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.