Lewin Story Lost In The Shuffle

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:

  1. 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…”

  2. 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.


I had not heard about this, so thanks for posting it. I’ve heard plenty of discussions from scholars who have been around since the 60s and 70s to know that this sort of thing is not new nor is it restricted to online interactions. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a long history of using his position of power against young women. I had a friend whose mother went to MIT and it was a struggle, so much so, that my friend decided not to follow in her mother’s footsteps and attend (as she was met by a similar atmosphere when she went on her campus visit back in the 90s).

I wonder how much of this has to do with the nature of capitalism, and how it demands cut-throat competition as the only viable road to success.

Also, I think there is a tendency to disconnect science from the social and economic world (meaning the process by which we’ve gained scientific knowledge is assumed to be value neutral because it deals with things that can be proven to be objectively true, if that makes sense), but the fact is that the scientific revolution of the 18th through the 20th century went hand in hand with the rise of the modern world (with all that means - good and bad - imperialism, racism, modern sexism, eugenics, nationalism, fascism, lived communism, etc) and was rarely objective. This is probably more true of the humanties that claim a scientific world view (anthropology, etc), but how something evolves socially matters as much as the knowledge it creates in the world, I think. Does that taint all scientific knowledge - no I don’t necessarily think so. These things still enhance our understanding of the universe. But the social world in which scientific knowledge has been and continues to be created should come under scrutiny like any other field of life. And of course, not all science is good science, right? I doubt anyone would embrace eugenics seriously now, though it was a series field of study for decades.

Also, these are conscious choices we make, right? We make a conscious choice to hate someone because of their race/gender/religion/whatever - even if that is something that is supported by the invisible (and not so invisible) structures in our society. And some people have now embraced the narrative that nerds are on top, because of the centralized role that computers play in our daily lives now, and for the fact that the media industries have actively embraced and commoditized the off-beat quirky culture we all sort of created or made our own in our youth. Nerds and geeks have a new measure of cultural capital now then they did even 20 years ago when many of us were still in HS or whatever. I think lots of geeks and nerds, when it was still not cool, made revenge their mantra. They didn’t want to rise above, they wanted to feel superior - and embracing sexual harassment and casual bigotry can often be part of that mindset.

For some people “never again” doesn’t mean never anyone, never others… it means “never me or mine” if that makes sense. I think the latter is the mantra of far too many white, male nerds, and they punch down instead of punching up. It’s revenge, in their minds, not making the world a better place sadly.


Fields traditionally dominated by men have this so damn bad, and I honestly feel that professors have become inured to it. In at least one way, it’s more obvious to men, because we get the secret-elbow nudge of induction into the culture. The subtle initiation of having your male professor ask you what you think of the cute girl you happened to be sitting next to. In isolation it wouldn’t bother me and I could maybe assume a well-intentioned attempt to nudge students to think romantically in college (i.e. something my grandmother would do.) Unfortunately the context for the remarks is a lot creepier than that and is illustrated here.

I tend to kinda-sorta disagree with you there, in the way where I suspect we agree but with different wording. Science is just knowledge. I tend not to associate any kind of knowledge with moral value, and it’s up to the users to apply that knowledge in responsible ways. Eugenics isn’t so much a case of bad science falling to the wayside, but rather a case of science disproving a set of bad or untrue ideas in conjunction with society deciding that the priorities of eugenics are perverse.

I tend not to think of racism and sexism is a conscious choice. Mainly because the evidence is good that a lot of racism and sexism exists as an unconscious undercurrent. I think responsible people can recognize that and rage against the evils that society has instilled in them. I think where this crosses the line is when people hurt others in a way that is measurable above the sort of cosmic background radiation of common social prejudices. Of course we have to engage in battles well below that level if we’re ever going to weed out the attitudes that ultimately lead to the extremes of hatred and systemic prejudice. This is why it’s so hard. You have to call people on things that they themselves are not always capable of being aware of. I think part of that, is as you mentioned, eliminating the idea of simply decapitating the present system and installing others on top. Instead the solution is far more radical, and consists of uprooting the system itself.

I’m deeply involved and interested in the ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. That makes more sense to me than you know. Boy howdy, tell me about it.

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Which is pretty much all of them except like nursing and teaching (below the college level).

I think the context of knowledge creation matters. Not that it negates the end product, just that we just understand HOW knowledge is created.

Hm. I think two things - first, some still buy this shit (ie, The Bell Curve is eugenics by another name, I’d argue) and b) it was the holocaust and the nearly complete annihilation of European Jewry by the racial state of the Nazis that led to the ultimate discreding of eugenics as a field.

Ha! It’s funny you knew exactly what I meant without me saying “the occupation” or whatever… Yeah, this topic is our modern “Jewish question” I think, still playing out and it’s a global issue now (look at Europe and that anti-Muslim rally in Dreden recently). I was going to mention that movie Black Book, it’s a Dutch film, I think, from 2006 or so? Have you seen it? If so, the ending kind of kills me (it’s very much in the same moral space as some of Primo Levi’s works).

Also, can you tell I’ve been reading hannah arendt lately… instead of Ricouer’s lectures on ideology and utopia, which I’m supposed to be reading! :slight_smile:

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Well, if you go far back enough, yes. I suppose I tend to think in more contemporary and immediate terms. For example, there is one department at the university I attend (it’s a humanities department) which has literally two straight white male grad students and one straight male professor, and everyone else is either gay or a woman. The field itself, is of course dominated by men, but I truly believe that this is changing fairly rapidly and for the better. I honestly (and sadly) believe that sexism in the so-called “hard” sciences is far more entrenched. From my (admittedly informal) polling of people in other fields, it just doesn’t seem as bad. It’s certainly there, though.

I agree, but I guess I’m taking a very literal meaning of the word science. I’m not referring to a discipline or a field, I’m referring to science in the sense of its literal Latinate root.

People will always believe some weird shit, I don’t think it means it has real traction in serious study. I’m sure there are bunch of people in the field who might believe in The Bell Curve and other such things, but that’s not enough to say it has real legitimacy. Look at James Watson and his inability to find employment even as a Nobel Laureate. I agree with your second point, social forces shaped our understanding of how perverse eugenics is, and that may have been very well in large part due to Nazi atrocities. (Though I do tend to believe it would have been a lot easier to ignore certain elements of Nazi atrocities if we weren’t competing with the Soviets for ideological high ground.)

OMFG. I have seen that movie. I KNOW! It’s a pity too, because it’s actually a pretty good movie right up until that silliness. That last five minutes or so could have been left out to make a much better movie. I actually recommend that movie to people with exactly that caveat.

Actually I missed that, but I almost wrote something about the banality of evil when I was discussing the phenomenon of subconscious prejudice.

Yes and yes. But the bad old days weren’t that long ago. I think that there are more women in the humanities because it’s seen as more “feminine”, more “intuitive” and “emotional” than the hard sciences… though I’d suspect in my field, there are more women doing histories of things deemed more “feminine” anyway.

Except in real world terms, it has. Many lay people assume that a book like that, which did get an awful lot of attention. Granted, that is public perceptions of science, rather than the work itself, but I think that matters.

I actually thought it made the movie. Suffering begets more suffering, if you’re not careful, it’s saying. It’s worth thinking about. I really can’t stand the how clear cut some hollywood films are, especially around stuff like the holocaust. Schindler’s List is such a sanitized version of history that it really is kind of grating. A film like that points out how things are really not so black and white. One thing I love about Primo Levi is how he pointed to the distinct morality of the camps and what people had to do to get by in them. Such situations creates its entire moral universe that those within it must try and navigate in order to survive.

I think I said “jewry” at least once in that last thing, and I’m reading Origins of Totalitarianism right now, and the first part is all about European anti-semitism… she says the word jew or jewry like every other word…

I totally didn’t take that meaning from it, but it’s been a while. I think I might watch it again soon and take a harder look. However, what I really got from that scene was the idea of a small but rugged minority hopelessly beset. It just seemed to fall neatly into a read-made narrative of Jewish perseverance in the face of constant eradication.That said, I may have under-analyzed it. I especially like the movie for the portrayal of post-war behavior.

Not to further distract you from Ricouer, but have you ever read Spielberg’s Holocaust, by Yosefa Loshitzky? It is a collection of essays about the dynamics of Spielberg’s movie. I’m not sure if I read it there or elsewhere, but I recall finding out that the shower scene in Schindler’s List actually took place in history with men. However Spielberg totally male-gazed it and put naked women in there because it’s more titillating. That was really gross.

I could see it being read that way, too. I read it the way I did I think because of the fact that she was literally surrounded by the power of the IDF… I wonder if there are any books that address this movie specifically.

Yes, I’m not sure I’ve read that book, but maybe I read some articles from it when I took a class on the history of the holocaust? I’ve also read the book by Peter Novick, the Holocaust in American, which was pretty controversial. And then there was the whole historikerstreit of the late 80s/early 90s in German historiography:

And the related structuralist/functionalist debate…

Wait did we just godwin this discussion?.. How did we end up talking about the Nazis? Does that mean the conversation is over? We weren’t even calling each other nazis and yet, here we are. :frowning:

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Nononono. There was no analogy to the Nazis. We’re in safe territory.

Although you are making me second-guess going into the sciences over history. Goddamnit! Why is everything so interesting?

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You could always go back and get a degree in the history of science! Just stay in school forever! It’s fun!

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I didnt read the moronic wall of text but let me try to sum up what i believe is contained inside of it:

For Ah Pook’s sweet sake, it’s New Year’s Day - how can you be so cogent, coherent, passionate, detailed and interesting today?


It’s difficult to detach the creator from the creation. It comes up far too often. Just in my sphere of interest, we’ve had Polanski, Allen, Dawkins and his descent into misogyny, and my perennial favourite example H P Lovecraft and his adorbale racism.

And it’s easy to say, hate the creator not the work, but as you suggest @ActionAbe, what happens when these creators make money from it. I’m inclined to agree that if it’s a collaborative effort to just view the work as the joint effort it is, but when it comes to individual work - books/websites/public speaking - to personally boycott the work (or, if I have to read/watch it for work or whatever, torrenting it! >.<). That’s for ongoing stuff, but I’m with Abe on not retconning previous work in light of revelations of heinous behaviour.

I love Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to death and I’m not going to chuck out all of that because he was a racist prick and the product of his time. I can recognise that he was a racist prick and be sure to educate others I introduce to his work.

And one cannot diminish Climbing Mount Improbable even though the author turns out to be a sexist pig and the product of his time. (And don’t get me started on his “less bad” child sex abuse thing :/) But, again, it is possible to appreciate one while condemning the other.

That’s easier to do with books though. Was MIT removing the videos because he is the “face of MIT” when you watch it? I can see them feelig it is almost a tacit endorsement of his behaviour to leave the videos as they were. Perhaps slapping a disclaimer on the beginning of each video?

It gets fucking messy. >.<

But at least having the conversation about the problem raises people’s awareness to the issues. Perhaps that’s enough?

it’s maybe not obvious, but @OtherMichael’s first sentence is copypasta’d from a troll in I think it was a recent gamergate thread, i.e. sarcasm.

anyhow, I’m not nearly as well-read or reasoned as you or @Mindysan33 , but I’m of the opinion that your point in the OP is valid. You said “people change,” but I was thinking along the lines of “we’re all flawed,” on some level. Some disgustingly so, but it’s a spectrum. And–sidebar–a lot of it is learned, victims of abuse become abusers and all that.

in my realm, the problem is phrased as “seperate the art from the artist,” but it’s the same thing, and I feel it is important. the work stands on it’s own merit, or else we don’t get to progress. if everything done by a “bad person” had to be thrown out by society, we’d all still be living in caves. Newton was supposed to be a complete dick. did he outright physically or sexually assault people? dunno, I no longer have my copy of A Brief History of Time with the bio that I learned of his dickishness in to quote from, but according to it he was particularly cruel. and what if he did and it never came to light? but for the sake of argument, let’s say he did. so we aren’t allowed thermodynamics and gravity into our body of knowledge? no, what we do is say “Newton was an asshole.” separate his personal and professional legacy.

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We’re not too hung over?

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Ohhhh. I can take praise or criticism, but when it seemed like both simultaneously it just made my brain quit.

Except that I don’t think we really ever dismiss such fundamental things as thermodynamics because Newton was an asshole. I think where it starts to get dicey is around works of less obvious importance. I think it’s all too easy to look at that and decide to dismiss it or throw it out. If you read some of Nixon’s writing on foreign policy, it’s easy to forget he was a fuckhead because a lot of it seems really on-the-mark. He practically predicted war with Afghanistan, albeit as a conflict for energy resources. At the same time, coloring his political ideas with his personal foibles very much informs how you should evaluate his ideas. So I think the real call here is for nuance, which is ultimately unsatisfying. As weird as it seems, even the most thoughtful people always hate to admit when things require a case-by-case evaluation.



Probably something to do with possibly destroying Hooke’s portrait?

I think a lot of this is speculation though. Much like the hatchet job the recent Cosmos tried to do on Humphry Davy.

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great read! thanks!

In one of the great quirks of historical irony, the most popular quote attributed to Newton — “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” — might actually have been the mother of all passive-aggressive swipes at Robert Hooke. While it’s generally viewed as an eloquent demonstration of scientific humility on Newton’s part, the quote comes from a 1676 letter to Hooke, at a point where the pair were already arguing over proper credit for some work in optics. Hooke was commonly described as very short, even hunchbacked, and one theory is that Newton’s mention of “giants” was his way of saying Hooke had no influence on his work. It’s a fascinating to think that such an iconic, seemingly inspiring quote could have such petty, personal origins, but of course it’s totally impossible to prove either way.


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Although the objectivity of the resulting knowledge has tended to suggest that modernity and progress exist only as subjective frames of reference in human culture. How things work has not changed, rather what has changed is how the discoveries have informed people’s perceptions. It would be self-centered to assume that the world has changed around us, rather than reflecting an externalization of our changing understanding of it.

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