Only in our times, when the real life makes all attempts at satire obsolete, can you invent an insane theory that an Earth magnet field flip 42k years ago wiped out Neanderthals, publish it in Science, and unironically call it “The Adams effect” after Douglas Adams who ridiculed idiocies and despised bullies. Because the study’s lead author Alan Cooper is a vicious bully and harasser who was just sacked, the second time.
This is the paper:
Alan Cooper, Chris S. M. Turney, Jonathan Palmer, Alan Hogg, Matt McGlone, Janet Wilmshurst, Andrew M. Lorrey, Timothy J. Heaton, James M. Russell, Ken McCracken, Julien G. Anet, Eugene Rozanov, Marina Friedel, Ivo Suter, Thomas Peter, Raimund Muscheler, Florian Adolphi, Anthony Dosseto, J. Tyler Faith, Pavla Fenwick, Christopher J. Fogwill, Konrad Hughen, Mathew Lipson, Jiabo Liu, Norbert Nowaczyk, Eleanor Rainsley, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Paolo Sebastianelli, Yassine Souilmi, Janelle Stevenson, Zoë Thomas, Raymond Tobler, Roland Zech A global environmental crisis 42,000 years ago Science (2021) doi: 10.1126/science.abb8677
The peer-reviewed study is basically a collection of just-so anecdotes striving to prove that it was the reversal of the Earth magnetic pole 42,000 years ago which drove the extinction of mega-fauna worldwide, and in particularly also of Neanderthals, the extinct human subspecies which remains the butt of constant popular and academic ridicule. According to Cooper et al, solar radiation mercilessly hit the unprotected Earth, Neanderthals and other dumb hairy beasts stumbled around grunting in the sun till they dropped dead from skin cancer, but intelligent modern humans covered themselves in protective ochre clay while busy decorating the shadowy caves they hid in. The story of the mass extinction 42k years ago is too silly not to be published in Science, especial since it has the number 42 in it.
42 in fact happens to be the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy satirical science fiction books by the late Douglas Adams. Hence the “Adams event” which the Science authors now invented, which is obviously, in combination with Neanderthals, irresistible to all media and wide sections of nerdy scientific community like chocolate-coated crack cocaine. Never mind that the paper is scientifically embarrassing, exactly of the kind of pompous and pretentious idiocies Adams used to ridicule in his books.
The study was immediately plucked apart by experts, in particular the anthropologist John Hawks. This comment is telling:
“For example, the paper claims that thylacines underwent a bottleneck 42,000 years ago, citing Lauren White et al. 2018 https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13101 That paper actually says 20,400 years.“
Turns out, the authors rigged the scientific references to accommodate their idea of an extinction 42k years ago.
But it passed peer review in Science, so it means what then? That all other studies are retrospectively wrong because they don’t fit one theoretical Science paper? Even if it was another Science paper about cave paintings? Read this tweet by Hawks:
In short, the Magnetodeath paper is worse than Vogon poetry, and its authors must have stepped out of the Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B.
As said before, anything to do with Neanderthals is the best media clickbait ever, and this is why the even and especially elite science journals will murder, rape and pillage the scientific ethics to get there. This is why in the last months alone we had shrivelled autistic Neanderthal minibrains by Alysson Muotri in the same Science magazine (read here), while Nature and PNAS served us two contradicting stories about Neanderthals and COVID-19, by the godfather of the Neanderthal field, Svante Pääbo, who first claimed Neanderthal genes inside modern humans cause COVID-19 death, and then claimed that their genes actually prevent it (read here).
Thing is, despite all media reporting, in New York Times, Guardian or CNN, talking mostly about the extinction of Neanderthals and the 42k Adams Event, there is not really much data in the paper about that bit. Neanderthals only get the briefest mention of all, in Figure 4:
There is also a small bit in supplementary, Figure S 31 (!), which is not even circumstantial data, but basically none at all:
Now, Pääbo is God, no journal would mess with him, no matter how silly the stuff he submits there might be. But the first author of the Magnetodeath paper, the anthropologist Alan Cooper, even though a former PhD student of Pääbo, is not a God (anymore), if anything, he is a fallen angel. Because Cooper was kicked out of his job as director of an institute twice, for excessive bullying and harassment bordering on sadism, plus research misconduct. Both Science and Nature covered his sacking slightly over a year ago by the University of Adelaide, without crediting Michael Balter, whose journalistic investigation uncovered the scandal. Cooper seems to have gained or retained an affiliation with the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, but he is still very much down and urgently in need of both the support of the anthropology community and a paper in a high-ranking journal in order to get on top again.
The new Science paper provides both. Not just that: even Britain’s national treasure, the comedy actor, book author and TV presenter Stephen Fry made a video celebrating Cooper’s paper.
I am pretty sure Stephen Fry wouldn’t have done such advertising for that ridiculous paper had someone warned him about Cooper’s past. I informed Fry’s agent anyway.
Let me quote a bit from the article by Balter, written in March 2019 and updated several times since. Never acknowledged by Science or Nature coverage of Cooper’s sacking, Balter’s reporting was decisive in setting off the misconduct investigation by University of Adelaide, which was long overdue and hindered certainly not by a lack of evidence, but by the immense influence Cooper had in his field and the grant money he brought: “As many were told, in essence, you are just passing through, Cooper is here to stay“.
“The allegations against Cooper include severe bullying, harassment, falsifying grant applications and other documents, sexual harassment, unethical handling of samples for ancient DNA analyses, and disrespect of Aboriginal Australian peoples and the remains of their ancestors. […] I was able to confirm that Cooper engaged in behavior that would normally be referred to as sexual harassment when he was at Oxford University earlier and also while at Adelaide–including a very recent episode that was at least a partial factor in the university’s decision to launch this inquiry.“
Cooper was born in New Zealand, he also did his PhD there in 1994, his advisors being the late Allan Wilson and Svante Pääbo. Merely 6 years after his PhD graduation, Cooper became director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre at the Oxford University, UK, where he, as Balter writes, “gained a reputation for bullying, harassment, and negligence of his PhD students and postdocs, as well as discourteous behavior towards senior colleagues and university officials“. In 2005, Cooper was forced to resign, because of things like this:
“Cooper would ask his postdocs to review grant applications that he had submitted to funding agencies; in others, Cooper would ask them to exaggerate their own data to increase the chances of a grant being awarded. One former PhD student describes how Cooper instructed him to exaggerate how many base pairs of DNA had been amplified from a particular sample, “so the phylogenetic tree would appear more robust.” Another former student says that Cooper trained people in the lab to forge the signature of the then department head, the evolutionary biologist Paul Harvey, who later would be instrumental in getting rid of Cooper.“
Cooper has been falsifying research results in Photoshop, and I’m not sure it’s reassuring that his newer papers have no pictures of gels which a sleuth could scrutinise:
“the student had used the polymerase chain reaction and gel electrophoresis to detect that ancient DNA was apparently present in a sample; but when she went to replicate the findings the band for the DNA did not show up. Repeated efforts were also unsuccessful. So, according to multiple sources from the Oxford lab, Cooper instructed the student to photoshop a gel image and insert that into the grant application. His reasoning, former colleagues say, is that the band was likely to show up again eventually, so it was okay to fake it for the grant.“
This all is clearly both research and administrative misconduct, a university can easily forgive the former, but not the latter. And the bullying didn’t help either. Because Cooper was anyway already negotiating with the University of Adelaide in Australia, Oxford barred him from his lab, secured evidence of misconduct and then quietly let him go. Balter cites the department head Harvey:
“Alan forged data (and my signature has Head of Department) in a grant application and lied. His group came to me with a catalogue of irrefutable evidence. I forwarded it all to the University and they took over the investigation. Alan left for Adelaide under a cloud.”
In 2006, Cooper was appointed director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), which was founded just for him. The bullying and harassment continued in Adelaide, possibly even worsened. Balter goes on to cite several former lab members of Cooper’s, some of whom were also later interviewed by Nature. Here one victim account:
“I suffered from stifling anxiety the whole time. Sitting in lab meetings wondering if it’s my turn to ‘get it’ this week. Each week he would pick someone out, and rant and rave about how useless you were in front of the whole group and make an example of you. His lab meetings were from 3 pm to 5 pm every Friday. Friday’s were dreaded because none of us knew whose turn it was to be grilled and shouted at. Thank God I never have to see him again.“
Another source indicated to Balter how Cooper got his people to deliver the research results he wanted:
“He is somebody who is a bit of a psychopath. If things don’t go in his direction you certainly know about it. A lot of manipulation, making sure people are doing what he wants them to do for his benefit. And if not, there’s a screaming match, swearing, and yelling and getting into people’s faces… In lab meetings he will go after people.“
Cooper’s method of humiliation, aggression and terror sounds exactly like that of Didier Raoult, strange, or actually, not really. Academia is full of dangerous toxic male tyrants. Balter then describes the experience of Dean Male, one of the team members at the newly opened Cooper institute:
“His bullying could be quite methodical. We’d all heard him yelling and screaming at some poor victim in his office. I got called in one day.” This former lab member goes on to describe how the “victim” would sit with Cooper’s office door behind him, and that Cooper would “talk and stalk” behind the junior colleague, then close the door, and “the yelling and swearing and intimidation would start.”
Nic Rawlence, who now runs a lab in New Zealand, was quoted:
“From day one I was subjected to bullying and harassment, from snide remarks to full on bullying that lasted seven years. I was constantly told my writing was awful. I was told not to speak to anyone at conferences as I would say something stupid. Alan insisted that we tell him any ideas for research, that he would then pass off as his own to other scientists… numerous PhD and postdocs left during my time there, and students were frequently in tears at his treatment of people.“
In academia it’s not plagiarism if the people you stole from are inferior or at least not important. Even in science journalism, plagiarism is rife for same reasons. Both these scientists were also interviewed in a piece by Nature, which, like Science, of course never credited Balter. The abuser’s sadistic rule poisoned the lab atmosphere and bred little abusers, quite common in academia, unfortunately. Balter quotes a former student:
“H says that some of the postdocs mimic Cooper’s behavior, in the way that some junior colleagues become bullies themselves to try to avoid being bullied by the alpha male. “There is a big rivalry among the postdocs to gain [Cooper’s] favor, and they have dirty ways to get it.”
H adds that most of the postdocs who engage in bullying behavior are male, “and there is a strong misogynous environment. One comment I remember during a meeting was ‘All females have been stupid since the Pleistocene.’“
Another source, a former ACAD member, is quoted with:
“Lab people bully each other in order to curry favour with Alan. Students do it to each other, eg, trying to take each other down in lab meetings.“
While those whom Cooper deemed irrelevant or inferior were mentally and physically destroyed by his constant harassment and terror (bullying takes its toll on the health), Cooper’s friends were generously rewarded. Maybe this is why now his friends reward him, with a career-saving Science paper? Balter writes:
“around 2011 Alan Cooper had stated to a number of people in his office that he had falsified some material in a successful 2011 Australian Research Council Future Fellow grant for his deputy at ACAD, Jeremy Austin. [..] Cooper told colleagues in detail how he had falsified the grant, by giving Austin credit for some activities that Cooper, and not Austin, had carried out.) [..] According to a witness who was present, ACAD’s administrative coordinator, Maria Lekis, was also present during this event. This witness recalls that when Cooper described how he had falsified Austin’s grant application, Lekis put her hands over her ears and said, “Alan, I don’t want to hear this!“
In summer 2019, an investigation began at Adelaide and was covered by the national media. In December 2019, Cooper was fired and now sports an affiliation as “honorary researcher at the South Australian Museum”. His protege Jeremy Austin was appointed as the new ACAD director.
The irony is that around same time, Cooper’s top boss, the president of University of Adelaide Peter Rathjen, was charged with sexual harassment, also all thanks to Balter’s reporting which started in November 2019. Balter exposed the Vice-Chancellor for
“chronic and widely known sexual harassment at the University of Adelaide during his earlier tenure there as a professor and department chair; a misconduct case at a major Australian university which found him guilty of sexual assault against a student; and, while Vice-Chancellor at the University of Tasmania, his alleged protection of the notorious pedophile Nicolaas Bester, who re-offended while a PhD student at UTAS.“
Rathjen resigned due to “ill health” in July 2020, following sexual misconduct findings by his University of Adelaide. Maybe Cooper simply lost a protector?
Science‘s Editor-in-Chief Holden Thorp did not reply to me when I asked him if he minds Cooper’s history of abuse. I do understand Thorp has no high opinion of mine or Balter’s person (Balter used to write for Science), but what about Science‘s own reporting?
I also sent Balter’s article about Cooper’s bullying and harassment to the paper’s second author Chris Turney, climate science professor at University of New South Wales in Sidney, and he reacted by immediately blocking me on Twitter. So I guess Turney was well aware of what Cooper was charged with and sacked for. Maybe Turney, his many coauthors (several of whom women!) as well as the Science editors and peer reviewers, think that Cooper is being maligned by envious snowflakes and failed scientists who don’t publish in Science. Maybe they think Cooper is entitled to treat his lab members in this way, exactly because they don’t deserve better, being envious snowflakes and failed scientists who don’t publish in Science.
Probably both, because bullying, sexual harassment and denial thereof are rampant in anthropology, a research area with lots of field work in very remote locations where “trainees” have no way to escape their tormentors. Balter himself is presently being sued for $10 million by the UC Santa Barbara anthropologist Danielle Kurin, whose ex-husband Enmanuel Gomez Choque sexually harassed his students, to which Kurin reacted by retaliating against the witnesses. That is what Balter uncovered in his reporting, and this is what Kurin sues him for, even though according to Balter, she was found culpable in a Title IX investigation by her university, for these retaliations.
Another American anthropology professor, Kate Clancy, was listed to serve as witness for Kurin’s side against Balter, but resigned when these news came out. You might wonder what Clancy had to contribute fact-finding-wise in the first place? Nothing really, her main qualification was her long-held hatred for Balter which she shared with her then-friend on Twitter, the infamous BethAnn McLaughlin (aka McLNeuro, read more here). Clancy was probably to argue in court that Balter is a “complete garbage person“. Problem is, a number of anthropologists, male and female, see it the same way, maybe their real motivation to destroy Balter is revenge for the damaged careers of the biggest stars in theirs (and other) STEM fields?
All this provides an unflattering picture of an anthropology community where professors see “trainees” as their feudal property, a kind of cheap replaceable slaves they can abuse in all possible ways. The sycophantic ones who adapt the tyrant’s attitude to data rigging and human abuse, rise to the top, the “failed scientists” rest is trampled underfoot. The dishonest bully is glorified: Cooper is now painted as a climate warrior saint, Australia’s Greta Thunberg, celebrated by the international media for his fight to save the planet from climate change:
“A magnetic pole reversal or extreme change in Sun activity would be unprecedented climate change accelerants. We urgently need to get carbon emissions down before such a random event happens again“.
The recent Science paper and its accompanying unquestioning news coverage manifests and celebrates the rotten sadistic system of abuse and bad science, while referencing the late author Douglas Adams, a gentle and kind person, who would have been horriefied by Cooper’s behaviour, and whose books never had a harassing bully in it, even as a villain, certainly not one of the Alan Cooper calibre.
Michael Balter obtained some inside information and shared it on Twitter. First of all, Cooper was initially the second author of the Science paper, and Chris Turney second. The published version swapped these roles.
Balter also tweeted:
“One hypothesis is that some of Cooper’s colleagues at @UNSW had hoped to get him hired there and were trying to give him a boost; but the pandemic job cuts made that impossible for now. @UNSWScience“
What a strange paper, as if it was some crazy click-baity vehicle to make some careers. Speaking of: the last author Roland Zech is professor at the University of Jena in Germany, his publication record (going back to 2003, with PhD in 2006) doesn’t really have any other papers in high-ranking journals of the Science calibre. But otherwise he has very regular co-authors named Wolfgang Zech (University of Bayreuth, apparently the father of Roland), Michael Zech (KIT Karlsruhe, apparently the brother of Roland) and, more recently, Jana Ilgner nee Zech (MPI Jena, apparently sister of Roland).
If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). Also I am being sued for my reporting on bullying in academia.
Yes, I suspect you are right: Cooper is merely trying to escape the ignominy of being a failed scientist and, therefore, likely an incel. Not everybody can handle being an incel, his good hair suggests he’s not the type. As you point out, this preposterous idea that the mag field shift killed homo neanderthalensis (who had larger brains, as I recall) but not sapiens or much of anything else seems so clickable for semi-educated popular culture that he may escape. Besides, if Paabo can publish stuff in high impact journals that turns out to be completely wrong and this does not stop him, why not Cooper? Cooper will find a spot somewhere: maybe Bill Gates will establish an institute for him. Free computers and Starbucks coffee.
This paper indeed seems to be worthless (it’s more my field than the microbiology stuff that makes up most of the subjects here), and its discussion in the general media is extremely poor (which is not unusual). Also, Alan Cooper seems to be an insufferable bully and all around bad person, from what I read in these articles. However, these points have nothing to do with each other, and bringing up one while discussing the other only weakens both cases.
The fact that someone runs their lab as an egotistical dictator does not itself invalidate the results produced, and the fact that someone publishes bad, or even completely fake, science does not necessarily mean they have to be unlikable. Although I suspect there may well be a correlation between these things, there is no clear implication either way.
Brining up the fact that the main author is an asshole does no service in debunking the pseudoscience in the paper. If anything, it weakens the scientific arguments to intermingle them with criticising the author’s behaviour, even if those critiques are valid on their own.
Can you think of valid reasons how this paper ended up in Science and why Cooper is its first author?
The project is run by the second author and all the actual analytical/lab stuff is done by people who are also not first author.
So, as for your question, I can only think of an invalid reason…
Exactly, how come Cooper is the first author on a ridiculously bad paper in Science?
As if they are trolling us to prove something.
Leonid can certainly speak for himself but I will just say that the name of this blog is For Better Science and there are at least two ways the blog contributes to that goal. One is to point out flawed or dubious research. But another equally important way to contribute to the betterment of science is to spotlight the abuses and bad behavior perpetrated by principal investigators and other people in charge of science.
I think there is great value in a blog post like this one and I don’t think it was intended to be an exhaustive debunking of specific claims in the paper but rather highlight another serious problem with contemporary science.
Thank you very much for this comment.
I do believe bullying and bad science go hand in hand, and my site alone has several such examples.
It is quite straightforward: a PI choses a target for a reason, and the reason is always that this target doesn’t deliver the desired results, or enough of them. You don’t need a PhD to figure out where such pressure leads.
Misogyny and racism can be part of target picking, but that will be because women or certain ethnic groups will be perceived as lazy, stupid, incapable or otherwise guilty of under-delivering on expectations.
Turney and co-author Fogwill came in for criticism for having to be rescued from the Antarctic in early 2014 https://www.theguardian.com/science/antarctica-live/2014/jan/04/antarctic-expedition-was-worth-it-chris-turney https://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/31/rescue-effort-for-trapped-antarctic-voyage-disrupts-serious-science/?_r=1
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When the author is famous and the paper will surely attract media attention, it doesn’t matter if the conclusion is obviously wrong. See for instance https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25554788/
Overall glad this has been written, but I take issue with the question: “maybe their real motivation to destroy Balter is revenge for the damaged careers of the biggest stars in theirs (and other) STEM fields?” This flattens a much more complex picture of problematic exchanges that resulted in damage to victims and is thus not only flat out wrong but actively contributes to silencing victims’ voices in favor of a black and white hero narrative.
Thanks for your comment, Paige.
Now, I myself tried to defend Mr Balter on Twitter and pointing at Dr Clancy’s COI (personal hatred for him, and past friendship with McLaughlin). Ended up being called a racist and harasser by a spoiled rich Brahmin brat and her male friends in anthropology.
You might recall the McLaughlin affair?
How everyone was supposed to hate Galli, referred to only as “the rapist”? And those who questioned McLaughlin in any way were stamped “sexual harasser”, as I indeed was, many, many times?
Turned out, McLaughlin made it all up, she now admitted in court.
Can you entertain the possibility that Kurin might be not innocent, while her supporters, including the alleged victims and Dr Clancy, are also making stuff up because they want to take down the only person who bothers with uncovering abuse in anthropology?
Can you name anyone else doing that job? One single other name which is not Balter?
In this vein: full disclosure, dear Paige: I was called fraudster, thief, racist, Nazi, sexual harasser, rapist, even murderer so often I lost count. It is up for you what or whom you prefer to believe.
Since my name has come here, a brief response. There is really no “hero” narrative other than in the imaginations of those (mostly in anthropology, where I have helped survivors expose and remove a large number of abusers) who have done everything they can to try to discredit my reporting. In doing so, they are harming the survivors who have asked me for help when they had nowhere else to turn. The gatekeepers, a small but influential bunch, have consistently tried to make it all about me, and they almost never express any support or sympathy for the dozens of survivors whose stories are told in my articles. Unfortunately, because the main gatekeeper behind this campaign of falsehoods is well known, a lot of lies get believed by those who don’t look into the issues themselves or ignore what I have had to say about them.
Here is my track record, It is true that the field of anthropology has been somewhat turned upside down by the revelation of so many abusers:
And here is a very important investigation which does not fit the “black and white” narrative that what I do is harmful:
I will be writing a lot more about all this soon, please watch for it on the blog.
Don’t block the Italian physicst. Its a lively and interesting debate you two are having. There are exactly the kind of debates that are needed to help others form their opinions of the world. Think Jordan Peterson versus Octavio Cortez….
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I see that all the original co-authors are also co-authors on the reply to the comment.
I lost a lot of respect for a great number of 14C scientists today.
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