If Stephen Hawking were incredibly racist, would people still call him smart?

By: | Post date: October 6, 2016 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

Geoffrey Sampson is a very good scholar in Natural Language Processing. One of my .sigs quotes him.

He’s also a UKIP member who got kicked out of the Tories after saying he was an unashamed racialist. Protests at his university wanted him kicked out, saying no person of colour could comfortably sit his classes. And some protesters cast doubt on his academic record.

For me to consider Sampson a good scientist does not mean I endorse “racialism”.

People are complicated. Caravaggio was a thug and a killer; he also was the first man in the West who made painting an art. Ben Carson, by all accounts, really is a brilliant surgeon, who thinks strange things about pyramids.

The notion that politicians, or sportspeople, or teachers should somehow be moral exemplars is absurd to me. It’s not relevant to their job, and it’s not their job. If racism is bad, it’s bad in everybody, the sanitation worker no more or less than the professor. If people have talents and expertise, those are not diminished by their prejudices, even if we consider that their humanity is.

Some would allow a hypothetical Hawking’s racism to call his work into question, just as they did with Sampson. I won’t. I read Sampson’s books to get a grounding in pronoun resolution, not to learn about the hierarchy of the races. Not, in fact, to engage with Sampson as a person at all. And anything valid I learn about pronoun resolution from his books remains valid, whatever his political opinions.

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