Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

July 29, 2014

Understanding Lives in Context

by @ 4:18 PM. Filed under General, General Science, Sex, Theory, Women's Issues

An interesting, and healthy, discussion has sprung up just recently over the historical view of Richard Feynman, iconic 20th-Century physicist and “character” whose physics were impeccable but whose character was questionable, at the very least.

It is accepted that Feynman was one of the seminal figures of mid-century quantum physics. His influence extends even further due to the impact of his revolutionary physics textbook (Lectures in Physics), and to a large degree his outsize personal reputation, stemming from his iconoclastic personality, his interesting experiences (including roles on the Manhattan Project and the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster investigation), and the scores of “Feynman Stories” about his quirks and escapades, most of them devised and promoted by Feynman himself, orally and in his amusing books of memoirs. He cultivated idiosyncratic habits – such as playing bongos in the desert during the Manhattan Project, and grading college physics tests while sitting in a booth at a local strip club – which added to his reputation as a free spirit. He was also a renowned science educator, admired for his ability to convey complex ideas both to science students and the general public. There is an unmistakable “cult of Feynman”; professional physicists trace their own pedigrees to their contact with him as colleagues, students, or just casual acquaintances, and he commands stature in the public eye approaching that of rare science celebrities such as Einstein or Stephen Hawking. (A high-school friend of mine was an undergraduate at CalTech, where he took Feynman’s “Physics X” informal discussion seminar; he came back after his first semester swearing that Feynman should be President.)

It is also clear that Feynman was manipulative and abusive in his personal relations, most notably with women, and that he embraced behavior of that kind as part of his personal ethos. His own memoirs describe in detail his systematic approach to manipulating women into having sex with him, by adopting PUA-style techniques of verbal abuse he acquired from a “master” who taught him that the secret to getting sex was to “disrespect” women. Divorce papers filed by his second wife report angry verbal abuse and episodes of violence. Biographers have recorded his multiple affairs with the wives of colleagues and students, and his occasionally pretending to be an undergraduate in order to get young students to sleep with him. During his lifetime, Feynman was subject to complaints of his sexist treatment of women, including in language used in example problems in his physics lectures and textbook, which made women out to look bad as part of the problem; he was dismissive of these complaints. (He recounts one episode of protests at a public lecture, to which he responded by announcing “I would like to talk about something that will be especially interesting to the women in the audience: I would like to talk about the structure of the proton”. He seemed to think this was very clever, but gives no sense that he even understood why there was a protest.)

Feynman’s biographers, and more recent defenders, have generally regarded this behavior as a minor, negligible facet of his complicated personality – possibly a product of the death of his first wife at a very young age, and at least as being typical of behavior and attitudes of Feynman’s generation, and thus less interesting than his unique quirks and scientific achievements. His stature as an historical figure is high, due to his undoubted scientific pre-eminence and the cult of personality he created for himself; his sexism somehow rarely figures into that evaluation. The general opinion seems to be that he was a great man because he was a great scientist and an interesting or remarkable man, while the sexism and abusiveness somehow stands apart as a peripheral issue. (To be fair, even his detractors admit that Feynman seemed to accept women as scientific colleagues, and in some cases – notably that of his own sister, the astrophysicist Joan Feynman – to promote their careers. But even his defenders admit that he could treat those same women in sexist ways at the personal level.*)

In the last couple of weeks, there has been a spate of blog posts commenting on Feynman’s character and offering a reassessment (downward) of his stature by way of foregrounding his sexism and abusiveness, treating them as central elements in understanding him as a whole person. Maggie Koerth-Baker seems to have kicked it off at Boing-Boing, with incisive comments on why Feynman’s attitudes toward women were so problematic. Matthew Francis, of Galileo’s Pendulum, picks it up, detailing Feynman’s bad behavior at greater length and offering an important summary conclusion:

People can become greater than they are by contributing great things to the world, but it’s important to remember that the human being behind those accomplishments isn’t a god in human form. Don’t worship — understand. Don’t erase the bad acts — remember them in hopes of overcoming them in the future. Only by understanding our scientific giants as full human beings can we do them justice, and hopefully create a more just scientific culture in the future.

Mathematigal speaks eloquently about how the acceptance of sexist behavior by prominent scientists, and the glorification of those scientists for their technical work alone, as if the harm they did to others just wasn’t a factor, creates a continually oppressive and demeaning context for women in science in general, in addition to the particular victims of those men.

It’s important to have these voices challenging the Feynman cult, and the phenomenon of prominent-male-abuser cults in general. These perspectives are a useful corrective to the perception of Feynman, and a warning regarding our understanding of others. But this conversation has also generated reflections on how we are to understand important historical figures, particularly ones renowned for highly particularized achievements in narrow fields, in light of their overall lives and personalities. Janet Stemwedel offers an interesting perspective:

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. . . .

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. . . .

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.

The notion of “resultant vector” (a concept from physics that expresses the final, net result of multiple different forces acting from different directions) is evocative. It captures the idea that somebody should be considered a good person “overall” if the good parts of their work, or behavior, are more significant or somehow greater in magnitude than the bad things they did – thus the net additive result is positive rather than negative. For Stemwedel, this basic method of evaluation is flawed (“making positive contributions to science doesn’t magically cancel out harmful things you may do”; “people aren’t actually resultant vectors”). And she is right in this – there are other ways of evaluating people than simple addition of simplistic quantified evaluations of good and bad acts. Sometimes, we judge people solely by their worst act, without even considering the good ones – criminals are punished, sometimes executed, for single acts that may be aberrational in the context of a long life of good works. Sometimes we even judge people negatively for acts that are net positive “resultant vectors,” for instance illegal mercy killings. And all this leaving aside the obvious huge problem in deciding how to quantify good and bad “vectors”. (The “resultant vector” technique essentially just rationalizes a pre-determined conclusion. You have to decide beforehand what acts are good or bad, and to what degree, before you can measure and add the “vectors” in a person’s life. By this technique, Feynman is a net positive vector – pointed in the direction of science – only because his admirers have already decided being a sexist abuser isn’t as important as being a Nobel Prize winner.)

But these observations don’t tell us how we actually should go about evaluating a life. Stemwedel is right that good works don’t “cancel out” bad ones, but she doesn’t say exactly how they should both be weighed together (other than not as “resultant vectors”). And her emphasis is not on moral evaluation as such, but the practical questions of how best to do science effectively, and promote it to the public. Other than agreeing that the “resultant vector” schema doesn’t work, we still don’t have a way of arriving at a final conclusion about how to understand people and their roles as prominent figures. In the case of Feynman, the commentators above mostly default to “as a” analysis: “as a” physicist, Feynman was outstanding, but “as a” human being in relation to fellow human beings, he was flawed; it is up to each person to decide which matters most to them.

What both the “as a” analysis and the “resultant vector” calculation have in common is the expectation that there will be some determining value that gives us a singular and final answer regarding a person’s worth or stature as a human being. In vector analysis, all impinging factors contribute to a final value that has components along different dimensions, but a single outcome. In “as a” analysis, we similarly evaluate the various contributing facets and then declare one of them to be more important than the others.

I think instead that we should give up the attractive but unlikely expectation that people can be evaluated in an overall sense. This is essentially Stemwedel’s point in rejecting “vector” analysis, but it is true for any other similarly unitary analytical algorithm. Saying that a criminal’s one bad act must be punished in spite of all their good ones does not mean that their life story consists only of that one act, or their humanity consists only of its badness. Saying that someone is a good scientist but a bad person, or, more subtly, a good scientist and a good person with some bad traits, does not mean we have to arrive at a final conclusion as to whether we approve of them overall, or whether they are “really” a “hero”.

We can extend the idea of the “as a” analysis to accept that people can exhibit different degrees of excellence in different areas of their lives. They can be good “as a” scientist and bad “as a” man in relation to women, without implying that they are anything in particular overall. I think we have to come to terms with the fact that most people are admirable, or not, to one degree or another in different areas of their lives. The problem is not that it doesn’t make sense to say that people are good or bad in different ways – the problem is that we often insist on understanding them in just one way, that we insist on naming people heroes or bums and thus force ourselves to squeeze them into those totalizing categories.

This not only violates common sense in the obvious way, but it ignores the interplay between the different aspects of people’s lives. It’s not coincidental that people are good in one way and bad in another; both aspects of their lives inform and interpenetrate one another, and evaluating one aspect in isolation both ignores its connection to other aspects and implicitly carries that evaluation over to all those other aspects. This is explicit in a controversial blog post by :

While not an excuse, several of [Feyman’s] 1950s adventures were probably related to the deep pain and insecurity caused by the death of his first wife Arlene; by almost any account the two shared a very deep and special bond. It was also during the late 40s and early 50s that Feynman was doing some of his most intense work on quantum electrodynamics, and at least a few of the situations he narrates were part of him letting off steam.

Here, he states in so many words that Feynman’s personal challenges in one area (his wife’s death) excuse his bad behavior in a related area (his mistreatment of other women), and also that that bad behavior in some way made his scientific productivity possible. A better analysis would be that these different experiences and character traits are related – not offsetting and not independent, but simultaneously detectible within one another – and that this requires an understanding of the person, overall and in each of his different roles that is at least as nuanced and complicated as the personality it focuses on.

Feynman liked to imply that his quirky traits – bongo drumming, lock-picking, and so forth – were part of the unique character that made his scientific breakthroughs possible. He liked to tell the story of the time he directed distinguished foreign scientists at a sold-out conference hotel to rooms at a small hotel on the other side of town – without telling them it was a brothel; he clearly regarded the worldliness and sexual adventurism that led him to rent a room in a whorehouse as part of the “out of the box thinking” that made him a great scientist. And it’s not impossible that that is true. His willingness to be an iconoclast in overturning standard ways of thinking in science was clearly related to his independence and trouble-making in filing his famous dissenting Appendix to the Challenger committee report, which in turn was likely related to his willingness to flout convention by eschewing being a “gentleman” in order to badger women into having sex with him. But if it’s true that a lack of inhibition or other character traits are caught up in both his admirable scientific work and his less-admirable personal behavior, then it’s not true that we can separate out the two in evaluating him as a person. Rather than saying that he was a great scientist who just happened to be abusive toward women, we have to say that he was a person who was contemptuous of accepted standards of respect and deference – both in his treatment of women in bars and toward the reputation and works of fellow scientists. (Feynman also told the story of how he became a confidant of Hans Bethe at Los Alamos because he was the only one there brash enough to challenge Bethe in scientific discussions. This sounds like it reflects very well on both men’s characters: Feynman able to earn the respect of the more distinguished scientist through his intellectual power, and Bethe willing to submit himself to scrutiny from someone younger and less accomplished. But it is possible to see in his willingness to tell the great Bethe “You’re crazy!” the same willingness to “disrespect” women.)

We wind up with an extended view of one person across multiple roles and environments, in which their unique traits turn up for good or for bad in different ways. In Feynman’s case, his playfulness created openness to new experiences that likely informed his scientific thinking, but it also led him to indulge himself by creating pointless security breaches at Los Alamos just for fun, and to revel in playing mean-spirited practical jokes on the servers at a coffee shop. His contempt for social convention gave him a low tolerance for pretentious bullshit, but also led him to act contemptuously toward people he felt weren’t smart enough (on one occasion continually interrupting a visiting lecturer at CalTech to the point that he described Feynman as “the ‘village idiot'”). His extraordinary focus and mental stamina contributed to his scientific productivity, but also triggered violent outbursts at his wife for demanding personal attention when he was absorbed in thinking about math. Lauding any of these behaviors or accomplishments inevitably evokes other episodes arising from the same same traits: saying he was a great scientist because he devoted himself solely to mental exercise requires us to say he was a bad husband for the same reason; saying he was bold and creative in challenging colleagues’ thinking to their faces requires acknowledging that he was disruptive and cruel in having affairs with their wives behind their backs. For Feynman in particular, whose reputation stems at least as much from being “a curious character” as it does from being a productive scientist, treating the science that was made possible by his unique mindset as wholly separate from the anti-social behavior that was also thereby enabled is not just narrow but false.

Rather than summing people up as impossible and falsely-precise “resultant vectors,” and rather than choosing narrow stances through which to view them “as a” particular type of person with their other facets left to the side, we have to acknowledge that every person is made up of competing and complementary impulses that arise in various combinations in different circumstances (and which also change over time). This makes the idea of moral or intellectual “heroes” problematic, because that evaluation is almost always based on a narrow view of just one part of their personality or their work. Instead of this “as a” reduction, we need to adopt a “plus a” agglomerative view of human complexity seen in multi-point perspective: an insightful scientific vision “plus a” cheekily iconoclastic non-conformism “plus a” playful sense of humor “plus a” mean-spirited insensitivity to others’ feelings “plus a” misogynistic and old-fashioned view of women “plus a” self-indulgent willingness to emotionally abuse women for sex “plus a” fair and egalitarian willingness to accept all competent people at face value “plus a” . . . . The better we hope to understand people, the more “plusses” we have to add to that understanding and the larger and more complicated, more multi-faceted, our picture of them has to be.

The advantage to this is that it allows us to see people as admirable and disappointing at the same time, as most people surely are, in different ways, without requiring us to artificially inflate one aspect of their lives, or ignore other aspects. And this gives us a chance to arrive at a fairer and more accurate assessment of almost everyone, including other historical figures who bedevil us with their contradictory personas: Galileo (Feynman-like in his genius and petty-minded self-aggrandizing); Thomas Jefferson (architect of freedom and slave owner);  Herbert von Karajan (exponent of artistic majesty and ardent Nazi), and so on. It is no contradiction that their genius or heroism was combined with less-savory traits; we simply have to acknowledge that each of us, not least the greatest among us, is complex and flawed and must be understood as such to be understood at all.



* This story, by Danny Hillis, about hiring Feynman as a consultant at the Thinking Machines Corporation, has always seemed to me to perfectly encapsulate Feynman’s dichotomous treatment of women, and his admirers’ ability to casually acknowledge, and simultaneously overlook, it: “The charming side of Richard helped people forgive him for his uncharming characteristics. For example, in many ways Richard was a sexist. Whenever it came time for his daily bowl of soup he would look around for the nearest ‘girl’ and ask if she would fetch it to him. It did not matter if she was the cook, an engineer, or the president of the company. I once asked a female engineer who had just been a victim of this if it bothered her. ‘Yes, it really annoys me,’ she said. ‘On the other hand, he is the only one who ever explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it.’ That was the essence of Richard’s charm.”


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