Perhaps listening to them would help you

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.

Oh, yes.


  1. alqpr says

    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.

  2. Maureen Brian says


    Would it not be better to ask the women who knew Feynman about that, rather than theorise about what may or may not have happened?

  3. says


    Is your working hypothesis that a professor at a university who goes to some effort to sleep with female students has no significant impact on the educational climate for those students — such as, say, on whether they’d feel comfortable in a physics class (and in a position where their work could be evaluated objectively)?

    What leads you to believe that this hypothesis is more likely to be true than the hypothesis that treating students as a dating pool does impact the educational climate?

  4. karmacat says

    The word predation is being used because he saw women only in terms of whether or not they would have sex with him. He did not see women has fully human with their own thoughts and desires. The fact that he pretended to be an undergraduate makes me suspicious of his motives. Saying that he didn’t want his high status be a confounding factor just screams bullshit. Him pretending to be an undergraduate does show that he doesn’t think a woman can decide whether or not she wants to sleep with him. It looks like he is trying to trick him into sleeping with him. People who lie about themselves are not doing it for the benefit of the other person, especially when it comes to sex

  5. aziraphale says

    I agree completely on the general point, but did you really mean to include Dawkins among the sexually predatory?

  6. says

    I take it Dawkins was being included among people whose sexism, racism, etc. we are being urged to consider as no big deal relative to his great scientific achievement (or achievement in science communication, popularization, etc.).

  7. says

    James Gleick’s biography of Feynman is a valuable resource. Feynman “slept with the young wives of several of his friends among the [Caltech] physics graduate students” (p. 287). He had a yearlong affair with the wife of a research fellow; attorneys were involved before it was all over (pp. 341–45).

  8. says

    I just responded to alqpr’s identical comment over at Janet’s place to make several of the same points made by the rest of you here.

    If I’d slept with someone who had told me they were a fellow student, and then I found out that they were in fact the most famous professor in the faculty, I would be mightily discouraged from taking any classes taught by that dishonest professor, and would definitely not apply for any post-graduate positions on this dishonest professor’s teams, because obviously this professor would not be trustworthy. Not being one of his postgrads would not look good on my CV though, because other people look up to him and having him as a thesis supervisor etc matters, and I would be judged because I would be seen as not having been good enough for him to mentor me.

    So do I choose to apply to have a mentor I do not trust because he’s already lied to me (and to other young women like me, as I would have soon discovered) and just hope that it will be OK and that the CV enhancement will be worth the aggravation of never knowing what he might lie about next?

    Or do I choose to study under someone else I feel I can trust, and thereby I’m excluded from the opportunity most valued by other influential people in my academic community, and almost certain to miss out on some career paths that are open to Feynman’s proteges?

    There’s a lot of harm done by Feynman’s seduction strategies treating young women as though their potential as future colleagues and legitimate scientists simply didn’t matter.

  9. says

    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.

    When a person takes it upon themselves to be a teacher, there is a social contract that obliges the teacher to do the best they can to educate, nurture and encourage their students. Y’know, be kind, explain things.

    Predatory, manipulative, pick-up or just self-serving behavior by a teacher (clergy, too) is unprofessional and highly unethical. Exploiting naivety is a disqualification for the job.

  10. says

    Oh, I missed this one, from page 277, about Feynman’s time at Cornell.

    There were entanglements with women: Feynman pursued them and dropped them, or tried to, with increasingly public frustration […] He had never settled into any house or apartment. One year he lived as faculty guest in a student residence. Often he would stay nights or weeks with married friends until these arrangements became sexually volatile.

  11. says

    Blake Stacey, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of those affairs were part of a plan to destabilise professional rivals in his department by disrupting their marriages. Feynman seems to have thrived on deceptive games against other people.

  12. stagamancer says

    I must admit. I was very disappointed to read this. Pretty much my only experience of Feynman is from the clips of his interviews on YouTube, which I love. But this serves as a stark reminder for a notion I try (often unsuccessfully) to live by: there are no saints. Whether it’s Feynman, Dawkins, Sanger, or Gandhi–being important or really good at what they do does not necessarily make them a good person. It doesn’t mean we can’t continue to recognize their contributions, but, especially as freethinkers, we should always remind ourselves of their humanness and flaws, and put their overall contribution to humanity its proper place. It’s painful, to be sure, but of the utmost importance if we are to make real progress as a community.

  13. says

    Kamaka, I’ll grant that it may not have been the pattern of his entire life. However, we know about his lies to female undergraduates in order to persuade them into sexual relationships, and his series of affairs with wives of colleagues, from his own words from his own anecdotes about what he saw as simply “womanizing”. How is his repeated deceit of women and colleagues anything other than deceptive game-playing, and how is his bragging about it in his infamous anecdotes not an indication that he felt he was thriving on it?

  14. alqpr says

    To those who responded to my previous comment: *If* he sought sexual contact with current or potential students in his own courses that would certainly be a possible problem. But if the “students” he was attempting to engage with were in other disciplines then in my opinion the problem of incomplete disclosure is of a completely different (and lesser) magnitude. As a mathematics and physics teacher in an institution with a separate statistics department, I had no compunction and would accept no criticism about engaging (as I did) with a student of psychology. In my opinion it is dishonest to phrase the allegation in terms which are likely to be interpreted as the former scenario if in fact the reality was more like the latter. If it was in fact the former then there is an obligation on the accuser to provide evidence specifically of that. And in the absence of such evidence being provided, it is reasonable to presume that it does not exist.

    Also, there is no evidence in the B-girl story that he had a generally dismissive opinion of women. There may be such evidence in some of the reports of his jokes during lectures (which I consider far more serious than Julia Lipman seemed to in 1999 by the way) but although the mental dehumanization of sex workers was reprehensible it is not the same as dehumanizing women in general.

  15. chigau (違う) says

    alqpr #19

    As a mathematics and physics teacher in an institution with a separate statistics department, I had no compunction and would accept no criticism about engaging (as I did) with a student of psychology.

    So you, Professor, limited your predation to those students outside your own discipline.
    Good for you.

  16. alqpr says

    ##20&21 are both good illustrations of deficient reading skills combined with interpretations of text that are coloured (in fact tainted) by unwarranted presumptions about how the content fits with their own pre-conceived notions – which are just the kinds of thing that I found offensive in the replacement SciAm blogpost (for the earlier one that was apparently not found to be sufficiently vituperative).

    By far the most serious allegations against Feynman from the point of view of “Science Outreach” are those about his use of sexist humour in his lectures (which were almost dismissed by Julia Lipman in 1999 and have been totally ignored in the most recent bit of excitement). His choice of stories to include in his popular books is also unfortunate – but more because of the “clear and present” danger of misinterpretation in a way that will not just reflect badly on him but might indeed discourage potential future female scientists (rather than from what they actually say).

    The fact that he may have been, in the terms of his time, a “cad” in personal relationships (which, despite not having seen any convincing evidence, I find plausible on the basis of his manifest personal vanity and narcissism) may indeed be of interest in a general biographical context – and also as an example of why it is not a good idea to designate him, or anyone else, as the ultimate hero. But it is not actually supported by the content of either his sex-with-students or B-girl stories. That he chose to tell those stories may convey something to be concerned about, but the actual content does not. And anyone who cannot see that is being either dishonest or incompetent.

  17. Maureen Brian says


    How do you imagine the people about whom he told those stories reacted? How do you imagine their careers were affected?

    I know, I know! You don’t give a toss. Neither did Feynman and that is the problem, not whether an individual act was totally illegal at the time.

  18. alqpr says

    “How do you imagine…?” Stories about identifiable people are often a source of discomfort and may be not a good idea, but for the stories in question I can’t imagine any career implications. (There may be other stories that do have career implications but I don’t know which ones you mean.)
    “I know, I know! You don’t give a toss” Don’t make up shit you know nothing about.

  19. Maureen Brian says

    Is it worth talking to this man? No, it’s not.

    But, anyway, people who play the sort of “games” which Feynman clearly played, to which he may well have been addicted by the sound of things, get their kicks by both pushing boundaries and pushing their own luck – taking risks. I’m sure your very own psychology major knows of dozens of studies, book even, on the addictive and the escalating nature of risk-taking behaviour.

    It is thus almost impossible that he told those stories repeatedly and in public, sometimes to large audiences, that he got a kick out of doing so and that there was never any identifying information given – no, not to the whole audience when 2%-5% would do fine. In some of those audiences the woman herself may have been present.

    You’ve just disparaged the reading comprehension of a philosophy professor so, go on, be as rude as you can to me. See it as a challenge, if you wish. I’m already confident that you’ve no idea what you are talking about and that your rather desperate self-justificationisn’t going to work in this space.

  20. Omar Puhleez says

    From the Stemwedel piece in the SciAm blog:
    “Science is sometimes cast as a pursuit in which people can… transcend their human frailties. 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…..
    “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? …
    “The coordinated effort to build a reliable body of knowledge about the world depends on a baseline level of trust between scientists…”
    Perhaps. But in my time I have known a number of scientists. I liked most of them, though a small fraction of them I have found to be insufferable. In that they are not much different from people in any other sphere. But in order to read a research paper or a textbook, one does not first require a warts-and-all personality profile of the author/s. The science is what matters, and any flaws in it are dived on and seized (more often than not with great delight) by reading scientists; the way an eagle dives on a rabbit. Nothing enhances a scientist’s standing quite as powerfully as destroying someone else’s, and the bigger such forest giants are, the harder they fall, the greater is the commotion (note: usually in a small and arcane sylvan glade) resulting, and the acclaim for whoever did the felling. That IMHO is why scientists all write in such carefully guarded language.
    I have on my bookshelf Feynman’s 3-volume ‘Lectures in Physics’. I find it to be quite a profound and useful piece of work, and nothing I have read in the comment stream above is likely to make me think otherwise ON THAT POINT. And though Tolstoy gave his wife a hell of a time, so I am informed, that IMHO does not diminish his novels as (not bad) novels. Egotism is a trap some of us fall into, sometimes with disastrous results. The irony is that the most successful and acclaimed of us are arguably the most prone to succumb to it, though I know of no studies tending to confirm this statement. (nb: the last sentence is as well-guarded as I think necessary).

  21. AMM says

    alqpr’s comments, especially @19, remind me too much of a certain professor at Pasadena State College who thought it was A-OK for him to seduce students, especially his own, and who only restricted himself to women who were not his (direct) students when it was pointed out to him how “unethical” it was (translation: he was likely to get fired if he kept it up.) He insisted that the students were always better off for it, but he also remarked that none of them would have anything to do with him after the affairs were over.
    A professor having sex with a student — especially a female student — is always going to harm the student. It’s also going to have a negative impact on the educational environment. FWIW, I recall from my student days a famous (male) professor who would every year find a (male) student to have a sexual relationship with. Even though there was no way he would have come on to me, I still felt uncomfortable on the few occasions I met with him.

  22. Ant (@antallan) says

    I’m confused by comments #5–#7 — where do you include Dawkins among the sexually predatory?



  1. […] the lack of clarity might not even occur to you. Still, if you read the comments, you’ll see Ophelia clarifying that she meant Dawkins’ sexist behavior, not any predatory behavior on his part. The “other” referred to Shermer, not […]

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