These controversies have their uses…

May those who love us love us.
And those that don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn’t turn their hearts,
May he provide an online discussion of sexism in science,
So we’ll know them by their commenting.

Adaptation of a traditional Irish curse inspired by ridiculous attempts to dismiss the unsavory bits of Richard Feynman’s life as either irrelevant or “worth it”.

Originally appeared as a pair of tweets here & here.

Feynman the Creepy Genius

Another tone-deaf post (now taken down)* related to women and science from Scientific American Blogs sparked a great disturbance in our little corner of the internet around the question of whether or not we should care that Richard Feynman was both a genius and really creepy. Our friend, Matthew Francis has an excellent, thoughtful reply to this discussion.

He starts with a particularly important point about the perils of creating a moral equivalence between personality quirks and serious character flaws in our heroes:

Very few heroes can survive scrutiny unscathed. They all have flaws, by virtue of being human. However, hero-worship blurs those flaws,  leveling them: truly nasty aspects of a person’s personality or behavior become on par with little quirks and eccentricities. In that way, we justify our worship.
Dr. Matthew Francis

Another friend, Janet Stemwedel has an excellent post** on the ethics of evaluating our heroes as individual components, the sum of their parts, or something in between, which should inform all our thinking on individuals like Feynman, or anyone else you think is a great [insert profession], but kind of a dick.

Before you remind me that I should be grateful that individuals of such staggering genius with intellects that cast mine in deep shadow have walked among us, I will remind you that it is a virtual certainty that for every Feynman or Einstein, there are several individuals with greater creativity and intellect who have lived under less fortunate circumstances and who we would be praising today but for the fact that they were not given the same opportunities.

Unfortunately, the comments have been predictably disappointing. I used this as an opportunity to make good on the positive commenting pledge I made with Eva Amsen. Maybe you should try it too?

*I have some thoughts on the editorial & perception difficulties of being Scientific American Blogs as currently structured.

**Hat tip to Matthew Francis.

Not being an experimentalist is no excuse for not understanding experiments

Why are so many non-reproducible experiments so highly cited? Part of the problem may be a growing cultural change in biology: not everyone does experiments now. More and more, biologists are divided into experimentalists and computational biologists. (I hesitate to say theorists, because computational biologists don’t theorize about biology any more than experimental biologists.) The reason for this division is because, thanks to the growing availability of big data sets, it is possible to learn something new by analyzing already available data.

This is a positive development, but the risk is that we create a class of biologists who don’t understand the subtleties of the experiments that produced the data they work with. Continue reading “Not being an experimentalist is no excuse for not understanding experiments”