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.


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.

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