Scientific American Fires Blogger Who Gave “Troublesome Inheritance” Good Review

Remember the good review of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance in Scientific American? Well, that blogger, Ashutosh Jogalekar, has now been fired.

From the Washington Post:

What’s going on at Scientific American? Deleted posts, sexism claims, a fired writer.

By Paul Farhi July 16

Throughout its 169-year history, Scientific American has been an august and sober chronicler of the advance of human knowledge, from chemistry to physics to anthropology.

Lately, however, things have become kind of a mess.

A series of blog posts on the magazine’s Web site over the past few months has unleashed waves of criticism and claims that the publication was promoting racism, sexism and “genetic determinism.”

Late last week, the publication took down the latest alleged outrage, a post about the late physicist Richard Feynman and his notorious womanizing. Then it republished the post with an editor’s note explaining that it was restoring the article “in the interest of openness and transparency.”

And it fired the blogger who wrote it.

The trouble started in April when a guest blogger, a doctoral student named Chris Martin, wrote about Lawrence H. Summers’ assertions when he was president of Harvard University about the paucity of women in some scientific fields. While acknowledging that discrimination played a role in holding back women, Martin also concluded, “the latest research suggests that discrimination has a weaker impact than people might think, and that innate sex differences explain quite a lot.”

The post drew a sharp pushback, particularly on social media, from readers who questioned Martin’s scientific and cultural bona fides. “This slovenly article above is so full of outdated information it is painful,” wrote one commenter.

The second land mine was a post in May by Ashutosh Jogalekar, which favorably reviewed a controversial book by Nicholas Wade, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.” Jogalekar praised the book, saying it confirms the need to “recognize a strong genetic component to [social and cognitive] differences” among racial groups.

This time, some social-media commenters accused Scientific American of promoting questionable racial theories. In early July, the reaction led the publication’s blog editor, Curtis Brainard, to post a note that read in part, “While we believe that [the racism and sexism] charges are excessive, we share readers’ concerns. Although we expect our bloggers to cover controversial topics from time to time, we also recognize that sensitive issues require extra care, and that did not happen here.”

The last straw was Jogalekar’s post on Friday about Feynman, the Nobel-winning father of quantum electrodynamics. Commenting on recent biographies of Feynman, Jogalekar noted the physicist’s “casual sexism,” including his affairs with two married women, his humiliation of a female student and his delight in documenting his strategies for picking up women in bars.

Feynman was a Pick-Up Artist and one chapter in his beloved memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is PUA advice on how to pick up women in bars by not being nice to them.

But while expressing disappointment in Feynman’s behavior, Jogalekar essentially dismissed it as a byproduct of the “male-dominated American society in the giddy postwar years.”

Within a day of the column’s appearance, Scientific American pulled it from its site, with another note from Brainard: “The text of this post has been removed because it did not meet Scientific American’s quality standards.”

One other thing: Jogalekar was fired. …

Pour encourager les autres

Jogalekar said his dust-up with the magazine left him disappointed, but not angry or bitter. He intends to continue blogging under his own heading, the Curious Wavefunction. “This was a teachable moment,” he said.

One lesson he said he learned: “Scientific American writes about some controversial topics, like climate change and [genetically modified organisms], and evolution. Race and sex are much more sensitive than GMO or climate change.”

Here’s a chunk of the offending Last Straw post by Jogalekar that got him fired:

Update: Because Feynman is a giant in both American science and in popularity among intelligent Americans, I’m going to put the rest of this beneath the fold and repeat it as a separate post:

Challenger hearing: Feynman puts the O-ring in the ice water.

What started bothering me more the deeper I dug into Feynman’s life was something quite different: his casual sexism. The latest insight into this comes from Lawrence Krauss’s book “Quantum Man” which does a great job explaining the one thing about Feynman that should matter the most – his science. But Krauss also does not ignore the warts. What startled me the most was the fact that when he was a young, boyish looking professor at Cornell, Feynman used to pretend to be a student so he could ask undergraduate women out. I suspect that this kind of behavior on the part of a contemporary professor would almost certainly lead to harsh disciplinary action, as it should. The behavior was clearly, egregiously wrong and when I read about it my view of Feynman definitely went down a notch, and a large notch at that. Feynman’s apparent sexism was also the subject of a 2009 post with a sensationalist title; the post pointed out one chapter in “Surely…” in which Feynman documented various strategies he adopted for trying to get women in bars to sleep with him. Neither were Feynman’s escapades limited to bars; more than one of his biographies have documented affairs with two married women, at least one of which caused him considerable problems.

It’s not surprising to find these anecdotes disturbing and even offensive, but I believe it would also be premature and simplistic to write off Richard Feynman as “sexist” across the board. People who want to accuse him of this seem to have inadvertently cherry-picked anecdotes; the nude painting in topless bars, the portrayal of a woman in a physics lesson as a clueless airhead, the propensity to lie on the beach and watch girls. But this view of Feynman misses the big picture. While not an excuse, several of his 1950s adventures were probably related to the deep pain and insecurity caused by the death of his first wife Arlene; by almost any account the two shared a very deep and special bond. It was also during the late 40s and early 50s that Feynman was doing some of his most intense work on quantum electrodynamics, and at least a few of the situations he narrates were part of him letting off steam.

Also importantly, while some of Feynman’s utterances and actions appear sexist to modern sensibilities, it’s worth noting that they were probably no different than the attitudes of a male-dominated American society in the giddy postwar years, a society in which women were supposed to take care of the house and children and men were seen as the bread winners. Thus, any side of Feynman that raises our eyebrows is really an aspect of a biased American society. In addition, Feynman’s ploys to pick up girls in bars were – and in fact are – probably practiced by every American male seeking companionship in bars, whether consciously or unconsciously; what made Feynman different was the fact that he actually documented his methods, and he was probably the only scientist to do so. In fact we can be thankful that society has now progressed to a stage where both genders can practice these mate-seeking strategies on almost equal terms, although the gap indicated by that “almost” deserves contemplation as an indication of the unequal bargaining power that women still have. The point though is that, whatever his actions appear like to a modern crowd, I do not think Richard Feynman was any more sexist than a typical male product of his times and culture. The fact that society in general behaved similarly to what he did of course does not excuse the things he did, but it also puts them in perspective. I think recognizing this perspective is important partly to understand how our views on sexism have changed for the better from 1950 to 2014. The encouraging development is that actions by Feynman – and male society in general – that were considered acceptable or amusing in 1950 would quite rightly cause instant outrage in 2014. We still have a long way to go before both genders achieve parity in science, but the change in attitudes is definitely encouraging.

However the fact that simply dismissing Feynman as sexist is problematic is ascertained by this 1999 article from the MIT Tech (by a woman) which gives us a more complete picture of his views toward women. As far as we know, there is no evidence that Feynman discriminated against women in his career; the letters he writes to women in the collection of letters edited by his daughter indicate no bias. Both male and female students admired him. His sister Joan documents how he was always supportive of her own career in physics. At one point he came to the aid of a female professor filing a discrimination suit at Caltech. In addition he was a devoted husband to his first and third wife and a loving and supportive father to his daughter who in fact tried hard to get her interested in science.

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.

Well, I never … How can anyone be allowed to express any view on the subject other than that Richard Feynman should be dug up and his rotting corpse tried by a jury of staffers at the campus Diversity Nook?