Janet Stemwedel has a brilliant post at the SciAm blog about the perils of idolizing human people.
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 diminishe[s] the chances that the knowledge you’re building will be objective.
That also applies to the rest of life. Morality is a product of the benefits of co-operation; if you’re not moral you’re not trustworthy, so unless you’ve very good at dissimulation, you’ll lose the benefits of co-operation if you’re not moral.
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”.
Well then you get…a situation we’re all too familiar with.
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.
And, you see, that’s a really bad thing. But way too many people think it’s not a bad thing at all.
Stemwedel lists some of the ways that dismissing the harm of this kind of thing can itself do harm, then sums up:
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.
This is what quite a few people tried to tell me about Shermer. It’s what gets said and implied about various other sexually predatory Famous Thought-Leader Dudes.
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.