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The 11-year-long “damn I wish I’d said that”, and bravery in scientific discussions

January 1, 2013

I received the shocking news on New Year’s Eve that Professor Rev. Anthony J. Sargeant, formerly of Manchester Metropolitan University and a “big name” in exercise physiology, had been convicted of storing and creating over 3000 indecent images of children.  Such evil crimes hit even harder when you know of the perpetrator.  In this case, I have the misfortune of not only knowing of him, but have interacted with him on several occasions.  Some held him in high regard. Others, including my PhD supervisor and many of his colleagues, detested him.  Criminal activity aside, he had a reputation for being an “arsehole”.

Every field of science has its arseholes. Human (exercise) physiology has its fair share, though the names vary depending on who you talk to.  Arseholes are those people who go beyond normal robust scientific scepticism. They make strenuous efforts to publically discredit your work, and often you personally, usually as a method of promoting their work and to demonstrate their superior intellect.  Strangely, this is not a bad thing overall; indeed, it could be argued that the arseholes help in producing good science. I’ve often heard people say “so-and-so is going to be at this meeting, I’d better make doubly sure this interpretation/analysis checks out”.  The problem is that arseholes never stop being arseholes.  And so to the anecdote this whole post is about.

In the spring of 2002 I was searching for a new job.  I had a one year teaching contract at the University of Brighton in Eastbourne, where I did my PhD, and my then boss had done me the huge favour of not promising me a contract extension.  This is not a backhanded comment, or anything stated in rosy retrospect.  I had spent seven great years in Eastbourne and needed a change.  So I applied for two jobs that spring. I was successful in getting the second job, at Aberystwyth, and spent 10 blissful years there.  But the first one was an interview at MMU, where my PhD supervisor, Andy Jones, was working.  This was the obvious attraction, but it was, and still is, a very good place to do human physiology.  This was a two stage interview, as most are for lecturing posts. The first stage is usually some kind of presentation (the “prove you’re not mute in front of an audience” part), and the second is the formal interview.  The confrontation took place in the presentation.

The brief for the presentation was to give a 15 minute overview of our research followed by 10 minutes of questions.  At the time, I had just finished my PhD on the effect of prior heavy exercise on oxygen uptake kinetics (examined by the late great Brian J Whipp), which had also yielded four publications at that point.  I was therefore confident about what I was presenting, even knowing an arsehole was in the audience.  So I delivered the best presentation I could to about 40 staff and students, and then prepared to take questions.  Sargeant softened me up with a number of technical questions which were I think designed to expose my lack of thought about my methods, before delivering the fatal blow.  He simply asked “what is new about this work?”

This was easy to answer, as the same question had come up in my PhD viva. I gave the same answer: that I’d shown that prior heavy exercise increases the primary amplitude of the VO2 response, likely as a result of an increase in motor unit recruitment. His response to this was, and still is, mind-blowing. He said “yes, but we’ve known that for twenty years, haven’t we?” I was speechless. He’d achieved his goal at this point, and decided to rub it in. “It was shown by Krogh and Lindhard, 1975, wasn’t it?” Again, I had nothing in return.  It didn’t sound right, given that the only reference with those authors I could remember was published in about 1920. But I said nothing, and the questions moved on. It bugged me at the time, and a few weeks later I decided to check. No such study exists.  Krogh, for instance, died in 1949. But in the heat of the moment, and knowing that my future was in the balance, I did not challenge him.  He knew that I wouldn’t challenge him too, which is probably why he did it.  But how much of an arsehole do you have to be to lie through your teeth and invent references to belittle somebody else, at an interview?!

If only I had my time again. Knowing what I know now, I’d have said something along these lines: “Krogh and Lindhard, 1975? I’m not familiar with that study. Let’s look for it…”.  The lesson here is that there is nothing to be gained from not standing up to an arsehole, and by standing up to them, you might just destroy their credibility.

Thankfully, the criminal justice system means academia has one less arsehole.  But, tragically, Anthony J Sargeant is several orders of magnitude more evil than even the scorned like me can imagine.  Many younger people have had their lives destroyed by him and others like him.  As a result, if this post seems bitter and overly personal, well, tough shit.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Daryl Wilkerson permalink
    January 2, 2013 8:44 am

    I preferred your proposed response to his Krogh 1975 nonsense that you discussed with me over a beer a while back. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of: “that’s very impressive, even more so when one considers that Krogh had been dead for circa 25 years by this time”.

    Great blog mate. It’s a shame that Sargeant did not receive a punishment more befitting of his heinous crimes.

    • January 2, 2013 7:49 pm

      Thanks Dazza. Today, if the same occurred (criminality notwithstanding), I’d have accused him of lying to his face AND lodged a formal complaint with MMU. On the other hand, this all occurred the first day I ever met you. You were doing a priming trial in the lab, as I recall. Every cloud…

  2. January 2, 2013 2:48 pm

    I had something similar happen to me in court. A barrister said that I had ‘pronounced’ on matters of child development and was not qualified to do so. That sort of thing can scupper your evidence but luckily I was a bit further along in my career than you and less easy to sink. I wasn’t offering child psychology as my expertise there but I jolly well had more qualifications in it than anyone else. Also I couldn’t recall doing any ‘pronouncing’. I asked the barrister to find what I’d said so I could respond. No one at all could find it. Job done. Stand up with grace and defend the best you have for a truth.

    • January 2, 2013 7:52 pm

      Good for you. I should have had the courage to call him. I’ve learnt since that evidence is everything, such people rely on not being challenged. I couldn’t at the time be sure if the computer I was using in the room was online. These days they all are so I’d have done him. At least I like to think so.

  3. Mark permalink
    January 14, 2013 12:06 pm

    Are you sure the convicted person is not Anthony John SERGEANT (check surname’s spelling). Also, I think that the reverend was more than 67 in 2012.

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