Movie review: Strange Culture.

The other day I was looking for a movie I could watch with instant streaming that featured Josh Kornbluth* and I came upon Strange Culture. Strange Culture is a documentary about the arrest of artist and SUNY-Buffalo professor of art history Steve Kurtz on charges of bioterrorism, mail fraud, and wire fraud in 2004 after the death of his wife, Hope.

At the time Strange Culture was released in 2007, the legal case against Steve Kurtz (and against University of Pittsburgh professor of genetics Robert Ferrell) was ongoing, so the documentary uses actors to interpret events in the case about which Kurtz could not speak on advice of counsel, as well as the usual news footage and interviews of people in the case who were able to talk freely. It also draws on a vividly illustrated graphic novel about the case (titled “Suspect Culture”) written by Timothy Stock and illustrated by Warren Heise.

The central question of the documentary is how an artist found himself the target of federal charges of bioterrorism. I should mention that I watched Strange Culture not long after I finished reading The Radioactive Boy Scout, which no doubt colored my thinking. If The Radioactive Boy Scout is a story of scientific risks taken too lightly, Strange Culture strikes me as a story of scientific risks blown far out of proportion. At the very least, I think there are questions worth pondering here about why the two cases provoked such wildly different reactions.

In 2004, as part of the Critical Art Ensemble, Steve and Hope Kurtz were working on an art installation for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art on genetically modified agriculture. The nature of the installation was to demonstrate (and involve museum-goers in) scientific techniques used to isolate genetic information from various food products and to identify genetically modified organisms. The larger aim of the installation was to help the audience better understand the use of biotechnology in agriculture, and to push the audience to think more deeply about the scientific decisions made by agribusiness and how they might impact everyday life.

Regardless of whether one thinks the Critical Art Ensemble was raising legitimate worries about GMOs, or ignoring potential benefits from this use of biotechnology**, there is something about the effort to give members of the public a better understanding of — and even some hands-on engagement with — the scientific techniques that I find deeply appealing. Indeed, Steve and Hope Kurtz were in active collaboration with working biologists so that they could master the scientific techniques in question and use them appropriately in assembling the installation. Their preparations included work they were doing in their home with petri dishes and commercially available incubators using benign bacteria.

However, this was where the problems began for Steve Kurtz. One night in May of 2004, Hope Kurtz died in her sleep of heart failure. Steve Kurtz dialed 911. The Buffalo first responders who responded to the call saw the petri dishes and freaked out and notified the FBI. Suddenly, the Kurtz home was swarming with federal agents looking for evidence of bioterrorist activities and Steve Kurtz was under arrest.

Watching Strange Culture, I found myself grappling with the question of just why the authorities reacted with such alarm to what they found in the Kurtz home. My recollection of the news coverage at the time was that the authorities suspected that whatever was growing in those petri dishes might have killed hope Kurtz, but at this point indications are that her death was due to a congenital heart defect. First responders are supposed to be alert to dangers, but they should also recognize that coincidence in space and time is not the same as causation. Hope Kurtz’s death was less than three years after the September 11th attacks, and the anthrax attacks that came close on their heels, which likely raised anxiety about the destructive potential of biological agents in the hands of someone who knows how to use them. I wonder, though, whether some amount of the reaction was not just post-9/11 hypervigilance but a deeper fear of biological material at the microscopic level. If you can grow it in a petri dish, the reaction seemed to say, it must be some seriously dangerous stuff. (I am grateful that these first responders didn’t stumble upon the forgotten leftovers in the back of my fridge and judge me a bioterrorism suspect, too.)

More baffling than the behavior of the first responders was the behavior of the federal agents who searched the Kurtz home. While they raised the specter that Steve Kurtz was producing biological weapons, they ended up leaving the place in shambles, strewn with bags of purportedly biohazardous material (as well as with the trash generated by the agents over the long course of their investigation). Leaving things in this state would be puzzling if the prime concern of the government was to protect the community from harmful biological materials, suggesting that perhaps the investigative teams was more interested in creating a show of government force.

Strange Culture raises, but does not answer, the question of how the government turned out to be even more alarmed by biotechnology in widespread agricultural use than was an art group aiming to raise concerns about GMOs. It suggests that scientific understanding and accurate risk assessment is a problem not just for the public at large but also for the people entrusted with keeping the public safe. It also suggests that members of the public are not terribly safe if the default response from the government is an overreaction, or a presumption that members of the public have no business getting their hands dirty with science.

It’s worth noting that a 2008 ruling found there was insufficient evidence to support the charges against Steve Kurtz, and that the Department of Justice declined to appeal this ruling. You can read the Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund press release issued at the conclusion of Steve Kurtz’s legal battle.

*Yes, it’s a very particular kind of thing to want. People are like that sometimes.

**On the question of GMOs, if you haven’t yet read Christie Wilcox’s posts (here, here, and here), you really should.

Facing felony charges in lab death of Sheri Sangji, UCLA settles, Harran stretches credulity.

There have been recent developments in the criminal case against UCLA and chemistry professor Patrick Harran in connection with the fatal laboratory accident that resulted in the death of Sheri Sangji (which we’ve discussed here and here). The positive development is that UCLA has reached a plea agreement with prosecutors. (CORRECTION: UCLA has reached a settlement agreement with the prosecutors, not a plea agreement. Sorry for the confusion.) However, Patrick Harran’s legal strategy has taken a turn that strikes me as ill-advised.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Half of the felony charges stemming from a 2008 lab accident that killed UCLA research assistant Sheri Sangji were dropped Friday when the University of California regents agreed to follow comprehensive safety measures and endow a $500,000 scholarship in her name.

“The regents acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory operated on Dec. 29, 2008,” the agreement read in part, referring to the date that Sangji, 23, suffered fatal burns.

Charges remain against her supervisor, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. His arraignment was postponed to Sept. 5 to allow the judge to consider defense motions, including one challenging the credibility of the state’s chief investigator on the case. …

UCLA and Harran have called her death a tragic accident and said she was a seasoned chemist who chose not to wear a protective lab coat. …

In court papers this week, Harran’s lawyers said prosecutors had matched the fingerprints of Brian Baudendistel, a senior special investigator who handled the case for the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, with the prints of a teenager who pleaded no contest to murder in Northern California in 1985.

The defense contends that the investigator, whose report formed the basis for the charges, is the same Brian A. Baudendistel who took part in a plot to rob a drug dealer of $3,000 worth of methamphetamine, then shot him. Another teenager admitted to pulling the trigger but said it was Baudendistel’s shotgun.

Baudendistel told The Times this week that it is a case of mistaken identity and that he is not the individual involved in the 1985 case.

Cal/OSHA defended the integrity of the investigation in a statement issued Friday by spokesman Dean Fryer.

“The defendants’ most recent attempt to deflect attention from the charges brought against them simply does not relate in any way to the circumstances of Ms. Sangji’s death or the actual evidence collected in Cal/OSHA’s comprehensive investigation,” it read.

Deborah Blum adds:

Should  chemist-in-training approach hazardous chemicals with extreme caution? Yes. Should she expect her employer to provide her with the necessary information and equipment to engage in such caution? Most of us would argue yes. Should chemistry professors be held to the standard of employee safety as, say, chemical manufacturers or other industries? The most important “yes” to that question comes from  Cal/OSHA senior  investigator Brian Baudendistal.

Baudendistal concluded that the laboratory operation was careless enough for long enough to justify felony charges of willful negligence.  The Sangji family, angered by those suggestions that Sheri’s experience should have taught her better, pushed for prosecution. Late last year the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office  officially brought charges against Harran, UCLA, and the University of California system itself. …

[Harran’s] lawyers have responded to the Baudendistal report in part by focusing on Baudendistal himself. They claim to have found evidence that in 1985 he and two friends conspired to set up the murder of a drug dealer. All three boys were convicted and although, since they were juveniles, the records were sealed, attorneys were able to identify the killers through press coverage at the time. Although Baudendistal has insisted that Harran’s defense team tracked down the wrong man, they say they have a fingerprint match to prove it. They say further that a man who covers up his past history is not credible – and therefore neither is is report on the UCLA laboratory.

I am not a lawyer, so I’m not terribly interested in speculating on the arcane legal considerations that might be driving this move by Harran’s legal team. (Chemjobber speculates that it might be a long shot they’re playing amid plea negotiations that are not going well.)

As someone with a professional interest in crime and punishment within scientific communities, and in ethics more broadly, I do, however, think it’s worth examining the logic of Patrick Harran’s legal strategy.

The strategy, as I understand it, is to cast aspersions on the Cal/OSHA report on the basis of the legal history of the senior investigator that prepared it — specifically, his alleged involvement as a teenager in 1985 in a murder plot.

Does a past bad act like this serve as prima facie reason to doubt the accuracy of the report of the investigation of conditions in Harran’s lab? It’s not clear how it could, especially if there were other investigators on the team, not alleged to be involved in such criminal behavior, who endorsed the claims in the report.

Unless, of course, the reason Harran’s legal team thinks we should doubt the accuracy of the report is that the senior investigator who prepared it is a habitual liar. To support the claim that he cannot be trusted, they point to a single alleged lie — denying involvement in the 1985 murder plot.

But this strikes me as a particularly dangerous strategy for Patrick Harran to pursue.

Essentially, the strategy rests on the claim that if a person has lied about some particular issue, we should assume that any claim that person makes, about whatever issue, might also be a lie. I’m not unsympathetic to this claim — trust is something that is earned, not simply assumed in the absence of clear evidence of dishonesty.

However, this same reasoning cannot help Patrick Harran’s credibility, given that he is on record describing Sheri Sangji, a 23-year-old with a bachelor’s degree, as an experienced chemist. Many have noted already that claiming Sheri Sangji was a experienced chemist is ridiculous on its face.

Thus, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that Patrick Harran lied when he described Sheri Sangji as an experienced chemist. And, if this is the case, following the reasoning advocated by his legal team, we must doubt the credibility of every other claim he has made — including claims about the safety training he did or did not provide to people in his lab, conditions in his lab in 2008 when the fatal accident happened, even whether he recommended that Sangji wear a lab coat.

If Patrick Harran was not lying when he said he believed Sheri Sangji was an experienced chemist, the other possibility is that he is incredibly stupid — certainly too stupid to be in charge of a lab where people work with potentially hazardous chemicals.

Some might posit that Harran’s claims about Sangji’s chemical experience were made on the advice of his legal team. That may well be, but I’m unclear on how lying on the advice of counsel is any less a lie. (If it is, this might well mitigate the “lie of omission” of an investigator advised by his lawyers that his juvenile record is sealed.) And if one lie is all it takes to decimate credibility, Harran is surely as vulnerable as Baudendistel.

Finally, a piece of free advice to PIs worrying that they may find themselves facing criminal charges should their students, postdocs, or technicians choose not to wear lab coats or other safety gear: It is perfectly reasonable to establish, and enforce, a lab policy that states that those choosing to opt out of the required safety equipment are also opting out of access to the laboratory.

Book review: The Radioactive Boy Scout.

When I and my three younger siblings were growing up, our parents had a habit of muttering, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” The muttering that followed that aphorism usually had to do with the danger coming from the “little” amount of knowledge rather than a more comprehensive understanding of whatever field of endeavor was playing host to the hare-brained scheme of the hour. Now, as a parent myself, I suspect that another source of danger involved asymmetric distribution of the knowledge among the interested parties: while our parents may have had knowledge of the potential hazards of various activities, knowledge that we kids lacked, they didn’t always have detailed knowledge of what exactly we kids were up to. It may take a village to raise a child, but it can take less than an hour for a determined child to scorch the hell out of a card table with a chemistry kit. (For the record, the determined child in question was not me.)

The question of knowledge — and of gaps in knowledge — is a central theme in The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein. Silverstein relates the story of David Hahn, a Michigan teen in the early 1990s who, largely free of adult guidance or supervision, worked tirelessly to build a breeder reactor in his back yard. At times this feels like a tale of youthful determination to reach a goal, a story of a self-motivated kid immersing himself in self-directed learning and doing an impressive job of identifying the resources he required. However, this is also a story about how, in the quest to achieve that goal, safety considerations can pretty much disappear.

David Hahn’s source of inspiration — not to mention his guide to many of the experimental techniques he used — was The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. Published in 1960, the text by Robert Brent conveys an almost ruthlessly optimistic view of the benefits chemistry and chemical experimentation can bring, whether to the individual or to humanity as a whole. Part of this optimism is what appears to modern eyes as an alarmingly cavalier attitude towards potential hazards and chemical safety. If anything, the illustrations by Harry Lazarus downplay the risks even more than does the text — across 112 pages, the only pictured items remotely resembling safety apparatus are lab coats and a protective mask for an astronaut.

Coupled with the typical teenager’s baseline assumption of invulnerability, you might imagine that leaving safety considerations in the subtext, or omitting them altogether, could be a problem. In the case of a teenager teaching himself chemistry from the book, relying on it almost as a bible of the concepts, history, and experimental techniques a serious chemist ought to know, the lack of focus on potential harms might well have suggested that there was no potential for harm — or at any rate that the harm would be minor compared to the benefits of mastery. David Hahn seems to have maintained this belief despite a series of mishaps that made him a regular at his local emergency room.

Ah, youth.

Here, though, The Radioactive Boy Scout reminds us that young David Hahn was not the only party operating with far too little knowledge. Silverstein’s book expands on his earlier Harper’s article on the incident with chapters that convey just how widespread our ignorance of radioactive hazards has been for most of the history of our scientific, commercial, and societal engagement with radioactivity. At nearly every turn in this history, potential benefits have been extolled (with radium elixirs sold in the early 1900s to lower blood pressure, ease arthritis pain, and produce “sexual rejuvenescence”) and risks denied, sometimes until the body count was so large and the legal damages were so high that they could no longer be denied.

Surely part of the problem here is that the hazards of radioactivity are less immediately obvious than those of corrosive chemicals or explosive chemicals. The charred table is directly observable in a way that damage to one’s body from exposure to radioisotopes is not (partly because the table doesn’t have an immune system that kicks in to try to counter the damage). But the invisibility of these risks was also enhanced when manufacturers who used radioactive materials proclaimed their safety for both the end-user of consumer products and the workers making those products, and when the nuclear energy industry throttled the information the public got about mishaps at various nuclear reactors.

Possibly some of David Hahn’s teachers could have given him a more accurate view of the kinds of hazards he might undertake in trying to build a back yard breeder reactor … but the teen didn’t seem to feel like he could get solid mentoring from any of them, and didn’t let them in on his plans in any detail. The guidance he got from the Boy Scouts came in the form of an atomic energy merit badge pamphlet authored by the Atomic Energy Commission, a group created to promote atomic energy, and thus one unlikely to foreground the risks. (To be fair, this merit badge pamphlet did not anticipate that scouts working on the badge would actually take it upon themselves to build breeder reactors.) Presumably some of the scientists with whom David Hahn corresponded to request materials and advice on reactions would have emphasized the risks of his activities had they realized that they were corresponding with a high school student undertaking experiments in his back yard rather than with a science teacher trying to get clear on conceptual issues.

Each of these gaps of information ended up coalescing in such a way that David Hahn got remarkably close to his goal. He did an impressive job isolating radioactive materials from consumer products, performing chemical reactions to put them in suitable form for a breeder reactor, and assembling the pieces that might have initiated a chain reaction. He also succeeded in turning the back yard shed in which he conducted his work into a Superfund site. (According to Silverstein, the official EPA clean-up missed materials that his father and step-mother found hidden in their house and discarded in their household trash — which means that both the EPA and those close enough to the local landfill where the radioactive materials ended up had significant gaps in their knowledge about the hazards David Hahn introduced to the environment.)

The Radioactive Boy Scout manages to be at once an engaging walk through a challenging set of scientific problems and a chilling look at what can happen when scientific problems are stripped out of their real-life context of potential impacts for good and for ill that stretch across time and space and impact people who aren’t even aware of the scientific work being undertaken. It is a book I suspect my 13-year-old would enjoy very much.

I’m just not sure I’m ready to give it to her.

How we decide (to falsify).

At the tail-end of a three-week vacation from all things online (something that I badly needed at the end of teaching an intensive five-week online course), the BBC news reader on the radio pulled me back in. I was driving my kid home from the end-of-season swim team banquet, engaged in a conversation about the awesome coaches, when my awareness was pierced by the words “Jonah Lehrer” and “resigned” and “falsified”.

It appears that the self-plagiarism brouhaha was not Jonah Lehrer’s biggest problem. On top of recycling work in ways that may not have conformed to his contractual obligations, Lehrer has also admitted to making up quotes in his recent book Imagine. Here are the details as I got them from the New York Times Media Decoder blog:

An article in Tablet magazine revealed that in his best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Mr. Lehrer had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, one of the most closely studied musicians alive. …

In a statement released through his publisher, Mr. Lehrer apologized.

“The lies are over now,” he said. “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”

He added, “I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.” …

Mr. Lehrer might have kept his job at The New Yorker if not for the Tablet article, by Michael C. Moynihan, a journalist who is something of an authority on Mr. Dylan.

Reading “Imagine,” Mr. Moynihan was stopped by a quote cited by Mr. Lehrer in the first chapter. “It’s a hard thing to describe,” Mr. Dylan said. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”

After searching for a source, Mr. Moynihan could not verify the authenticity of the quote. Pressed for an explanation, Mr. Lehrer “stonewalled, misled and, eventually, outright lied to me” over several weeks, Mr. Moynihan wrote, first claiming to have been given access by Mr. Dylan’s manager to an unreleased interview with the musician. Eventually, Mr. Lehrer confessed that he had made it up.

Mr. Moynihan also wrote that Mr. Lehrer had spliced together Dylan quotes from separate published interviews and, when the quotes were accurate, he took them well out of context. Mr. Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, declined to comment.

In the practice of science, falsification is recognized as a “high crime” and is included in every official definition of scientific misconduct you’re likely to find. The reason for this is simple: scientists are committed to supporting their claims about what the various bits of the world are like and about how they work with empirical evidence from the world — so making up that “evidence” rather than going to the trouble to gather it is out of bounds.

Despite his undergraduate degree in neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer is not operating as a scientist. However, he is operating as a journalist — a science journalist at that — and journalism purports to recognize a similar kind of relationship to evidence. Presenting words as a quote from a source is making a claim that the person identified as the source actually said those things, actually made those claims or shared those insights. Presumably, a journalist includes such quotes to bolster an argument. Maybe if Jonah Lehrer had simply written a book presenting his thoughts about creativity readers would have no special reason to believe it. Supporting his views with the (purported) utterances of someone widely recognized as a creative genius, though, might make them more credible.

(Here, Eva notes drily that this incident might serve to raise Jonah Lehrer’s credibility on the subject of creativity.)

The problem, of course, is that a fake quote can’t really add credibility in the way it appears to when the quote is authentic. Indeed, once discovered as fake, it has precisely the opposite effect. As with falsification in science, falsification in journalism can only achieve its intended goal as long as its true nature remains undetected.

There is no question in my mind about the wrongness of falsification here. Rather, the question I grapple with is why do they do it?

In science, after falsified data is detected, one sometimes hears an explanation in terms of extreme pressure to meet a deadline (say, for a big grant application, or for submission of a tenure dossier) or to avoid being scooped on a discovery that is so close one can almost taste it … except for the damned experiments that have become uncooperative. Experiments can be hard, there is no denying it, and the awarding of scientific credit to the first across the finish-line (but not to the others right behind the first) raise the prospect that all of one’s hard work may be in vain if one can’t get those experiments to work first. Given the choice between getting no tangible credit for a few years’ worth of work (because someone else got her experiments to work first) and making up a few data points, a scientist might well feel tempted to cheat. That scientific communities regard falsifying data as such a serious crime is meant to reduce that temptation.

There is another element that may play an important role in falsification, one brought to my attention some years ago in a talk given by C. K. Gunsalus: the scientist may have such strong intuitions about the bit of the world she is trying to describe that gathering the empirical data to support these intuitions seems like a formality. If you’re sure you know the answer, the empirical data are only useful insofar as they help convince others who aren’t yet convinced. The problem here is that the empirical data are how we know whether our accounts of the world fit the actual world. If all we have is hunches, with no way to weed out the hunches that don’t fit with the details of reality, we’re no longer in the realm of science.

I wonder if this is close to the situation in which Jonah Lehrer found himself. Maybe he had strong intuitions about what kind of thing creativity is, and about what a creative guy like Bob Dylan would say when asked about his own exercise of creativity. Maybe these intuitions felt like a crucial part of the story he was trying to tell about creativity. Maybe he even looked to see if he could track down apt quotes from Bob Dylan expressing what seemed to him to be the obvious Dylanesque view … but, coming up short on this quotational data, he was not prepared to leave such an important intuition dangling without visible support, nor was he prepared to excise it. So he channeled Bob Dylan and wrote the thing he was sure in his heart Bob Dylan would have said.

At the time, it might have seemed a reasonable way to strengthen the narrative. As it turns out, though, it was a course of action that so weakened it that the publisher of Imagine, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has recalled print copies of the book.