Science outreach and when glorifying heroes can alienate prospects

The history of science is full of high achievers and pioneers who had well-documented “foibles” i.e. failings in their treatment of other people. Brilliant scientists are not necessarily good examples of moral/ethical behaviour.

“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

Using the oft-quoted Richard Feynman and his celebrated frankness about regarding women as sexual puzzles to be unlocked as a case study, Janet Stemwedel aka Doctor Freeride examines how a common tendency to minimise such “character flaws” by treating people as resultant vectors (as though any harms they caused are outweighed by the glories of their scientific achievements) can actually have the exact opposite of the desired effect when attempting to tell stories that are meant to draw people into the field of scientific study:

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).

As Stemwedel notes, it can be difficult to acknowledge that someone who had a positive impact on you can have had a negative impact on others because of differing perspectives due to different life experiences. That is however the truth of human interaction in all fields, not just scientific endeavour. Objectivity is a team sport, and if you refuse to listen to those whose experiences and responses differ from your own then you are not being objective at all.

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.

We can all do with reminders to spend more time listening to others about all sorts of issues. Defaulting to “what we’ve always done” or “what would have worked for me as a kid” is always going to limit the effectiveness of what we’re trying to do.

Categories: education, ethics & philosophy, Science, social justice

Tags: , , ,

11 replies

  1. I have seen this applied to theology by Fred Clark
    In some ways it is the same – flawed people may do good work – but it is also different when it comes to the work being mainly about morality and behaviour.
    Is a psychologist or sociologist or athropologist with ugly behaviour worse than a physicist with same? Probably in that the work is far more likely to suffer.
    But a sexist or racist physicist can harm physics by the people not hired or listened to.
    I’ve never been a fan of the “great scientist” hero thing as I am the child of a research scientist and what is more one who was seriously harmed in his career by a “great man” who did some very not-great things.
    Feynman is difficult because he was clearly charismatic and productive and a good teacher. I guess the only way to go is focus on the productive and teacher bits and not “wow cool guy” but “here’s cool stuff”.
    Dunno if humans can do that very well though.

  2. A certain fallen icon with a long career in the wobble-board industry is another data point here. Rolf “Can You See What It Is Yet?” Harris is perhaps quantitatively different, in that he committed acts that were criminal then and now whereas Richard Feynmann did stuff that he could at least claim was just consentual high-jinks. For me, that makes a difference — I can respect Feynmann despite his behaviour; I have no respect for Harris. But then, I’m not a woman or a twelve-year-old girl, so it’s not my opinion that counts.

    • Harris is definitely in a different category because he was committing assault, not just lechery.
      Someone was complaining on Doc Freeride’s OP that it was wrong to call Feynman a predator because he wasn’t seducing students in his classes with being the professor etc, in fact he would lie to newbie female undergraduates about being an undergraduate himself in order that they wouldn’t be put off by his pedagogic status. Feynman also had a series of affairs with his colleagues’ wives meaning that he was lying to his colleagues as well. As I see it, resorting to deception repeatedly means that his behaviour is prima facie predatory, and I also made the following point about the harms he was causing to scientific careers of the female students in his department:

      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.

  3. I couldn’t find a link to Dr. Stemwedel’s article in the OP. In case anyone is interested (and doesn’t want to spend a few minutes googling around), here it is:
    But tigtog did a pretty good summary of it.
    Actually, the whole blog is pretty good, from the articles I’ve glanced at.

    • AMM: oops, I didn’t link? Bad tigtog. Fixing now.
      P.S. Doc Freeride is always worth reading. She has an interesting perspective as a past scientist who is now a philosophy professor.

  4. I’m so depressed to see this about Feynman. He seemed from my vast distance to be an excellent physicist with a sense of humor and a knack for explaining things. To find out that he was a jerk to half the human race is yet one more crushing repetition of a story that should never happen in the first place.
    “you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    • quixote: your reaction is a strong example of exactly what Doc Freeride was talking about regarding the glorification of hero scientists while brushing their feet of clay under the carpet of their brilliance – the disgust can be so strong as to be alienating, which is why the “tell them hero stories” approach is a bad idea for science outreach.
      Balanced views are needed! Feynman was an excellent physicist with a sense of humour and a knack for explaining things. He wasn’t always an exploitative philanderer either – he married his high school sweetheart knowing she had a terminal illness and nursed her tenderly on her deathbed a few years later. Then he spent a good few years seducing students and colleagues’ wives and making his eventual second wife miserable. In later life he happily remarried again and AFAIK his philandering stopped with that relationship. However, he kept on telling anecdotes about his womanising days for years and years and years afterwards and even published them in a memoir in his old age as a record of good ol’ sexy fun times. Throughout that time he continued to be a productive scientist and an inspirational teacher.
      So what exactly are the resultant vectors on all those datapoints about his behaviour/character? It can’t be simply summed. He was a great scientist, but that doesn’t make him a hero.

  5. It seems to me that we’ve done a great job teaching the science discovered by women without ever mentioning their names, let alone their character pros and cons. So suggesting that it’s difficult to ‘sell’ science without the (flawed) scientists seems does disingenuous to me.

  6. I admit I haven’t watched a Feynman lecture, but based on his attitudes to women as revealed in his books, (at least as far as I managed to stomach) how could he possibly have been a good teacher of women physicists???
    My yucky Nobel-prize-winning-scientist story (trigger warnings for racism and child abuse):

  7. Feminist Avatar, yes. Or alternatively, perhaps we could get rid of some of the crappy stories we tell about brilliant but abusive male scientists, and tell awesome stories about great female scientists instead?

  8. how could he possibly have been a good teacher of women physicists???

    He was AFAIK considered a good lecturer, and a lecture is not a place where his “womanizing” side would have been likely to be obvious. Women students who only saw his lectures (and were partial to his style of presentation) would probably have gotten as much out of it as the male students.
    Note the “as much as” part: specifically in reference to the Feynman Lectures, even he doubted that they were really appropriate for the undergraduates he was delivering them to. The books, at least, are considered graduate level material. Note that he wasn’t AFAIK involved in the problem sessions, which is where there would have been more direct contact with students and which were in his opinion what actually made sure the students understood the material.
    I suspect he would have been a poor advisor/mentor for women graduate students and post-docs, due to his tendency to hit on women he found attractive, regardless of how inappropriate it was.

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