Wolf howls at the Intersection

Earlier this week Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum moved their blog, The Intersection, over to Discover. I think it was a good move for them, but their fresh start was immediately marred by a horde of hooting numbskulls. Many others have already covered this story, but in case you haven't heard Sheril was greeted by a number of comments like "mmmmmmmm........... wo-man."

Sheril has posted her own response, and I think Scicurious had one of the best takedowns of the whole dust-up. How are comments on Sheril's appearance in any way appropriate? Some have said that such comments are harmless, that they are only compliments, but they are not. It is leering over the web.

This kind of behavior occurs all too often on the science blogohedron. For whatever reason there are some guys out there who feel the need to share their opinion about how they think female science bloggers look. We have tread this ground before. In 2007 there was some controversy surrounding Shelley Batts (then of Retrospectacle, now on Of Two Minds) in which a Scientific American blogger said that "based on her pictures alone seems to be both attractive and avian-friendly." This was inappropriate, and Zuska summed things up well;

... 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. ... 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.

Opinions on the appearance of science bloggers, male or female, are best kept to oneself. Think of it this way; if you were attending a lecture about science (or anything else for that matter) would you stand up as soon as the speaker walked on stage and shout "You're a hottie!"? Of course not! That would be rude, disrespectful, and embarrassing. Why, then, do some people think that same behavior is appropriate on science blogs? I think Scicurious said it best when she wrote;

Sure, you can tell a lady she's good looking. But to do it when she's standing up giving a scientific seminar, or when she's writing a blog post on science policy? It's not just out of context, it's rude and sexist. And when we're here, blogging to you about science, respect us (or not) for what we say. Not what we look like. You'd extend any man the same courtesy.

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Not to defend the leerers in any way but context is everything, as in this advice given by Abbie at ERV:

Never get in a scientific debate with a cute, sweet chick with 'SCIENCE!' plastered across her boobs.

Think of it this way; if you were attending a lecture about science (or anything else for that matter) would you stand up as soon as the speaker walked on stage and shout "You're a hottie!"? Of course not! That would be rude, disrespectful, and embarrassing. Why, then, do some people think that same behavior is appropriate on science blogs?

The comments made were certainly inappropriate, but do we really see a science blog as the same as a public lecture about science? Do we want to? Because that can just be turned around on bloggers: "You would never talk about that in a scientific lecture", "You would never give a talk that consisted solely of a Youtube video of a cat chasing a laser", "You would never give a lecture littered with that much profanity", etc. And we've seen how bloggers feel about being told what/how to blog.

No, a comment like "mmmmmmm, wo-man" is inappropriate in ANY venue.

Chris; I am not suggesting that science blogs are or should be like lectures. Sometimes I think of some posts that way, but I was simply trying to illustrate how inappropriate the comments were with another example. I still think is a fair fit; a speaker/blogger sharing their thoughts in a public venue in which the audience can respond. What I wrote is in no way meant to tell others how to blog. A public forum (like a lecture) just seemed like a good example to draw an analogy from.

Brian, I didn't mean to imply that those were your own views. (Nor are they mine) I was just trying to point out a second edge to that particular argument. Of course what you say is true: One would never behave that way at a public lecture. (just as one would hopefully not proclaim 'mmmmmmm wo-man' to someone in any other venue I can think of)

just as one would hopefully not proclaim 'mmmmmmm wo-man' to someone in any other venue I can think of

Orgy?

Audition for the role of an anonymous commenter in ScienceBlogs: The Movie, an upcoming action-packed comedic drama directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Uma Thurman as Pauline Z. Myers?

This was certainly boorish, disgusting behavior on some people's parts, and I hope Sheril is subject to no more of it. On the other hand, it alerted me to an interesting blog, which I will visit more in the future. BTW, I've had issues with "Discover": about three years ago, I didn't renew my subscription to the magazine because they put, of all possible people, Newt Gingrich on the cover!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 28 Mar 2009 #permalink

I usually use this to illustrate what the problem is:

Imagine a male model being "commented" and whistled at while doing his modeling thing. No problem, he's showing off his body and what he's wearing. At the end of the day he puts on his clothes and hits the street where he's treated with basic courtesy. He walks into a lecture hall, gives a speech and is criticized or complimented on what he says.

Now a female model walks down the catwalk and and is whistled at. At the end of the day she puts on her regular clothes and is whistled and leered at on the street. After her speech in a lecture hall she's criticized or complimented on what she's wearing and her looks. The difference is regardless of all other similiarities with men, women are never allowed off the catwalk. Or if they're deemed not pretty enough to be on the catwalk in the first place, they're criticized for that too.

Another typical reason for women criticized (on being a woman or good looking) in academic fields is due to the feeling of being overpowered by a woman. Ironically, not even women take the top for 'woman' practices (such as the culinary field). (I think the only time I've seen women take the rein of power near absolutely would be my EMT classes. I'm fairly certain if my classmates were received catcalls similar to what Sheril Kirshenbaum was submitted to, the men would find themselves very painfully silenced.)

I don't presume that all men are like this, of course. Some men I know are very mature and confident about their sexuality.

I've actually have been defaced before in a class. The professor wasn't able to come and told me to take charge of a project we were to do that day and when I started to assign the groups their part of the project(so it would be fair, which was why I was chosen), one of the guys in the class refused to play along. After a very long shouting match, the class decided to follow what he said to do. Of course this was because his plan was to given everyone a small section of the project while dumping as much of it as possible on me. His argument for being the leader for a day was of course that he was a man and I wouldn't be as strong as a leader.

Amber:
I'm having trouble understanding your last comment.

Are you implying that it is impossible to hold an opinion of a woman separate from her appearance?

No, Awartany, she is saying that looks are primarily the first and lasting impression that people assign for women no matter what their accomplishments may be.

I happen to think that Sheril is attractive, but that is not why I read The Intersection. I think she is a very interesting writer on science, and she has a background in marine biology to enhance what she writes on the issue of culture and science.

What this episode shows is that sexism is not as much of diminishing aspect of our society and culture as we would hope in the 20th century. Women get this kind of treatment far too often. What men really need to learn to do is to be polite and restrained on how they comment. It's not wrong to be attracted to someone, but it is not polite to make it a front and center statement in a forum such as The Intersection where the point of the blog has nothing to do with the appearance of the person writing.

Not to defend the leerers in any way but context is everything, as in this advice given by Abbie at ERV:

She was obviously parodizing how the dumb creationist must have seen her, and pointing out how she showed him.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 29 Mar 2009 #permalink

"No, Awartany, she is saying that looks are primarily the first and lasting impression that people assign for women no matter what their accomplishments may be."

The problem I have with this is that looks are primarily the first and lasting impression we have for anybody, regardless of their accomplishments.

This whole issue seems like a bit of a blogging culture clash to me. Group A thinks it's perfectly fine to complement someone's appearance on a blog, Group B thinks it's inappropriate, both groups still think it's possible to be both attractive and smart at the same time.

Since it's up to the people running a particular blog to set that blog's norms(they're the ones holding the banhammer after all,) Why can't different views hold true for different blogs?

"I think Scicurious had one of the best takedowns of the whole dust-up"

Awww, thanks!!! You ain't done bad your ownself! It's great to hear guys speak out about this.

John Pieret said, "Not to defend the leerers in any way but context is everything, as in this advice given by Abbie at ERV..."

I tend to think that women are allowed to say that sort of thing about themselves. It's like the way we happily allow Woody Allen to pull tasteless Jew jokes, and Eddie Izzard to make fun of trannies.

I continually and intentionally violate any such "no reference to physical attraction" protocol on my internationally broadcast TRUE CRIMES program, featuring the world's leading and most reputable journalists, authors and researchers. Erin Moriarty of CBS News, when questioned on this very topic, stated "Burl calling me a `hottie' meant more to me than all my Emmy Awards." Forensic Psychologist Katherine Ramsland likewise happily accepted the honor of being a "certified Crime Hottie" along with Pulitzer Prize nominee Caitlin Rother, L.A. Prosecutor Robin Sax, and womens' rights champion Susan Murphy Milano, and numerous other "serious" folks. Yes, my show is not as dry as most, hence I suspect CONTEXT or "set and setting" is an important consideration.

Burl Barer
http://outlawcrime.com