Jeffrey Epstein’s life of abuse, sex trafficking, vast wealth and élite hobnobbing was the very picture of a conspiracy theory: a real-life Pizzagate. It was outdone only by his death: Did he kill himself, or was he murdered? Were the Clintons behind it, or was it Trump? Why wasn’t anyone watching? Has the video camera footage from his jail cell mysteriously disappeared?
Epstein’s stay at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center and his death on Saturday will breed multiple versions of the truth, and conflicting interpretations of scientific evidence. That, too, is fitting: Epstein, as it turned out, had been cultivating conflicting understandings of science for a long time through his donations to research institutions and the lasting friendships he formed with legitimate, renowned scientists.
And that’s what gets to me: the scientists. I can live with the idea that the 1 percenters who hung out with the financier Jeffrey Epstein are frivolous, heartless people who either don’t care if he sexually abused underage and barely of-age girls or spent decades living in a cave. I can be bewildered by Ghislaine Maxwell, who apparently had nothing better to do with her money and her fancy Oxford degree than to act as Epstein’s majordomo, social secretary, and procuress. I’ve read my Evelyn Waugh and my Edward St. Aubyn, and I get it: The British upper crust is famously depraved. As for the politicians, it’s no surprise that Donald Trump and Epstein went way back. Two masters of the universe with mansions in Palm Beach and a taste for very young women—why wouldn’t they like each other?
It’s not just a Republican thing, either. From 2001 to 2003, Bill Clinton flew on Epstein’s private jet (also known as the Lolita Express) four, 11, or 26 times, depending on who’s counting, and always, his spokesperson insisted, with staffers or security agents and on Clinton Foundation business.
As of now, there’s no evidence Clinton—or, for that matter, Trump—indulged in whatever sexual services were on offer on or off the plane. But when you read the list of powerful people Epstein was acquainted with, including Prince Andrew, Woody Allen, Larry Summers, and of course the zillionaire Les Wexner, one of Epstein’s only known clients; when you learn that Maxwell was a guest at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in 2010, two years after Epstein’s Florida conviction, and that they vacationed together on a yacht; and when this is waved away as happening only because Maxwell was friends with a billionaire friend of Chelsea Clinton and her husband, then you glimpse the same world now familiar to us from #MeToo, one in which wealth, sleaze, privilege, social climbing, and sex intertwine, facilitated by private investigators and lawyers ready to pounce on victims who speak up.
But never mind the terrible people in Epstein’s orbit. Forget Alan Dershowitz, who has made a long career of defending likely guilty men accused of horrific crimes against women and who now seems so out of touch with reality, he doesn’t see how absurd he looks talking about his “perfect, perfect sex life.”
What I can’t get over is how Epstein successfully weaseled his way into science at the highest level by cultivating major figures in the field socially and spreading his wealth around. Science! The very temple of the pursuit of truth. Call me insufficiently jaded, but am I wrong to expect more of those we rely on to combat all of the nonsense swirling around us?
The list of scientists whom Epstein wined and dined is like a Nobel Prize dinner table in Stockholm. Besides Stephen Hawking, there was Murray Gell-Mann, who proposed the existence of quarks; the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky; the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss; and many more (Virginia Guiffre, one of Epstein’s teenage victims, alleges that he forced her to have sex with Minsky, among other well-known people including Dershowitz.) “As some collect butterflies, he collects beautiful minds,” cooed a 2002 profile of Epstein by Landon Thomas Jr. in New York magazine. Beautiful young women were said to always be in attendance—but, as Daniel Engber observed in Slate, almost all the beautiful minds were male.
And what did the beautiful minds think of Epstein’s conviction? “I never actually believed this underage thing,” computer scientist Roger Schank told Slate. “They might have been in their early 20s or late teens, but when I talked to them…they were always in college or had just graduated college or something like that. They were not high school girls.” And Schank was not the only Epstein science crony to pooh-pooh the idea that Epstein’s girls were underage. “As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people,” said Krauss—who, for his part, chose to retire from Arizona State University in 2018 after accusations of sexual harassment spanning a decade and a university investigation that found he had grabbed a woman’s breast.
The Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker has vociferously denied having been part of the Epstein circle. “I could never stand the guy and always tried to keep my distance,” he told BuzzFeed News. As far as I know, as of this writing, the only scientist to apologize for his closeness to Epstein is the biologist George Church, who also teaches at Harvard. “There should have been more conversations about, should we be doing this, should we be helping this guy?” he told the health news website Stat. “There was just a lot of nerd tunnel vision.”
The most grotesque aspect of this high-IQ sausagefest, of course, was Epstein’s fantasy of transhumanism: improving the human race scientifically, in his case by inseminating women—perhaps 20 at a time—with his own sperm on his ranch in New Mexico. This sounds about as smart as his other idea, which was to have his head and penis cryogenically stored after his death for resuscitation in the future. This was the guy some of the most brilliant (male) minds of our era took seriously?
Well, maybe they just took the Dom Pérignon and lavish conferences on his private island seriously, to say nothing of the $6.5 million grant to help found Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (which the university has no intention of giving back). Maybe they tolerated him only in the hope of obtaining funding for their own projects. Or maybe they just worship the rich on general principles, as so many people do.
As sad as that is, I hope that’s the case. Because it’s even more painful to think they privately sympathize with eugenics and couldn’t even see what a crackpot idea this particular version of it was.
Editor’s note: the online version of this column was updated to reflect news of Epstein’s death. It also removed a reference to Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver Sacks, because, despite a mention in the New York Times, it is not clear they had significant ties to Jeffrey Epstein. Gould died in 2002, well before Epstein’s conviction and jail term.