What could ‘nerd tunnel vision’ possibly mean?
Money and power are clarifying agents: they tell you who people are. Jeffrey Epstein liked to describe himself as a “science philanthropist,” and academics liked to take his money. Among them was Joichi Ito, who stepped down on September 7th as the head of MIT’s prestigious Media Lab, where a host of tech products were developed, including the E Ink used in Amazon’s Kindle and Guitar Hero.
Ito resigned following an investigation by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, which showed that Ito accepted more money from Epstein than he’d previously disclosed and that he went to great lengths to conceal the source of that money.
Ito isn’t alone, and he won’t be the last person to take money from questionable benefactors. As more of Epstein’s enablers are uncovered, it’s worth asking why it was so easy for him to infiltrate science in the first place.
George Church, a biologist best known for his work on the Human Genome Project and a professor at MIT and Harvard, admitted to meetings and phone calls with Epstein in 2014. In comments to Stat News, he said he was guilty of “nerd tunnel vision.” That’s revealing.
The implications of taking money from Epstein were obvious to anyone who was paying attention. Epstein told multiple people that he wanted to “seed the human race with his DNA,” and four people — two of whom were identified as award-winning scientists — told The New York Times that he “confided to scientists and others about his scheme.”
According to a Mother Jones interview, a favorite Epstein tactic was to interrupt conversations with “What’s that got to do with pussy?” It does not take a PhD to recognize that as hostile to women. Nellie Bowles, a New York Times reporter who met with Epstein, says that “his belief system and radical misogyny were neither subtle nor hidden.”
“Nerd tunnel vision” allows you to ignore that.
To repair his criminal reputation after pleading guilty to procuring a girl under 18 for prostitution, Epstein needed to launder his influence through successful academics, which mostly meant courting men in science. Women in STEM fields are paid less, promoted less, and are given fewer opportunities for prestige work. And women in these fields must contend with derogatory comments to boot. That is before the widespread sexual harassment; recent reporting on sexual harassment in the sciences only scratches the surface. Almost three-quarters of women who experience sexual harassment don’t report it, and neither do bystanders who witness it, according to a survey from women’s magazine Cosmopolitan. A survey found that nearly a quarter of women who worked as field anthropologists had been sexually assaulted. It’s even worse for women who are black or Latina, according to the Harvard Business Review.
In Ito’s case, The New Yorker’s reporting reveals that women on staff at the Media Lab were concerned about the young women Epstein brought with him to meetings. “We literally had a conversation about how, on the off chance that they’re not there by choice, we could maybe help them,” Signe Swenson, a former development associate at the lab, told Farrow.
Perhaps their male colleagues would have similar concerns if not for “nerd tunnel vision”?
Epstein’s victims were girls. One of his friends, Stuart Pivar, the author of Lifecode: The Theory of Biological Self-Organization, attended some of Epstein’s science meetups. Here is how Pivar described the victims of Epstein’s abuse, according to Mother Jones:
He did stuff with underage girls who knew what the hell they were doing. By the hundreds. If he only did one, no one would pay attention. Nor, on the other hand, did he actually rape any of them or anything like that, which happens, you know. If you want to make a list of, let us say, in the past several years, of the kind of stuff going on of sexual abuse of children and what the hell not—you want to compare that with what Jeffrey did? What Jeffrey did in comparison with the kind of stuff which gets exposed every day of people who are abusing children left and right and all kinds of institutions? Jeffrey never did anything like that. Everything he had to do with these girls was complicit. And it was just interesting to the rest of the world who doesn’t understand that Jeffrey was a very sick man.
Also in the interview, Pivar says, “If Jeffrey Epstein was found guilty of fooling around with one 16-year-old trollop, nobody would pay any attention.”
I wonder how widely this attitude was shared by the men who attended Epstein’s events and took his money. While most of them have noticed that accepting Epstein’s company and / or cash was a slap in the face to his victims — at least, they say so in their apologies — they did go on accepting the money or coming to his parties or both.
In his first apology, Ito downplayed the amount of money he received from Epstein. The New Yorker’s reporting was explosive in part because it revealed the lengths Ito went to in concealing Epstein’s donations: reporting them as anonymous, for instance. It seems as though Ito recognized, on some level, that taking Epstein’s money was wrong, but the risk was worth it. Who else has made the same calculation?
We’ve only just begun to see how far Epstein’s influence reached into the science and technology communities, but what we know so far is disturbing. Harvard University, to which Epstein donated before his guilty plea in 2008, said it hadn’t taken any of his money afterward. He found other ways to donate indirectly, though, including by giving $110,000 to a nonprofit run by Elisa New. (New, as it happens, is married to Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard who publicly wondered in 2005 if women were just innately not equipped for STEM careers.) Harvard professor Joscha Bach was also funded by Epstein, though that money came through the MIT Media Lab, where he was jointly appointed as a research fellow, according to Axios. Epstein gave money to the Hasty Pudding Institute of 1770, which supports three Harvard social clubs.
Epstein also had access to elite groups through the dinner parties where the rich and powerful rubbed shoulders. Among the attendees of a March 2011 dinner reported by BuzzFeed were Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, and Elon Musk — as well as Marissa Mayer, Anne Wojcicki, and former YouTube CEO Salar Kamangar. In the prestige racket, networks count. Epstein didn’t just donate his own money; he could potentially make an introduction to more money. “Epstein appeared to serve as an intermediary between the lab and other wealthy donors, soliciting millions of dollars in donations from individuals and organizations, including the technologist and philanthropist Bill Gates and the investor Leon Black,” Farrow wrote in The New Yorker.
In 2010, after Epstein served his 18-month sentence, he hosted a dinner at his Upper East Side townhouse, Slate’s Daniel Engber reports. Among the attendees was super-agent John Brockman, founder of Edge.org, who was also Ito’s literary agent.
Brockman’s influence was substantial. A 1991 essay by Brockman called “The Third Culture” was foundational for a now-defunct science magazine called Seed, which was aimed at bridging the gap between humanists and scientists. I was an intern at that magazine in 2006; I discovered recently, by reading court documents, that Epstein was one of the board members for its parent company.
Journalist Evgeny Morozov, writing in The New Republic, says that Brockman “was acting as Epstein’s PR man—his liaison with the world of scientists and intellectuals that Brockman had cultivated.” Brockman was also Morozov’s agent. “He’s been extremely generous in funding projects of many of our friends and clients,” Brockman wrote Morozov, encouraging him to meet with Epstein. “He also got into trouble and spent a year in jail in Florida,” Brockman added. Morozov said he’d need to think about it. “A billionaire who owns Victoria’s Secret plus a modelling agency is a different kind of animal,” Brockman wrote to Morozov. Morozov declined the offer, saying that the Victoria’s Secret and modeling connections were “one more reason to stay away.”
Morozov didn’t appear to be afflicted with “nerd tunnel vision,” but a lot of other people were. Maybe more correctly, a lot of men were. In Engber’s Slate piece, he lists some of the prominent academics who palled around with Epstein — before and after his conviction — and it’s an eye-popping list of STEM celebrities:
Gregory Benford, George Church, Murray Gell-Mann, Stephen Jay Gould, David Gross, Stephen Hawking, Danny Hillis, Gerard ’t Hooft, Stephen Kosslyn, Jaron Lanier, Seth Lloyd, Martin Nowak, Oliver Sacks, Lee Smolin, Robert Trivers, Frank Wilczek, and more. Truly, the list of men goes on and on. (Among the only women I can find in this group is Harvard’s Anne Harrington, who took a grant from Epstein around 1998.)
At a 2002 meeting about artificial intelligence on Epstein’s island, 18 of the attendees were men, Slate reported; 12 attendees of a 2006 meeting have been publicly identified, and 10 were men. “Every meeting where I was with him were meetings with men,” Bill Gates told The Wall Street Journal about his relationship with Epstein. Is this perhaps part of what “nerd tunnel vision” is?
In Slate’s piece on Epstein, both Lawrence Krauss, an astronomer who retired from Arizona State University after BuzzFeed News reported on his history of sexual harassment, and Roger Schank, a former AI professor at Stanford, Yale, and Northwestern, describe Epstein as being surrounded by young women: “It was me, him, and six girls,” Schank says in the piece, describing his first-ever meeting with Epstein. Both Schank and Krauss deny that the women they met were underage. “They were not high school girls,” Schank told Slate.
AI pioneer Marvin Minsky was among Epstein’s buddies as well. A woman named Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who said she was sexually trafficked by Epstein, also said she was forced to have sex with Minsky. Giuffre was 17 at the time. Minsky was 73.
Recently, another MIT computer scientist, Richard Stallman, attempted a defense of Minsky, suggesting that Giuffre must have seemed “entirely willing” to Minsky. Stallman had posted on his blog in 2003 that “everyone age 14 or above ought to take part in sex, though not indiscriminately. (Some people are ready earlier).” Stallman also wrote in 2011 that “‘child pornography’ might be a photo of yourself or your lover that the two of you shared. It might be an image of a sexually mature teenager that any normal adult would find attractive. What’s heinous about having such a photo?”
Stallman resigned from MIT following his most recent comments. He has no connection to Epstein as far as I know. But his defense of Minsky may help explain why Epstein fit in so well at MIT. It appears the entire community has a severe case of “nerd tunnel vision,” one that’s been comfortably in place for at least a decade. (On September 14th, Stallman posted that he’s changed his mind about legalizing pedophilia.)
Responsibility goes all the way to the top. On September 12th, MIT president Rafael Reif announced that the MIT investigation found a thank-you note addressed to Epstein from 2012 that Reif had signed. (The note was in response to a gift from Epstein to Seth Lloyd, a professor of physics.)
Reputation laundering has worked well for some in the scientific community for a long, long time. The Nobel Prizes are a case in point. The prizes are named for Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. If you know nothing about Nobel’s life except the prizes he funded, you’re likely to think he was a good guy. You’d never guess that one obituary identified him as a “merchant of death.” Prizes that exist to launder reputations don’t take chances on unknowns. They award exclusively the most elite, and the glow of the awardee’s reputation makes the prize prestigious. The effect is that prizes are given to established scientists who are least in need of funding and support. Prizes, like Epstein’s donations, serve to consolidate power among those who already have it.
The Nobels have awarded three physics prizes in total to women, out of 210 laureates. Chemistry is doing slightly better, as five women are laureates (of 181 total). Medicine is better yet: 12 entire women (of 216 laureates). And the Nobels only scratch the surface of the reputation laundering endemic in the scientific community.
Elite institutions are engaged in the same kind of racket. In order to maintain their elite reputations, they pull talented scholars from other schools once those scholars have published remarkable work; they employ young scholars with the “right” background, which usually means a powerful adviser who’s recommended that scholar; and they highly value fundraising and publicity. Nothing succeeds like success.
Let’s be honest: the people who received Epstein’s money after his conviction didn’t care about the victimization of girls. At no point did anyone experiencing “nerd tunnel vision” think about the demoralizing effects this money might have on women in the broader scientific community, nor did they consider the women whose work wasn’t funded as a result. The people who received Epstein’s money before his conviction aren’t without blame, either. They didn’t seem to mind leaving out their professional female peers, nor did they object to the presence of lots of young women who had nothing to do with science.
Before The New Yorker blew up Ito’s apology tour, the MIT Media Lab held a discussion about the fallout of the original Epstein revelations that reportedly began with breathing exercises and reflection. Ito had likely hoped to begin a process of “restorative justice” that would end with him keeping his job. But the meeting went off the rails when Nicholas Negroponte, who founded the lab, told the audience that he would have taken Epstein’s money all over again, suggesting he didn’t think it was wrong. “If you wind back the clock,” he said, “I would still say: take it.”