at everyone in your lab, we just dont care. We still trust you.
We have to.
Accusations of fraud are never taken lightly. Thats why I was horrified that Judy Mikovits so casually accused others of fraud, with no evidence (still no evidence to support her claims, nor any apology. I guess Judy really is a… **WINK!!**). I think Judy Mikovits is stupid. She cant explain to Alter why PCR looking for mouse mitochondrial DNA is improper. She cant use the word ‘quasispecies’ right. But even her involvement with snake-oil salesmen and anti-vaxers cant get me to genuinely believe that she is a fraud.
Because no one does that.
Why do you think that when scientists are found guilty, it makes the news world-wide?
There are consequences to breach of that trust. You are completely and utterly abjured from the community. You can no longer win grants. No one will work with you. Youre lucky if another scientist will speak to you about the price of tea in China. If I found out my best friend in the world was a scientific fraud, I would never speak to them again. I would rather I find out a friend was dead than find out they falsified data.
Breaching this trust is not just a matter of momentary personal gain (financial or social). Its breaching a hole in science itself– the trust we all have to have in one another for science to work. Without trust, we would all be repeating the same experiments, over and over and over, never believing anyone elses data until we could do it personally ourselves. Science would never move forward.
What does this have to do with Holy crap.?
I dont blame Dawkins at all for trusting Josh Timonen*. Dawkins is a scientist. Trust is what we do. Like fraud in science goes beyond financial and social gain, and actually damages science itself, Timonens fraud goes beyond letting down his friends and stealing money. It hurt positive atheism, science education, and the secular cause itself.
Its made every damn one of us that loved what the Richard Dawkins Foundation stands for a little more cynical.
In retrospect, there might be any number of ‘warning signs’ or things we personally would have done differently, if we were in Dawkins shoes. But I think the important thing to take away from this horrible event is how we can make sure a similar event doesnt happen again.
Think it cant happen to you?
Something tangentially similar happened to me.
I am not a member of any major atheist organization. I wont subscribe to any of their magazines. I have never been to a major atheist convention. I have never paid dues to be an official member of OKC Atheists. Because of an event that happened several years ago with an atheist organization, I have a fundamental distrust of every atheist organization.
A long-time internet friend invited me to another town to give a talk to their group about evolution. Okay, YAY! I saw an advertisement for the event, where I saw they would be charging something like $5 per person to cover my travel costs. I contacted the president immediately, and said I did not want to be compensated, nor did I want anyone charged to attend my talk (Im a student. You shouldnt have to pay to be my speaking guinea pigs). The president agreed.
When I got to the event, the president then proceeded to pass around a collection plate for donations to cover my travel costs.
I was mortified, but didnt say anything.
After the event, the president took the collection plate, containing a couple hundred dollars cash, and left.
Didnt offer me $1 of it.
*FUMING*, I went home and emailed the friend who invited me. After she threw an EPIC fit on their message board, the pres told everyone that he offered me the money, and I didnt want it. In other words, he was planning on keeping the money and letting the members think it went to me, but now that the members knew I didnt want the money, he was keeping it anyway. He then told my friend that if she ever tried to attend an event again, he would call the cops on her.
He used my name, my age, and my status as a ‘poor student’ to scam a group of atheists.
He eventually caved and sent me a check for a sum of money. I dont remember how much it was– I just cashed it and donated it, wanting nothing to do with that money or who it came from.
And after all of this, he is still the president of that organization. I say ‘president’ loosely, because apparently he refuses to allow elections, and the group is too spineless or too apathetic to care.
Ive never wanted anything to do, officially, with an atheist organization ever since.
But we cant let assholes that that guy and Timonen ruin *our* community. OKC Atheists kicks ass. And I think the TX Atheists kinda kick ass too. I got over my atheist-group-anxiety to speak at the TX Freethought Convention. It was fantastic. Extremely well run. About half a dozen people double checked with me that I had gotten paid (and I didnt even know I was going to get paid to present).
Atheists get scammed just like everyone else. In my experience, the best safe-guard against this is overlapping control. No one person is totally in charge of one thing.
But dont let shit like this ruin *our* community.
* Yes, this are now just accusations of fraud. I have yet to hear a rational reason for why the RD Foundation is suing Timonen and his equally creepy girlfriend for a million dollars that doesnt involve fraud.
These statements, authored by Timonen, included “BUY THE DVD NOW (All proceeds go to RDF),” “BUY THE DVD through our online store (All proceeds go to RDF)” and “All proceeds from the sale of this DVD are donated to The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.”
And his girlfriend is a fucking bitch:
Indeed, the Trustees of RDFRS were so impressed with Norton’s supposed “volunteer” efforts and so sympathetic to her purported fiscal plight that they authorized a payment to her of $10,000 as thanks for her efforts in connection with an RDFRS fund-raising event held in Menlo Park, California in 2009…
… Defendants paid an additional $29,045 to Graham Norton (Maureen Norton’s teenage son), $300 to “Michelle Norton,” $350 to “Brittany Norton,” $1,102.75 to Ohana Farms (a business Plaintiffs believe to be owned by Maureen Norton’s parents) and $64.90 to “Pondbiz.”
In all doubt, he owes Dawkins, personally, $14.5K for services not rendered. If he was an honest man and this was all a misunderstanding, that would have been paid up and not mentioned in the suit. And what a coincidence they quit in May, and delivered the books in June. Just read the fucking complaint. Read the whole damn thing. Mother fucking dirtbags. Even if Timonen and Norton ultimately get out of legal trouble, they still have done a moral wrong, and I will happily judge them for it.