Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Attractive Female Science Bloggers

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.

Zuska replies:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave
    April 30, 2007

    Don’t be offended Ed, I seem to recall that Gribbett made some disparaging comments about you when you first posted your pic. You’re a lookism target too…

    dave

  2. #2 Wes
    April 30, 2007

    I agree that the statement is inappropriate. However, Zuska seems to be overreacting. It doesn’t seem like Swaminathan is deliberately trying to be sexist or offensive. It reads like more of a lame attempt at a light-hearted compliment.

  3. #3 Stuart Coleman
    April 30, 2007

    Umm, who cares if some SciAm blogger thinks she’s attractive and bird-friendly? Isn’t she attractive? I think so. Who really cares if he states an obvious truth? He probably got more of his readers to click the link, which is even more traffic for Shelley. I can’t see any way his goal was to demean her, so who freaking cares?

  4. #4 Robert
    April 30, 2007

    I agree the statement was totally irrelevant. However as a guy I would just like to say that anyone may admire my attractiveness without causing me offense. In fact, please do, I would really enjoy it!

  5. #5 nal
    April 30, 2007

    Yes, but …

    I’m as affected by an attractive woman as much as the next guy, maybe more. When my brain sees a pretty face, my neurons go a little crazy. That’s the way it is and I’m tired of apologizing for it. That’s the way the male brain has evolved and I think it’s time that men stop feeling guilty about how their brains work.

  6. #6 Kate
    April 30, 2007

    To think of this another way, how would it affect the article if the writer had said that she was UNattractive? Would it have put a negative spin on the review? I think it would have. I think that’s why it shouldn’t be mentioned in a professional context, because it introduces bias where none previously existed.

    The fact that professional papers and ideas coming from females are (at least occasionally) put through an “attractiveness” filter is something that scientists should be alarmed by. This may mean that unattractive women with bright ideas might be listened to less often, or that more attractive women with silly ideas are listened to (even a little) more often. If this is the case, it’s clearly detrimental to science.

    If we can eliminate confirmation bias (another subconcious form of bias) from scientific experiments, this filter should be just as easy to get rid of… no appeals to male genetic bias or evolutionary predispositions necessary.

  7. #7 gwangung
    April 30, 2007

    I think the only context that Ms. Batts “attractiveness” is relevent to is the interpersonal one, not the professional one. And while I’m sure that some folks here would love to be in that particular context, let’s not try to blend the two.

    (And frankly, I’m surprised anyone around here is even trying to….).

  8. #8 Skemono
    April 30, 2007

    I really hope the commenters here are just making fun of the list of knee-jerk idiot responses that Zuska lists in her post….

  9. #9 hans
    April 30, 2007

    Although I fully agree with Nal, we should not forget that we are still “allzu menschlich”, while Zuska has already sumblimated these animalistic insticts and so a sexual attraction is just an insult to her ubermansch status!

  10. #10 Clark Goble
    April 30, 2007

    Question: are blogs by any stretch of the imagination a “professional context”? Someone must be reading different blogs than me. They may deal with science, although for many writers at Science Blogs even that is often a stretch. But professional? Come on.

  11. #11 Kate
    April 30, 2007

    hans, does Neitsche really have a place in this discussion? If so, can you be a little more specific about what psychological point either of the works you refer to make with respect to female attractiveness vs. professional respect?

    Also it’s “allzumenschlich” (one word) and “ubermensch” (with an e, not an a).

  12. #12 Matthew Young
    April 30, 2007

    And, far more to the point, was Nietsche anziehend? Because that’s really far more relevant.

    And, Clark, they aren’t professional by any stretch, of course not, but if you’re trying to have an intellectual debate then her appearance is utterly irrelevant.

    I am a bloke, I think she’s rather foxy too, I don’t apologise for it, but I can’t imagine that it would ever occur to me to mention it in a situation like the one discussed. So Zuska is a bit over the top, but basically her point is absolutely right.

  13. #13 gwangung
    April 30, 2007

    Well, the original subject was fair use, analysis of published scientific papers and publisers. Lots closer to professional than the interpersonal and social. I’m sure I’d try to wait for the proper context for any comments on physical appearances (though I think in my case, it’d be a rather long wait….)

  14. #14 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    nat wrote:

    Yes, but …

    I’m as affected by an attractive woman as much as the next guy, maybe more. When my brain sees a pretty face, my neurons go a little crazy. That’s the way it is and I’m tired of apologizing for it. That’s the way the male brain has evolved and I think it’s time that men stop feeling guilty about how their brains work.

    I think you’ve missed the point completely. Yes, I’m a guy too, and yes, I like seeing an attractive woman just as much as you do. And I don’t have the slightest inclination to apologize for that. But the question here is context, and how and when it is appropriate to mention such things. The fact that your neurons “go a little crazy” when you see an attractive woman is natural, but that doesn’t mean that whatever response you might decide to make to it would be appropriate. Thinking to yourself that she’s beautiful is appropriate; masturbating while staring at her on the subway – not appropriate. No one has criticized the guy for finding Shelley attractive but only for his choice to express that in an irrelevant context and in a manner that might tend to trivialize far more relevant traits in the context under discussion.

  15. #15 Robert
    April 30, 2007

    So, yes Shelley is attractive, but pointing that out in an article that is supposed to be about science is as useful as pointing out I have feet when talking about politics?

    I think thats the jist of it (though I suppose it could be more offensive if you think that we are trying to say that the only job women have is looking good. Which is not what I’m saying).

  16. #16 David Marjanović
    April 30, 2007

    pointing that out in an article that is supposed to be about science is as useful as pointing out I have feet when talking about politics

    On the telephone:

    “Give me the Secretary of State! What? Yes, the one with the ears!”

  17. #17 Clarissa
    April 30, 2007

    Shit Ed, why the hell would she post here picture if she didn’t want guys to admire it?

    And she has a receding chin anyway.

    And you look like Porky Pig with a beard but I never comment on that.

  18. #18 valhar2000
    April 30, 2007

    I thought that the whole “framing” debate was an incomprehensible waste of time, and then I say this…

  19. #19 RickD
    April 30, 2007

    Stuart, nal and others:

    There is no problem with noticing that a woman is attractive. There is no problem with mentioning it…in a social context. When the context is discussing her work, it’s counter-productive (unless her looks are part of her work – as a model, singer, actor, etc.)

    When men start discussing the attractiveness of a woman in a work context, the implication is that looks are a factor in evaluating the woman’s work. In science (and, more generally, in academia), that’s completely inappropriate. It’s particularly bad in science because women have been historically underrepresented in science, and indeed sexism has historically been one of the impediments to women’s success in science.

    I’m a hetero guy, but if I see an attractive woman talking about science, I’m not going to whistle at her, or make comments about her looks in a professional setting. Doing so sends the signal that I value her looks but am dismissive of her professional contributions.

    Robert: you may think you would appreciate hearing compliments about your looks, but you are coming into the situation as a male, where compliments about looks are fairly rare (unless you’re at the Brad Pitt level). Women like being complimented on their looks, but at the appropriate time, and in the appropriate way.

  20. #20 THobbes
    April 30, 2007

    Robert–

    Yes, that’s how I took it as well. Attractiveness is not a criterion for determining the worth of an argument; mentioning it is demeaning whether you intend it to compliment their attractiveness (suggesting that the argument is better because the author is attractive) or insult it (suggesting that the author’s argument is worth less solely because of their attractiveness).

    It reminds me of an exchange Richard Feynman wrote about. A Cornell professor was asking Feynman if they should admit a particular student late in the term:

    Professor: “Well, what do you think?”
    Feynman: “I think he’s first rate, and we ought to accept him.”
    P:”Yes, but did you look at his picture?”
    F: “What possible difference could that make?”
    P: “Absolutely none, sir! Glad to hear you say that. I wanted to see what kind of man we had for our new professor.”

  21. #21 Martin Grant
    April 30, 2007

    >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.

    I don’t think the implied reason is correct. Men may comment on a woman’s appearance, because they notice it. Not because they are trying to be disrespectful. Is there a double standard here? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s pressure from the male establishment not to comment on men’s appearances. I think it happens less because male writers aren’t likely to comment on other men’s appearances (the percent of men who are homosexual is still a small minority). And women are less likely to do it because of how they think (true or not) that it will reflect on them as the writer. I don’t think it has anything to do with subject and sex of the article as much as the perception of the writer.

  22. #22 Sastra
    April 30, 2007

    I’d been agreeing with Ed, but Martin Grant brings up an interesting point. If the article had been written by a woman, and had been about professor of physics Rob Knopf “who, based on his pictures alone, seems to be both attractive and orb-friendly,” would I have given it a second thought? Probably not.

    It wouldn’t have seemed condescending or unprofessional, it would have made me think the article wasn’t meant to be completely scholarly and serious. It’s being written in a more conversational style, aimed at the general reader. The writer is putting themselves into the story a bit.

  23. #23 cephyn
    April 30, 2007

    I struggle with this. For me, the way it was worded made it sound somewhat out of context. But what if he had just said “Anyway, on Tuesday, over at the ScienceBlog Retrospectacle, attractive and avian-friendly neuroscience PhD student Shelley Batts…”

    Would that be ok? I’d not even think twice about it – its a compliment. Shelley is an attractive, intelligent person. That’s a compliment. I’d like it if someone called me an attractive, intelligent blogger.

    “Cephyn, the good-looking insightful author of cephyn.com, had a great post today discussing the current political situation in the Supreme Court blah blah….”

    I dunno. I’d be flattered. You don’t put your picture up to be unnoticed or anonymous.

    “Ed Brayton, the charming, scruffy faced author of DFTCW, usually has insightful posts on current social events – but today, he digresses into an entertaining post on the NFL Draft.”

    What is wrong with that?

  24. #24 Spaulding
    April 30, 2007

    I call B.S. This wasn’t a press release or a peer reviewed study or an official policy statement. It was a blog. It’s fair game for a blog to include casual personal observations or irreverent asides. Swaminathan tucked even tucked his personal comment safely away in parentheses.

    Shall we expect you and Zuska to strictly limit your blogs to professional language and topics? I’m not sure that would be worthwhile. Additionally, everyone involved is welcome to remove their photos from their blogs. As you and Zuska argue, it has no professional relevance. Or perhaps you feel it IS appropriate for blogs to be personal, and perhaps you DO want your words associated with your face.

    A person being attracted to another person and mentioning it in casual conversation(whether spoken or written) is not a big deal. Get over it.

  25. #25 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    Sastra-

    But why should we be surprised that different people with different experiences and different historical backgrounds should, legitimately, have different reactions to similar statements? The fact is that men simply do not have a legacy of being judged primarily on our appearance and having other traits ignored to focus on the superficial. Thus it is perfectly reasonable that the same comment made about a man would be viewed with amusement rather than alarm. Reality does rightly change one’s reaction.

  26. #26 Robert
    April 30, 2007

    This whole thread reminds me of a part out of the “God Delusion” where Dawkins talks about feminism as an exercise in consciousness raising.

    It seems to me that this is mostly a scuffle over the lack of consciousness about the kinds of crap women in science fields take. Yes Shelley may be attractive, and I’m sure most people think its nice to be considered attractive, we need to be conscious of the fact that women (well everyone) should be taken seriously on their merits and abilities, not their physical appearance. As a guy, I would be flattered if someone referred to me as attractive, but then I don’t worry that my appearance will alter the perception of my message. This isn’t always true with women (though it should be).

    So while the original comment may not have been saying anything about Shelley’s professional qualities, or meant in any serious way, it still is important to keep in mind that in many positions today women are still fighting these kinds of battles. And just raising our awareness of it can be a step in the right direction.

  27. #27 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    Spaulding-

    Again, bear in mind the context. The post at the SciAm blog was not a personal post. He does not know Shelley and he was writing about a professional dispute over a serious legal question. In that context, it’s inappropriate. And in the context of a long history of women struggling to be taken seriously and to be judged on the merits of their work rather than on their appearance, it’s perfectly reasonable to view it as inappropriate. Change the context and that judgment changes considerably. Make it someone who actually knows Shelley and a post that isn’t about a serious subject and it would not be inappropriate.

    For instance, I’ve actually met Shelley and would call her a friend. I wrote up a brief account of a dinner we had last fall along with another ScienceBlogger and a good friend of mine before going to see a concert. In that social context, there would have been nothing inappropriate about commenting on the fact that she really is quite beautiful (a comment I didn’t make, and if I had it would probably be in the form of a self-deprecating joke like “and if I was 15 years younger, she’d probably have a restraining order against me by now”). Had I said such a thing, however, I would also have noted that, more importantly, she’s incredibly smart and very, very funny. Because all of those things are true, but they’re also appropriate to say in that context. In the context of writing about a serious professional issue, particularly one written by a stranger, it’s not appropriate at all, merely superfluous. Is it the end of the world? Of course not. But given the context and history, it’s not at all unreasonable to call it inappropriate.

  28. #28 gwangung
    April 30, 2007

    I call B.S. This wasn’t a press release or a peer reviewed study or an official policy statement. It was a blog. It’s fair game for a blog to include casual personal observations or irreverent asides.

    In a casual conversation at a conference, is it fair game to drop a comment about personal appearance in a conversation about the research you’re doing?

    Honestly, I’d find that a little creepy…

  29. #29 Martin
    April 30, 2007

    Robert Wrote:
    >but then I don’t worry that my appearance will alter the perception of my message. This isn’t always true with women (though it should be).

    Are you trying to make an argument that the article writer shouldn’t have made the aside? Because it seems to me your argument doesn’t make the point that anything was wrong with he wrote. The aside just raises the specter of an already existing underlying problem with the way our society treats women without doing anything particularly improper itself.

    Seems to me Ed’s argument is essentially the same.

  30. #30 gwangung
    April 30, 2007

    Again, bear in mind the context. The post at the SciAm blog was not a personal post. He does not know Shelley and he was writing about a professional dispute over a serious legal question. In that context, it’s inappropriate. And in the context of a long history of women struggling to be taken seriously and to be judged on the merits of their work rather than on their appearance, it’s perfectly reasonable to view it as inappropriate.

    I dunno, Ed, I don’t think you have to think of it in terms of history. I just think in terms of everyday, regular humans. If they were talking about social lives, might be appropriate–talking about relationships, certainly appropriate. But talking shop? Someone breaks off and tosses that in? Not appropriate at all…

  31. #31 Martin Grant
    April 30, 2007

    ED wrote:
    >Again, bear in mind the context.

    Ed, I think your point might have been more valid if he was making the comment as if it had some bearing on the topic at hand. Making it as an aside, I think he fully intended to be construed as off topic and not bearing on the conversation at hand. I don’t think there is any reason to have ones principles of fair treatment of the sexes offended unless one reads it as pertinent to the discussion. The whole idea of an aside is to be off topic. (Aside (n): A parenthetical departure; a digression.)

  32. #32 gwangung
    April 30, 2007

    Ed, I think your point might have been more valid if he was making the comment as if it had some bearing on the topic at hand. Making it as an aside, I think he fully intended to be construed as off topic and not bearing on the conversation at hand.

    ??

    Do scientists make those kind of asides all the time? If I did that at a conference in my specialty, I’d get my head knocked silly.

  33. #33 Leni
    April 30, 2007

    Martin Grant wrote:

    Men may comment on a woman’s appearance, because they notice it. Not because they are trying to be disrespectful.

    In general, a person does not have to intend to be disrespectful in order for their actions to be disrespectful. I don’t think he meant to either, and I can see how it would be hard to know whether this was a business or causual affair.

    Nevertheless, he doesn’t know her and it wasn’t a personal topic that was being discussed.

    The respectful thing to do would have been to keep it to himself. The same way the respectful thing to do when addressing elders or business acquaintances is to refer to them as Mr. or Mrs./Ms. until you are told otherwise. If you don’t, you might put someone off.

    I don’t see this as a big deal and I’m sure no harm was intended, but I think Zuska is right nonetheless. It is a sensitive issue for some people, especially women in fields where there aren’t a lot of other women. As adults we ought to know when to keep our mouths shut about that kind of thing.

  34. #34 Robert
    April 30, 2007

    Martin:

    My point was that there are women who are having their professional merits judged on the their physical attractiveness. That is wrong. This probably isn’t one of those times, but as this is an ongoing problem with many of our workplaces today (and I have seen it first hand in a corporate climate) we should at least be more conscious of it.

    So basically, the comment added nothing useful, and was perhaps expressing the kind of attitude we should be discouraging.

  35. #35 Martin Wagner
    April 30, 2007

    When did it become an offensive thing to be referred to as attractive? The PC police just get bent out of shape over the most innocuous, harmless things.

    Cue obligatory response: “Judging a woman on her looks devalues her as a person, waah waah waah!” Bullshit. Saying that a woman is attractive doesn’t imply a rejection of all her other characteristics.

  36. #36 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    Let me make clear that I don’t think the author of the SciAm post was intending to demean Shelley at all. I completely accept the notion that he meant it as an aside and not as a means of diminishing her other, more important traits. But I don’t think that changes the reality of its inappropriateness, nor does it change what it says about how we tend to evaluate women in professional situations. Again, context context context. There is nothing wrong with a man treating a woman like a sexual object, for example, and I don’t know any woman who doesn’t want to be viewed as one – in the proper context. But a man who treats every woman like a sex object at all times is likely to be a sociopath and his conduct, while it may be perfectly appropriate between lovers in private, will be outrageously out of place and repulsive in a business or academic setting. There’s nothing wrong with saying that a woman is attractive and no one is claiming that it is. There’s also nothing wrong with having sex, but it’s not appropriate on a table at McDonald’s during the lunch rush. Context matters.

  37. #37 Martin Wagner
    April 30, 2007

    Okay, I take your point about context, but I’ll add that simply saying a woman is attractive is just that. It’s not even about “treating her as a sex object”. It’s simply saying, “She looks nice,” i.e., “She really takes care of her appearance and health, dresses well, presents herself in a good way.” How come every time a man says “Hey, that’s woman’s attractive/pretty/whatever” some people just insist on hearing, “Goddamn, I’d like to fuck the shit out of that bitch!”

  38. #38 hans
    April 30, 2007

    Kate,
    hans, does Neitsche really have a place in this discussion?
    Hmm, I think this is more of a question for “Thus spake Zuska”…

  39. #39 cephyn
    April 30, 2007

    OK context matters, yes. But what is the context? It’s a blog post. A post on sciam.com but a blog post nonetheless. It’s meant to be a little more personal, a little more conversational. Magazines and companies use blogs to get a more human connection with the readers. Of course no one is going to comment on someone’s attractiveness at a conference – that’s a formal affair. Nor in a scholarly publication/journal. Maybe, in a description of the scientists in a story, sort of a “human interest” paragraph, physical attractiveness would be mentioned.
    “Scientist Bob Jones sits crouched over his microscope. A dashing young man of 28, with close cropped hair and thin wire glasses, Bob toils at his seat looking for the answers to his questions” – would that be wrong? Is it only wrong if it’s not Bob Jones but Jane Roberts?
    “Scientist Jane Roberts sits crouched over her microscope. A stunning young woman of 28, with long raven hair and cats-eye glasses, Jan toils at her seat looking for the answers to her questions” – That’s bad?

    A blog post is informal. It’s meant to connect directly with people, as equals, as friends. It’s saying “lets discuss, maybe over beers!” not “here is a presentation of scientific findings”. You mention he doesn’t know Shelley – does that mean we can only call someone attractive if we know them?

    To judge Shelley’s scientific acumen based on her looks is wrong. Judge her based on her words. Of course. But she’s attractive too. Smart AND beautiful – could anyone say anything nicer? Would anyone not want to hear that, really?

  40. #40 Martin Wagner
    April 30, 2007

    Well said, Cephyn.

  41. #41 Martin
    April 30, 2007

    Gwangung wrote:
    >If I did that at a conference

    Conference vs. Blog: not the same thing in my opinion.

    Robert wrote:
    >but as this is an ongoing problem with many of our workplaces today

    Let’s not blame Nikhil for the problems of our society. (I’m not saying you do, but some of the posts border on that) While what he writes certainly raises the specter of those problems, I don’t think it directly contributes. Therein lies the key difference.

    Ed wrote:
    >Context matters.

    It does. It’s a blog. I’ve seen you tell some off color (and funny) jokes lately too. Usually in a separate post from a more serious discussion. But it’s your blog.

    Seeing as how this individual is blogging on behalf (?) of another entity and it’s potentially (?) his employment, there is more merit in your point that’s inappropriate than I would have initially conceded.

    However I’m still of the opinion that the aside is mostly innocuous though. I don’t think it causes direct harm to the individual, women in general, or contributes to women being treated differently in the work place (although it does reflect on that issue). Maybe it is inappropriate. But the fact that it was innocuous would have caused me to give it a pass. I wouldn’t feel the need to blog and point out a Faux Paus of this minor magnitude.

  42. #42 Luxury Yacht
    April 30, 2007

    What if it were something other than attractiveness? What if when Ed referred to a post Pam Spaulding he had to add in parenthesis: (who based on her picture appears to be black). Or how about a non-photogenic scientist: (who based on her picture isn’t all that attractive).

    Smart AND beautiful – could anyone say anything nicer? Would anyone not want to hear that, really?

    This is part of the problem – we expect that women have to be attractive to be worthy of praise. You say no one could say anything nicer: does this mean you do not value someone who is just smart? Your “nicest” statement only applies to those who are also attractive? A woman can’t be a good scientist – they have to be beautiful as well.

  43. #43 Spaulding
    April 30, 2007

    I’d say most of us agree that context matters, but we apparently disagree on the nature of this context. Some commentors would like to compare a blog to a science conference, which doesn’t seem appropriate to the blogs I read, where the authors are comfortable making personal observations inspired by topics that are newsworthy, or of professional or cultural interest.

    In the context of writing about a serious professional issue, particularly one written by a stranger, it’s not appropriate at all, merely superfluous.

    I certainly agree that it was superfluous (and that’s what parentheses indicate), but that by itself does not make a statement demeaning or offensive. In a formal context, I would be inclined to agree with your evaluation; however, I view a blog as a less formal context than what you describe, regardless of the importance or of a post’s topic.

    Also, I’m afraid I didn’t follow the reasoning behind the implication that it is innocuous for a friend to call another friend attractive, but less so for a stranger to make the same statement. Perhaps the established friendship just soothes the defensive reaction? I notice there’s a simiar correllary between statements written online and in-person statements, but please clarify if you meant something else.

  44. #44 Anne-Marie
    April 30, 2007

    I think you make a good point that the fact that the Sciam blogger isn’t part of the familiar Sci-bling circle could have had something to do with the indignant responses, it is taken for granted that people with the community rib each other sometimes. I think the comment was out of place and unneccessary, but it is interesting to wonder what the reaction would have been if the statement had been made by another Scienceblogs blogger.

  45. #45 Martin
    April 30, 2007

    Luxury Yacht wrote:
    >This is part of the problem – we expect that women have to be attractive to be worthy of praise.
    That’s a problem with some parts of society in general and you’re painting with a wide brush here.

    > You say no one could say anything nicer: does this mean you do not value someone who is just smart? Your “nicest” statement only applies to those who are also attractive? A woman can’t be a good scientist – they have to be beautiful as well.
    I think you are reading in to the bloggers comment things that aren’t there.

  46. #46 TheBowerbird
    April 30, 2007

    Given that Zuska is not what one would call attractive, with one of the nastiest temperaments, there’s reason for her to be jealous. Saying someone is attractive is just another way of praising them. It’s like saying they are smart, or successful. I think it’s incredibly idiotic to be so politically correct as to say that one can’t call a female attractive. Funny that Zuska whines on about trivial banalities like this, but never really addresses ways to combat REAL sexism abroad in her “blogs”.

  47. #47 Kate
    April 30, 2007

    Wow, TheBowerbird just broke my irony meter… where can I get another one?

  48. #48 Gretchen
    April 30, 2007

    Martin Wagner said:

    How come every time a man says “Hey, that’s woman’s attractive/pretty/whatever” some people just insist on hearing, “Goddamn, I’d like to fuck the shit out of that bitch!”

    They don’t. They hear “That woman’s attractive” as “I’m attracted to that woman,” which is what it means.

    The Bowerbird said:

    Given that Zuska is not what one would call attractive, with one of the nastiest temperaments, there’s reason for her to be jealous.

    Congratulations on a particularly unpleasant ad hominem there.

  49. #49 John B
    April 30, 2007

    The ‘women in science’ thing is pretty touchy. When I read the sciam post, the guilty phrase jumped out at me… and I remember thinking he had just pissed someone off. Still, better to offend a few people and learn something from it than to keep it bottled up inside.

    This PC stuff is fine as long as you explain and are willing to debate the rationale behind it (which lots of women have re: science education). When it becomes a code of censorship without gray area or room for dispute, then all you are doing is hiding the problem, be it sexism, racism, or whatever. ‘Raising consciousness’ is pretty hard, and as a process is probably closer to refinement than sudden conversion to ‘right thinking’, imo.

  50. #50 Martin
    April 30, 2007

    >Congratulations on a particularly unpleasant ad hominem there.

    Not 100% sure it’s ad hominem (just 90%). A person’s motivations for making an argument are potentially fair game if they reflect a conflict of interest. But I find this particular tactic distateful and I’d call TheBowerBird’s character into question.

    Or was TheBowerBird trying to make some point about commenting on a person’s appearance. If so his particular point is lost on me. A compliment does not equal an insult, whether it’s on topic or not.

  51. #51 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    I think it will come as a surprise to no one to find out that TheBowerbird’s vile comment came from a Texas state government computer.

  52. #52 Scholar
    April 30, 2007

    Martin,
    It looks like RPM got a bit over-zealous too, comparing Swami’s comment to a declaration of sexual intent. Actually, I’m not sure if RPM is any LESS guilty of objectifying and insulting women. Judge for yourself… (maybe RPM just wants to hit that shit too?)
    http://scienceblogs.com/evolgen/2007/04/scientific_american_editor_say.php

  53. #53 attotheobscure
    April 30, 2007

    The PC police only drive more people into the arms of Foxnews and Limbaugh.

  54. #54 hermites
    April 30, 2007

    I only curious about one thing. Since Zuska is an old guy (judging from his picture above), why is he so upset about a picadillo about some younger woman being attractive? I just find it strange to see an old guy leading the radical feminist overreaction this time.

  55. #55 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    Another idiot chimes in. Okay folks, the gratuitously idiotic and insulting comments are just going to be deleted from now on. If you can’t discuss this like an adult, go somewhere else.

  56. #56 raj
    April 30, 2007

    I sincerely don’t know what the issue is. When I worked as a lawyer in house, we routinely gave permission to reproduce charts and graphs, provided credit was given to source.

    Has this practice changed?

  57. #57 Jason I.
    April 30, 2007

    hermites said:

    I smell me some h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y.

    How is it hypocritical to suggest that government employees are less than brilliant while also pointing out that you can’t even bother to read?

    And just to nitpick, the word is peccadillo. Picadillo is the ground beef mixture that Taco Bell uses in their tacos.

  58. #58 Chris Ho-Stuart
    April 30, 2007

    I’m the commenter who pointed out that the male ScienceBloggers have, in fact, had their attractiveness evaluated. (here’s the comment.) Strictly, it was all bloggers, regardless of gender.

    I also said pretty much exactly the same thing as Ed. The comment in the SciAm blog was “crass and not germaine”.

    I’m not particularly upset about it. I hope the blogger who brought up attractiveness might rethink the matter. There’s a time and a place and this wasn’t it.

    Being as sciencebloggers are mostly sp. Homo sapiens, their interactions include occasional mating and social and verbal grooming rituals. I find that rather charming. But there are some pretty elaborate and subtle conventions about the appropriate contexts. The SciAm blogger needs to figures those out a bit better.

  59. #59 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    Interesting to note that Eugene Volokh linked to the SciAm post today to discuss the issue of copyright and fair use. Also interesting to note that he cut out the gratuitous reference to Shelley’s attractiveness.

  60. #60 Lorri Talley
    April 30, 2007

    Nal said;
    “I’m as affected by an attractive woman as much as the next guy, maybe more. When my brain sees a pretty face, my neurons go a little crazy.”

    I would find it interesting to do an impromtu poll of women to discover how many of us have had to repeat something we were saying to a man who wasn’t listening because his brain was caught in his zipper. I actually once heard a man say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that, I was looking down your shirt”. (It wasn’t me, and the shirt in question was not low cut).

    Whether the context is professional or not, if I am speaking on a subject that matters to me, it is a problem if my listener splits his attention between my words and my appearance. If my words, or my status as a speaker are so unimportant to my listener that he feels comfortable giving them and me less than his full attention, he has effectively demeaned me.

    Did Zuska overreact? I’ve never been in her skin so I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. In the context under question, I’m pretty sure Nikhil’s intentions were benign. But if I’d ever been seriously hindered in my career by men who allowed their feelings of attraction to alter their view of my work, I might say that Zuska let him off easy.

    Ed has said many times that nobody has the right not to be offended, and I agree. I would add that nobody has the right to be offended by the fact that I am offended. If some of the men here have been blessed by a lifetime of being taken seriously, good for them. People who have never been cut shouldn’t tell other people how to bleed.

  61. #61 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    Go away hermites. I made clear that if you can’t discuss this as an adult, find another place to play. Don’t like it? Tough

  62. #62 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    Some people don’t take hints very well.

  63. #63 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    Some people truly need a tire iron to the temple.

  64. #64 Rob Knop
    April 30, 2007

    I think a lot of you miss the point.

    Zuska’s point with the orb reference to my picture was that you almost never would see somebody commenting on male attractiveness. There’s an asymmetry here.

    The asymmetry is worse because it underscores this perception that women in science aren’t just a minority but an exception. “Look at that pretty little thang! And to think she’s a scientist!”

    We have to consider context and we have to consider the full implications of what we say. The fact is that commenting on female attractiveness in the context of commentary on science is demeaning because of the history associated with it, not because women in general dislike being told they’re attractive.

    I rant on this some here:

    http://scienceblogs.com/interactions/2007/04/be_nice_to_shelly_shes_cute_an.php

  65. #65 Rob Knop
    April 30, 2007

    Wow, TheBowerbird just broke my irony meter… where can I get another one?

    Sorry, Kate. They don’t make them strong enough.

  66. #66 sevenwhispers
    April 30, 2007

    I remember a particular episode of Science Friday when Ira Flato complimented Lisa Randal for being attractive. He lamely attempted this in the context of how her good looks must an asset when working with the public. Dr. Randall’s reply was short and full of class. She simply stated that she preferred to be judged on the character of work and left it at that. An informative show on string theory and cosmology followed. Nothing overblown or shrill and yet extremely effective.

  67. #67 nal
    April 30, 2007

    Lorri Talley :

    Whether the context is professional or not, if I am speaking on a subject that matters to me, it is a problem if my listener splits his attention between my words and my appearance. If my words, or my status as a speaker are so unimportant to my listener that he feels comfortable giving them and me less than his full attention, he has effectively demeaned me.

    You make it sound like a guy has a choice. It doesn’t work that way. (I’m speaking for myself and the way my brain works. I have no way of knowing how someone else’s brain works and I’m not always sure about the way mine works.) My brain’s reaction to a pretty face seems to be involuntary. I can try to control my external reaction but my eyes always give me away. I would love to be able to turn it off, but that switch doesn’t exist for me. To assume that an involuntary reaction is demeaning to you, shows a lack of understanding.

  68. #68 pough
    April 30, 2007

    Let me make clear that I don’t think the author of the SciAm post was intending to demean Shelley at all.

    Apparently, it was just to be alliterative. If you’re going to do alliteration (which isn’t highly recommended, anyways) do something more creative than “attractive and avian-friendly” and also try not to piss off a gender while you’re at it.

  69. #69 gwangung
    April 30, 2007

    You make it sound like a guy has a choice. It doesn’t work that way.

    It is with me, and most of the men I work with.

    I find it depressing when scientists have to be whacked with the “My eyes are up here” comment.

  70. #70 Gretchen
    April 30, 2007

    Oh, for fuck’s sake, “Jim Foley” or “notyarbde.” What are you, 12?

  71. #71 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    I’ll just delete the comments every time. Eventually the asshole will give up and slither back under his rock.

  72. #72 Rob Knop
    April 30, 2007

    I can try to control my external reaction but my eyes always give me away. I would love to be able to turn it off, but that switch doesn’t exist for me. To assume that an involuntary reaction is demeaning to you, shows a lack of understanding.

    Controlling your external reactions is all that anybody can ask.

    We all think things all the time that we’d just assume nobody knew about.

    Now, of course, if you’re talking to somebody, the wandering of your eyes are part of your external reactions. Presumably nobody minds if your eyes take in a person when you first meet them, but when they linger in impolite places… well, that’s part of your external reactions, so try to control it!

    Half the battle is being aware of what people are going to take umbrage to, and thus being aware of what you should try to control. That’s why the reaction to the SciAm blog post is important; obviously, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t realize that what was posted there is something that many find demeaning, even if it’s not intended that way.

    -Rob

  73. #73 cephyn
    April 30, 2007

    This thread is a perfect example of what the women’s equality movement has done. There are now huge swaths of the population that just doesn’t understand the rules, or has rejected them. The equal rights movement is a good thing, I firmly believe that, but it has also confused everything because not everyone is on board at the same level at the same time.

    Some of us think the statement was OK, it was a compliment and in the right context. Others think that it was in the wrong context. Still others are offended because they think it demeans the recipient. And others think it was ok because they’re misogynists. *sigh* At one time a statement like that would OK – for the wrong reasons. But now that we know there are misogynists out there, we scrutinize every statement. It’s too confusing.

    I’m a shy person. I don’t give compliments often – for this exact reason. I find many women I respect for their brains attractive. But how can I tell them so? Will they think I’m being crass or shallow? What if I pick a context I think is OK but she disagrees and is offended? That’s the exact opposite of what I wanted her to feel! It’s all too confusing for someone like me.

    I prefer to err on the side of caution. Clearly, the sciam blogger offended a significant chunk of people. I disagree, but i’m not them, and something else might offend me someday. So I will definitely be more careful – even MORE careful now – about how I compliment people. Which means I will be giving out fewer compliments. People lament the death of chivalry, but this is the reason why it’s dead. The line between wooing and stalking has become uncomfortably blurred. What is romantic pursuit and what is harrassment? What is a compliment and what is a patronization?

    And what has happened to the world when it is not OK to call someone attractive because someone else in the room might be considered less so? Will men and women not hear that they look good because they actually look good? Does that make sense to anyone? Is it any wonder so many men and women in this country have body image issues – could it be because others are actually afraid to say they’re attractive?

  74. #74 CinnamonSky
    April 30, 2007

    More Women Needed in the Sciences and Engineering

    I remember wondering why there weren’t more women in upper division engineering courses back in undergrad. I think on average, there must have been only a single woman
    in each course. It must have been intimidating . Indeed, quite a bit should be done, inorder to not only attract but retain women in the core sciences and engineering disciplines where they are underrepresented.

  75. #75 cephyn
    April 30, 2007

    “More Women Needed in the Sciences and Engineering”

    I hate the way that is phrased. Sci and Eng doesn’t *need* more women or men, it is an abstract concept.

    What *needs* to happen is that women should feel more comfortable going into those fields. Whatever barriers exist need to be addressed. To say a field “needs” more is like saying we should force young women into the field just for the sake of demographics – and that won’t be good for the women or the field.

  76. #76 Lorri Talley
    April 30, 2007

    “If my words, or my status as a speaker are so unimportant to my listener that he feels comfortable giving them and me less than his full attention”, (he has effectively demeaned me.) (I apologize for my abysmal ignorance of computer-printy-stuff.I wanted to hightlight some of that, but farewell vanity)

    The vast majority of my co-workers are men. I catch at least one of them ogling me every day. I am aware that they are hardwired that way, and it bothers me not at all. Here’s one woman saying it out loud, “I like it that men think I’m attractive. A lot.” There.

    Having said that, let me say again in a slightly different way; if he misses part of what I am saying because he’s speculating about my body, that is problematic because I am not being heard. If I’m telling my boss about an unsafe condition in my work area and he misses part of it, or all of it, that’s a problem. If I’m making a presentation and my male audience is distracted during a pivotal part, and misunderstand the main thrust of my arguement, that’s a problem. Finally, how often and how blatantly does all this have to happen before I am ‘allowed’ to feel fed up and frustrated?

    Men have eyes; let them look. I am not demeaned in any way by your attention to my appearance. But when I start talking, I want to know I am being heard. I want to know that my thoughts, my ideas, and my contribution to the discussion are more important to you than my all- too-quickly-disappearing beauty.

  77. #77 Leni
    April 30, 2007

    sevenwhispers wrote:

    Ira Flato… lamely attempted this in the context of how her good looks must an asset when working with the public.

    LOL. Ouch. I bet he is still kicking himself for that one.

    ….

    We have to consider context and we have to consider the full implications of what we say. The fact is that commenting on female attractiveness in the context of commentary on science is demeaning because of the history associated with it, not because women in general dislike being told they’re attractive.

    I think Rob Knopp (who is pretty nice for a Christian) sums it up really well.

    (KIDDING!! That was a “clever” play on the gratuitous, backhanded compliment de jour!)

    More seriously, it does sum it up really well. Reading back over the thread, I was a bit amazed by all the commenters who seem to think that this is about any comment on a woman’s appearance ever. It’s like they weren’t even participating in the same conversation.

  78. #78 Leni
    April 30, 2007

    S, what does any of your juvenile crap have to do with Zuska’s point?

    Nothing, so shut up already.

    You don’t like her blog, then don’t read it. Go gossip about it somewhere else.

  79. #79 sevenwhispers
    April 30, 2007

    Uh oh! S has pissed off Leni the thought police!

  80. #80 Leni
    April 30, 2007

    If I were the thought police, those thoughts would never have been posted, because I would have policed them before they materialized into the blogosphere.

    Alas, I am unfortunately restricted to pointing out how stupid they are after the fact.

  81. #81 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2007

    The only one acting as “thought police” here is me, and all of the idiotic and juvenile comments from this thread are being deleted. Don’t like that? Go somewhere else. My blog, my rules.

  82. #82 gwangung
    April 30, 2007

    S has pissed off Leni the thought police!

    No, Leni is the IDIOT police.

    Use some damn common sense for once.

  83. #83 cephyn
    April 30, 2007

    “More seriously, it does sum it up really well. Reading back over the thread, I was a bit amazed by all the commenters who seem to think that this is about any comment on a woman’s appearance ever. It’s like they weren’t even participating in the same conversation.”

    Ahh, but it is, it really is. Since some of us didn’t see the sciam comment as inappropriate, neither in nature nor in context, the discussion must cover a)why some consider the comment inappropriate and b)where the line lies.

    I thought the sciam comment was OK. Some didn’t…alright. So what if a compliment is given in situation A? is that ok? what about situation B? or C?

    Since there is disagreement, it is really about a broader issue, not just the sciam comment. If we all agreed on it – then there would be no need for discussion, clarification or examples.

  84. #84 Rob Knop
    April 30, 2007

    Y’all are being too nice to me.

    Go on, I don’t mind, we can all admit that “Knop” is a four-letter word.

  85. #85 Leni
    April 30, 2007

    cephyn wrote:

    Ahh, but it is, it really is. Since some of us didn’t see the sciam comment as inappropriate, neither in nature nor in context, the discussion must cover a)why some consider the comment inappropriate and b)where the line lies.

    What I said was:

    I was a bit amazed by all the commenters who seem to think that this is about any comment on a woman’s appearance ever.

    I see why you are saying the lines are fuzzy, they are fuzzy for all of us. Sure, it’s ok to talk about it in general.

    But I’m sorry. You know full well that comments like this aren’t appropriate at any time whatsoever by the mere fact that you say we need to consider when those times might be.

    So clearly, there are some times when such things should just not be said.

    Further, that you know other people find it off-putting means that you know it isn’t generally acceptable. There’s the rub (pun intended). You don’t get to decide when things bother other people. It’s your job to figure it out and to make a modicum of effort to be as polite about it as you can. If you can’t, or if you make mistakes, you (like the SciAm guy) will be forgiven.

    If you are going to be a dick and act like that because you personally don’t feel something no one else should… well then you are probably going to enmcounter people who think you’re being kinda a dick.

  86. #86 Pseudonym
    April 30, 2007

    I bet Orac is really a hot chick and is only hiding her appearance to avoid this kind of sexist remark.

  87. #87 cephyn
    May 1, 2007

    You lost me Leni. Are you really taking the position that it is never appropriate to compliment a woman on her appearance? That’s what it sounds like you’re saying.

  88. #88 cephyn
    May 1, 2007

    OK Here’s an interesting example of something similar. From CNN.com – ” American says he trained terrorists, cheered videos of 9/11″
    http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/europe/04/30/bomb.plot.ap/index.html

    Quote from story:
    “The slightly built Yankees fan from Queens described how he mingled with radicals from the fall of 2001, when he quit a job as a computer programmer and left New York for Lahore”

    Was the Yankee comment necessary? Are Yankee fans offended? Are they offended because a terrorist was a Yankee fan, or because the favorite teams of other terrorists were not mentioned? Is Yankee Fan a compliment, an insult, or a description? Is the comment appropriate in this context? Or is it merely to give a better picture of the subject of the story, and no judgement is meant by it?

  89. #89 Alan Kellogg
    May 1, 2007

    Defensive a little? Guys notice these things. Intelligent guys also notice things like personality, intelligence, and ability Haven’t met Shelly in person, but I’d say from what I’ve read that she is intelligent, able, and good company. She certainly knows a dang lot more than I on the cochlea.

    BTW, have you noticed that it’s mostly guys moaning about
    the “gratuitous” observation? I have a question for you fellas; who died and made you Shelly Batts?

  90. #90 H. Humbert
    May 1, 2007

    I think he just meant the comment as descriptive, to give the reader a better idea of what she looks like. However, he chose a really poor word, as “attractive” implies a judgement about her appearance. And that judgement aspect is I think what irritates those sensitive to such language. Compare two possible descriptions of Ed:

    Descriptive (i.e. objective): Ed Brayton (a man with reddish-brown hair and a light beard)…

    vs.

    Judgemental (i.e. subjective): Ed Brayton (who, judging from his online photo, is a congenial man with a round-faced and sincere smile)…

    Even though the second one is complimentary, it is making certain pronouncements which may not be true, and can definitely be read as bias.

  91. #91 cephyn
    May 1, 2007

    I have no problem with your “judgemental” sentence. I don’t see why it would be a problem. I just don’t.

    I mean so much for poetry, we’re forced to describe everyone as if we’re describing them to the cops. sheesh. What’s next?

    “Jane Doe, a female with hair and all her appendages…”

  92. #92 gwangung
    May 1, 2007

    You lost me Leni. Are you really taking the position that it is never appropriate to compliment a woman on her appearance? That’s what it sounds like you’re saying.

    It’s there in plain black and white:

    Reading back over the thread, I was a bit amazed by all the commenters who seem to think that this is about any comment on a woman’s appearance ever.

    I would think it’s VERY clear what’s she’s saying. You’d have to be pretty dense to miss it.

  93. #93 cephyn
    May 1, 2007

    Thanks for the clarification guangung. You’re a genius.

    my reply stands – this discussion is about commenting on a woman’s appearance, when it is appropriate, when it isn’t, and why. As I said:
    “Ahh, but it is, it really is. Since some of us didn’t see the sciam comment as inappropriate, neither in nature nor in context, the discussion must cover a)why some consider the comment inappropriate and b)where the line lies.”

    But yeah, I’m dense. Help me out please.

  94. #94 Jesus
    May 1, 2007

    argument: this would not happen if it were a male blogger.

    reply: says who? maybe a male wouldn’t say it about a male, but maybe a female would say it. this stuff happens and who cares?

    so dumb

  95. #95 Leni
    May 1, 2007

    cephyn wrote:

    my reply stands – this discussion is about commenting on a woman’s appearance, when it is appropriate, when it isn’t, and why. As I said:
    “Ahh, but it is, it really is. Since some of us didn’t see the sciam comment as inappropriate, neither in nature nor in context, the discussion must cover a)why some consider the comment inappropriate and b)where the line lies.”

    And my response that was (basically): discussion is fine, but you still know that randomly referencing someone’s appearance is sometimes inappropriate. (I worded it a little weirdly last time around, so I can understand the confusion.)

    The default for these things is always, always, always to the conservative. If you aren’t sure, don’t do it. Don’t just assume something about your audience and subject because you think it ought to be that way. You don’t really get to decide.

    Similar to what Rob said, it’s that assumption that isn’t ok. In the wise words of Benny Hill: “Don’t assume. It will make an ass out of you and me.” That’s pretty much what happened here. So no, we aren’t really talking about the compliment, except incidentally.

    You are, however, welcome to debate it all you like. That doesn’t change the fact that many people aren’t debating it though. It’s pretty well common knowledge among people with jobs that when you are on company time you are acting in a professional capacity.

    At my job we sometime take clients out for drinks and dinner. That doesn’t mean it’s ok for me to get wasted and freak out about the Jews while laying in a puddle of my own puke. It may be casual, but it’s still professional.

    The author is a writer by trade working for a professional publication. He should have known better, period. Minor infraction yes, but the constant denials that he did anything out of the ordinary or wrong seem wholly juvenile to me. And far, far more irritating than the initial blunder.

    (By the way, I wasn’t implying you personally are a dick in that last post. Sorry if it came across that way. I meant it in a more general way.)

  96. #96 Luxury Yacht
    May 2, 2007

    I feel like I have to go read Pandagon for an hour to make up for reading some of the comments on this post.

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