Good and Evil: Stories about the science of gray areas

This week, we bring you two stories about the science of morality. Or morality in science. Either way you want to look at it.

Part 1: Political scientist Ethan Hollander interviews a Nazi war criminal as part of his research.

Ethan J. Hollander is a professor of political science at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is also the author of Hegemony and the Holocaust: State Power and Jewish Survival in Occupied Europe. Hollander’s published scholarship also includes research on democratization in Eastern Europe and on the Arab Spring. At Wabash, Dr. Hollander teaches courses on the Politics of the Middle East, Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, European Politics, and Research Methods and Statistics. He is a native of Miami Beach, and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego in 2006.

Note: Ethan's story was produced as part of our partnership with Springer Nature's Springer Storytellers program. Find out more at beforetheabstract.com.

Part 2: As a graduate student, Cather Simpson is excited to present her work -- but then her adviser lies about it.

When Cather Simpson graduated from high-school in the USA, she was certain she was going to become a neurosurgeon. She was very, very wrong. In her first year at uni, she got discovered scientific research and got completely hooked. She is now a Professor of Physics and Chemical Sciences at the University of Auckland, where she runs a super-fun laser lab called the Photon Factory. The Photon Factory uses exotic pulsed lasers to enable all New Zealand scientists accomplish their goals, from improving products for industry to helping school students with science fair projects. Working with the Photon Factory’s 25+ extraordinary physicists, chemists and engineers, Cather gets to study everything from how molecules convert light into more useful forms of energy to how to sort sperm by sex for the dairy industry. When she’s not enjoying the pleasure and satisfaction from using lasers to solve the knotty problems presented by Mother Nature, she’s doing puzzles with her partner Tom and being “Schrodinger’s Mom” – simultaneously the world’s best and worst mother – to two lovely teenage boys.

Note: Cather's story was produced as part of our partnership with SCANZ, Science Communicators Association of New Zealand. Find out more at www.scanz.co.nz. And look for more Story Collider shows in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2018!

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Ethan Hollander

In 2004, I interviewed a Nazi war criminal.  His name was Maurice Papon and he was convicted of crimes against humanity for being an accomplice to the Nazis in German-occupied France during World War II.  And just to get this out of the way, yes, I’m Jewish.  Yes, we did have members of our family who are holocaust survivors and, yes, this led to some very interesting family dynamics. 

 Ethan Hollander tells his story at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco in September 2017. Photo by Christopher Schodt.

Ethan Hollander tells his story at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco in September 2017. Photo by Christopher Schodt.

I remember telling my parents that I'd gotten this interview with Maurice Papon and my mother said, “You're gonna interview a Nazi war criminal?  What are you tellin’ me?  That some of your best friends are Nazis?” 

It all started when I was a graduate student at University of California San Diego when I was doing research on very typical political sciencey stuff on international hierarchy and imperialism.  I was reading a lot of books that started with exciting titles like “state power” and “hegemony.”  And let me tell you, if you ever see a book that starts with the word “hegemony,” pick it up.  It’s a total page turner. 

So I did what any graduate student would do in such a situation.  I procrastinated and I found myself near the newspapers and I was browsing through the newspapers and I came across the story of Maurice Papon. 

Now, Papon’s story really was interesting.  He was on trial for his crimes during World War II and I wondered what he was going to say in his own defense.  There were papers that unambiguously connected Papon with the deportation so he couldn’t say that he didn’t do it. 

Well, interestingly, Papon admitted to deporting 1,500 Jewish people from Bordeaux to Auschwitz.  But he said that there were 10,000 Jewish people in Bordeaux at the time and that, had he deported nobody at all, the Germans would have fired him and replaced him with somebody who would have deported everybody.  So his claim was that by helping the Germans a little bit, he was actually able to serve the lesser of two evils and save over 8,000 Jewish lives. 

Now, this was a morally harrowing question, right?  I didn’t know about Maurice Papon himself in particular, but his claim opened up the possibility that maybe there were certain circumstances, hard as it was to believe or even to say, that by helping Nazi Germany, some people could have been doing something that was morally defensible, that at least it was possible that by doing something, helping the Germans to put some aspects of the occupation, these collaborators were able to serve a greater good. 

So I found myself doing research on a question I never thought I'd ask.  I wanted to know, was there any truth to this claim?  Was there any possibility that the collaborators did something with their role as collaborators to serve some greater good?  Was it even theoretically possible?  So I found myself in Germany doing research on a question I never thought I'd ask. 

In Germany, I was associated with the research institute The Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, das Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung which in German is less of a mouthful because in German it’s actually just one big long word.  And I remember when I got there I met with the director of the institute and I wondered if there was a place where I could have an office or a desk to kind of do my research and he said, “Yeah.”  In the library there was what amounted to an old storage closet. 

He said, “The books that are in there we don’t really use those anymore so you could just put those aside and use that office.  And if the librarian asks you what you're up to, just tell her I said it was fine.” 

Now, I was very proud of myself for this because I had just arrived in Germany and my German was still very, very rusty.  Unless I was talking about the things that my research was about, about World War II or the holocaust, it was very limited and I was able to negotiate this whole thing with the director of the institute in German so I had this newfound confidence in my ability in German that I never thought I had. 

So I go to the library, I find the closet, I start stacking books outside.  The librarian comes up and kind of wonders what I’m doing.  And, in my newfound very confident German, I said, “These inferior books must be deported immediately and subjected to appropriate measures.  My conquest of this closet is nearly complete and I intend to occupy it without delay.” 

She was horrified so I thought I would comfort her and I said, “Oh, don’t worry.  The orders for this come from the very highest levels.  I spoke to the führer this morning.” 

It was a peculiar way of putting things that I’m very sure would have served me very well in Germany about 70 years earlier.  So that was my start. 

Anyway, after about two years digging around in the archives of Berlin, I found out that actually on the national level there was something to Maurice Papon’s story.  That is to say, in Vichy France, where there was a collaborationist government, the survival rate of local Jews was 75 percent.  And that compared to about 20 percent elsewhere in Europe.  In fact, I noticed that there was this regularity across Europe that in places where there was a local government that actually stayed in power and collaborated with Nazi Germany on things related to the war, on things related to the economy, Jewish survival rates tended to be higher. 

Now, I didn’t know exactly why this was the case, but however you cut it, the observation was there that in places where there was a local government, in places where people like Maurice Papon were in power, survival rates tended to be higher, so I really wanted to know why.  Well, I figured that if I wanted to know more about what the collaborators did during World War II, I should talk to a collaborator. 

So I wrote a letter to the law firm that represented Maurice Papon and, much to my own surprise, a few months later I heard back and he said he would sit for an interview with me.  Now, Papon at this point was living in a villa outside of Paris.  He actually was convicted of crimes against humanity and served a few years in prison, but then on account of his old age -- he was ninety-three years old -- he was released and allowed to serve out the remainder of his prison sentence at home under house arrest. 

So when I met Papon, we met at his home.  I had a friend with me; he had a friend with him.  My friend was my translator and we just simply sat around a coffee table and, for the better part of two days, we talked about what he did during the war. 

I remember thinking that he looked old.  I mean, he was ninety-three.  I also remembered that he looked remarkably good for a man who had been released from prison on account of his ill health.  I remember also being nervous.  I mean, I wanted to know more about his side of the story, but I really didn’t want to come off as an apologist for him.  I just thought I should hear what it was like from him point of view so I was very nervous actually from that respect. 

So here I was nervously sitting across the coffee table talking to a man I never thought I'd get to talk to about a project I never thought I would do.  I asked him about his work during the war and he very quickly turned it to the issue at hand.  He actually said that by serving in the collaborationist regime during World War II he was actually able to serve the resistance. 

He said, for example, that by being in the French administration under German occupation he had access to information that he was able to pass off to the resistance.  In fact, he even said that he helped some local Jews by striking Jewish names off of an arrest list and he claimed that these, of course, were names that he never would have seen.  This was an arrest list that he never would have seen had he resigned from his post. 

So his claim was particularly radical and particularly striking.  It wasn’t only that he did nothing wrong under German occupation, it was in fact that by staying in office he did the right thing because, had he stepped down, he would have been giving up an opportunity to serve the resistance. 

Of course, I didn’t know if I believed Maurice Papon, right?  But the very fact that he had these kinds of stories opened up that possibility.  Of course I asked him if he had evidence for this and, surprisingly enough, he did. 

He said, for example, that there was a member of the resistance, a man who happened to be Jewish that he sheltered during the war.  And he said, in fact, actually that man had come forward in Papon’s defense during the trial. 

He also said something else that I can’t remember right now.  He said that there were internal German memos, memos that said that from the German point of view Papon couldn’t be trusted because he was too friendly with the allies and too friendly especially with the Americans.  At this point, you could actually tell that he enjoyed this story so much.  He got a smile on his face and he slapped me on the knee and he said, “You see, I've always loved the Americans.  Even the Germans knew that.” 

And the fact that he had answers to these questions, in a way, was very disappointing.  You see, in a way I hoped that nothing he would say would be credible and that I could just kind of walk away and thank him for his time and write him off.  But his answers and the fact that he had answers opened up for me that possibility that maybe there was some truth to these claims, if not in his case then at least somewhere in the collaborationist bureaucracy there was a possibility that there was someone who did collaborate with the right intentions and who did use their position and power for the right reasons. 

The second day of interviewing was a lot more chill.  We sat around, we talked, he asked me where I was from and all kinds of things that I did.  He told us about his family.  He showed us pictures of his grandchildren.  He brought up very fine scotch and he proposed a toast.  And I have to say, hard as it is to admit, it was fun.  And harder still, I’m not even sure about my own feelings on this, but if I’m really truthful of myself, I liked him.  It was a little bit like talking to somebody’s grandfather and listening to stories about the war, only in this case with that caveat that it’s not your grandfather, the decorated war hero, but your grandfather, the convicted war criminal. 

To this day, people still ask me if I believed Maurice Papon.  I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  I mean, on the one hand I take him at his word that, yes, indeed, at some point, he almost certainly helped the resistance, although exactly when and whether he only did it when it was clear that Germany was going to lose the war anyway, well, that remains up to debate.  In fact, he might have even used his position in office to save local Jews, although how many and for what reason is also something that nobody really knows. 

Whatever you make of him, though, it’s hard to square that with the fact that a better person might have refused to cooperate with Nazi Germany in the first place and that people who resisted from day one don’t have to make nuanced stories about what they did during the war. 

Moreover, to this day, people ask me if I believe him and I realize now that they don’t actually want to know do I think was he telling the truth.  They want to know if I think that people like Maurice Papon or Maurice Papon himself, if I think they were doing the right thing.  Was Papon guilty or was he innocent or was he, somehow, at the same time both? 

That’s the question I started with, that’s the question that at this point I've written a book on, and that’s the question to which even now I don't really have an answer. 

Part 2: Cather Simpson

So twenty-five years ago I had to go into hiding.  I was a student on the lam. 

So picture this.  I’m in an MD-PhD program and I’m in the research part and my project is fantastic.  I’m studying how molecules, like histamine and serotonin, get released from your immune cells when they encounter ragweed. 

One of the most amazing things about this immune system when you get an allergic reaction is that you take these round cells that are in your body and they have these finger-like microvilli on them.  Those cells flatten out and form these beautiful ruffles.  I am like dead obsessed with figuring out how the cytoskeleton, the architecture inside the cell is doing that and why on earth it would. 

Now, I've done some really hard experiments and gotten some amazing results and I’m about to head out to my very first scientific conference ever to present these as a poster.  It’s a really prestigious conference so it’s like a big win for me and it’s a major win for my PhD adviser.  I’m very excited. 

All of the biggest names in the field are going to be there.  So there's this one guy from an Ivy League school and he did some really incredible experiments on muscles.  You know, all that ratcheting motion that actinomycin does that my kids are learning about in school now. 

And another guy had taken videos of beads moving along microtubules inside of living cells.  Incredible! 

I had actually communicated with that first guy, the actinomycin guy, and he'd sent me a VHS tape.  I know. 

So I’m oscillating between like really excited and absolutely terrified, petrified.  Because, for me, this is my first chance in the big leagues and I’m dreaming about that home run.  I'd be happy with a solid single but I’m actually terrified about striking out. 

You know, best case scenario?  Professor Famous Scientist comes up and says, “Well done, Cather.  When you're ready to do your postdoc, you give me a call.”  And my career path is golden. 

 Cather Simpson shares her story at Meow in Wellington, New Zealand in September 2017. Photo by Gerry le Roux.

Cather Simpson shares her story at Meow in Wellington, New Zealand in September 2017. Photo by Gerry le Roux.

Worst case, “Well, little lady, don’t you know they figured that out ten years ago?”  Yeah, devastating. 

So the big moment comes and my adviser and I head to the poster session to put up my work.  A science poster session is a bit of a scrum.  So there's like these long, long rows of corkboards and some brightly colored posters and there's well-dressed people who are standing right next to their posters.  Those are the presenters.  And everybody else at the conference is wandering around through this slightly too small, too crowded, very loud space with a plastic glass with beer or wine in it looking for some science that’s interesting enough to make them stop, and chat. 

For the presenter, it can be excruciating.  If your science is really interesting, your reward is an impromptu oral exam from somebody who’s really scary.  If it doesn’t go well, it’s horrible.  You stand there next to your poster while people walk by their eyes gliding up and down.  They avoid eye contact and walk on.  Excruciating. 

I have spent hours, weeks working on my poster.  And I've agonized, too many words, not enough words.  Too brightly colored, not colored enough.  Oh my God.  It looks like a bake sale advertisement.  And don’t forget to put Professor Ego’s name on there on your references because he will notice. 

But it pays off.  So there we are, we’re at the poster session, and our poster is absolutely surrounded.  It’s packed.  It’s really fantastic.  And we've got these big names and they're all there.  They're all there. 

But I start to notice that it’s not going quite the way I expected it to go.  So I had practiced my presentation and my elevator pitch was spot-on.  My lab mates had asked me all the really hard questions that they could think of and I could answer them without stumbling.  But I wasn’t getting to do any of that.  My adviser was holding court at my poster.  It’s not that I didn’t get to say much -- I didn’t get to say anything. 

She didn’t introduce me.  She never said, “Oh, and we have the person who did the work over here, standing right there.”  So I just stood off to the side kind of unnoticed while she basked in the glow from all of the big-name scientists out there. 

So while I’m standing there thinking, “Oh, my god.  She is so good,” and, “Wait, what am I,  chopped liver?” -- she lies. 

So Professor Superstar asks her a question and she says, “Oh, yeah.  We did that control experiment and it validates exactly what I’m telling you about here.” 

She lies to everybody.  They're just nodding and I’m standing there thinking these are the most influential, knowledgeable people about this and she just lies.  I stand there stunned. 

Then it’s like the whole poster session I can’t hear a thing.  You know, like in the movies, time slows down and there's tunnel vision like this.  And I’m not breathing. 

Just as suddenly, it all comes right back.  I take a breath, the whole cacophony of the poster session floods in, and I think to myself, “Oh, don’t be an idiot.  She didn’t lie.  That’s crazy.  She's not going to lie.  Maybe they did the experiment and you just don’t know about it yet.” 

So I don’t say anything and I don't interrupt her.  I just sort of stand there unnoticed.  But the glow is gone.  So the conference is gone from wow to weird to wrong in fifteen seconds flat.  Now, all I can think is what do I do? 

We go to dinner and she's ecstatic.  She's thinking, “What’s the next grant?  What’s the next manuscript?  What’s the next experiment we’re gonna do?”  She's just vibrating over all of the attention.  And I still don’t say anything because she's my adviser and I’m a new PhD student. 

What do I know?  I mean, who am I?  But I can’t stop thinking about it. 

So late that night, I screw up the courage and I go knock on her hotel door.  She opens the door and before I can change my mind I blurt out, “Did we do that control experiment?  Because when we tried it, it failed three times.” 

And she says, while I’m still standing in the hallway, “Oh, no.  We never got it to work, but I know what it would have said.” 

I can feel the heat come up in my face and I’m trying to control my expression because my body is reacting faster than I can.  See, I had been worried about insulting her.  Like how do I ask this question without implying that she's lying?  It had never occurred to me to come up with a response for having her just blithely admit it. 

The next morning at breakfast, I resign from the lab.  So I’m not emotional.  I don't cry.  I don't shout.  I actually go pretty flat and I start to feel like I’m encased in this thick sort of coating. 

So she talks and talks and talks over the coffee and toast and she convinces herself that I’m going to reconsider.  But when we get home, I go to the director of my PhD group and I tell him that I want to resign and change groups and I tell him why. 

That creates a firestorm because she's very ambitious and she is very influential in the university.  People who should know a lot better react by saying, “Oh, no, no.  That wasn’t a big lie.  Don’t worry about that.  Don’t rock the boat.  She didn’t really mean it.  Maybe you misheard.” 

At the same time there's another crowd going, “Oh, my God.  The injustice!  It’s a travesty.  Take it to the papers.  It’s a scandal.  She should be fired.” 

What made it particularly difficult is I just won a national fellowship and it was the first time anyone at my university had ever won one. 

So the third crowd, the schadenfreude crowd, was sort of grinning and going, “Haha, you're making your adviser look really bad, aren’t you?”  They were really enjoying that moment. 

Me?  I was still flat.  I still felt like I was encased in that shell.  One minute I was thinking, “Oh, I’m betraying my group,” and the next minute I was thinking, “I’m making the worst decision in my life.  I've ruined my career.”  But really, I dropped fifteen pounds without even noticing. 

She is livid and she is vengeful.  So I realize I need to leave for a while.  I need to go into hiding. 

So I've been taking physical chemistry all the way on a different campus, different faculty, just so I could learn a little bit about mathematical understanding and quantitation, and I say, “You know, maybe I should go over there for three months for the summer and just do a little bit of research over there.  And when I come back, I'll change into a new group.”  And everybody who was involved was like, “Oh, what a great idea.” 

So in the middle of an MD-PhD, I set up a three-month hiatus.  I’m going to go do this thing.  It’s going to work out well.  I’m going to come back and join this new cell biology group.  I’m going to get on with my career.  It’s going to be fantastic. 

So I grit my teeth, I look forward and I go.  And I fall in love - scientific love. 

I find myself getting up at four in the morning to do calculus out of textbooks.  I am captivated by the idea that you can use mathematics to describe light and how light interacts with materials. 

At the end of the three months, I didn’t want to go back to cell biology, so I didn’t.  In fact, I never finished the last two years of medical school either.  My PhD wound up being in medical sciences but actually on some fairly hardcore chemical physics. 

Now, twenty-five years later, I’m a professor of physics and chemistry and I have a lab that’s called The Photon Factory.  What we study is how molecules convert the energy in light into other forms. 

For example, in vision.  The first step is light turned into mechanical motion.  In photosynthesis, you turn light into a little battery.  And right now, in your blood, your molecules that make your blood red are absorbing light and trying to get into molecular scale heat in fifty millionths of a billionths of a second just so you don’t photodegrade when you go out in the sun. 

I have a fantastic group of students and staff who are exploiting all of that understanding to do things like figure out how to get better patient outcomes from laser surgery of bone.  They study how renaissance art pigments fade, how we might do better at curing cancer using light.  Heck, we even have a project that looks at the interaction of light with living cells to sort sperm by sex for the dairy industry. 

So nowadays, my elevator pitch starts with, “I’m passionate about lasers and sperm.” 

And all of that from a ten-second lie at a conference. 

But actually, was it really the lie that was the main point of that transformation?  I mean, it’s not like she lied about autism being caused by vaccines.  And I knew that we had a problem.  I had been agonizing over things that were happening. 

We actually once did an experiment over and over and over until we got the right answer four times out of seven.  Then we published it. 

So it basically gave me some moral clarity.  It gave me the trigger to leave what I kind of already knew was a bad situation. 

So what I think the real transformation was about fame.  It’s about the tension between doing excellent high-impact science and being a famous scientist. 

So you can probably tell that I love science whether it’s immune cells or lasers.  But what was I worried about going into that conference?  I was agonizing over being impressive.  I wasn’t anxious about how much I would learn.  I was anxious about whether I could shine.  Without even knowing it, I was attracted to that bright light of fame.  I didn’t know I was attracted to it until I watched my adviser just ahead of me burst into flames. 

Thank you.