Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's Intolerance Got to do with Science?

I have a long list of people I'd like to meet someday (Lyle Lovett, Sergey Brin, Vera Rubin. . .), and a much shorter list of folks I hope never to meet. I'm not going to elaborate on the second list, except to say that I added one more name to it today - Jonathan I. Katz.

(I'm not talking about this Jonathan Katz, he's definitely on my want-to-meet list).

Katz is a professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, and was briefly a member of Steven Chu's team of scientists who met in Houston to offer advice on stemming the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Katz is also an extreme, self-declared homophobe, who happens to have controversial opinions on a laundry list of things ranging from diversity on college campuses to learning disabilities to terrorism.

Apparently, the Obama administration isn't too fond of him either. They demanded that Katz be cut from Chu's team because his opinions were serving as a distraction from the mission at hand.

I am shocked and offended. But it's Katz's firing that has me in a tizzy, not his repugnant opinions. If the other members of the team were having trouble dealing with Katz (which wouldn't surprise me - after all , his writings sure make him seem abrasive), I could understand that he would have to go. But I fail to see how protests by outside groups could be distracting Chu, Katz, and the rest of the team from getting their work done.

Yes, I hate many of the things Katz has to say, and disagree with most of the rest of his opinions, but he wasn't in the Gulf to work on human rights. He was there as a scientist. His personal views are entirely beside the point, so long as they aren't related to his scientific expertise.

In short, I believe that we should NEVER vet scientists based on anything other than their scientific achievements and knowledge. If we allow politics to get in the way of science then science itself eventually becomes nothing but a reflection of the prevailing political views.

While I have to admit that my convictions were put to the test as I read Katz's creepy little essays, I'm glad to say that my belief in the the separation of science and politics is intact. I hope I never bump into him at a science conference, but I also hope I never lose my conviction that Katz-the-scientist should be judged solely on his science, regardless of what Katz-the-homophobe has to say when he exercises his first amendment right to spew nonsense and venom.

(In case you're wondering about the image above, it's a memorial to Alan Turing. He was one of the most brilliant people of the last century. He was also gay. I doubt we'll ever see a memorial like that for Katz.)


  1. While I agree with the basic premise that (in a perfect world) a person's science should be evaluated based on it's merit's alone, there are some special issues to consider here:

    1) The democratization of science, while excellent for getting new minds and ideas into the field, leaves the impression that anyone can do it. I would never want to go back to the bad old days where you had to be a white, male 50-year old for anyone to listen to you (because then no one would listen to me!), but this new found freedom comes with responsibilities when presenting data to the public - who may or may not be able to separate this man's science from his personal views. Again, this is one of those perfect world things. Ideally, he should be able to say whatever he wants and still have respect for his science - but I know my mother doesn't think that way, because she's not a scientist.

    2) He's got sooooo many offensive views I, as a scientist, question his ability to remain objective about anything. I mean, this isn't an irrational love of the Mets were talking about here. This is grade A bigoted wacko. A person with views such as these and who feels free to express them simply isn't able to check his beliefs against his experience. If he can't remain unbiased as possible in his *public statements* (not his personal interactions), then what evidence do I have that he can remain unbiased about the outcome of an experiment? We all have biases (esp about our experiments!) but, as scientists, we have to be able to accept that we may be mistaken. I have strong doubts that Mr. Katz is able to do that.

  2. On the one hand I have to say I'm a little surprised he was picked in the first place. His background is in astrophysics, and though his website says he's branched out into other areas of applied physics, looking through his publications it seems that by far his background is working with astrophysical gamma-ray bursts, and I see little indicating he has much of a background in the skills that would be needed for the Gulf oil spill. There must be people out there with more specific expertise. He seems stuck on there as a generic smart-guy for the team.

    The separation of politics and science is a huge debate that will forever rage. However from the administration's perspective, I think there was little choice than for him to get the boot. In these highly politicized times, anything can be used by "the other side" as fodder to score political points. Katz would have been a prime target for such attacks. I think even if he had been able to "play nice" with other researchers at the time, he would almost certainly become a huge political liability down the line and overshadow any findings the team came up with.

    Steven Chu is a cool guy, he's a smart guy, but you can see that he's not the most politically savvy guy with a pick like this.

  3. I worry whenever a political meter stick is applied to science. I happen to hold the same views as the current administration but what happens in times when I don't agree? And what about people who currently don't agree? it's a slippery slope and we should never start down it.

  4. In the essay on homophibia, what did Katz write that you find objectionable? I saw, "I am a homophobe and proud of it", but certainly any objection to this is minor. The rest of the essay is argued reasonably and rationally, and I have to assume this sentence was included just to create a controversy.

  5. Wow, Dom, it's hard to find an unobjectionable statement in Katz's creepy essay.

    If we condemn homosexuals because the Jewish and Christian bibles have problems with it, then they will have to get in line behind all the other people and practices you can use those books to condemn. I'm not interested in fighting the Crusades again or revisiting the Spanish Inquisition, not to mention all the atrocities that so many other religions have required to satisfy one god or another throughout history. Relying on archaic religious texts is a really lousy way to make decisions, but a great way to justify doing and saying horrible, idiotic things. Katz seems to have the technique down pat.

    Katz's medical arguments are absurd. HIV is not a gay disease just because they happened to be the first population that was widely affected by the virulent microbe. Homosexuality has been around as long as humans have been around (and is common among many other species, so it's technically older than humanity). If HIV is a gay disease, why did it pop up now instead of at some other period when homosexuality was common and accepted? If HIV is a sign that gay sex is wrong, then what do syphilis, gonorrhea, cervical cancer, and all the other diseases common among heterosexuals mean? What about all the other deadly diseases that have nothing at all to do with sex? Germs aren't pronouncements from god or nature that we've done something wrong, they're opportunist little creatures that take hold wherever they can.

    Katz is clearly no historian. He apparently is only aware of sexual history in the US, and only since the 1950s. Any argument he makes based on that myopic view is a weak attempt to rationalize his homophobia.

    It makes sense to exclude some people from blood drives. Katz uses such types of "discrimination" to justify his homophobia. As he points out, people at risk of CJD are also treated with discrimination when it comes to blood collection. Unlike honosexuals, people at risk of CJD are not vilified for it, nor are their rights restricted. He is hiding behind the literal interpretation of "discrimination," while ignoring the despicable and unfair practices that are commonly associated with the word. It's not wrong to discriminate (see the differences between people), only to treat people unfairly or cruelly as a result of your discrimination.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg, as far as my objections to his essay go. I could go on and on, but I'm sure I would exceed the space permitted in the comment section.

  6. Buzz, a few points:

    Katz does not use the Bible to justify homophobia. He says: "If you are a rationalist, you ask for logical explanation, beyond the word of the Bible, and beyond the revulsion which most people feel." Again: "The religious believer may see the hand of God, but both he and the rationalist must see a fact of Nature." Throughout, he dismisses the Bible and other religious tracts.

    HIV did in fact spread through pomiscuous homosexual behavior, in combination with the use of muscle relaxants, and other drugs. It's interesting that much of recent history is being rewritten. EG, the movie "Milk" shows Harvey Milk encouraging monogomous, even married, relationships, even though he actually encouraged the opposite -- multiple partners, etc.

    Why did HIV not pop-up among the ancient Greeks? Not a good point. How do we know that it didn't? Anal intercourse, as opposed to other forms of affection, may not have been very common, and if it were, since the incubation period of HIV is so long, the disease would not have been noticed. For the same reason Altzeimer's was "unknown" to the Greeks -- no one lived long enough to suffer from it.

    I don't want to high=jack the thread, but I find Katz' article to be weel-reasoned.

  7. Dom, he starts with the presumption that the bible must be based on some sort of traditional wisdom, which certainly is using it to justify his homophobia.

    HIV is a human disease (that's what the H stands for). It appears to have originated in apes as SIV, and was likely transmitted to humans when they ate chimpanzees. It now infect more heterosexuals than homosexuals. It only spread primarily among gays for a short time, and that had to do with the fact that the disease was spread by intimate contact, which kept it in the social network formed by homosexuals. It's simple epidemiology, not a sign that Nature abhors homosexuals (or simians, or people who eat simians, even though that's where the disease started).

    There are plenty of other diseases that spread through other populations. Is Chicken Pox a sign that being a child is somehow against Nature or god? What awful sin could the people who got Small Pox or the Black Plague have committed? Good grief, the view that HIV is a gay disease is based on something akin to superstition (which I guess explains why Katz would begin by paraphrasing Leviticus), not science.

    The Greeks wrote down lots of stuff. An epidemic among homosexuals would certainly have appeared in Pliny's History. Humans have been recording such things for 10,000 years, and archaeologists can find evidence of epidemics much farther back. We know of plenty of other epidemics throughout history, but none that have afflicted homosexuals in particular. If HIV is a pronouncement that Nature or god think homosexuality is wrong, then apparently Nature or god had a change of heart after a few hundred thousand years, 'cause it seems it was OK until the 1980s.

    Katz's essay is hardly well reasoned. He completely misrepresents (or misunderstands) history and medicine. You can't build a solid argument on a rotten foundation.