Thus Spake Zuska

You’ll recall I posted about fellow Scibling Shelley Batts’s run-in with Wiley over fair use of a figure and graph from a journal article. This incident created quite a firestorm in the blogosphere. You’ll find a good summary and a nice link roundup provided by Bora over at A Blog Around The Clock. It’s a big deal because it gets to the heart of science blogging and science reporting.

It generated enough attention that both Nature and Scientific American posted about it.

Now Nature’s blogger reported on the issue as follows:

A few days ago Shelley Batts at Retrospectacle reviewed a paper about treating fruit with natural volatile compounds to make it last longer. She included a figure and chart from the paper (the source was cited).

Sounds reasonable. Identify blogger and blog name, begin to describe what happened.

But Scientific American’s blogger, Nikhil Swaminathan, was not content to merely mention Shelley and her blog. No, instead, we get this:

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.

Here’s the list of knee-jerk idiot responses I’m expecting to get in the comments thread (hopefully, I can save you some time and trouble):

  • It’s not that big a deal; you’re over-reacting.

  • It’s not sexist; it’s a compliment.
  • Hey, she put pictures up on her website. If she doesn’t want anybody to comment on her appearance, she shouldn’t put pictures up!
  • But she really is attractive! It’s not a lie, it’s just reporting the truth.
  • Guys would like it if women said something like that about them.

I’m sure there are others I’ve missed; I’m sure you’ll let me know what they are. To help you out, in case you were thinking of posting any of the above comments: yes, it is indeed sexist to comment on a woman’s appearance in a context like this. It’s completely gratuitous, it has nothing to do with the story, and it wouldn’t have been done if she weren’t a woman. I’m not over-reacting; I’m pointing out an occurrence of sexism. That’s one of the functions of this blog, to highlight the thousand and one daily, mundane occurrences of sexism that go on in the science universe, that are so common we breathe them in like the air around us and don’t even notice them anymore – till someone points them out. (And then gets told she’s over-reacting.) I don’t care if Shelley is the hottest babe to ever hit the world of neuroscience, it still does not justify commenting on her appearance. And hey, if you want to comment on her pictures in the privacy of your home, that’s one thing. A journalist for a respected scientific publication – that’s another. Simply. Not. Appropriate.

And finally, I don’t give a crap if guys would like it if women said something like that about them. First of all, it would be equally inappropriate to comment on a man’s appearance in the same context. But second of all, if someone did, commenting on a man’s appearance would add to his power. It would suggest he’s virile, a manly man. Commenting on a woman’s appearance has the effect of reminding her – and all of us – that she’s just a woman. She may do science, but she’s still an object for men to ogle. It’s not symmetrical.

Okay, I’m done. Let the whining begin.

Comments

  1. #1 Kate
    April 27, 2007

    Right! Because we always need to be reminded that we’ll be evaluated on our appearance, always, over our science.

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  2. #2 Clark Goble
    April 27, 2007

    So if someone both complements you on your mind and your physical appearance clearly it means “she’s just a woman.” i.e. she isn’t really valued for mind.

    BTW – I’ve been complemented in a professional setting lots of times. I never thought anything of it myself. But I guess it was just adding to my power so c’est la vie.

  3. #3 Clark Goble
    April 27, 2007

    BTW – I confess I did make the “I’d like it” comment somewhere else. I really didn’t think much of it and now I can’t remember which of the Science Blogs it was at. So I’m not sure of the aftermath.

  4. #4 razib
    April 27, 2007

    well, i never!

  5. #5 Dave Eaton
    April 27, 2007

    Pretty gratuitous.

    As the conceited asshole I am, you’re correct that I’d like it, on the odd chance I ever get my promised 15 seconds of fame, if I were referred to as the “savagely handsome and perfectly coiffed chemist Dave Eaton”. Anyone who has actually seen me would laugh their ass off, and it would probably be a wash with respect to any power I might have.

    But your point is on the money, and the fact that it appears innocuous to many people is troubling. The residues of sexism and racism look like they will be the hardest to overcome.

  6. #6 coturnix
    April 27, 2007

    Razib never? But Razib is hawt, isn’t he?

  7. #7 razib
    April 27, 2007

    But Razib is hawt, isn’t he?

    preach it!

  8. #8 coturnix
    April 27, 2007

    But seriously. Just like Wiley got an earful this week, I think everyone who does something like this – a gratuitous mention of a woman’s appearance – should also get an earful and hopefully learn a lesson.

  9. #9 razib
    April 27, 2007

    Just like Wiley got an earful this week, I think everyone who does something like this – a gratuitous mention of a woman’s appearance – should also get an earful and hopefully learn a lesson.

    it was gratuitous. but, i don’t think it is “just like.”

  10. #10 coturnix
    April 28, 2007

    I mean we can act “just like” we did this week.

  11. #11 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 28, 2007

    Scientific American did that? How standards have fallen!

    I’d ask my wife about this, since my wife is a Professor of Physics but, you know, my wife is a blonde.

    How dare a so-called science jouranalist add insult to injury? Shame on Wiley, and shame on Scientific American!

  12. #12 G. Shelley
    April 28, 2007

    I was right with you until

    But second of all, if someone did, commenting on a man’s appearance would add to his power. It would suggest he’s virile, a manly man.

    Which is just ridiculous

  13. #13 brtkrbzhnv
    April 28, 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.

    Here in Sweden, Tomas Bodström’s physical attractiveness was commented upon quite often in the media during (mostly the beginning of) his period as Minister of Justice. Here he is sexualized in a tabloid; the title translates as ‘The Bedmate’.

  14. #14 Joseph Knecht
    April 28, 2007

    Agreed. That comment was completely inappropriate. Period. I had the same thought when I first read that post.

    Having said that, I think you go a little overboard in your penultimate paragraph. In the same situation, but applied to a man, I would think exactly the same thought: how completely inappropriate! I’m not sure where you’re coming from with the “adding to his power and virility” stuff.

  15. #15 David Harmon
    April 28, 2007

    Funny, I was just commenting to somebody how SciAm has gone downhill, and Discover has fallen right into the toilet… but hey, SEED has picked up the torch, with better science and better graphics!

  16. #16 Christopher
    April 28, 2007

    In his defense, I’ll say that everyone can on occasion be tone-deaf in blogs because there is a perfectly natural tendency to not get that the flat affect of the written word (read: no inflection, etc.) is going to make things sound different than intended. Or maybe this is exactly what he intended, I don’t know. We actually talked about this comment right after he posted it, and agreed to disagree about whether he was off base. Knowing the man personally, I’d have to say that if it’s the patriarchy you’re concerned about, people like Nikhil are the least of your worries.

    Anyway this is one of the good things about the blogosphere – whatever your readers think, you’ll hear about it!

  17. #17 doctorgoo
    April 28, 2007

    Yes, this is a sexist remark. It has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter at all.

    But Zuska, this brings a larger question to mind… should SciAm be held responsible for the contents of the SciAm blog, and therefore have edited out this comment? Or is that blog just a forum for SciAm editors to give their own opinions on topics from their own perspectives?

    After all, Zuska, you said it yourself:

    if you want to comment on her pictures in the privacy of your home, that’s one thing. A journalist for a respected scientific publication – that’s another. Simply. Not. Appropriate.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but this basically means that if he’s blogging as the voice of SciAm, and the opinions he writes about have the ‘stamp of approval’ of SciAm and their official positions, then you’re saying it’s not appropriate. But if he’s blogging as a private citizen, it’s a completely different matter, implying that it’s less inappropriate. Is this the point you’re making here?

    To me, this is the most important distinction. Since the forum is the SciAm blog and not the journal itself, is he speaking on behalf of SciAm, or is he merely speaking for himself, using a SciAm forum?

    The closest that I found to an answer is that every page on the SciAm blog has this at the top:

    SCIAM OBSERVATIONS
    Opinions, arguments and analyses from the editors of Scientific American

    Also, a quick view of other posts indicate that the bloggers have complete autonomy as well… On April 26, Christopher Mims started his post by saying “Personally, whenever I see an “X is happening in Second Life” type story, I throw up a little in my mouth.”

    So it seems to me that his comment, while offensive, isn’t being made on behalf of SciAm, so it’s more like he’s saying this as a private citizen in his own home. So while it’s still rude, his comment isn’t inappropriate in the way you suggested it is.

    In other words, just because his day job is working as an editor for SciAm, it doesn’t mean he’s obligated to censor himself on the SciAm blog.

  18. #18 Kate
    April 28, 2007

    No, I think Zuska has a point. If the blogger had done it on his own private blog, I would still be offended, it would still be sexist, but at least it wouldn’t be institutionally sanctioned sexism. A blog on SciAm is not the same thing as a blog on blogspot.

  19. #19 Chris Ho-Stuart
    April 28, 2007

    You omitted another one in the list of idiot knee-jerk responses: people DO talk about the hot hunks of sciblogs as well as the hottest females. See: Who is the Hottest Male Science Blogger?; and follow the comments for lots of good humoured innuendo and propositioning from various scibloggers of assorted genders.

    I agree that the comment in the SciAm blog was crass and not germaine.

    But on the other hand, one thing I love about sciblogs is that you get science, politics, religion, humour, and sleaze. Bit of everything. And sciblogs stands out for the wide ranging inclusiveness and lack of bias in the sleaze. It’s not only across all genders; it’s across all species too!

  20. #20 doctorgoo
    April 28, 2007

    A blog on SciAm is not the same thing as a blog on blogspot.

    IMO, a bad comparison. A better one would be to compare the SciAm blog to all these SEED Magazine blogs here on scienceblogs.com.

    In other words, should SEED be held responsible for everything rude and condenscending that Myers, Brayton or anyone else write on their respective blogs?

    I could very well be wrong here (Christopher, if you’re still reading this, please clarify)… but it seems apparent to me that the SciAm blog is editorally independent of the journal itself.

    Therefore, it’s just sexism and not “institutionally sanctioned sexism”, as you put it. IMO, Zuska was wrong to title this post SciAm Reports: ScienceBlogger Is Attractive!!!… she should have titled it instead Nikhil Reports: ScienceBlogger Is Attractive!!!

  21. #21 doctorgoo
    April 28, 2007

    If it turns out that I’m wrong, and that the SciAm blog is NOT editorially independent of the journal SciAm… then Kate, I agree with you that this is indeed “institutionally sanctioned sexism”.

    I’d even go so far as to agree with Jonathan Vos Post and David Harmon when they stated that the standards at SciAm appear on the decline, and that the bloggers should be more careful of inserting there own opinions and perspectives in their blog posts.

    However, I don’t think this is the case. From my perspective, this is one of differences between blogging and regular journalism. If this were in a newspaper format, a blog (even one written by the ‘newspaper’ editor) would be equivalent to the Opinion section, not the front page news.

  22. #22 Science Avenger
    April 28, 2007

    I took the comment in the same light as when sportscasters refer to black athletes as “articulate”, which loosely translates to “I know he’s black, but he actually speaks proper English,” or when people say to me “Wow, you’re an actuary but you don’t look like a geek.” In this case it was “I know she’s a woman scientist, but she’s surprisingly hot”. So I’d say it is more that society has a stereotype of brainy women being ugly, than a dismissal of her brains and accomplishments because of her looks.

    However, I don’t think that dismisses the larger point Zuska makes. Having been married to a female veterinarian, and having a close friend who is a geologist, and both very attractive women, I’ve heard plenty of stories of them being intellectually dismissed because of their gender and appearance, and it was very hurtful to them. One quipped “They act like my brain doesn’t work because I have overies.” So I’d still chastize the SciAm writer for his comments, whatever his exact intention, and recommend everyone avoid comments like that. The guy that says “You’re pretty smart for a n*gg*r” might not mean harm, but he does harm all the same.

  23. #23 Dave L
    April 28, 2007

    If the blogger had done it on his own private blog, I would still be offended, it would still be sexist,

    I disagree; I think the only reason this is unacceptable is because it is a side comment and has nothing to do with the topic and doesn’t belong in an article from a scientific organization. The inference that the author was saying anything demeaning about Shelley based on her appearance is an unsupported leap, and not necessarily sexist. The author was expressing his opinion, irrelevant and gratuitious as it is, and I certainly don’t buy that it wouldn’t be included if she wasn’t a woman. The projection that if the comment was made about a man that he’d be seen as virile and if about a woman that it’s a reminder that ‘she’s just a woman’ is unsupportable, and in my opinion rather an antiquated, 1950′s-era idea.

    Since when is commenting on someone’s appearance, especially in a positive manner sexist? Shelley’s intelligent and an interesting blogger. Shelley is also attractive. That’s a sexist remark? How so exactly? I’ve said exactly nothing about ‘women are only rated on their appearance’.

    I find the idea that this would never happen to a man in a blogpost laughable; do you disagree with the statement that, on average, women are more preoccupied with the appearance of both men and women than men are? I think the sheer volume of women’s fashion magazines supports that. Sure the comment doesn’t belong in a professional article, but most blogs are chock full of ‘parenthetical asides’.

  24. #24 XPM
    April 28, 2007

    Scientific American did that? How standards have fallen!

    SciAm? Its standards have followed an inverse Moore’s Law since 1978.

  25. #25 Benjamin Franz
    April 28, 2007

    Mountain from a molehill

    You’ve taken a single casual word and blown it up into a huge issue of sexism without reasonable cause.

    I’ve not included direct links here for most of the quotes mainly to avoid tripping the moderation filter. But if you search on the quoted phrases you will find the references for what follows.

    Are you willing to take on the NY Times for its description of Hwang Woo Suk as “a charismatic, handsome scientist” in James Brooke’s column?

    How about The Guardian for its labeling Dr Armand Leroi “the handsome biologist“?

    Or Time Magazine for referring to “McGill University’s handsome Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield“?

    Calling someone a “handsome X” or “attractive X” is not automatically sexism.

    It is always “beautyism”.

    And while it is not polite to acknowledge it, there is real reason to believe that “beautiful people” are in general more successful at all levels from career sucess and earning power right down to the level of “gamete fitness” (“Handsome” men have actually been measured to have better sperm quality. Women who are rated “attractive” also have higher fertility levels.) “Beauty” is well documented proxy for “evolutionary fitness”.

    Your attempt to defuse the counter of calling men “attractive” or “handsome” by leveling the claim that commenting on a man’s appearance can only be career positive while commenting on a woman’s appearance can only be career negative doesn’t carry water without evidence.

    There is good documented evidence that being “attractive” is a career plus (as measured in good old fashioned dollars) for both men and women in some fields while a negative only for women in some fields. See Attractiveness and Income for Men and Women in Management for an example of a study showing that attractive men and women both earned substantially more over a career.

    You can’t make the blanket statement that it is always a negative career statement for women stick. Because it isn’t actually true.

    If you want to berate the SciAm writer for dragging “beautyism” into his article for no real reason, go for it. I won’t say a word against that.

    But please don’t make it a “cause d’celebre” for sexism. I think you are on very thin ground evidence-wise there. There are much better targets to attack on sexism (such as the differential promotion rates for men and women in general).

  26. #26 Lisa
    April 28, 2007

    Oh for goodness sakes, Benjamin Franz, are you serious? Zuksa has “blown it up into a huge issue” and you seem worried she might “make it a ’cause d’celebre’ for sexism”?
    She was just pointing out something that she finds interesting (as would, I would think, most of the readers of her blog, who presumably read her blog to discuss these issues). I wonder why you read this blog if you don’t think it’s important to discuss things like this. She didn’t even suggest any action for us readers to take! I mean, if she were starting a campaign to fire that writer, then we would have a reason to argue about whether that is too big a step or not. But if she posts her thoughts on her own blog, how can that upset you? What do you want her to post? What do you want her to do if she has other interesting thoughts that don’t meet your standards–just keep them to herself?
    From the post:
    “I’m pointing out an occurrence of sexism. That’s one of the functions of this blog, to highlight the thousand and one daily, mundane occurrences of sexism”.
    Does it sound like she’s going to start ignoring “better targets to attack on sexism (such as the differential promotion rates for men and women in general)” and using this incident as the only example of sexism?

  27. #27 Benjamin Franz
    April 28, 2007

    Yes. Precisely: “Blown it up into a huge issue.”

    She wrote an 826 word rant about ONE word used in a throw-away side-comment in a 721 word article. And not merely in a dry academic way. She is actively swearing about it. There is real venom there. Not a bad post of itself. A little energy gets the blood and the mind going.

    Except she’s wrong.

    Like activists of all stripes (I point fingers at everyone, including myself. ALL activists suffer from this from time to time), Zuska sometimes has a problem with seeing “an enemy under every stone”. Even when there isn’t one.

    It comes from being on the ‘front line’ where too often a ‘casual remark’ is in honest fact a use of a ‘code-phrase’. The world where “she’s pretty” may have the unspoken sub-text “, but because she is a woman I can’t take her seriously”. This kind of ‘sub-text’ reading is necessary and important, but easily converts into paranoia. Then it starts to resemble a bad marriage where saying so much as “good morning” becomes the launching platform for all out verbal war.

    It isn’t about whether I find her interesting to read: I do. She is both interesting and thought provoking. Both excellent qualities in a science blogger. Why else would you find me posting here in response to something she wrote?

    In this case, Zusku has taken an innocuous side remark, decided it MUST be a ‘code-phrase’ for sexism and ran with it.

    It is about whether she is correct about that interpretation. In this specific instance, she is not correct. As S. Freud said: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

  28. #28 Benjamin Franz
    April 28, 2007

    Typo correction: “Zuska” not “Zusku”. No disrespect intended. I proof read it over and over and still missed the obvious error.

  29. #29 ilikeathechemicals
    April 28, 2007

    so benjamin: life, interpretations, and sexism only exist as YOU see them and as YOU say they are. must be nice to be a white guy who knows everything.

    zuska, you’re right on the money. it’s patronizing that the reporter mentioned something so off-topic that plays into a stereotype about women.

  30. #30 Benjamin Franz
    April 29, 2007

    ilikeathechemicals: Ah. So I’m just a know-it-all white male. Then you can safely discard my opinions. After all, “white males” are well known to have nothing worth listening to to say about sexism. Because they are male and white.

    I suggest you check that beam in your eye. It appears to need some attention.

  31. #31 jt
    April 29, 2007

    Umm, Benjamin,

    Per your examples.

    James Brooke’s column is about Suk’s cult of personality and its impact on his research, so his charisma and attractiveness are pertinent.

    The Guardian cite seems to be from a TV review. And while not particularly appropriate, a TV reviewer commenting on appearance in a TV show seems a bit more reasonable than a science reporter.

    And the TIME cite, was choice. It was from 1935!. Not to mention it weirdly called ALL the doctors in the article “handsome”. Sure it wasn’t appropriate, but heck, back then, neither was Jim Crow. So, yeah, sure, take them to task.

    Not to mention, Zuska’s point wasn’t even that “It doesn’t happen to men”, it was “Women don’t do this”, and, in all the cases you cited, it was men doing the reporting on other men’s attractiveness.

    Now, in a purely logical sense, it’s hyperbole to say that “Women don’t do this” & “It always helps men”. E.g. John Edwards’ ostensible lightness in loafers, due to grooming, appearance, etc.

    But just barely. I think anyone reasonable will admit that it happens to women MUCH, MUCH more often than men, just look at the breathless politico-fashion reportage on Nancy Pelosi, and it’s ridiculous.

    The SciAm blogger, himself, realized the commentary was unnecesary. It’s in a frickin parenthetical expression. He took the time out from a science/intellectual property article to say “Hey, check this chick out, she’s cute”. (And my own speculation, is that he realized it was somewhat inappropriate/creepy to comment JUST on her appearance, so he threw in the line about the birds.) But it doesn’t really matter. It had nothing to do with the post at hand, and everything to do with reminding the reading public that the grad student was a sexual, not a professional, being.

    Now, my guess as to how this got through is that this has something more to do with the informal nature of blogs vis-a-vis, more tightly edited media. But it still doesn’t change the offensiveness of his post.

    –JT

  32. #32 antijen
    April 29, 2007

    When people make comments on the appearance of female scientists, it distracts our attention from their SCIENCE. I’ve seen this tactic used far too many times to think that it’s harmless or accidental.

  33. #33 jeffk
    April 29, 2007

    I think the difference between a blog and a published article in this case is huge. In a published article, I would judge the comment to be a bit belittling and unneccessary, but on a blog, I’d much prefer the uncensored, unedited approach.

  34. #34 jt
    April 29, 2007

    jeffk-

    First of all, it being on a blog doesn’t change the sexism inherent in the statement. Now if you’re proposing that in some forums we shouldn’t self-censor sexism, that’s another question.

    And I agree that there’s a difference on blogs, but it’s by no means a binary blogs/non-blogs one.

    There’s a continuum between “Official Blog of a major print publication”, “Respected Blogosphere Site,” and “JoeBob’s Opinion Shack @ blogspot.com”, and the rules are going to be different in each place.

    My own opinion puts ScienceBlogs and even the SciAm blog towards the “Official” end of that continuum. So, while you expect content that’s more informal than a publication, you’re not just letting it all hang out with your friends.

    I think of it as going out for dinner with a bunch of colleagues after a big conference. There’s some mild ribbing, joking, good talk, but usually people don’t hit on each other at least in front of all the other dinner guests.

    Of course, none of this is codified, and it would be nice if it didn’t seem like it needs to be.

  35. #35 Clark Goble
    April 29, 2007

    Antijen that’s true, but if you read through most of the Science Blogs you’ll note that a lot that is discussed is hardly science. Should one expect blogs to be pure science? If so, then let’s at least be consistent in our criticism. Or is the criticism folks discussing appearance? If so then let’s be consistent there. Now in mixed messages things are more complex. Initially I thought the comment innocuous albeit a tad creepy. But I’ve changed my mind somewhat given the overall nature of the post. But I’m not sure we ought go as far as you do.

    Put it an other way, if someone decided to put up a top 5 list of attractive actors, would that be intrinsically sexist?

  36. #36 yolio
    April 29, 2007

    Looks like Zuska needs Feminist Bingo: http://viv.id.au/blog/?p=431

  37. #37 Benjamin Franz
    April 29, 2007

    Disappointed

    24 hours ago ilikeathechemicals posted a blatantly racist and sexist slam at me. It isn’t a edge case that can be excused as “not meant that way”. It isn’t a ‘sub-text’ interpretation. It is an explicit attempt to devalue a person’s opinions and positions based solely on their perceived race and gender.

    After I posted my own response, I decided to sit back and take a break for 24 hours to both lower my blood pressure and to see if the people here would actually walk the walk on sexist/racist stereotyping by taking “one of their own” to task for engaging in it in a clearly offensive way.

    To my real disappointment, it appears that they will not.

    Not “JT” with their point on ScienceBlogs being more of a “major publication” than a personal blog.

    Not “anjiten” with their point on the distraction away from SCIENCE done by such comments made against women.

    Not “Kate”, “Clark Goble”, “Dave Eaton”, “razib”, “coturnix”, “Jonathan Vos Post”, “G. Shelley”, “brtkrbzhnv” or “Joseph Knecht”.

    Not “David Harmon”, “Christopher”, “doctorgoo”, “Chris Ho-Stuart”, “Science Avenger” or “Dave L”.

    And not even Zuska.

    She posted more than 800 words to take the SciAm editor to task for a use of a context inappropriate comment on Shelley Batts’ looks. Something that she argues has a heavy sub-text of sexism. She may have a valid point (I didn’t think so at the start of this discussion, but I have slowly come to think she may be right on this and I may be wrong. Who’d a thunk? Someone changing their mind due to debate). That is part of why people post here: To debate issues and (hopefully) even change minds.

    But she has not posted so much as ONE word over the direct use of explicitly racist and sexist stereotypes to attempt to devalue a commentor’s positions and opinions (that would be me being devalued) in her own blog comments. It is possible she has just been taking time off this weekend (A life? No way!) and hasn’t seen it yet.

    I hope that’s the reason.

    Opposition to “isms” cannot be a one way street. If you are going to oppose sexism, racism, ageism, and the dozen other “isms” people are prone to, you must oppose it in all cases, not just the cases benefiting one particular group.

    Because anything else is just replacing one set of “masters” with a different set of “masters”.

  38. #38 yevgeniy
    April 30, 2007

    Yo Benjamin,

    Okay, so you want us to notice that the ilikechemicals person was wrong to attack you for being white and male. Okay, I’m the back-up here. That poster was wrong and I’ll back you up on your race. White males have done lots of good things. But I guess they did some bad things too and noticing that this bird blogger was “pretty” was part of a continuation of bad things that belittle women. So that chemicals person was overreacting since white males are cool in a lot of other respects. They make excellent husbands and can raise children pretty well and a lot of them are good in science. All in all, a good race and gender.

    So it’s all cool. The chemicals person is a racist and we’re all cool.

    Peace out.

  39. #39 antijen
    April 30, 2007

    Clarke, I read and enjoy many blogs that have an eclectic mix of topics – that’s one of the pleasures of this medium. The problem with Nikhil’s comment is that it is part of a pattern in which women are scrutinized on their appearance and family choices to a much higher degree than men are. If it really was an isolated incident, no one would have noticed or cared. Try keeping track over the next few weeks of articles featuring women. I’ve found that their appearance, clothing and families are described in far more detail than similar articles featuring men. One such comment is a snowflake; to women in science or in the public eye, it’s an avalanche.

  40. #40 jj
    April 30, 2007

    I think people are so used to over-reacting that they at times do not think about their reactions and their appropiateness. This man may have made a comment that Shelly seems attractive, but this is the same way a woman may have made the same comment about a man. Therefore, one can be angry that ‘looks’ were mentioned in a scientific response; however, refrain from turing the incident into a sensation in which the woman has been MARGINALIZED by a man! It is such reactions like this– which can at times seem overly excited (and somewhat irrational)–that gives a bad name for feminists.

  41. #41 tigtog
    April 30, 2007

    jj, have I got this right?

    Zuska describes an incident, and also describes how it plots onto a pattern of other observed incidents, and how that pattern generates a hypothesis.

    A commenter on a scienceblog describes Zuska’s detailing of a datapoint which fits a hypothesis as “somewhat irrational”.

    Interesting.

  42. #42 jt
    April 30, 2007

    Benjamin,

    Please spare me your disappointment.

    Believe it or not, this blog is not titled “Thus Spake Benjamin”. You want honest engagement on issues? That’s what I did. I went to your sources and critiqued them along with your argument. That’s debate. (and it’s not particularly honest engagement to use 70-odd year old sources and out of context quotes, but perhaps you didn’t realize it).

    But you expect me to police other commenters’ reaction to you? If you must know, I saw the capital letters in ilikechem’s post, figured it was a mini-flame, and didn’t even read the thing. And when I finally did (after your post), proper netiquette, far as I know, is to ignore such things, rather than have the whole newsgroup (or blog) jump down the commenter’s throat, filling the blog with what are essentially off-topic posts. And ilikechemicals is “one of my own” as much as you are.

    It’s not my job. Not even Zuska’s job. If you want a playground where you take someone to task for calling you a “white male”, then blogspot is free.

    The larger problem with being equally opposed to all ‘isms’, as you so idealistically put it, is the overwhelming evidence that attempting to do so perpetuates the very situation you want to correct.

  43. #43 Benjamin Franz
    April 30, 2007

    JT,

    I actually wrote, yesterday, a post responding to your critique of my original comment. And then I shelved it because I did not want the original issue confused with the question of hypocrisy by muddying the waters still further during that time.

    But to summarize it, I didn’t realize the 70 year old one was that ancient when I tagged it (mea culpa. How often do you find entire ‘pre-information age’ archives online? Never-the-less I should have looked closer), I concede that in the case of Hwang Woo Suk it could be argued to be relevant.

    In the case of Dr Armand Leroi, I don’t concede any ground at all. Because the reference I was using was an official press release of the Imperial College London. And apparently written by a woman to boot. I give no ground on her quote being an indirect reference to The Guardian article because she wasn’t talking about the Guardian article. She was talking about his being awarded the 2006 EMBO Award for Communication. And if you want to claim it being relevant because of his work popularizing science, I will point out that the same argument could be made about Shelly Batt’s Scienceblogs work. She is ALSO a popularizer of science. You would be undercutting your own argument that the original SciAm blog was being sexist!

    “Once removed” is not a shield. Otherwise we could “remove” the problem of the SciAm post by using the phrase “The Science Blogger dubbed ‘both attractive and avian-friendly’ by Scientific American” in a new article. See? I didn’t call her ‘attractive’, Scientific American did!

    About being “out of context”, you are off base. I limit myself to one URL per post to keep from falling afoul of the moderation filter. I try to give sufficient information for others to find my sources despite that. And if your “out of context” refers to the use of single phrases buried in the bodies of larger stories, what else is this entire thread about? ONE word out of a more than 700 word blog post!

    And as for your assertion that Zuska was asserting that “women don’t do that”, that isn’t how I read it. I read it as no one does it to men. If you go back and re-read it I think you will agree. Zuska would not be any happier about the SciAm article if the author had been female.

    Regardless, it is an empirically disproven position in either case. People (including women) do do it to men.

    Returning to the question of my most recent post.

    You are right, this isn’t “Thus Spake Benjamin”. Nor is it “Thus Spake JT”. But it is a valid critique to point out that the posters here are being inconsistent in their defense of anti-sexism. That their standard appears, generously, to be rather “flexible” depending on who’s ox is being gored.

    As for being off-topic, Zuska’s SciBlog speciality is specifically sexism! It it hard to claim offtopicness for a case of blatant sexism in a comment thread about sexism!

    To address your final claim that applying differential standards for opposition to “isms” somehow repairs the “situation”, that is so laughable that I don’t even know where to begin.

    Can you name even one case where applying differential standards has resulted in the actual repair of the “situation” and not instead raised a new problem in addition to the original one? I can’t think of any “and they all lived happily ever after” endings.

    You don’t fix a hole in a road by digging a new hole. You do it by filling the hole to create an even surface.

  44. #44 Jim G
    April 30, 2007

    Three words about this article and the discussion thread which follows: breathless, exaggerated, and hyperbolic (on all sides).

  45. #45 Liz
    April 30, 2007

    I agree with Zuska. It was inappropriate–period.

    Also, check out Science Avenger’s comment further up (from 4/28 at 12:40 pm): “The guy that says ‘You’re pretty smart for a n*gg*r’ might not mean harm, but he does harm all the same.”

    Exactly.

  46. #46 RickD
    April 30, 2007

    Benjamin:

    Do you think a press release by Imperial College on Dr. Armand Leroi is done with or without the consent of Dr. Armand Leroi?

    In any case, you are trying to argue your points without any reference to the world that we live in. Saying “if X applies to women, it must apply to men, too” doesn’t work, because men and women do not have identical positions in our society.

    FWIW, ilikeatthechemical’s snap was the weakest argument against you. But if you want to understand sexism, imagine that you made your complaint and all the women ignored you. And imagine that happened another 10 or 20 times, and women ignored your complaints every time. And imagined that happened time and time again…for thousands of years.

    You want to say respect needs to be a two-way street, but we really don’t have a systemic problem in our culture with women not showing sufficient respect to men.

    Science in particular has a long tradition of sexism and you cannot discuss this comment without acknowledging the larger context. You seem to want to ignore the larger context. You dismiss the comment as “one word”, when really it’s a lot more than one word, and it’s obtuse to say that. It’s not as if the word were “plaid”, or “morose” or “rectilinear”. The word is “attractive”, and its usage changes the tone of the blogger’s post from respectful to something quite different.

    Why is it respectful to comment on a man’s looks but disrespectful to comment on a woman’s looks, in exactly the same context? I’m not sure I can tackle that question myself – I just know that it is. Part of it is the long history of men interacting with women almost excusively on sexual terms.

  47. #47 Frumious B
    April 30, 2007


    But second of all, if someone did, commenting on a man’s appearance would add to his power. It would suggest he’s virile, a manly man.

    Which is just ridiculous

    Posted by: G. Shelley | April 28, 2007 05:45 AM

    … I’m not sure where you’re coming from with the “adding to his power and virility” stuff.

    Posted by: Joseph Knecht | April 28, 2007 06:43 AM

    Razib and Coturnix demonstrate for the class how a compliment adds to a man’s power and virility:

    Razib never? But Razib is hawt, isn’t he?

    Posted by: coturnix | April 27, 2007 10:59 PM

    But Razib is hawt, isn’t he?

    preach it!

    Posted by: razib | April 27, 2007 11:12 PM

  48. #48 Gaurav
    April 30, 2007

    Reminds me of “making a mountain out of a mole hill”.

  49. #49 attotheobscure
    April 30, 2007

    Come on pussy cat relax a little baby.

  50. #50 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.

  51. #51 bioephemera
    April 30, 2007

    The last two comments are priceless. Atto suggests chicks (oh, I’m sorry: pussy cats / babes) should just relax and enjoy being objectified. Hermites takes the tack that insulting a woman’s appearance will devalue her opinions and make her seem less credible. Uh-huh. I’m now convinced feminism is unnecessary; we’re all so enlightened already.

  52. #52 pandaskneereplacement
    April 30, 2007

    I guess losing one’s sense a humor is a side effect of rigid ideologis, be it religion, feminism, etc.

  53. #53 RickD
    May 1, 2007

    hermites:
    huh?

    This is what I see:

    A picture of a woman and a tiger, along with the caption
    “Zuska is the kick-ass alter-ego of Suzanne E Franks.”

    Where is this “picture of an old guy” you speak of?

    Anybody who thinks there is no sexism in science should take a long hard look at the comments in this thread. And anybody who thinks this is a question of “sense of humor” needs to understand that humor is often used as a tool of derision.

    (Picadillo? ideologis? Why is it that poor spelling correlates with inane commentary so often?)

  54. #54 Dave Munger
    May 1, 2007

    Just wanted to throw in a few words of support. Not all men take it as a personal challenge to attack women who point out issues of sexism.

    Good post, Zuska. You’re exactly right.

  55. #55 Dave Eaton
    May 1, 2007

    Benjamin Franz-

    I haven’t looked in for a few days, but I don’t consider myself an activist, nor am I beholden to you or anyone else to respond to every injustice in the world. You kinda, sorta have a point about the white male bashing aspect of ilikeathechemicals’ post. I have no problem with your taking pointed umbrage at it.

    But I responded to Zuska’s post in a way that I hoped, in a half-assed humorous way, indicated that I a)agreed with her point and b)recognize the asymmetries in society that privileges white males like me. She has open comments and had made a point. It made sense to respond.

    Now, I don’t want to be hated merely for being white and male (and those that know me know that I can provide plenty of perfectly reasonable, non-racist/sexist reasons to do so…). But I am not going to pretend that a little bit of very mild blog comment smackdown matters.

    And as far as that goes, I’m not all that fond of white guys who know everything. It isn’t the ‘white’ or ‘guy’ that irks me, though, and I’d be willing to put even money on the idea that ‘ilikeathechemicals’ was responding more to the ‘knows everything’ part. Could be wrong, and s/he could be a seething racist/sexist/speciesist. But I’m not picking that up.

    You called me out by name, as if I owed you a defense. Well, bullshit.