The “problem” of Richard Feynman

3quarksdaily points to this bit of nonsense about Richard Feynman (which in turn re-opens a number of earlier versions of the same “news”).

What a pile of crap! Feynman was certainly “guilty” of occasional meanness, and of self-mythologizing to an almost absurdly grand (and completely unnecessary) extent, and also apparently of making sexist jokes in lectures (which, unlike some of those linked to from this article, I *do* consider a major issue!), but “pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him”? Oh come on! Let me see now – “Hi, I’m an incredibly handsome professor and future Nobel Prize winner, wanna fuck?” vs “Hi, I’m a kinda cute but dim and immature version of you, wanna fuck?” And, oh horror of horrors!, he went to bars and asked sex workers whether they were in the business of selling reality or fantasy before doing business (but soon discovered that that kind of sex was not what he wanted).  I don’t approve of the way he felt he had to denigrate the sex workers in his own mind before posing that question, but do these people have any idea how badly they have missed the real point (about how sexist the world was half a century ago – and about how some of the worst aspects of that attitude do still persist (esp. in the IT world) today)?

P.S. Whenever a stranger offers to buy me  a drink (or food, or anything else), unless the invitation includes others, or is made in the context of some evident specific celebration on their part or apparent need on my part, then I assume they want sex (or something else) in exchange (and if in doubt I try to make clear to them whether or not that is actually an option before accepting the offer).

Update: has taken down an earlier post on this issue as being not up to their “quality” standards – but apparently only because it failed to be sufficiently slanderous, as it has now been replaced by another article which makes a number of the same good points but includes a more explicitly dishonest portrayal of what Feynman did with regard to students (dishonest by using language which any uninformed reader would interpret as referring to doing sex-for-grades exchanges without any evidence other than his own admission of doing the opposite by underplaying his status in his dealings with prospective sex partners)

By far the most serious allegations against Feynman from the point of view of “Science Outreach” are those about his use of sexist humour in his lectures (which were almost dismissed by Julia Lipman in 1999 and have been totally ignored in the most recent bit of excitement). His choice of stories to include in his popular books is also unfortunate – but more because of the “clear and present” danger of misinterpretation in a way that will not just reflect badly on him but might indeed discourage potential future female scientists (rather than from what they actually say).

The fact that he may have sometimes been, in the terms of his time, a “cad” in personal relationships (which, despite not having seen any convincing evidence, I find plausible on the basis of his manifest personal vanity and narcissism) may indeed be of interest in a general biographical context – and also as an example of why it is not a good idea to designate him, or anyone else, as the ultimate hero. But it is not actually supported by the content of either his sex-with-students or B-girl stories. That he chose to tell those stories may convey something to be concerned about, but the actual content does not. And anyone who does not admit that is being either dishonest or incompetent.

An interesting counterpoint to the critical articles is provided by the transcript of interviews with Jenijoy LaBelle  who knew him at Caltech (through an initial meeting that some might find “creepy” but which she just found amusing) and whose tenure battle he supported in the 1970s. (But perhaps LaBelle herself would be dismissed as a character reference by those who consider any sexual relationship between a faculty member and student to be “predatory” even if there is no actual instructional relationship between them.)

Further update (2014-07-16): I just read a relevant post by Saramoira Shields at ‘mathematigal’ who links to some places where PUA types seem to take support from his stories (a connection that was also noted earlier by others)  and replied with

From the assholes (PUA types) you link to I can see that it is true that some of Feynman’s stories do contribute (through what I consider gross, but quite predictable, misinterpretation) to some of the nastiness you have experienced. I am not surprised by that, and I consider his use of those stories to have been exceedingly ill-advised, stupid, and wrong. But I do not agree with those who interpret the behaviour he describes as misogynistic. I don’t think he hated or even dismissed women relative to men, but “merely” that he was so involved in his own “cleverness” that his vain narcissism blinded him to any adverse consequences of his actions or their re-telling.


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