(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When scientists got money from Jeffrey Epstein, they didn’t have to write detailed grant proposals explaining how they’d put it to good use. Epstein picked scientists he deemed “smart” and “the tippy top of the pyramid,” according to a revealing interview published last week in Science.
Most of the fallout from Epstein’s philanthropy has focused on trying to figure out why scientists and universities would keep taking money from a convicted sex offender. It might have just been “nerd tunnel vision” as one prominent biologist said in an apology. But there are lessons to be learned in focusing on the other side of that equation too: what made Epstein keep foisting anonymous gifts on scientists in the first place?
One theory: narcissism. In the interview, which I sent to several psychology experts, Epstein displayed some classic signs: An exaggerated sense of his scientific judgment, for example, a god-like sense that his gift-giving would save the world, as well as flattery toward the reporter and incessant name-dropping to show off his ties to elite scientists.
In the Science interview, which took place in 2017, Epstein expressed great confidence in his own ability to recognize scientific potential without himself having cultivated an expertise. He was clearly overconfident in his ability to judge and rank others. At some point in the interview, he likens scientists to dogs, telling the reporter that it’s easy enough to tell a smart dog from a dumb dog. As much as he curried favor with scientists, he also belittled them, stating, for example that they’d discovered nothing really important since the 1928 discovery of penicillin.
Outside of this interview, there have been other hints of overblown, self-important thinking. Last summer, The New York Times published a piece reporting on Epstein’s parties, and rumors that Epstein spouted crazy theories and bragged of wanting to “seed the human race” by impregnating large numbers of women at his New Mexico ranch.
This sounds extreme, but “probably behind every exceptional achiever there are these narcissistic tendencies,” explained psychologist and personality expert Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of the book, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders.” But narcissists run along a spectrum, he said. Some can be extraordinarily talented, and others fuel their rise through overconfidence and flattery.
Chamorro-Premuzic points out that as the world becomes more complex, true expertise becomes harder to judge. Overconfident people can easily deceive the world into thinking they are good arbiters of quality when it comes to something as complex as science. “If you deceive yourself first, then you can [bluff] your way up,” he said. And people respond to it.
Michael Maccoby, a psychologist who has written on leadership and narcissism, said that Freud considered narcissism is a basic personality type — one that helps people become leaders, but can manifest itself in pathological forms. (Freud considered himself the good kind of narcissist.) Narcissists, said Maccoby, lack the strong super-ego that can hold others back with guilt and worry over aggressive behavior.
When it’s combined with creativity, the magnetism of talented narcissists can change the world for the better. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, didn’t get bogged down in what other people thought of his original ideas. He believed in himself. Chamorro-Premuzic pointed to Bill Gates’s desire to build the biggest company in the world as a benevolent form of narcissism while Maccoby considers Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama to be narcissistic types of the good kind. Donald Trump, Maccoby said, read one of his books, and identified himself as a creative narcissist. (Maccoby disputed this self-diagnosis.)
People follow narcissists, said Maccoby, because they sense something great and want to be part of it. And that’s how great things get done, when the leading narcissists are focused on ending slavery, or civil rights or some other good. Philosophy matters as much as personality, he said, and so if you’re going to follow a narcissist, pick one with a positive philosophy.
Epstein was a different sort altogether, to the extent that his own words and actions reveal. He must have had some grounding in reality to get as far as he did in life, but revealed delusions of grandeur when claiming he alone would not only take up the slack for Trump administration funding cuts, but would select the true geniuses out there, unlike the MacArthur Foundation, whose choices he found too politically correct.
He used people to prop up his grandiose self-image by dropping the names of prominent scientists he’d consorted with, showing them off the way he showed off the beautiful women who reportedly accompanied him everywhere. He used people as decorations.
While his scandal will fade from the news, it’s part of a continuing trend. As government funding for science decreases, high powered, often narcissistic individuals exercise increasing power over what science gets done. If Epstein’s crimes had been of a less reprehensible sort, he’d undoubtedly still be in a position of power over scientists, and therefore over the rest of us. Now other narcissists will fill the void.
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Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.
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