Publicly endorsing science is part of skepticism, but it isn’t always easy because so many people don’t differentiate between accepting science as the best method we have for building knowledge and treating scientists as if they were gods. Individual scientists are, unfortunately, as prone to mistakes and fraud as any other group of human beings.
Most British coverage of the scandal surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier and convicted sex offender who committed suicide while awaiting trial on new sex trafficking charges, has focused on his documented relationship with Prince Andrew. The bigger issue, however, which has received greater attention in the US, is Epstein’s fondness for funding science and befriending prominent scientists, particularly in fields such as artificial intelligence, physics, and genetic engineering, as well as more fringe areas such as cryonics and transhumanism. Probably the full scale of the donations he made and relationships he cultivated stretching back into the early 1990s — which included luminaries such as Stephen Hawking — will never be fully known. Through his foundation and three private charities, Epstein is known to have donated many millions to Harvard, Princeton, and MIT.
He was a long-established donor when, in 2008, he pled guilty to procuring a 14-year-old girl for prostitution, a deal that years of patient investigation by Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown established as outrageously lenient. (After Epstein was arrested and charged anew in July 2019 and the district attorney who agreed the deal received national scrutiny, he had to resign as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Labor.) Soon afterwards, it came out that Joichi Ito, the director of MIT’s arguably best-known research group, the Media Lab, had accepted $525,000 for the lab and a further $1.2 million for his own start-up investment fund from Epstein even after his conviction and the 13 months he spent in jail. The Media Lab’s current director, Joichi Ito, apparently believed that Epstein was now a reformed character; he was soon forced to resign, and MIT admitted that it knew of Epstein’s continued funding and directed that it should be kept anonymous.
There the story splits in two. One strand is the long-running issue of how and by whom science is funded. Both Big Tobacco and Big Oil are known to have commissioned their own research into, respectively, the health risks of smoking and climate change, and then mounted campaigns to sow public doubt about what they found, ending millions of lives prematurely. In 1991, the journalist Cynthia Crossen’s book, Tainted Truth, documented the frequency with which research results favour its funder’s interests. That begins with the choice of scientists to conduct it.
The other strand is MIT and the Media Lab, which occupy a special place in the technology world. Just two years after its 1985 founding, Whole Earth Catalogue editor Stewart Brand published a book chronicling the lab’s efforts to invent the future. The lab’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte, was an early backer of Wired magazine, and, to “protect his investment”, he quipped at the time, he was its columnist, promoting his and the Media Lab’s ideas about the future.
While the lab did miss the boat on the biggest trends — the web, for example, and the shift to mobile and smartphones, as well as bitcoin and blockchain — its researchers include many scientists with a history of ground-breaking work on AI, robotics, emotion sensing, augmented reality, wearable devices, and the physics of programmable matter. The Media Lab’s 1990s ideas about embedding computers in everyday objects were novel — and also, I thought at the time, a good gambit for attracting funding from previously untapped sources such as Nike and the furniture maker Steelcase. While technologists’ pitch to the rest of us has long been that they’ll make the world a better place, Slate’s Justin Peter describes the lab’s funding ethos thusly: “The lab’s leaders weren’t averse to making the world a better place, just as long as the sponsors got what they wanted in the process.”
In the US, the standard question about technology research funding has generally been, “Does it come from a government, and if so, which part of which one?” This has mattered particularly for security products, where a government’s involvement might mean the technology shouldn’t be trusted. The tech world’s distrust of government is in no way changed if you remind them that the internet’s development was funded by the US military. The price of relying on corporations and individual donors is rarely discussed.
Epstein’s involvement in the tech world stretched well beyond the Media Lab, through the Edge network of technologists and scientists assembled and represented by literary agent John Brockman. Some of the female scientists whose work brought them into contact with the lab and the network are now asking: what has that relationship with Epstein meant for the last 25 years of technological development? What has been the effect on the careers of women scientists of Epstein’s sumptuous private dinners and parties that allowed male scientists to mix but largely excluded women except as objects of desire? We will never know what we may have lost.