Dec 22 2014

Nobody’s Perfect – Dealing with Flawed Characters

A recurring controversy that crops up from time to time within the rationalist communities is how to deal with someone who promotes rationalism on the one hand, but has a major flaw on the other. The latest example of this comes from my friend and colleague, Phil Plait.

The IFLS website posted a picture of women actors who are also scientists. The image included Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy on the Big Bang Theory, and who also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience.  At the same time, Bialik is openly anti-vaccine, and promotes pseudoscientfic organizations like Holistic Moms Network and Attachment Parenting International. Phil retweeted the picture from IFLS and added, “I love this.”

This all prompted another round of hand-wringing (actually I think this is all a healthy and interesting conversation) over supporting scientists, educators, and skeptics who are flawed in some way. Phil defends the position in his blog that we can accept flawed characters as ambassadors of science, writing:

So is using her in that montage of pictures a good thing or a bad thing? I would argue it’s neither, but the good outweighs the bad. The facts are that she is a scientist, she is an actress, and the picture was about actresses who are scientists. In point of fact, celebrities can be influential, and it’s a good thing that people see science supported by celebrity.

Other celebrities who have caused the same type of controversy include Bill Maher, who is an outspoken atheist, but who is also anti-vaccine, doubts the germ theory of disease, and has a general conspiratorial attitude toward modern medicine.

Richard Dawkins is an incredibly famous and eloquent scientist, atheist, and foe of pseudoscience, but has made some problematic statements about feminism and rape that have given some skeptics pause.

Michio Kaku is a very successful popularizer of science, but tends to sensationalize and hype the science in order to make it more sexy. He also gets into trouble when he ventures beyond his area of expertise in physics.

The fact is – nobody is perfect. If you are in the public eye long enough, you will stumble eventually – make a mistake, reveal an unpopular opinion, make statements beyond your knowledge and expertise, misinterpret a situation, or simply say something stupid. Everyone also has their flaws, and we should not (as Phil also points out) put people on a pedestal or expect our idols to be perfect. In fact, we should be very wary of having idols. I think it’s OK to respect individuals for their work and character, but we need to remember they are flawed humans, as we all are.

There are many more examples that span the range from fatal flaws to minor and quickly corrected errors. Randi once made statements flirting with climate change denial, was quickly given pushback, and he altered his opinion. Bill Nye has made anti-GMO statements and is now being challenged on his position (this is still ongoing).

Everyone thinks their family is dysfunctional, probably more than average, but that is only because of their familiarity with their family. Everyone has baggage and flaws, and if you get close enough to someone you with learn theirs. The skeptical community is a small community and social media can cause tremendous familiarity. In a way, we are like a large extended (dysfunctional) family.

How, then, should we respond to visible members of our community, or popularizers of science and/or critical thinking, who reveal major flaws? I agree with Phil in general, but disagree with him in the particulars of this case (with Bialik). I try to take a nurturing and educational position by default. If people have flaws or make mistakes, I try to give constructive feedback. I am willing to give people the benefit of the doubt that they mean well and are trying to do the right thing, and that they can be educated and change their ways. I am also always open to the possibility that they may be right about something and I am wrong.

In other words – I am often willing to take the good from people and accept their flaws, while trying to be a positive influence in their lives. It is certainly an unreasonable, and even delusional, position to expect perfection from anyone before you will support them or work with them.

I also agree with Phil’s implicit position as stated above. He believes, with Bialik, that the good outweighs the bad. He is taking a risk vs benefit approach. I think this is wise. I actually make two judgments about individuals when I have to make a decision about them (whether or not to support them, promote them, work with them, or simply how to write about them).

The first is whether or not they genuinely mean well. There are real con-artists out there, or people with harmful or self-serving agendas. They don’t mean well. They may be exploiting vulnerable individuals, or simply promoting a harmful ideology at all costs. (Kevin Trudeau is a good example.) Such individuals should be exposed and vigorously opposed.

Others seem to mean well, but are simply misguided or misinformed, or they may have a value system that differs significantly from my own.  For these individuals or groups I think it is best to give constructive criticism and hope for redemption. Also, sometimes a constructive conversation is the best approach, trying to resolve any differences (and not simply assuming that you are right and they are wrong). But it is also within this group that a second judgement is required – on the balance, does this individual do more harm than good? Coupled with this is the judgment about whether or not associating with that individual will do more harm or good to your own reputation, organization, or movement.

This can be a difficult call, and is rife with shades of grey and value judgements. This is why certain individuals provoke such heated debate.

In the specific case of Mayim Bialik I have to disagree with Phil. I think the bad outweighs the good. Just the mere fact of an actor who is a neuroscientist is not that big a deal. Her views on vaccines and medicine in general, however, are extremely pernicious. In fact, her credentials as a scientist are a negative in this case because they mostly serve to lend weight to her antivaccine views. I would not promote her in any way, and I certainly would not do anything that could possibly lend the imprimatur of legitimacy to her views. Being promoted by popular science sites like IFLS is therefore extremely problematic.

I also am not saying she is a lost cause. Perhaps she can be engaged in constructive conversation and she can be brought around to a more scientific view. That is the approach that is being taken with Bill Nye. Everyone assumes he is a reasonable and well meaning person, and if we can talk through his views on GMO he will likely move in the direction of the scientific consensus on this issue. He may even have some insightful views to add to the debate.

Meanwhile I cannot support or promote anyone who promotes antivaccine views or pseudoscience in medicine. I will be happy to engage with them, but I will not give them a pass on the pseudoscience while promoting them as role model scientists or educators. There is a line, and she is below it.

Conclusion

It is difficult to deal with flawed heroes or role models, but we have no choice. I would not take the extreme view that we should never have any heroes or role models at all. That’s just part of the human condition, and it can be a very positive thing. Overall it would be a great thing for our society if there were more scientist/rationalist/skeptical role models.

At the same time it is best to take a mature view toward our intellectual heroes – they are people, they are flawed, we should not deny those flaws or fail to engage with them. In fact we need to make a special effort to be critical of our heroes because of the natural tendency not to be.

I also think that overall it is more constructive to take a nurturing rather than destructive approach toward the flawed people and organizations in our lives. Give people a chance, give them some benefit of the doubt, and see what happens.

At the same time, there are those who themselves are destructive for whatever reason. They may have nefarious motivations, or they may mean well but are so profoundly misguided that they are doing tremendous harm. We still need to do our job as skeptical activists to oppose pseudoscience, to protect consumers from fraud, and to expose and criticize harmful claims or ideology.

It can all be a challenging balancing act, but it is worth doing.

 

Update: Phil wrote a follow up piece in which he changes his mind specifically about Bialik, persuaded by the following discussion, including this post.

30 responses so far

30 Responses to “Nobody’s Perfect – Dealing with Flawed Characters”

  1. sgerbicon 22 Dec 2014 at 11:56 am

    “Meanwhile I cannot support or promote anyone who promotes antivaccine views or pseudoscience in medicine. I will be happy to engage with them, but I will not give them a pass on the pseudoscience while promoting them as role model scientists or educators. There is a line, and she is below it.”

    Well said Steve.

    Bill Maher is another that has crossed my line, I have updated his Wikipedia page to show readers/fans of his controversy within scientific skepticism. In fact search for the name Novella on his Wikipedia page for your mention.

    Reading over Mayim Bialik’s Wikipedia page this morning and I see that it is also going to need GSoW’s attention. And she is in the news, about 2,500 views to her WP page each day. On Dec 11th the page hit 4,448 views, I wonder if that was too soon for the IFLS post? Regardless, GSoW needs to make sure that readers/fans have all the information on Bialik that they can regarding her antivax and homeopathy support. We can’t have people confusing her with a spokesperson for real science. Its confusing enough.

  2. 5i5ion 22 Dec 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Good article.

    It comes from the Halo Effect.

    http://unfebuckinglievable.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/russell-brand-and-the-halo-effect/

    And of course there’s the opposite called the Devil Effect, where the person can do no right.

    As you say, we’re all flawed people, and can *always* learn more, whether that’s from the wisest of the wise, or from watching a kids film like Kung Fu Panda.

  3. Heptronon 22 Dec 2014 at 1:06 pm

    So, I went from the link Dr. Novella posted above to Respectful Insolence, then followed a link in that article directly to the Holistic Moms Network Celebrity Spokesmama page and found it blank. No mention of Mayim Bialik at all. So then I did a Wayback Machine check on the website and from what they have archived, her bio was removed from the website somewhere between November 19th, 2012 and Dec 21, 2012.
    I checked a bit back into her Twitter feed and didn’t see too much that would raise eyebrows. So I guess my question is this: Is this still an issue? If she’s been removed from the Holistic Moms website as a spokesperson is she still anti-vaccine? Is there any recent information on it to see if she’s stayed the course or had a change in her feelings on vaccines? Likely someone will know better than I, so I thought I’d put the question out there.

  4. Sc00teron 22 Dec 2014 at 1:16 pm

    @Heptron – She’s still listed on the main page, and the link brings you to here:

    http://www.holisticmoms.org/category/aboutus/what-moms-are-saying/

  5. Heptronon 22 Dec 2014 at 1:41 pm

    @SC00ter – I didn’t see that at all. I guess it was just wishful thinking on my part that she had changed her tune.
    Thanks for letting me know.

  6. duofaciatison 22 Dec 2014 at 2:26 pm

    I wonder if Carl Sagan or Feynman did had this kind of flaws, never noticed one.

  7. cherryteresaon 22 Dec 2014 at 2:33 pm

    I agree with you overall and I’m glad I’m not alone in my view. The positive to Phil’s Slate piece is that it’s created responses and made people who were previously unaware about the harmful things she promotes.

    http://cherryteresa.com/wp/2014/12/19/mayim-bialik-shouldnt-get-a-special-pass/

  8. Ori Vandewalleon 22 Dec 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Feynman’s flaws certainly haven’t gone unnoticed, as the controversy surrounding this blog post shows:

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/2014/07/11/richard-feynman-sexism-and-changing-perceptions-of-a-scientific-icon/

  9. evhantheinfidelon 22 Dec 2014 at 2:43 pm

    I have noticed too that many or even most of the skeptical scientists out there have somewhat problematic takes on philosophy. Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking (who’s somewhat skeptical), Steven Weinberg, and maybe Richard Feynman come to mind. Lawrence Krauss is fantastic in many contexts and yet borders on anti-intellectual in his often vehement opposition to philosophy. What can be said for him in this regard is that he has philosopher friends and has come to cede some ground when pushed. Sean Carroll is philosophy-friendly and seems to be pretty rational and skeptical. Steven Pinker is definitely philosophy-friendly.
    While I think that all of the above points are legitimate, I think it’s also worth cautioning against assuming that people who have been criticized have some skeptical flaw. With the above example of Steven Pinker, he has been widely criticized with varying degrees of vitriol. Even with people whom I respect greatly, like Massimo Pigliucci, he seems to attract some strange uncharitable readings. I think that while Pinker may not be correct on everything, he has no major flaws or errors in thinking or beliefs that I can put my finger on; indeed, most of the criticisms of him I have found hollow and he has responded quite well, in my opinion.
    Duofaciatis: I think that Carl Sagan’s insistence upon cannabis could be considered somewhat premature or even wrong. It’s hard to say, though. Richard Feynman had some quotes that could have been interpreted as anti-philosophical. Again, it’s hard to say without having the men living to question them.

  10. idoubtiton 22 Dec 2014 at 3:00 pm

    What felt most disturbing in this kerfuffle was that these were all women – as if it’s OK to give women “a pass” on their marginal beliefs and behaviors for the greater goal of promoting women in STEM. In a totally separate point, I think IFLS’s vapid, shallow and cheerleading attitude (“YAY SCIENCE”) does little to help people understand the value, complexity, nuance and importance of science. Their pop-culture infographics can be misleading, as it was in this case.

    I agree with Steve’s premise and constructive approach to such issues. I also think the skeptical community should be more tolerant of EVERYONE (including the religious, paranormalists, and those who made serious life mistakes). Notice what each person has to offer and ease off being harsh (and hateful) regarding their flaws. WAY too much judgement going on. There is no excuse to throw out the good work of a lifetime because of human foibles.

    Even Darwin loved some woo-woo ideas.

  11. duofaciatison 22 Dec 2014 at 3:12 pm

    @Ori Vandewalle & @evhantheinfidelon thanks for the comment

  12. Johnnyon 22 Dec 2014 at 4:42 pm

    I think that Massimo Pigliucci is often rather uncharitable and inaccurate when he criticizes Dawkins. He frequently accuses Dawkins of denigrating philosophy, yet he has never produced any evidence for it. Dawkins simply focuses on science, and has (unlike Krauss, Tyson or Hawking) never dismissed philosophy as a valid discipline. To my knowledge, the only discipline he denigrates is theology.

    Pigliucci is also strongly critical of The God Delusion, yet he appears to have not even read it in the first place.

    In his list of skeptical failures, Steven seems to have missed Eugenie Scott’s rejection of GMO. And unlike (I think) the case with Bill Nye, her rejection seems very strongly motivated by political loyalty, as she had some understanding for anti-vaxxers as well. She argued that they were motivated by a love for their children, even though they are misguided. By that reason you can have understanding for the motives of creationists: They don’t want children to burn in Hell.

    I also think some criticism levelled at Michael Shermer is unfair. Yes, he is a libertarian (which I find to be naive), but he has not (unlike PZ Myers) wished for the purge of those not sharing his politics, or insisted on that skeptical groups should promote his political views. He also sticks with the science even when it contradicts the preferred libertarian beliefs, even though it took him a while to get it right with regard to global warming.

  13. Steven Novellaon 22 Dec 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Johnny,

    The list was not meant to be exhaustive. I was just giving a few examples. It was also not my goal to pass judgment on everyone I know within the skeptical community.

  14. EtTuCarlon 22 Dec 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Johnny on 22 Dec 2014 at 4:42 pm “She argued that they were motivated by a love for their children, even though they are misguided. By that reason you can have understanding for the motives of creationists: They don’t want children to burn in Hell.”

    As far as I know, those are facts. Why shouldn’t she state them? If you are under the impression that all anti-vaxers have evil motives, you are a fool.

  15. evhantheinfidelon 22 Dec 2014 at 7:19 pm

    Dr. Novella,
    I think it’s good that you’re not going to pass judgement on every member in the skeptical community. Even with differences between intellectual and personal lives often notwithstanding, a diversity of opinion is healthy even or especially in a community that values honest inquiry, which is, I think, part of the point that you were trying to make. I think the appropriate time to really call someone out and not just give constructive criticism is when they demonstrate that their ideology is more important than the principles of scientific skepticism and philosophical rationality, another point I got from your article.
    It’s very easy, of course, to find flaws in a person or their position when flaws are looked for, and sometimes agnosticism is the best course of knowledge.

    Duofaciatis,
    You’re very welcome. I think that part of the reason that Feynman and Sagan deserve something like the hero status is that they would have admitted to probably holding incorrect views and made attempts to rid themselves of them.

    Johnny,
    I think that part of Pigliucci’s issue with Dawkins is the philosophical tools that Dawkins claims to be scientific. My view was always that science needs good philosophy, so any good philosophical tool could potentially be a good scientific tool, but Pigliucci has a fairly restrictive view of what counts as science. While I don’t entirely agree with this, I think it is important to have this minority (and somewhat contrary) opinion offered. I DO wonder how his opinion would be if his scientific degree had come more recently, but I wouldn’t assume that it would be different.
    On the issue of Genie Scott, I think she often advocates for a more tactful take of pseudosciences and issues. I don’t know about her specific views of GMOs, but I would caution against assuming that her empathy mean her sympathy.

  16. grabulaon 22 Dec 2014 at 9:42 pm

    I can accept someone doing good work in science or rational thinking if it outweighs the bad. I’m not sure I agree this is the case with Biyalik however. She got a degree, ok, now what’s she doing with it? Publicly she’s supporting some pretty crappy woo that causes damage. That to me is where I draw the line. If she were using her science for good I could accept some flawed thinking but when it comes to doing harm I have very little tolerance.

  17. EtTuCarlon 23 Dec 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Also, Hedy Lamarr was smart but the claims of the legend are 90% bullshit.

  18. Scott Youngon 23 Dec 2014 at 7:49 pm

    Perfect example: James Watson, co-discover of double helix, and his views on race (as if there is such a thing)…

  19. grabulaon 23 Dec 2014 at 9:12 pm

    EtTu Carl – I counter by saying your claim is bullshit. Seems we’re at an impasse.

  20. EtTuCarlon 24 Dec 2014 at 3:13 am

    grabula –
    But we both know that you are ignorant on the subject.

  21. grabulaon 24 Dec 2014 at 5:59 am

    EtTuCarl – I counter by saying YOU’RE ignorant of the subject. Again, seems we’re at an impasse.

  22. PythagoreanCrankon 24 Dec 2014 at 2:33 pm

    I think there is opportunity here for those science champions to do what sciences is supposed to do, adjust positions when faced with compelling evidence to the contrary. The Bill Nye GMO issue is just such an opportunity and I hope we can get a bunch of support for our campaign:

    Thunderclap: Nye vs Folta GMO Debate thndr.it/1wMAYaE

    Thanks!

  23. Johnnyon 24 Dec 2014 at 5:11 pm

    EtTuCarl: “As far as I know, those are facts. Why shouldn’t she state them? If you are under the impression that all anti-vaxers have evil motives, you are a fool.”

    Sure, but creationists are not driven by evil motives either. Yet they are called out, and rightly so. Yet anti-vax is not more “nuanced” as Scott claims: http://thehumanist.com/features/interviews/is-there-such-a-thing-as-an-anti-science-left-an-interview-with-eugenie-scott

    evhantheinfidel: “I think that part of Pigliucci’s issue with Dawkins is the philosophical tools that Dawkins claims to be scientific. My view was always that science needs good philosophy, so any good philosophical tool could potentially be a good scientific tool, but Pigliucci has a fairly restrictive view of what counts as science. While I don’t entirely agree with this, I think it is important to have this minority (and somewhat contrary) opinion offered. I DO wonder how his opinion would be if his scientific degree had come more recently, but I wouldn’t assume that it would be different.”

    It seems indeed to be the case that Dawkins has a broader view than Pigliucci about what constitutes science. But it simply doesn’t follow that Dawkins is anti-philosophy just because his conception of science is broader than Pigliucci’s. Pigliucci’s anger at Dawkins is based on this non-sequitor.

    “On the issue of Genie Scott, I think she often advocates for a more tactful take of pseudosciences and issues. I don’t know about her specific views of GMOs, but I would caution against assuming that her empathy mean her sympathy.”

    See the interview I referred to above: http://thehumanist.com/features/interviews/is-there-such-a-thing-as-an-anti-science-left-an-interview-with-eugenie-scott

  24. BillyJoe7on 24 Dec 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Steven Novella,

    It seems your post has caused Phil Plait to change his mind:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2014/12/23/followup_celebrities_science_and_anti_science.html

  25. rgreinon 26 Dec 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Hmm, I can certainly agree. We all have our character flaws. One of the big ones for skeptics at the moment is the official pro GMO stance, as mentioned in the blog.

    It’s true that the anti GMO movement has some significant woo involvement. However, there isa significant rational component as well. Some of us are skeptical of the control of GMO tech – much like we were, and are concerned about control of nuclear power. Both technologies are under the control of those who have records of making shortsighted decisions that seriously impact everyone. Allowing unregulated GMO is like trusting BP to safely drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico without oversight.

    It’s not popular or sexy, but the major problems (NOT addressed by skeptics) are monopoly control of markets and foodstuffs, the entire monoculture problem, and of course the current drive of proprietary herbicides tied to proprietary genetics. No crazies chanting mantras to the earth mother are involved, just good old economics and ecology.

    Think about it for a bit.

  26. Steven Novellaon 29 Dec 2014 at 8:35 am

    rgrein,

    I think you are attacking straw men.

    I have directly addressed both the issues of control of GMO and monoculture, as have many others writing about the GMO issue. Also – no one that I have seen is arguing for “unregulated GMO.” GMOs already are highly regulated, which is appropriate. Our point is that they are adequately regulated already – more so than any other food.

    Monoculture is a problem, but not one that derives from GMO or that is unique to GMO. In fact, GMO may provide one more tool for addressing this problem.

    Corporate control is also an issue largely separate from GMO. Hybrid seeds, for example, cannot be replanted, and most agriculture today uses hybrid seeds. Some GMOs are not under corporate control. This is simply not an issue of GMO. In my opinion it is a false issue raised to attack GMO when the scientific arguments fail.

  27. RCon 29 Dec 2014 at 11:50 am

    “Richard Dawkins is an incredibly famous and eloquent scientist, atheist, and foe of pseudoscience, but has made some problematic statements about feminism and rape that have given some skeptics pause.”

    This seems to be an oversimplification/sound-bite-mining to me. Pretty much everything I’ve seen of Dawkins that is “controversial” is more of a poorly worded tweet than anything else (or a tweet that is intentionally misinterpreted, which is more often the case).

    I agree with Grabula’s take on Bialek – her name and credentials lend credibility to her arguments for most people, and shes highly visible. Her degree is in a field that indicates that she should have a pretty good understanding of immunology. Her woo is much more damaging than your everday crank.

    I really dislike IFLS for the same reason – the fact that they appear to be a science site gives them some credibility – but they’re not a whole lot better than most clickbait – they don’t fact check, they’re intentionally misleading in their headlines and articles, and they’re generally sloppy.

  28. BillyJoe7on 29 Dec 2014 at 4:11 pm

    rare in,

    “Think about it for a bit”

    Good advice.
    But may I suggest, as a background, that you read all the posts and commentaries on this topic on this blog. I will caution you that will take some considerable time, but it will be worthwhile. But it is no use commenting again until you have done so, because I think you will find that all your concerns have been more than adequately dealt with. Certianly you will find all you arguments and more put by anti-GMO protagonists in the commentaries, and more than adequately answered by those presenting the facts of the matter. There are also plenty of links to explore.
    Good luck.

  29. BillyJoe7on 29 Dec 2014 at 4:13 pm

    …sorry, my iPad changed your name without me noticing. I meant rgrein.

  30. grabulaon 29 Dec 2014 at 8:54 pm

    rgrein sez: “Think about it for a bit.”

    Dr. Novella covered it but it seems there’s a considerable amount of confusion amongst anti-GMO types about the points of conflict. They (you rgrien) often mistake the questions of control over GMO as the argument and this is not the issue. Every skeptic I know understands technology has to have controls for safety. It’s a strawman designed to prop up the more woo arguments the anti-GMO crowd has because they’re starting to realize those complaints aren’t rational.

    Follow BJ7’s advice on this and feel frer to peruse the GMO related topics on this blog and you’ll see all the responses to the strawman you’ve raised.

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