I’ve been following the Scott Aaronson kerfuffle with some interest, and with my own view of it you can pick up on in this comment thread. However, I think a more interesting and more important story just got bulldozed under the Aaronson stuff: Namely the fact that Walter Lewin, who taught me a thing or two about physics, was engaged in online harassment and that his videos were removed from MIT OCW.
I think it’s a more important story for two reasons:
At its core, the Scott Aaronson story is just one about another man taking issue with privilege and having the same go-around about whether privilege is a real and valid concept. This conversation is being had all over the Internet. It’s kind of not news in the sense that I could see an Onion headline about it, “Area Man Doubts He Has Had It Better Than Others Etc. etc…”
The Lewin story cuts to the heart of some real issues that need to start being discussed. Among them, whether we are foolish to have heroes and what to do with a corpus of work generated by people who have failed morally.
The Cosby issue raises this question less neatly. Do you really want to watch (and in a sense promote financially) a man who traded on his reputation for wholesomeness when it turns out that he very likely engaged in the second-worst form of violence against others on a regular basis? I feel like it’s very easy to say that you don’t want that on your television anymore than you want Keith Richards to make anti-drug PSAs. It gets a little more complicated when you realize that Cosby was only one of the people who worked on the show. It gets less complicated again when you realize that Cosby probably still makes money off syndication. As I said, it’s not as neat as the Lewin case.
With Lewin, however, the degree of separation is greater. Lewin makes no money off the OCW materials. What the OCW materials promote, in themselves, is simply physics. He doesn’t have to come at it from any real moral grounding for it to retain its validity. They remain useful and educational whether Lewin lives, dies, or commits genocide. I see nothing to be gained from taking these videos down. I think it’s all too easy for people in industrialized non-censoring Western nations with relatively easy access to information to say, “Ah, there’s plenty of other resources out there.” I’ve been in other parts of the world where if you slap MIT on it, it bypasses the censors much faster than if you slap “YouTube” on it.
Ultimately, however, I liken it to book burning. Burning books was very much an act that was often motivated by the supposed misdeeds and reputation of the author, as it was the the actual content of the book. I think it’s a horrible mistake to reject everything that person has generated because they did something wrong. I think that a work or a production should be allowed to exist independently from the person who generated it. There are many reasons for this, but not least among them is the simple fact that people change. I’m not even going to assume that they change for the better, just as often they get worse. Why should the work of a good person be rejected because that people later became an oddball conspiracy-theorist, for example? The book Yes, We Have No Neutrons is a good book about how scientists have sometimes fooled themselves into believing things not supported by evidence. It’s written by someone who later became a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. However nothing about what that person later became changes the validity or applicability of the book, even if it runs in direct philosophical contravention of his current beliefs.
Another, less interesting, aspect of the Lewin story is how he actually tried to engage with students in an inappropriate manner. It’s less interesting because much like the Aaronson story, it’s sadly all too typical. I think that for male nerds like myself, there’s a deeper problem than feeling personally attacked by having privilege: We have a dearth of role models. I don’t know if you’ve looked around lately, but so many male nerd dudes who’ve made it to the top turn out to be somehow ridiculously clueless and/or violent. It often feels like those who aren’t simply haven’t revealed themselves yet.
I admit I have a serious love for Neil Degrasse Tyson, but I also have to admit that I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and discover that he sexually assaulted someone or something equally heinous. I remember reading a Lawrence Krauss book once upon a time and thinking fairly highly of him until he decided it would be a good idea to present a video of a BNP nutjob ranting about Muslims as part of a lead-in to a talk about Atheism. Look, I don’t expect people to be perfect, but I think there’s a lot of room for imperfection that doesn’t include sexual harassment and casual bigotry.
Ultimately I think male nerds are better served not by complaining that their heroes are being subjected the kind of scrutiny anyone else should be, but by finding or being better heroes.