Scientific American's 'PC police'

January 2015

Last week, while perusing Scientific American's blog section I stumbled upon a post entitled, "Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon," written by Ashutosh Jogalekar. Already a Feynman fan, I had an inkling of the article's thrust even before reading it: Richard Feynman was, on occasion, a total jerk to women.

That much is clear to anyone who has read Feynman's book, Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!In it, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist candidly reveals a great many personal anecdotes and beliefs. Some aren't exactly politically correct. For example, in regard to women, he describes his very questionable approach to picking up girls at parties or bars. With a hat-tip to Field of Dreams, it is best described as "If you disrespect them, they will come." Don't buy them anything, don't be polite to them, and don't do what they want... until they've agreed to sleep with you, that is.

When I read that section, I was taken aback. Feynman's actions were archaic, rude, and unacceptable, unbefitting of one of my scientific heroes.

Ashutosh Jogalekar, who penned the article at Scientific American, described having a similar reaction to Feynman's "casual sexism," which also manifested in more than just social arenas. But, he noted, though some of his actions are "disturbing and even offensive" when viewed from the socially-evolved lens of today, "they were probably no different than the attitudes of a male-dominated American society in the giddy postwar years." Thus, Jogalekar reasoned, we should not condemn Feynman wholly as a sexist.

That seems to make sense. While anecdotes from Feynman's own book show that he was a jerk to women in certain settings, there's no evidence that Feynman ever discriminated against women in science. In actuality, it was quite the opposite. As Julia Lipman wrote in 1999:

"Feynman took the side of a female Caltech professor who brought a sexual discrimination complaint against the school. He encouraged his younger sister’s career as a physicist even though their parents didn’t believe that women should pursue scientific careers."

And so, Jogalekar concluded, "We can condemn parts of his behavior while praising his science. And we should."

The article earned some controversy on Twitter, but generally prompted diverse, reflective discussion. Not a big deal.

Ashutosh Jogalekar's Feynman article appeared last Friday. The next day, it was taken down, and Jogalekar was abruptly excused from Scientific American's blog network. (The article has since been reposted "in the interest of openness and transparency.")

Scientific American editor Curtis Brainard offered an explanation for the dismissal earlier this week. He said that some of Jogalekar's posts lacked clarity, which made them insensitive to "valid concerns that many readers have about past and existing biases and prejudices in our society."

In addition to the Feynman piece, Brainard referenced two earlier articles that stoked the ire of a few readers, expressed almost entirely through social media. "The first was a guest post in April about Larry Summers’ statement regarding women in science. The second was a post in May, which favorably reviewed a controversial book by Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History." (Robert VerBruggen also gave this book a moderately positive review for RealClearScience.)

The first post attempted to navigate the muddy waters of gender discrimination in science, and why, in certain fields, there are more men than women and vice versa. The guest author, Chris Martin, respectfully contended, "The research clearly shows that such discrimination exists—among other things, women seem to be paid less for equal work... but the latest research suggests that discrimination has a weaker impact than people might think, and that innate sex differences explain quite a lot."

What exactly is "insensitive" about that?

In his review of Nicholas Wade's controversial book, Jogalekar wrote:

"Overall I found this book extremely well-researched, thoughtfully written and objectively argued. Wade draws on several sources, including the peer reviewed literature and work by other thinkers and scientists. The many researchers whose work Wade cites makes the writing authoritative; on the other hand, where speculation is warranted or noted he usually explicitly points it out as such. Some of these speculations such as the effects of genetics on the behavior of entire societies are quite far flung but I don’t see any reason why, based on what we do know about the spread of genes among groups, they should be dismissed out of hand. At the very least they serve as reasonable hypotheses to be pondered, thrashed out and tested. Science is about ideas, not answers."

While I disagree with Jogalekar's favorable view of the book, there was nothing in his review that struck me as distasteful. His article was well within the mainstream of scientific thought.

In the wake of his removal from Scientific American's blog network, Jogalekar has remained polite and pensive, expressing nothing but respect for Brainard and the magazine. He did, however, ask some open questions. For example:

"How much should a brand care about opinions (particularly negative ones) on social media, especially in an age when waves of such criticism can swell and ebb rapidly and often provide a transient, biased view of content?"

The simple fact is that science is occasionally uncomfortable and sometimes runs counter to what we believe. But that doesn't mean we should shy away from it. Yet, that is what Scientific American has chosen to do; they have dismissed a blogger for tackling controversial topics and ruffling a few overly sensitive feathers.

"A scientific topic cannot be declared off limits or whitewashed because its findings can be socially or politically controversial," Jogalekar sagely wrote in one of his pieces.

Apparently, Scientific American disagrees. And in their politically correct world where feelings come before facts, that means you lose your job.