Amy Bishop, Neuroscientist Turned Killer

Across at Wired, Amy Wallace has a long but riveting article about Amy Bishop, the neuroscience professor who shot her colleagues at the University of Alabama last year, killing three.

It's a fascinating article because of the picture it paints of a killer and it's well worth the time to read. Yet it doesn't really answer the question posed in the title: "What Made This University Scientist Snap?"

Wallace notes the theory that Bishop snapped because she was denied tenure at the University, a serious blow to anyone's career and especially to someone who, apparantly, believed she was destined for great things. However, she points out that the timing doesn't fit: Bishop was denied tenure several months before the shooting. And she shot at some of the faculty who voted in her favor, ruling out a simple "revenge" motive.

But even if Bishop had snapped the day after she found out about the tenure decision, what would that explain? Thousands of people are denied tenure every year. This has been going on for decades. No-one except Bishop has ever decided to pick up a gun in response.

Bishop had always displayed a streak of senseless violence; in 1986, she killed her 18 year old brother with a shotgun in her own kitchen. She was 21. The death was ruled an accident, but probably wasn't. It's not clear what it was, though: Bishop had no clear motive.

Amy had said something that upset her father. That morning they’d squabbled, and at about 11:30 am, Sam, a film professor at Northeastern University, left the family’s Victorian home to go shopping... Amy, 21, was in her bedroom upstairs. She was worried about “robbers,” she would later tell the police. So she loaded her father’s 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and accidentally discharged a round in her room. The blast struck a lamp and a mirror and blew a hole in the wall...

The gun, a Mossberg model 500A, holds multiple rounds and must be pumped after each discharge to chamber another shell. Bishop had loaded the gun with number-four lead shot. After firing the round into the wall, she could have put the weapon aside. Instead, she took it downstairs and walked into the kitchen. At some point, she pumped the gun, chambering another round.

...[her mother] told police she was at the sink and Seth was by the stove when Amy appeared. “I have a shell in the gun, and I don’t know how to unload it,” Judy told police her daughter said. Judy continued, “I told Amy not to point the gun at anybody. Amy turned toward her brother and the gun fired, hitting him.”

Years later Bishop, possibly with the help of her husband, sent a letter-bomb to a researcher who'd sacked her, Paul Rosenberg. Rosenberg avoided setting off the suspicious package and police disarmed it; Bishop was questioned, but never charged.

Wallace argues that Bishop's "eccentricity", or instability, was fairly evident to those who knew her but that in the environment of science, it went unquestioned because science is full of eccentrics.

I'm not sure this holds up. It's certainly true that science has more than its fair share of oddballs. The "mad scientist" trope is a stereotype but it has its basis in fact and it has done at least since Newton; many say that you can't be a great scientist and be entirely 'normal'.

But the problem with this, as a theory for why Bishop wasn't spotted sooner, is that she was spotted sooner, as unhinged, albeit not as a potential killer,by a number of people. Rosenberg sacked her, in 1993, on the grounds that her work was inadaquate and said that "Bishop just didn’t seem stable". And in 2009, the reason Bishop was denied tenure in Alabama was partially that one of her assessors referred to her as "crazy", more than once; she filed a complaint on that basis.

Bishop also published a bizarre paper in 2009 written by herself, her husband, and her three children, of "Cherokee Lab Systems", a company which was apparantly nothing more than a fancy name for their house. There may be a lot of eccentrics in science, but that's really weird.

So I think that all of these attempts at an explanation fall short. Amy Bishop is a black swan; she is the first American professor to do what she did. Hundreds of thousands of scientists have been through the same academic system and only one ended up shooting their colleagues. If there is an explanation, it lies within Bishop herself.

Whether she was suffering from a diagnosable mental illness is unclear. Her lawyer has said so, but he would; it's her only defence. Maybe we'll learn more at the trial.#

H/T: David Dobbs for linking to this.

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