Evolving Thoughts has an interesting recent post on recently deceased Nobel laureate Carleton Gadjusek, who not only discovered significant things about the transmissability of kuru, aka Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but was also a convicted (and seemingly unabashed) pedophile. The hairy gorilla of a blogger at Evolving Thoughts (aka John S. Wilkins), prompted by an obituary of Gadjusek that, understandably, doesn’t make Gadjusek’s pedophilia its focus, offers us the following:
Gadjusek was a moral deviant who harmed children (almost necessarily if he had sex with boys). He also discovered a transmissible dementia that has ultimately changed our way of thinking about neurological diseases and the very nature of disease itself. Like the founder of vascular surgery, Alexis Carrel, who worked with the Nazis in eugenic extermination, his work was good even if he was not.
Science is done by human beings. Some proportion of any randomly chosen sample of human beings will be saints and some proportion will be deviants and evil. And the science they do remains good or bad independently of their moral failings so long as they do the work well. Recall Hannibal Lector supposedly publishing psychology papers on serial murder after his incarceration? It’s only slightly an exaggeration.
But human failings explain too why scientists like Goudsmit [the obit author–SooT] need to cover over the flaws and failings of their scientific heroes. Nobody wants to be known as “the guy who continues the work of that pedophile”, just as nobody wants to be known as the guy who continues the work of the Holocaust doctors. And moreover, evil people can be educated, charming and interesting. But science is not primarily a moral undertaking – any more than plumbing. If you had a toilet installed by a serial murderer, it would work just as well.
So science: human, all too human? And the white-washing of science? The same? Gadjusek’s science and its significance may be orthogonal to his peculiar sense of child care. But maybe that’s all the more reason for those who recognize the humanity of science to call attention to the latter.