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The man who became the cornerstone of my academic research had a sordid -- and very disturbing -- private transgression. What was I to do? (katz/flickr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

This happened to me a few years ago, and I have still not figured out what the right choice was, please advise…

My husband and I were working on a research project and interviewed a guy who is an expert on the subject. Out of all the interviews we did, his was the best. Well thought out, passionate, direct, everything you’d want out of the interview. It became one of the essential parts of our book. At the final round as we were putting our book together we ended up selecting seven interviews (out of the many we conducted) and this guy’s was the cornerstone of our thesis.

PHOTO

As we were getting ready to go to press, we read in the news that our guy, a very well-known academic, had been taken to court by his wife, who was soon to become his ex-wife, because he had poured a jar of his own excrement on her head. Apparently he was trying to make a point during one of their passionate discussions.

My husband and I interpreted this as an act of abuse, but also possible mental instability. We were at a loss as to what to do with his contribution to our research. Is this guy insane, and therefore does he lose all credibility? Is he a jerk, an abuser, and therefore lacks the authority an academic should have? What should we have done? Keep his interview or remove it from our book?

Signed,
Lost Academic

Dear Lost,

I just checked my calendar, and it is not April 1. Let me proceed.

Ahem.

Okay, I have absolutely no expertise in the world of academic publication, so my first piece of advice is to consult those who do — namely, other academics who have wrestled with the same ethical quandary. What I am giving you here is purely the opinion of one clearly under-qualified advice columnist. Talk it with a grain (or five) of salt.

Here goes.

We can all agree that his alleged private actions toward his wife were disgusting, reprehensible, and so forth. But unless this outburst has a direct bearing on his area of expertise — i.e. anger management in the context of marital arguments — I cannot see a compelling professional reason to disqualify what he had to say. How do his alleged private actions invalidate the intellectual integrity of whatever public research he did in becoming an expert? I don’t get it.

As an academic, it’s sometimes necessary to separate good data from a problematic source.

(You will notice that I have used the word “alleged” a second time, because he is not “guilty” of the charge until either he admits to it, or it is proved in a court of law. An ex-wife’s accusation should not be confused with a statement of fact. Not taking sides, just trying to preserve our basic jurisprudential principles.)

To continue: I am presuming here that his status as an “expert” was based on something more objective than, he seems like a very stable guy with good ideas. Like, for instance, empirical research, or sustained analysis/synthesis of data, or years of clinical observation (or some combination of these). As you note, he’s a well-known academic. And thus I have to assume that he’s done a good deal of work in his field, and published papers and/or books, all of which were no doubt peer-reviewed. Is all of that work to be called into question because of what allegedly occurred in his private life?

If that’s the case, we’d have to throw out an awful lot of good thinking (and, for that matter, good art) because it arose from imperfect people. Take the case of John Nash, the economist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory. He was a schizophrenic who hallucinated, and exhibited any number of unusual behaviors — including being played by Russell Crowe on-screen. As an academic, it’s sometimes necessary to separate good data from a problematic source.

That being said, this boils down to a personal choice. If you and/or your husband feel uncomfortable showcasing the work of a man you consider somehow unsavory, or unreliable — or whose alleged private transgressions you feel might cast your book in a negative light, or call into question your own ethical integrity — well then, don’t. It’s your book. And thus it falls to you to decide whether you’re willing to sacrifice whatever cogency this man lent to your project so that you can sleep at night.

I’m curious to hear what other folks think. (But please, commenters, please resist the urge to invoke the old bumper sticker standby “S*** Happens.”)

Onward,
Steve

P.S. Friends, send your dilemmas via email.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Susan Tepper

    Take it out. Leaving it in will make you and your husband the butt (no pun intended) of many insider jokes. This guy will totally wreck your cred as professionals in your field. I think, really, it’s a no brainer. I do have to question that you would even consider this a dilemma!

  • sansible

    Unfortunately, brilliance and personal stability/integrity are traits that don’t always go hand in hand. I’ve heard stories, ranging from unnerving to horror, from reliable sources about some of Cambridge’s top minds in my field. Their work still stands. I can think of a few people I would never, ever work with, but I know the papers that come out of their labs are impeccable and I trust their results. It’s not unique to my area, or even academia – we see it in Hollywood, sports, you name it. People’s accomplishments and expertise are rarely overshadowed by bad behavior. You have to do what works for you, obviously. If you decide to leave it in, I doubt you would be considered guilty by association. I definitely back up Steve’s advice to seek ethical guidance from others in your field (without using any identifying specifics). It’s hard to weigh the factors (it’s the cornerstone of the book, which will be weaker without it, vs. doing the ‘right thing.’) Perhaps I am too cynical on this point, but I say don’t drop the interview unless you know it’s really going to haunt you (either professionally or personally).

  • Jasoturner

    If this guy’s contributions were not fundamental to the work product, I’d probably pull it out, but it sounds like he was a cornerstone. To the extent that his interview was logical and well articulated, there would seem to be limited harm including it. I mean, Richard Feynman was no angel but he’s still revered as a thinker and teacher…

  • Gentlewomanfarmer

    Wait – you are asking what you “should have done”? Sounds like you did something. Move on.

  • amanda n

    1. I love this column. You are great, Steve.
    2. I agree with your answer, as I nearly always do (tho’ I would not have the perspicacity to come up with the same answers myself), and given how little information you were given, I’m particularly impressed with the how you tackled it. It would be really important to know whether the [alleged] actions have any relationship to material provided for the research project.

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