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kottke.org posts about Leila McNeill

Richard Feynman and the Myth of Separating Science from the Scientist

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2019

In Surely You’re a Creep, Mr. Feynman, science historian Leila McNeill writes about the difficulty in separating science from the behavior of the scientist.

In addition to cataloguing the trespasses of individual scientists who abuse the cultural power of their position, we have to dismantle the structures that have allowed their abuses to continue with little to no disruption. Just for starters, this means abandoning the myth that the science can be separated from the scientist.

The conversation about separating the person from the practice has been slower to surface in science than it has in the literary, film, journalism, and art worlds. It might seem that there is less distance between an artist and the thing they create than for their counterparts in the sciences because art is often positioned as subjective and abstract. It’s easier to draw a clear line from a writer like Junot Diaz who has displayed abusive behaviors to women in real life and his male characters who do the same. Scientists, however, have been framed as objective observers of phenomena while scientific practice itself has been seen as empirical, measureable, stable, and separate. This typical framing disconnects science from the rest of the world, allowing it to be perceived as a disembodied conduit for unadulterated knowledge. But science isn’t just a body of knowledge; it’s an institution and a culture with material connections to a lived-in world. Its practitioners are makers of and participants in that institution and culture.