Sunday, July 20, 2014

Idols and Idolatry

Who is your idol?

I found myself asking this question to myself in the wake of the public scrutiny of the behavior of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (I recommend reading Janet Stemwedel's in-depth examination of the situation). In short, he made important contributions to his field and is considered a brilliant scientist, but his actions towards the women he associated with professionally were extremely disrespectful, and arguably harmful to the goal of inclusion and fair treatment of women in science. Many in the field look to Feynman as a role-model or idol, and have responded harshly to the critiques.

The World English Dictionary defines idol as
"1. a material object, esp a carved image, that is worshipped as a god,
2. Christianity, Judaism any being (other than the one God) to which divine honor is paid,
3. a person who is revered, admired, or highly loved." has a different version of definition 3 for idol: "any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion. Madame Curie had been her childhood idol."

Both versions of the definition for idol carry with them an unrealistic burden to apply to any one person, and that burden comes with a heavy responsibility. Theoretical physics is not the only academic field in which idols exist. Every field has people who are treated as idols. There are idols in paleontology.

I had a couple of idols growing up, and I was fortunate in that I admired scientists who are also good people before knowing anything about their non-research conduct: they are ethical, fair-minded, and generous people. My early admiration of these scientists stood the test of time and my maturity. I still admire them, even though I have grown enough to realize that, although they are great scientists and great people, they will never be above scrutiny or critique. No one is.

Idols and role-models can be a potentially positive influence for young people looking to enter the sciences. They can inspire the younger generation to study. If their role-models write or appear for the public, they introduce young people to science concepts they might not otherwise encounter until their post-secondary education. Role-models inspire students to explore, to challenge old ways of thinking, and make the sciences so engaging that the students can see themselves participating.

There is a fine, fuzzy line between a role-model and hero worship, between a mentor and an idol. Idolatry can lead to mimicry, and while mimicry is supposedly a type of compliment, there are many examples in nature of toxic organisms being mimicked. It may be a heavy-handed analogy, but in the case of students, they may not immediately realize that the person they model themselves after is displaying behaviors that do more to erode the cooperative and inclusive goals of the scientific community than to uphold them.

I have come to find the idea of promoting someone to idol status disturbing. While we can cite examples of scientists who repeatedly demonstrate positive academic and community ethics, we should not promote the idea that any one should strive to "be like" another researcher. When a person is idolized, it is too easy to dismiss their less than noble actions for fear of tarnishing the shiny image, and those who critique the idol are portrayed as destructive. I have heard many say (and have stated this myself in my naive days) that it doesn't matter who the scientist is as a person as long as their academic work is sound, and that all that matters in the end is the product. I may have believed this once upon a time, but now I firmly believe this statement is a pile of steaming horse-apples.

Stemwedel hits the rock squarely with the Estwing:

'Do we have a scientist who is regularly cruel to his graduate student trainees, or who spreads malicious rumors about his scientific colleagues? That kind of behavior has the potential to damage the networks of trust and cooperation upon which the scientific knowledge-building endeavor depends, which means it probably can’t be dismissed as a mere “foible.”'

I realize that a scientist can be what I would colloquially describe as a jerk, a sleaze, or as dancing down the slippery slope of ethically dubious behavior and have also produced notable work. For example, I can't refuse to cite someone's paper just because I think how they treat their graduate students is despicable. However, their scientific contributions do not excuse or lessen the negative impact of their behavior on their community. They have set the stage for the conduct of future students on a shaky foundation. This should not be ignored.

How a scientist behaves towards their colleagues and subordinates professionally and personally is as important to the science community as their body of work, if for no other reason than they are maintaining the trail that the next academic generation will follow. All of the good within the community that currently exists is because of the attitudes fostered by our predecessors that we, knowingly or unknowingly, have internalized and are projecting as normal. The same applies to the negative actions that happen within our community. Whether we like it or not, whether we want the responsibility or not, our actions in and out of the field/lab are demonstrating what is normal for our field. We are demonstrating what we accept as acceptable behavior. It becomes our responsibility as soon as we start interacting with students.

It is also our duty to publicly criticizing behavior that we would not want to see demonstrated in our future students, regardless of the work conducted by the person/people. We have the responsibility to denounce the behaviors that sow mistrust, uncertainty, and even fear in the scientific community, and work harder to prevent them. If we do not want to see our future students 1) treat their peers or subordinates without personal respect, 2) treat underrepresented groups as inferior, 3) sabotage, undermine, or otherwise inhibit the work of their peers or subordinates, we have to model the type of behaviors that we want to see passed on to the next generation of students. We cannot excuse bad behavior as "part of the package" of doing research just because "it's always been done this way." If we receive criticism for our behavior, we have the responsibility to listen, examine, and change to foster a positive community.

In the end, the only people who are responsible for the climate we foster in our scientific community are ourselves. Sooner or later, someone is going to look up to you: who do you want them to see? More specifically, if you were on the receiving end of your actions towards your peers and subordinates, would you feel welcome in your scientific community?

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