The scientist, the hacker and the fate of #MeToo

Suzy Weiss wrote an excellent story for Bair Weiss’ Substack site about a renowned scientist who, until fairly recently, was considered one of the best people in the field of cancer research. David Sabatini is someone who was believed to one day win a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Now he is an unemployed stay-at-home dad. The story of how he went from one to the other is incredible but you probably wouldn’t say it’s surprising.

In 2018 David Sabatini was a world renowned molecular biologist. He was a tenured professor at MIT. He led a large laboratory at the Whitehead Institute, supervising a team of 39 researchers, postdocs and technicians. Their job was to unravel the mystery of the mTOR signaling pathway, a protein that Sabatini had discovered while still in medical school at Johns Hopkins. The mTOR signaling pathway plays an essential role in tumor development. Understanding how it works would go a long way in saving countless lives…

on the night of April 18, 2018, after a whiskey tasting party – Sabatini is a whiskey lover – he and Kristin Knouse had sex. Knouse was a new cancer researcher at Whitehead, where she would also run her own lab; his was focused on liver regeneration. He was 50 years old. She was 29. He had separated from his wife and was in the process of divorcing her.

The following month, they met at Knouse’s condo near Boston Common where they discussed some ground rules for their date. They agreed that they could see other people. Knouse, Sabatini recalls, had continuous flings with men she referred to with nicknames such as “anaesthesiologist fuck buddy”, “finance brother”, and “physics teacher”, and she wanted that to continue. Besides, they wouldn’t tell anyone. Why complicate things at work? Everything was supposed to be fun.

Six months into their relationship, Sabatini’s employer announced a new policy that the head of any lab could not have a sexual relationship with a co-worker. Sabatini did not go to her superiors to report the relationship because by then she was already cooling off a bit. He had started a relationship with a non-colleague in Germany. But over time, things started to shift between him and Knouse:

Knouse didn’t want to let go. In January 2020, she texted, in part: “I get anxious when I don’t hear from you and then I see you posting stuff on Twitter and that certainly provides a small and silly but yet another piece of evidence about this growing feeling that you don’t care about me like I care about you. He replied, “I’m sorry but you are going crazy.” In another text, Knouse admitted to feeling “stung”. She added: “I think it’s worth considering if you want someone who matches your passion, intellect and ambition.” He replied, “I have to explore that.”

Hurt feelings at the end of a relationship like this aren’t exactly a new result. But months later, it seemed Knouse had decided she was a victim.

In October 2020, Knouse texted her friends that she was “unpacking[ing] a ton of abuse and trauma removed from an obvious local source” – an apparent reference to Sabatini. Knouse’s fellowship at Whitehead was ending and she did not apply for any professorship there. When the new manager, Ruth Lehmann, called Knouse to ask why, Knouse complained for the first time about being “harassed”.

About a month later, the Whitehead Institute hired a law firm to investigate Sabatini’s lab. The law firm spent 10 months drafting a 248-page report which was revealed in August 2021. A day later, Sabatini’s career was over. He was placed on administrative leave by MIT. Backers who paid his salary fired him. The Whitehead Institute severed ties with him and the story leaked to the Boston Globe. Even the biotech startups he had created drifted away from him. What did the report conclude?

What had David Sabatini been convicted of that deserved this kind of punishment? Mainly, not disclosing his consensual relationship with Knouse. In addition to this, the report found that Sabatini, in his day-to-day administration of the lab, violated Whitehead’s anti-harassment policy, since his “behavior created a sexualized undercurrent in the lab”. Sabatini’s relationship with Knouse exacerbated matters, given his “indirect influence” on her, which violated the anti-harassment policy and went against the “spirit” if not the letter of another of the institute policies…

“While we found no evidence that Sabatini discriminates against or does not support women in his lab, we do find that Sabatini’s propensity to praise or gravitate toward those in the lab who reflect his desired personality traits, scientific success or his vision of “science”. above all else,” creates additional barriers for female lab members,” the report concludes.

Weiss spoke to a number of female scientists who worked in Sabatini’s lab. None of them would speak officially because defending Sabatini in public could ruin their careers, but they told Weiss that the report was wrong about Sabatini. Sabatini filed a lawsuit against Knouse and she filed a countersuit, accusing him of “grooming”.

There is a coda to this story. Six months after he was fired, a friend from NYU medical school called Sabatini to see how he was doing. He complained that he would never work in his field again, and she, the vice-dean of the school, assured him that someone would hire him. Sabatini asked if she would consider hiring him and for a time it was considered. The school sent the 248-page report on him to outside attorneys who agreed he had not been given due process.

Then a story about his possible hiring appeared in Science magazine and there were protests at NYU. An open letter advising the school to reconsider its decision has been signed by hundreds of people. There was long twitter threads from people outside of NYU who seemed to know nothing about the allegations. The school relented and agreed not to hire Sabatini. Presumably, any other school that tried to hire him would suffer the same backlash.

Yesterday, Michelle Goldberg wrote a column for the NY Times titled “Amber Heard and the Death of #MeToo”. The bottom line is that Amber Heard is a victim of both Johnny Depp and a misogynistic culture:

Online, there is an industry-wide level of bullying directed at Heard that puts all previous social networks to shame. Countless Heard skewer videos on TikTok; ‘NSync member Lance Bass has joined the trend of mockingly re-enacting his testimony. A makeup brand even joined in the anti-Heard melee, posting a TikTok video meant to contradict her lawyer’s description of how she concealed bruises. Meanwhile, every platform seems to be full of beloved pro-Depp memes. “Why does it seem like the whole internet is Team Johnny Depp?” says a Vice title.

But it’s not just the internet. “Believe every woman except Amber Heard,” Chris Rock recently joked. A “Saturday Night Live” skit last weekend turned one of Depp’s craziest accusations against Heard into a skit, treating her as a figure of ridicule and him as a charming thug.

As is often the case, Goldberg readers are more sensible.

Although both parties are clearly in trouble and abusing each other, only one has tried to present herself as an entirely innocent victim of domestic violence. After watching the trial, it’s hard not to think of Amber as the primary abuser of toxicity in the relationship. Saying he “defies logic” to believe that a bigger man with more resources is more of a victim than an abuser is probably one of the main reasons Amber felt so confident posting so many exaggerations and hazy storylines…because she assumed we wouldn’t believe otherwise. . Women are largely victims of domestic violence, but they absolutely can be abusers themselves (not to mention all the toxic abusive mothers out there).

And one more :

The problem with most journalistic treatment of this case so far is the attempt to use political ends rather than facts to analyze the situation. It seems any accusation by a woman today is treated as a symbol of MeToo and the court of liberal public opinion is leaning towards convicting the man before any evidence is heard. An objective viewer would see the Depp-Heard relationship for what it is – an extremely toxic mix of two highly volatile and troubled people who have done their best to physically and emotionally abuse each other. Trying to paint one party (Depp) “more” wrong than the other is useless. Heard is a powerful woman in her own right. Journalists should forget to portray her as just another victim of powerful men. There are many other women who are more worthy of our sympathy.

When it comes to Johnny Depp, best known for playing a clumsy pirate, there’s no doubt he’s also been a victim of abuse. That doesn’t make him innocent but it does demonstrate that the simple framework imposed by #MeToo (believe women) can’t be the end of the story. Sometimes you also have to believe men or at least listen to them when they end up in the hospital. If these two cases, the scientist and the hacker, are examples of what #MeToo has brought us, then more thought is probably needed. Michelle Goldberg seems to think that #MeToo means women should always be seen as victims while men should be seen as aggressors. Even presented with evidence that abuse can go both ways, she downplays it. JThe bottom line is that the facts must matter in these cases, because the truth is not always as simple as a slogan.

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