Whistle-Blowing - A Risky Business
INTEGRITY is one of those blue-chip qualities that everyone honors in theory. But putting it into practice can be a high-risk venture, as Dr. Margot O'Toole can testify. Five years ago Dr. O'Toole was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. When she questioned the validity of an important research paper written by her superior, Dr. Thereza Imanishi-Kari, O'Toole suddenly found herself an outcast in the scientific community.Skip to next paragraph
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Dr. Imanishi-Kari banned her from the laboratory. Nobel laureate Dr. David Baltimore, co-author of a paper that drew on Imanishi-Kari's work, characterized O'Toole as "disgruntled." Other critics hinted that she was acting irrationally because she was a nursing mother. She lost her job and her home. Even her husband's career was threatened.
But O'Toole remained steadfast. Now, finally, she can savor the sweet taste of vindication. The Office of Scientific Integrity at the National Institutes of Health is hailing her as a hero and lauding her for her courage in exposing Imanishi-Kari's fraudulent data.
When a falsehood becomes the vested interest, bearing witness to the truth takes enormous courage - this is the common experience of whistle-blowers and those who are tyrannized by political pressure for whatever reason.
A remarkable exhibition at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston this month reveals the power of another form of truth-telling and whistle-blowing, using visual rather than verbal images. Titled "Seeing Through 'Paradise': Artists and the Terezin Concentration Camp," the exhibit shows two radically different versions of conditions at the Czechoslovakian camp during World War II - one fake, the other real.
By day, prisoner-artists labored in prison workshops to produce Nazi-supervised portraits of the transit camp. Colorful paintings show a spa-like setting filled with spacious parks, concert halls, libraries, and soccer fields. In one drawing of a coffeehouse, well-dressed patrons relax under a vaulted ceiling while white-jacketed waiters serve coffee and a pianist entertains on a concert grand. So successful was the Nazis' deception that even the International Red Cross believed Terezin to be a model vi llage.
But by night, the same artists painted in secret to record the harsh truth about life in the camp, where more than 33,000 people died from maltreatment, disease, and starvation, and where 87,000 were transported to death camps such as Auschwitz. Stark pen and ink drawings show prisoners waiting in long lines for food, being herded to transport trains, and spending their last days stacked in high tiers of bunks reserved for the dying.
In this truthful version the coffeehouse is barren, and its hollow-eyed customers sit limply at empty tables under the watchful eye of a guard outside. Artists hid these covert drawings in walls, risking death to expose and protest the fakery of the Nazi propaganda machine. For them there was no Office of Artistic Integrity to proclaim their heroism - only the praise of later generations of museum-goers.
It is a long way from the fraudulent image of a concentration camp to the fraudulent data of a scientific research paper. But there is in common a passion for the truth, whatever the cost.
The stigma attached to truth-telling starts early and runs deep. Tattletale, informer, fink, stool-pigeon - the vocabulary of whistle-blowing turns into taunts that cut to the heart of one's self-respect, indeed one's identity.
In a television interview, O'Toole recalled that what hurt her most was being called a bad scientist, because it attacked the very code she was standing up for: the truth that transcends any identity with a particular person or community - the truth that just is.
It is so easy for those who are lonely and besieged, outnumbered and outgunned, to "go along" with those who are in power - just this once. Why make waves? Why rock the boat?
Soothing questions for those who prefer their safety. But whistle-blowers know that sooner or later somebody - if not they - must pucker up and do the tooting. For in the end, it is not a matter of their integrity. It is a question of the integrity of the community that owes its wholeness at historic moments to the saving few who set the record straight.