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Heroes, human “foibles”, and science outreach.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

– Richard Feynman

There is a tendency sometimes to treat human beings as if they were resultant vectors arrived at by adding lots and lots of particular vectors together, an urge to try to work out whether someone’s overall contribution to their field (or to the world) was a net positive.

Unless you have the responsibility for actually putting the human being in question into the system to create good or bad effects (and I don’t kid myself that my readership is that omnipotent), I think treating human beings like resultant vectors is not a great idea.

For one thing, in focusing on the net effect, one tends to overlook that people are complicated. You end up in a situation where you might use those overall tallies to sort people into good and evil rather than noticing how in particular circumstances good and bad may turn on a decision or two.

This can also create an unconscious tendency to put a thumb on the scale when the person whose impact you’re evaluating is someone about whom you have strong feelings, whether they’re a hero to you or a villain. As a result, you may end up completely ignoring the experiences of others, or noticing them but treating them as insignificant, when a better course of action may be to recognize that it’s entirely possible that people who had a positive impact on you had a negative impact on others (and vice versa).

Science is sometimes cast as a pursuit in which people can, by participating in a logical methodology, transcend their human frailties, at least insofar as these frailties constrain our ability to get objective knowledge of the world. On that basis, you’ll hear the claim that we really ought to separate the scientific contributions of an individual from their behaviors and interactions with others. In other words, we should focus on what they did when they were being a scientist rather than on the rest of the (incidental) stuff they did while they were being a human.

This distinction rests on a problematic dichotomy between being a scientist and being a human. Because scientific knowledge is built not just through observations and experiments but also through human interactions, drawing a clear line between human behavior and scientific contributions is harder than it might at first appear.

Consider a scientist who has devised, conducted, and reported the results of many important experiments. If it turns out that some of those experimental results were faked, what do you want to say about his scientific legacy? Can you be confident in his other results? If so, on what basis can you be confident?

The coordinated effort to build a reliable body of knowledge about the world depends on a baseline level of trust between scientists. Without that trust, you are left having to take on the entire project yourself, and that seriously diminished the chances that the knowledge you’re building will be objective.

What about behaviors that don’t involve putting misinformation into the scientific record? Are those the kinds of things we can separate from someone’s scientific contributions?

Here, the answer will depend a lot on the particulars of those behaviors. Are we talking about a scientist who dresses his dogs in ugly sweaters, or one who plays REO Speedwagon albums at maximum volume while drafting journal articles? Such peculiarities might come up in anecdotes but they probably won’t impact the credibility of one’s science. Do we have a scientist who is regularly cruel to his graduate student trainees, or who spreads malicious rumors about his scientific colleagues? That kind of behavior has the potential to damage the networks of trust and cooperation upon which the scientific knowledge-building endeavor depends, which means it probably can’t be dismissed as a mere “foible”.

What about someone who is scrupulously honest about his scientific contributions but whose behavior towards women or members of underrepresented minorities demonstrates that he does not regard them as being as capable, as smart, or as worthy of respect? What if, moreover, most of these behaviors are displayed outside of scientific contexts (owing to the general lack of women or members of underrepresented minorities in the scientific contexts this scientist encounters)? Intended or not, such attitudes and behaviors can have the effect of excluding people from the scientific community. Even if you think you’re actively working to improve outreach/inclusion, your regular treatment of people you’re trying to help as “less than” can have the effect of exclusion. It also sets a tone within your community where it’s predictable that simply having more women and members of underrepresented minorities there won’t result in their full participation, whether because you and your likeminded colleagues are disinclined to waste your time interacting with them or because they get burnt out interacting with people like you who treat them as “less than”.

This last description of a hypothetical scientist is not too far from famous physicist Richard Feynman, something that we know not just from the testimony of his contemporaries but from Feynman’s own accounts. As it happens, Feynman is enough of a hero to scientists and people who do science outreach that many seem compelled to insist that the net effect of his legacy is positive. Ironically, the efforts to paint Feynman as a net-good guy can inflict harms similar to the behavior Feynman’s defenders seem to minimize.

In an excellent, nuanced post on Feynman, Matthew Francis writes:

Richard Feynman casts the longest shadow in the collective psyche of modern physicists. He plays the nearly same role within the community that Einstein does in the world beyond science: the Physicist’s Physicist, someone almost as important as a symbol as he was as a researcher. Many of our professors in school told Feynman stories, and many of us acquired copies of his lecture notes in physics. …

Feynman was a pioneer of quantum field theory, one of a small group of researchers who worked out quantum electrodynamics (QED): the theory governing the behavior of light, matter, and their interactions. QED shows up everywhere from the spectrum of atoms to the collisions of electrons inside particle accelerators, but Feynman’s calculation techniques proved useful well beyond the particular theory.

Not only that, his explanations of quantum physics were deep and cogent, in a field where clarity can be hard to come by. …

Feynman stories that get passed around physics departments aren’t usually about science, though. They’re about his safecracking, his antics, his refusal to wear neckties, his bongos, his rejection of authority, his sexual predation on vulnerable women.

The predation in question here included actively targeting female students as sex partners, a behavior that rather conveys that you don’t view them primarily in terms of their potential to contribute to science.

While it is true that much of what we know about Richard Feynman’s behavior is the result of Feynman telling stories about himself, there stories really don’t seem to indicate awareness of the harmful impacts his behavior might have had on others. Moreover, Feynman’s tone in telling these stories suggests he assumed an audience that would be taken with his cleverness, including his positioning of women (and his ability to get into their pants) as a problem to be solved scientifically.

Apparently these are not behaviors that prevented Feynman from making significant contributions to physics. However, it’s not at all clear that these are behaviors that did no harm to the scientific community.

One take-home message of all this is that making positive contributions to science doesn’t magically cancel out harmful things you may do — including things that may have the effect of harming other scientists or the cooperative knowledge-building effort in which they’re engaged. If you’re a living scientist, this means you should endeavor not to do harm, regardless of what kinds of positive contributions you’ve amassed so far.

Another take-home message here is that it is dangerous to rest your scientific outreach efforts on scientific heroes.

If the gist of your outreach is: “Science is cool! Here’s a cool guy who made cool contributions to science!” and it turns out that your “cool guy” actually displayed some pretty awful behavior (sexist, racist, whatever), you probably shouldn’t put yourself in a position where your message comes across as:

  • These scientific contributions were worth the harm done by his behavior (including the harm it may have done in unfairly excluding people from full participation in science).
  • He may have been sexist or racist, but that was no big deal because people in his time, place and culture were pretty sexist (as if that removes the harm done by the behavior).
  • He did some things that weren’t sexist or racist, so that cancels out the things he did that were sexist or racist. Maybe he worked hard to help a sister or a daughter participate in science; how can we then say that his behavior hurt women’s inclusion in science?
  • His sexism or racism was no big deal because it seems to have been connected to a traumatic event (e.g., his wife died, he had a bad experience with a black person once), or because the problematic behavior seems to have been his way of “blowing off steam” during a period of scientific productivity.

You may be intending to convey the message that this was an interesting guy who made some important contributions to science, but the message that people may take away is that great scientific achievement totally outweighs sexism, racism, and other petty problems.

But people aren’t actually resultant vectors. If you’re a target of the racism, sexism, and other petty problems, you may not feel like they should be overlooked or forgiven on the strength of the scientific achievement.

Science outreach doesn’t just deliver messages about what science knows or about the processes by which that knowledge is built. Science outreach also delivers messages about what kind of people scientists are (and about what kinds of people can be scientists).

There is a special danger lurking here if you are doing science outreach by using a hero like Feynman and you are not a member of a group likely to have been hurt by his behavior. You may believe that the net effect of his story casts science and scientists in a way that will draw people in, but it’s possible you are fooling yourself.

Maybe you aren’t the kind of person whose opinion about science or eagerness to participate in science would be influenced by the character flaws of the “scientific heroes” on offer, but if you’re already interested in science perhaps you’re not the main target for outreach efforts. And if members of the groups who are targeted for outreach tell you that they find these “scientific heroes” and the glorification of them by science fans alienating, perhaps listening to them would help you to devise more effective outreach strategies.

Building more objective knowledge about the world requires input from others. Why should we think that ignoring such input — especially from the kind of people you’re trying to reach — would lead to better science outreach?

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Shecky R 8:11 pm 07/13/2014

    “Science outreach” is a red herring issue, but that aside, who do you propose for science outreach that no group anywhere could find objectionable on some grounds? — hint: no such person exists.
    Again, I’ll stack up Feynman’s lifetime contributions to humanity, against those of any modern ‘philosopher’ and I know who will win.

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  2. 2. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 8:29 pm 07/13/2014

    To those of us involved in it, “science outreach” is not a red herring issue at all. And, as I’ve noted before, the heroes of science approach doesn’t succeed for all of us, even if you could find a saintly scientist. So, why cling to it?

    But given the number of vehement Feynman fans who are not shy about telling people that they must forgive his sexism (no joke, this happens), I reckon we’ll be able to get some empirical data from the field about which approach has the most success at broadening the audience for engagement with and participation in science.

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  3. 3. BrainBites 9:18 pm 07/13/2014

    Thanks for this post. I’ve struggled with this issue not only in this context but also in my consideration of historical figures, aspects of whom I have admired (Thomas Jefferson comes to mind). But then you find out more that stuns the sensibilities. I don’t know the answer, but the place that I have come to can basically be described as “not summing the vectors” – acknowledge the real contributions of an individual in the areas (those individual vectors) where they were truly excellent, but resist the temptation to deify them. And if they were sexist, racist, otherist, don’t be afraid to acknowledge it.

    We are, all of us, under the “end of history” illusion. We view the world through a 2014 sensibility that it has taken thousands of years to achieve, but guess what? We’re not done. None of us are immune to bad behavior – we are, all of us, sinners. But hopefully we can learn and do better. And if by some chance we do something remarkable, my hope is that thing can be recognized while realizing the humanity of those making the contribution.

    Feynman was a man – a brilliant man. He was not a god.

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  4. 4. Unstable_Isotope 9:27 pm 07/13/2014

    I wonder why Feynman fans never consider that he may have turned more people off of science than he turned on to science. By all means, let us do more of the things he did right. But I can’t ignore the awful stories about how he treated women.

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  5. 5. AlanCooper 4:06 pm 07/14/2014

    The practice of “actively targeting female students as sex partners” only counts as “predation” if there was a teacher-student relationship at the time of the solicitation, or perhaps if the potential for such a relationship is used as a lever for establishing the sexual contact. So far as I am aware, what Feynman is accused of is the opposite, namely pretending to be an undergraduate so that his relatively high status would not be a confounding factor in the decision making of a potential partner. If he did actually ever use his ability to influence someone’s career prospects as a lever to obtain sexual favours then that deserves to be known and condemned, but to imply without evidence that he engaged in such predation also deserved to be condemned as an irresponsible slander.

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  6. 6. M Tucker 4:09 pm 07/14/2014

    It is a great mistake to think that if one is a great scientist that means that person is a great moral and ethical example.

    If you look into the personal life of the great scientists you will run across examples of womanizing, sexism, infidelity, anti-Semitism and white supremacy to mention just a few of the very troubling aspects of some of their lives. Investigating the personal life of anyone, even scientists, can be disturbing.

    How would you characterize the relationship between Erwin Schrodinger and his partners? Was he taking unfair advantage? Do you suspect him of using a “scientific approach” to get his way?

    Yes, science is cool but history will give you the best, most thought provoking, troubling and astonishing ride you will ever take.

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  7. 7. tigtog 7:07 pm 07/14/2014

    Alan Cooper, Feynman lied to female students about who he was when engaged in seduction ploys. At some point those women will have learned that he was in fact one of the faculty professors. How many of them, do you think, would have subsequently decided to not take classes taught by a dishonest professor who had treated them as fools? How many women were thus excluded from classes and later postgrad work with Feynman (and the CV enhancement gained thereby) because he cared more about women as notches on his bedpost than as future scientists?

    Feynman’s predations may not be technically actionable under either the professional ethical standards of his time or even the standards of today. They were nonetheless harmful to the career prospects of the women he lied to, because a famous and influential professor behaved to them as if they simply didn’t matter as potential future colleagues.

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