"Be nice to Shelly! She's cute, and she likes birds!"

Uh, no.

Look, we're all human, and we all have eyes and brains and things, and as such one may as well admit that if you look at the pictures that Shelly has of herself on her blog, there's a bird. Also, it's a flattering image of the blogger. I suppose, while we're at it, we might as well take a look at the banner, and as long as the image of scissors near a brain doesn't make us squirm too much with discomfort, we can be amused by the humor. "You've come a long way, baby!"

But there's still some distance to cover, clearly.

While Shelly's pictures would seem to indicate that she may have an attractive visage, that is highly, highly irrelevant to any issue involving fair use, the reproduction of data, etc. The whole recent kerfluffle over Shelly being threatened at lawyerpoint for use of an image from a scientific journal caused an explosion here at scienceblogs because Shelly wrote intelligent, thoughtful, and informed commentary on the article. Not because somebody thinks she's cute. And, yet, that seems to be the first thing that >the blogger at Scientific American thought was worth mentioning about Shelly.

There's very little point in me going on at length about this, because Zuska has already unloaded on them in the way that only Zuska can. (And, yes, I guess I am orb-friendly. Depends on the orb, though. You bring a Sphere of Annihilation to my house, and I'm probably going to be a little irate.)

The point of all of this is not that there is a crime involved in recognizing that Shelly looks good in the picture she has in her profile. The point is that by mentioning that first, the tone of the Scientific American article changes from "grad student attacked by publisher for scientific commentary" to "look at the little woman! Ain't she pretty!"

At least in the physical sciences, women remain the minority. But at this point we are far, far past the point of women being the exception. Too many people (mostly men, but sometimes even women) seem to first react to women as carriers of a potential quantity of physical attractiveness rather than as scientists. If we're ever going to get over the ingrained sexism in our communities, we have to stop that. It shouldn't be, "oh, a woman scientist; is she cute?" It should be, "oh, a scientist; does he or she have something interesting to say?" We have to catch ourselves when we see ourselves about to say something about the physical attractiveness of a scientist, because it really is a majorly sore topic in society right now. Go ahead and notice; we're human. And, even, at times, it might be reasonable to comment on it. But be very careful about that, because most of the time the comment will be inappropriate, belittling, demeaning, and will completely and utterly undermine any more serious point that was to be made.

We like Shelly as a blogger because she's articulate, intelligent, knowledgeable, more congenial than most of us, and writes with a tone that is more confident and self-assured than one might expect from a graduate student. I.e., because of her blogging characteristics. And, yeah, I have to admit I like hearing about the birds. But her picture-- that's irrelevant, whatever you might think about it.


More like this

Exactly! "ZOMG, Girl Scientist Pretty!" shouldn't even be a mention in the matter at hand.

I love Shelley's blog because it's well-written, and I was on her side in this issue because, well, she was right! Thanks for bringing this uncomfortable endnote from Scientific American to my attention.

Hey people - either get some perspective or be consistent. At Evolving Thoughts we read: 'Chris Mooney, who is too damned young and handsome, was in Sydney yesterday'. That's right, 'we like [Chris] as a blogger because [he's] articulate, intelligent, knowledgeable, more congenial than most of us', but clearly 'too many people ... seem to react to [men] as carriers of potential quality of physical attractiveness'. Exactly why did no-one think to have a go at Wilkes' disgraceful faux pas?

By Jonathan Vause (not verified) on 28 Apr 2007 #permalink

There are a number of asymmetries.

First, Chris isn't a grad student, so any kind of "talking down" is more clearly ironic.

Second, there is an asymmetry in the status and treatment of men and women in society at large, and especially in science. That asymmetry of the background leads to an asymmetry in how offensive and/or damaging belittling speech is.

Third, Wilkes and Chris Mooney know each other. I read what Wilkes says in a similar tone to some of the things Phil Plait has written about the various Skepchick calendars, or about Swoopy. On the other hand, Shelly is an unknown person to the SciAm blogger. As such, personal comments are in a very different light.


I did a double-take on the SciAm post as well, and I'm glad you raise this subject.

Third, Wilkes and Chris Mooney know each other.

Fourth, Wilkins jokes about his age frequently.

For an easily found example, why else did he choose a white-haired (albino) gorilla as a visual moniker?

I think a blogger for a larger publication must show some restraint about personal observations. The remainder could, as you say, refrain for making it part of the main text.

And use of parenthesis and mock markups are advisable. ([OT male reaction] Btw, Shelley looks hot in that picture! [/OT male reaction])

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 28 Apr 2007 #permalink

Point 3 is taken, but (2) are you really suggesting that women get a worse deal in science than in society generally? And I don't see that (1) is relevant in the slightest - do you think Zuska would have overlooked the incident if the comment had been made about a post-grad?

By Jonathan Vause (not verified) on 28 Apr 2007 #permalink

are you really suggesting that women get a worse deal in science than in society generally?

In Physics they certainly do. I don't know other fields well enough to comment as to whether it's worse than society in general, or if the badness there is the same as the badness of society in general.

Re: Shelly being a grad student, it does make some difference. No, that does not mean that it excuses the behavior elsewhere, and, yes, Zuska would go nonlinear either way. But it's worse when we're talking about somebody who is less empowered already in the food chain of science.


Re: Jonathan
Have you been reading Rob's blog at all? Rob talks about the position of women in science on a regular basis, and he's always been insightful and as nonsexist (sorry, Rob) as a white middle-class male scientist can be.

Zuska's right: imagine if the "alliterative" addition to that parenthetical statement had been a remark about color? Imagine if Shelley were a black male, and the extra statement made note of that? Even the men would be upset about that, and with exactly the same reason.

aside: Rob, shall I be seeing you at Hypericon? I'm planning something terrible and I want you to be there.

Panya : assuredly. I have to get back to Fred, because I'll be talking at least once.

I'm scared, though, of what you're planning.

You, Oddball, and I should get together sometime; it's been months. Bongo Java?

Bongo's is good; how's Wednesday (5/3) for you?