‘that stupid sciam blog’ and why it matters

It seems that months can now go by without me finding the time to update this blog; perhaps this is not so surprising, as the facts aren’t changing at any great rate.  I was pretty clear when I started writing here that I wanted to concentrate on the facts – if I posted my thoughts here every time I saw an article about women in science that caused me outrage, this would be a much bigger job – and frankly, I’d rather be spending my time writing papers.  And twitter works well for the small stuff.

But: sometimes twitter is not enough.  There’s an interesting post on the topic here, by the Curious Wavefunction: the twitter conversation he is talking about is something I contributed to, in response to an excellent blog post which was written in response to a post on his own Scientific American blog – though the post itself was not written by him but by a friend.

The thing that bothers me is this. I used to follow @curiouswavefn on twitter: we seem to have a reasonable number of scientific interests in common, and I have been known to appreciate his posts.  However, when he first tweeted about the guest post “Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes a good point, but Larry Summers was right”, I replied. He did not.

My thoughts on the ‘Larry Summers argument’ are, conveniently, already described here.  If you read the comments on the Scientific American blog post itself, you’ll find that many people have already debunked many of the links that the author chose to base his argument on.

The short version:

“This slovenly article above is so full of outdated information it is painful.”

The author’s response includes the rather odd comment, in this context, that:

“As I explained, there’s no deficit of women in the sciences.”

Mmmhmmm. But I’m not really interested in going into all of this here – I consider that the comments on the piece have, for the most part, done their job.  What I’d like to reflect on is why it matters – and why people might be concerned, and even angry – that a piece like this remains on the blogroll of Scientific American.

I can’t go past another reference to the comments, where the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is quoted:

“It’s comforting to think that the academics who show no interest in the “dark arts” do so out of fear of the leftist cabal. More likely, they do so to avoid being associated with a specious field of study whose primary contributions to the world include justifying slavery and inspiring genocide.”

It is followed by (thankfully, I guess) the final comment on the blog post, which ends by stating that women leave physics because they are more caring:

“How is caring about people akin to slavery or genocide?”

Well, I guess this question can be answered.  Or rather, we can try to explain why it is harmful to

1. attribute nice, nurturing characteristics exclusively or asymmetrically to women

2. use the positive framing of gender differences in favour of women to argue that they are natural and even beneficial to society*

3. dismiss the very real recent history of eugenics and it’s far reaching and persistent consequences.

Do I even have to?  That a scientist is willing to write about evolutionary psychology and gender differences without giving a bit more thought to the problematic past of the subject is actually quite deeply troubling. Maybe I’m taking this too seriously: I’m currently in Berlin, a hundred metres from the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, and I can’t really understand how anyone can not worry about the implications of their statements on this subject.  Especially someone who professes to have an interest in the history of science.

‘Science’ gets messy when it deals with people.  And all scientists have to be aware, and even comfortable with the fact, that science gets it wrong sometimes.  But a blog post hosted by a reputable publication such as Scientific American has credibility: its popularity means it has impact.  I’ll happily defend the right of anyone to be wrong on the internet.  But the right to be wrong about something like this, in a forum which confers the seal of approval of Science**: that I am deeply unhappy about.

Is it unfair to think that @sciamblogs has some responsibility? Maybe. But then there is this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 9.40.09 PM


Really @sciamblogs? 13 favoured tweets since 2010, & this is one of them? http://t.co/vNUWijObOv
27/06/14 3:06 AM

It would have been nice to have been replied to before being accused of whining. A simple ‘please post your thoughts on the blog’ would have been quite sufficient, easily manageable in 140 characters. But then again, the ability to choose your forum – and put the onus on your critics to respond via the same – is precisely why the privilege of having a platform matters. No?


*Oh wait: I may have had a go at this already.

**I know there is a disclaimer at the top of the page.  But that is not the reality of the public perception of credibility.

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2 Responses to ‘that stupid sciam blog’ and why it matters

  1. Thanks for the “excellent” blog post link, and a great followup here. The attempt to control responses is typical and not to be tolerated.

  2. Chris M says:

    I was the author of the guest post.

    The point about twitter isn’t about the choice of forum. It’s that twitter is just for people to make snarky comments in 144 characters or less. If someone chooses to use twitter to deal with a serious scientific discussion I’m trying to have, I wouldn’t bother responding to them, especially when they could leave a lengthy comment at the original site.

    The issue of the “problematic past” is a convenient heuristic that lots of academics use but it has no validity. The whole human race has a problematic past. That doesn’t mean the whole human race is somehow contaminated. This too is just not worth responding to. And incidentally, [defense of eugenics and mention of Nazis redacted by blog author]

    If you want to deny that there are innate differences between men and women, then you are implying that either evolution didn’t happen, or that evolution went out of its way to stop the inheritance of a subset of characteristics that are troubling to a small ideological tribe who happen to live in the late 20th and early 21st century in one region of the world.

    You might it helpful to watch the discussion between Jonathan Haidt and David Sloan Wilson about whether liberals or conservatives are more science phobic. It’s on youtube, and possibly other sites.

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