Recent movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up have pushed us to hold the perpetrators of sexual assault accountable. But the more we had admired the accused, the more reluctant we are to address the allegations of assault.
One instance where those who support movements like #MeToo have been particularly hesitant to do so is with celebrity scientists like Richard Feynman and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Because these men represent science — something we hold to be above reproach — the men themselves have largely escaped critique for their transgressions. If we want to continue to hold perpetrators of sexual misconduct responsible, we can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to science and those who seek to represent science in popular culture. To address this, we must stop buying into the “Great Man” theory of science — which associates scientific achievement with individuals — and let science speak for itself.
Richard Feynman is often praised as a frontman for physics. His memoir “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” and his series of lectures are used by professors and teachers to introduce begrudging students to physics in an approachable way. Yet Feynman’s teachings, and especially his memoir, portray his misogynist worldview and the sexist actions of a man who did not value women. He devotes an entire chapter to describing how to pick up women at a bar. While a professor at Cornell, he attended dances meant for undergraduate students — ultimately deciding to act as if he was another undergraduate student in order to charm women.
Beyond his own admission, FBI files revealed that his second wife accused him of abuse. Uplifting his work as the pinnacle of approachable physics also condones his behavior and treatment of women.
Pop-scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson is similarly problematic. Allegations of sexual harassment were raised against him in 2010, and more women came forward at the end of last year. These accusations span a wide swath of time — one woman accused him of drugging her in grad school, and more recently, women, including his former assistant, have accused him of unwanted touching. Yet despite these allegations, which Tyson denies, the scientist is still an active celebrity and representative of the astrophysics community. Though he has faced some repercussions amid allegations — the producers indefinitely delayed Season 2 of his show “Cosmos” in order to investigate — his fanbase has remained largely intact.
The work that these scientists have done to popularize science in mainstream discourse is valuable, but continuing to highlight their achievements in light of their harassing behavior condones misogyny and assault. Moreover, teaching physics or astrophysics by focusing on these educators — on the scientists and not the science — subscribes to the problematic “Great Man” theory of science history.
The “Great Man” theory suggests that scientific progress is driven by a few individuals, predominately white men, and therefore tells stories of the lives of these men rather than stories of science’s development. Viewing scientific discoveries as the products of a few men underplays the difficult and often unpublicized work it takes to get to the point of discovery. It rests entire disciplines on the shoulders of individuals who, being human, are inherently flawed. If you build up science on the reputation of one practitioner, then the field lives and dies with the actions of one individual.
By promoting these toxic men as representations of science, we actively work to discourage not only women but all victims of assault from engaging in the science that these men promote. If science is a bastion of misogyny and rife with harassment, then how can we in good faith encourage more women to pick up STEM fields?
We need to let go of science’s Great Men myth. Part of this is learning to focus on new scientists. We need to center women in our stories, especially women of color, to create a version of science that actively engages those who have previously been neglected. Changing the masculinity-focused environment in which pop science develops will improve a culture ridden with misogyny and harassment.
But ultimately, we need to steer away from prioritizing personalities over scientific concepts. Only through this shift can we lessen the association between ideas and the people espousing them.
Pop-culture scientists like Feynman and deGrasse Tyson have inspired many students to be interested in science concentrations or curious about science disciplines. While their teachings may be valuable, letting go of these problematic heroes can pave the way for new scientists that are more representative of the scientific community we want to foster. Otherwise, we will be stuck with the current system that allowed these problematic men to flourish in the first place. It’s time to say goodbye to pop-science idols and start developing new methods for public scientific engagement.
E.L. Meszaros GS can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.