Was Feynman a Fine Man?

What a hornet’s nest!

Back in May 2014 I posted The Neg, in which I compared the Pickup Artist technique to Richard Feynman’s account of picking up strippers from his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. I am no scientist, but I enjoy reading about science, and have read The Feynman Lectures, Six Easy Pieces, the Krauss bio and the comic-style illustrated bio of Feynman.

My opinion was that following his long courtship of, and brief marriage to, the terminally-ill Arline, he immersed himself in meaningless sexual experimentation for several years, and a bad second marriage. I was disappointed to read about his affairs with the wives of coworkers, but it did seem that he had finally settled himself with a third marriage.

On July 11th 2014, Ashutosh Jogalekar posted, Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon – a far more critical, but well-reasoned, take on the famous man. I only found it from links on the Galileo’s Pendulum post. Scientific American, however, soon removed Jogalekar’s post … then restored it some time later:

The irony thus seems to be that, just like Feynman was fond of generating cherry picked anecdotes about himself, we seem to be fond of generating skewed, cherry picked anecdotes about him that accuse him of sexism. … My own perceptions of Feynman have changed, and that’s the way it should be. At first I idolized Feynman like many others, but over time, as a more careful reading of his life revealed some of the unseemlier sides of his character, I became aware of his flaws. While I still love his lectures and science, these flaws have affected my perception of his personality, and I am glad they did. There are things that he said or did that are clearly wrong or questionable at the very least, but we can at least be grateful that we have evolved to a stage where even the few instances of his behavior that have been documented would not be tolerated on today’s college campuses and would be instantly condemned. As a man I do not now admire Feynman as much as I did before, but I am also glad to have a more complete understanding of his life and times.

At The Curious Wavefunction, Jogalekar explains why his post disappeared and reappeared:

Here’s the gist of the story:

1. I host a guest post on women in science and later, I write a post on Wade’s controversial book (these are 2 of almost 200 posts on a variety of topics I’ve written for SciAm).
2. In response to criticism of the two posts on social media, SciAm issues a public statement. The blog editor asks me to run “controversial” posts by him. No specific guidelines are discussed (something I now regret not doing).
3. I write a post about how my perception of Feynman has changed and how we need to judge historical figures in their entirety and understand the times in which they lived. I do not think the post was “controversial” in the least and therefore do not run it by the editor.
4. The post elicits both positive and negative responses on Twitter, blogs and email.
5. The post is taken down because the editors find it “controversial” and think that I should have run it by them. I am told that it would be best to part ways with the network.
6. SciAm resurrects the post with a note containing what I would consider an accurate, but incomplete, description of events.

Two days later, Matthew R Francis at Galileo’s Pendulum posted, The problem of Richard Feynman. Francis didn’t think Jogalekar went far enough, but many commenters asserted that Feynman was just a normal guy for his time being accused under modern political correctness:

Feynman doesn’t need us to defend him, anymore than Einstein does. Their legacies in science are secure, so it doesn’t behoove us to defend their often less-than-stellar personal lives, especially when they did damage to people less powerful than themselves. It certainly does nobody any favors to say, as Ash Jogalekar did in a blog post for Scientific American, that Feynman was no worse than anyone else in his era. The post was removed by the editors (and I’ll leave it to others to debate whether that’s a good tactic or not; I have mixed feelings myself), but several people archived the text before it vanished. [The post is now back. See the Update below.] While much of the post is valid — Jogalekar doesn’t deny a lot of Feynman’s bad behavior — he ends up falling into the same pit of excuse-making. Worse, he implies that Feynman’s “game” is probably universal and necessary for men to play.

On the same day another Sci Am blogger, Janet D Stemwedel, posted, Heroes, human “foibles”, and science outreach – essentially echoing Matthew:

While it is true that much of what we know about Richard Feynman’s behavior is the result of Feynman telling stories about himself, there stories really don’t seem to indicate awareness of the harmful impacts his behavior might have had on others. Moreover, Feynman’s tone in telling these stories suggests he assumed an audience that would be taken with his cleverness, including his positioning of women (and his ability to get into their pants) as a problem to be solved scientifically.

And a day later, Mathematigal posted, Feynman is not my hero:

… every time I hear someone in my department or in one of my classes go on about how Feynman was so awesome I mean he was kind of a jerk to women but whatever, I file him (and it is almost always always a him) away as someone who would have sided against me in every single one of the situations I’ve mentioned. Every time I see a joking tweet or post about how Feynman’s second wife divorced him because she didn’t like that he was always doing calculus in his head, while totally ignoring the fact that the divorce papers indicate that he would fly into a rage, attack her, and break furniture whenever she interrupted said mental calculus, my world gets a little bit smaller.

I can vouch that a divorce action is not always the best source of facts. And it is not unusual for many men to want to sleep with women, and for some women to accommodate them. But as I have looked at the Polanski, Cosby, Allen and now Richardson and Charney stories it is clear that a lot of successful men that have preyed on women and girls will be granted the benefit of any doubt by other men, and even some women that admire their work.

So I will now think about Feynman a bit less charitably. But it isn’t just the famous that get a pass. The leading story in the NY Times last week was about a first year student who was raped at a party soon after arriving at Hobart and William Smith College.

It took the college just 12 days to investigate the rape report, hold a hearing and clear the football players. The football team went on to finish undefeated in its conference, while the woman was left, she said, to face the consequences — threats and harassment for accusing members of the most popular sports team on campus.

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