ScienceBlogs seems to have become the focus of a couple of controversies lately, one spawning the other. The first occurred when Shelley Batts of Retrospectacle was threatened with legal action by Wiley publishing for reproducing a chart and a graph from a paper published in one of their journals. That was absolutely absurd as her use of those figures, with full credit and citation, clearly fell within the fair use doctrine. After that incident got a lot of attention around the blogosphere, Wiley backed off and apologized, blaming it on a junior staffer who misunderstood their own rules.
But that was just the beginning. A blogger for Scientific American, Nikhil Swaminathan (who used to work for Seed), wrote about this controversy but threw in what ScienceBlogger Zuska of Thus Spake Zuska correctly calls a gratuitous reference. Swaminathan wrote:
Anyway, on Tuesday, over at the ScienceBlog Retrospectacle, neuroscience PhD student Shelley Batts (who based on her pictures alone seems to be both attractive and avian-friendly) posted an analysis of a study appearing in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, which suggested that the antioxidants properties in fruits were boosted by alcohol.
Excuse me? “Seems to be attractive”? WTF???
I mean, what the f*ck does that have to do with anything in the story? Why the gratuitous mention of Shelley’s appearance?
Oh, I know why. Because she’s a WOMAN. And women, at all times, you must remember that you are women first and foremost. Your appearance is ever and always an issue, and no matter what the hell you are ever doing – be it analyzing a gel, delivering a talk, or taking on a publishing giant in the blogosphere – how you look will be an important factor in whatever story there is to tell about you.
I just can’t imagine that, if the blogger had been male, a similar comment would have been made. “Over at the Scienceblog Galactic Interactions, professor of physics Rob Knop (who based on his pictures alone seems to be both attractive and orb-friendly) posted an analysis…”
No, it just wouldn’t happen. And no snide remarks about Rob – he’s perfectly nice-looking. I mean it just wouldn’t happen because We don’t do that to men. We don’t talk about their appearance when we are talking about them in a professional context. They get to be treated as professionals and have their work stand for itself. They don’t have their looks assessed and evaluated in parenthetical asides.
And it’s difficult to argue with her reasoning. In that context, it was gratuitous and, no, it’s not something that would typically be said of a male scientist in such a situation. One commenter at Zuska’s blog points out that the male ScienceBloggers have, in fact, had their attractiveness evaluated. And frankly, I take great offense that I wasn’t on the list (though as Tara Smith pointed out in the comments there, you had to have a picture on your Technorati profile to be considered and I don’t have one).
Okay, that’s not really true. Frankly, I think we all tend to be amused by such things, primarily because we’re all a bunch of nerds and not accustomed to being called attractive. The other thing that I think is going on here is a matter of familiarity. We would take more offense at that statement being made by a stranger and in the context of a professional dispute than by a friend in casual conversation. And in that context, I have to agree that it was inappropriate.