Piling On

More than a week ago, Razib wrote an unfortunate little post in which he displayed all sorts of poor judgment. Since it's short, I'm going to quote the entire post here, including his updates.

The virginity thread generated a lot of response. The virgin lot of the nerd, ah, so cliche. And yet now I'm having a really weird moment, I'm at the local wine bar and a very attractive hostess1 is recommending books in the science fiction genre to another (far less attractive) hostess. So far I've heard Ender's Game, Hyperion and Snow Crash tossed off as appropriate for a "newbie." Is this the Twlight Zone??? Am I a freak to think this is freaky? I haven't had a sip of wine, so it isn't the alcohol.

Update: She's reading American Gods I notice (taking a break).

Update II: Smokin' ScienceBlogger Shelley comments. For the record, the key issue for me was the intersection of science fiction && female physical hotitude.

Update III: On second thought, I think the Princess Bride era Robin Wright Penn is probably a better description of the "Hot Girl." And another tidbit for those wanting to make this about science & women, I am to understand that this individual (I am a regular) is a history major.

Here are the examples of poor judgments that I see:

  • The Title: "Hot chicks are different today." If you start out with misogyny ("chicks"), it's going to be hard to defend anything else you say.
  • Objectification: I can understand pointing out that a woman is attractive. People are going to notice extremely attractive members of their preferred sex, and there's nothing wrong with that. But when he then describes the other hostess as much less attractive, it's impossible not to get the feeling that Razib's having trouble seeing much more than sexual objects when he looks at these women.
  • There's the implicit stereotype of science fiction fans. Specifically, science fiction fans are ugly. Now, this is a pretty common stereotype (just pick any movie or TV representation of sci fi fans), but it's an unfortunate one.
  • The history major thing. While Razib uses this in an update to respond to anyone "wanting to make this about science & women" (a sign that he realizes he's treading on dangerous ground), Razib is clearly not surprised that an attractive woman is a history major. This reveals that stereotypes about the interests of women, or at least attractive women, are definitely at play.

The first response to Razib's post was Shelley's, at Retrospectacle. She lists three stereotypes that she sees in Razib's post:

  • "Smart women aren't hot (and vice versa)"
  • "Hot women don't like sci fi"
  • "Sci fi somehow denotes intelligence"

The second is obviously in Razib's post (I listed it, too), but the first and third are more difficult to find there. Two pieces of evidence speak strongly against the interpretation that Razib is saying anything about intelligence. The first is that Razib thinks the books the "hot' woman recommends are books generally read by teenage boys (here we get more gender stereotypes, but again, not about intelligence), and second, he's not surprised that she's studying history. Perhaps Razib believes that history requires less intelligence than science fiction, but he's told us nothing to allow us assume that.

After reading Shelley's post (and perhaps, though it's not entirely clear, Razib's), Tara at Aetiology, and Zuska at Thus Spake Zarathustra, piled on, focusing almost exclusively on the idea that Razib believes science fiction implies intelligence, and was therefore surprised to find a "hot" woman who reads sci fi because he thinks "hot" women aren't smart. Zuska's post is particularly interesting, because it doesn't seem to refer to anything Razib actually said (again, it's not clear she'd read Razib's post before commenting on it). When asked to justify the logic behind the assertion that Razib is saying attractive women aren't smart (Zuska actually implies that he believes all women are stupid, at one point, but once you've left the text you're responding to entirely, there's no reason to limit yourself to semi-reasonable interpretations), Zuska responds with a second post that, instead of actually describing that logic, "teaches" us that stereotypes are everywhere, even if they're not on the surface. In the process of doing so, she does give us her version of Razib's post, but again, without referring to anything Razib actually said, and without responding in any way to the evidence that he wasn't saying anything about intelligence.

After Zuska's "contribution," the discussion moved off of ScienceBlogs, to Sharp Blue and I... Am a Scientist!, for example, and has taken on a life of its own. The first post defends Razib, though again, focusing on intelligence, and the second criticizes those who disagreed with Zuska (including yours truly). As of yet, though, no one (except Shelley in her stereotype #2) has written a post criticizing, or even commenting on the stereotypes and sexism actually present in Razib's post.

As I've said over and over in discussions of debates with creationists, one of the most important things to do when criticizing well-entrenched ideas, be they stereotypes, scientific misconceptions, or what have you, is to make sure you stick to the facts. As soon as you step outside of them, you lose credibility, and since you are in a weak rhetorical position already, because you have to argue against existing representations with information that contradicts them, and may even threaten the well-entrenched and often highly-valued world views that those representations serve, you will have lost any chance of convincing most people that they are in the wrong. And my assertion is that that's exactly what Tara, Zuska, and Zuska's defenders have done. By attacking a stereotype that is not actually in Razib's post, they've lost the ability to effectively criticize the stereotypes that are actually in that post. Zuska's posts are particularly unfortunate in this regard, because when her interpretation is challenged, she displays a complete inability to respond to the specifics of those challenges, making her look all the more dogmatic and irrational.

Two more points. First, it's quite clear that Razib's post does invoke the "smart women are stupid" stereotype in some, if not most of those who read his post. This is another reason to criticize Razib's post. While he may not have had that stereotype in mind, either consciously or unconsciously, the fact that his post activates that stereotype in others makes the post irresponsible. But this is not the point that Tara and Zuska are making. They are claiming, quite clearly, that the "smart women are stupid " stereotype is the one with which Razib himself is operating. Since it's obvious to many that he's not operating with that stereotype (based on what Razib actually said), but with orthogonal gender stereotypes, arguing that Razib himself is using it again makes it difficult to effectively criticize what's actually wrong with his post. Any criticism of those stereotypes will get completely lost in the shuffle, as the remarks of even Razib's defenders clearly shows (as far as I can tell, only one commenter has actually criticized Razib for saying something other than "attractive women are stupid," and none of his defenders have said anything about the other stereotypes he invokes).

Second, most of Razib readers are probably pretty bright. He writes about stuff that you have to be smart to get, much less enjoy reading about. This means that it's likely still possible to convince those of his readers who see nothing wrong with his short little post about the "hot" science fiction fan that there are many things wrong with it, despite the fact that some of Razib's critics have lost the rhetorical high ground. But to do so, it will be necessary to drop the non sequitur critiques of Razib's posts, and start criticizing what's actually there right now.

Oh, and one more thing. Simulating racism, even as a form of satire, is not a good rhetorical move, unless what you're going for is the sense that those criticizing what Razib has said are as creepy, or creepier, than Razib.

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Seeing an extraordinarily smart and extraordinarily attractive person is still a surprise, even if there's no correlation between appearance and smarts: if that's the case, only about 1% of people are in the top 10% for both intelligence and appearance, and since extremes are more remarkable than averages, you'd expect someone who noticed to, well, remark.

Also, people (rightly) emphasize their best features: it's rare to notice someone who's reasonably smart and really attractive because they'll draw attention to their extraordinary looks instead of their above-average brains. Someone who appears attractive and still emphasizes her nerdier qualities is either a) Even smarter than she is good-looking, or b) An independent thinker, both of which are probably attractive traits.

I suppose that's true. Both very smart and very attractive people are rare, so the combination will be rare. That was the point that Richard made at Sharp Blue. But this post is about moving the discussion away from attractiveness and intelligence, because I think that discussion detracts from the discussion of the real problems with Razib's post.

focusing almost exclusively on the idea that Razib believes science fiction implies intelligence, and was therefore surprised to find a "hot" woman who reads sci fi because he thinks "hot" women aren't smart.

Not at all. As I even mentioned in the comments, Razib was but an example of the "hot women can't do/be/like X" or more simply, "*women* can't do/be/like X, or it's freaky when they do." It's that attitude that annoys the piss out of me, period. As I also said in the comments, razib's attitude was just a jumping-off point into what I saw as a bigger discussion.

the word "freaky" has come up a lot. i keep think of the video promiscuous girl. you know, when 'timbaland' says he's a 'freak.' oh, and tara, it is more like:

P(hot|likes SF) far less than P(hot|!SF)

invariant of gender.

the other part of the post was that i notice hotties.

oh, and for the record, i shouldn't have pointed out the other female. that was rude and asinine. the reason i introduced it was to offer contrast and heighten the hotness of the other female, but obviously it was a bad move.

While he may not have had that stereotype in mind, either consciously or unconsciously, the fact that his post activates that stereotype in others makes the post irresponsible.
Feminists like Zuska love guys like Theodor Adorno, who don't care if anyone can read their texts, let alone whether they offend anyone. Don't expect them to return the favour.

I admit that I was at least as interested in attacking Zuska and her self-righteous, emotion-laden, nonsensical rant as I was in defending Razib. The accusation that he was commenting on women and intelligence was unfair. I defended him by quoting a well-known American science fiction author who said that historically the content of science fiction was dictated by the emotional needs of its readers who were sensitive to their social and educational shortcomings. Obviously an extremely attractive woman in university is not part of that target audience. I believe that explanation is plausible and does not invoke any harmful stereotypes about women and I thought something similar may have been the cause for Razib's surprise.

But after reading what Razib has written in his comments and post in the aftermath, I believe he did say, "Wow! A hot chick involved in esoteric activity X", which is not what I was defending. Not that I think he is guilty of much. I dream of a gorgeous blonde professional Go player.

Second, most of Razib readers are probably pretty bright. He writes about stuff that you have to be smart to get, much less enjoy reading about. This means that it's likely still possible to convince those of his readers who see nothing wrong with his short little post about the "hot" science fiction fan that there are many things wrong with it
I'll give you the benefit of the doubt (as I did Razib), but that sounded pretty patronizing to me.

Before Razib's "I, coolie" post and yours here, I was wondering if you regretted not ignoring them in hindsight.

By Frauenhasser (not verified) on 20 Dec 2006 #permalink

Frau, I think your second interpretation of what Razib said is correct, and I definitely see problems with it (the problems I listed).

Oh, and something tells me Zuska isn't a fan of Adorno. It's not that Adorno isn't relevant to feminism. In fact, a book on feminist interpretations of Adorno was published earlier this year. But in my experience, Adorno is generally not popular among feminists, for a variety of reasons.

Still, I am a big fan of Adorno (I think I've mentioned that on the blog a few times), and I find him very readable. Of course, I find most feminism readable, too. Even Zuska's posts were readable. They were just odd, and as I said in comments to her post, I don't think they're representative of intelligent feminism (of which there's a great deal in the blogosphere -- try Pandagon, Bitch PhD, I Blame the Patriarcy, Feministe, and the blogs they link to, for the good stuff).

"I can understand pointing out that a woman is attractive...other hostess as much less attractive...sexual objects"

Have we really got to the point where it's wrong to compare / examine / discuss the hotness of people of the opposite (or same, if pertinent) sex you see *in a bar*?

Can it possibly have escaped everyone's notice that people often go to bars for hook-ups?

Can it possibly have escaped everyone's notice that people often go to bars for hook-ups?

for the record: i go for the chardonnay. sometimes the riesling. my personal sensibilities are bourgeois & monogamous. don't want ppl to get the wrong idea!

noticing a difference in the attractiveness level of two women is perfectly fine. making it into a blog post, on a science blog? a bit suspect.

My reason for mentioning intelligence - other than the fact that everybody else seems to have done - is because she recommended Hyperion. While this is a very enjoyable book, I'm not sure it's one that less intelligent people would enjoy or recommend. I'm also, as I've already said elsewhere, not sure if it's the best book to recommend to someone new to sf as quite a lot of the fun of reading it is seeing how it uses or subverts common (written) sf tropes. (Could we have an argument about P(smart|Hyperion-reader)?)

I'm also not entirely sure if I was defending Razib (although having subsequently read rather a lot of posts on his weblogs in the process have quite a lot of respect for him, even though I'd find it hard to agree with some of the things he and his co-bloggers write). Instead, I was criticising something that many of his attackers seem to be assuming. Now, I'm not sure if P(hot|sf-fan) differs from P(hot) or if any of the other conditional probabilities people have been talking about differ from the relevant unconditional ones, but I think that even if they do they don't differ by much. However, clearly even if P(hot|sf-fan) is approximately P(hot) that doesn't mean that P(hot^sf-fan) is approximately equal to either P(hot|sf-fan) or P(hot). (Do people in general have a tendency to intuitively fail to distinguish between P(A^B) and P(A|B)?) Pointing this and its consequences out can't be sexism or the promotion of stereotypes when the reasoning behind it explicitly rejects both the sexism and stereotypes.

Finally: "smart women are stupid" *head explodes*

Rich, fair enough. I figured that's why you were focusing on the intelligence part. Most of what I was saying is that if the critics focus on intelligence, that's all anyone will focus on, and they'll miss everything else.

By the way, I've been reading your blog for a while, and have a great deal of respect for you. Didn't mean to imply otherwise (in case I did).

Hmm. I see that in the last 24 hours, said group of science blogs has featured posts about David Irving, snow forts, atheism, Hanukah, Feminism carnival, Texas hold-em, the Iran issue, etc. There has even been a post by someone who uploaded a pic of his that he thinks is very hot.

I assume Seed encourages all this...surely the idea is to get across not just the work scientists do but also the other stuff they care about, to make them 'relatable', if you will. I hardly see that a post involving hot (and not so hot) geek girls in bars fails in this respect.

I mean seriously, do you really think *any* of this ruckus has been over the appropriateness of any of {noticing sexually appealing women, a dude calling someone a chick, blogging off topic on ScienceBlogs}?

What HAS happened is that Razib's post implied that hotness anti-correlates with liking Scifi, which many people here found offensive. In addition many seem to have projected stereotypes involving intelligence, Science and gender, the attractiveness of scientists, etc onto his post. You've more or less dismissed this hysterical reaction. Good show.

It's a pity that having done this, you nevertheless feel the need to make a pro-forma stab at criticism for criticism's sake.

Just a note that it seems to me that it is implicit in those discussions (in general, not just this thread) that being not-so-intelligent or less-than-average-intelligent is a bad thing.

Tanasije, true, though it should be noted that the posts by Tara, Zuska, and others aren't really arguing that being less-than-average or not-so-intelligent is bad. What they're arguing is that it's bad to assume that women are more likely to be less-than-average or not-so-intelligent, simply because they're women, and that is a bad thing.

Re: Adorno. If you weren't joking when calling me Frau, you're reading translations (still more than I've read). From others I've had the impression he's opaque. The Wikipedia article suggests the same (I had to check). Maybe you have the right background for him and you're reading the right translations. When making the comment I was thinking of feminist Judith Butler, winner of a controversial "Bad Writing" contest years ago. She cited Adorno in her defense in a NYT op-ed piece. You're right - I don't know anything about Zuska except for those couple posts.

The below is just food for thought to be taken lightly.

Re: chick. I often hear this word bandied about in a non-misogynistic context. Some dictionaries don't even define the word as offensive itself. The other day I heard Gavin Rossdale describe Gwen Stefani, his wife of four years and mother of his newborn son, as a chick.

Re: objectification. Music videos, magazine covers, billboards, etc... one could almost be excused for thinking that American culture accepts the objectification of everyone and everything. I hope those disgusted with Razib are far more disgusted with those making huge profits by exploiting universal human vices through mass media. Does an American think, "yes, the objectification of people is pervasive in our society, and it is morally wrong, but there is nothing I can do about it, so I will ignore it and refuse to participate"? Is this disconnect between mass media and the general public sustainable when mass media has such an enormous impact on American culture? Do Americans simultaneously exist in two worlds - one real, one virtual - that have conflicting rules? It's not acceptable for Razib to make this post, but it would be acceptable for him to direct a female version of Weird Al Yankovic's "White & Nerdy" video starring this girl dressed like Nelly Furtado in "Promiscuous Girl"?

By Frauenhasser (not verified) on 21 Dec 2006 #permalink

It's interesting, Chris, that you put me in the "defending Zuska" cathegory when you the flaws you point out in Razib's post are similar to the ones I've listed in my own comment. The only thing we seem to differ on, really, is that you seem to think that Zuska and others believe that Razib himself conciously believes the "attractive women are dumb" stgereotype. To me, it's quite clear that her posts, and the posts at Aetioogy etc. implied nothing of the kind: they just said that the stereotype was invoked and suggested to their minds (and to a lot of people, as evidenced by the comments to the original post and the follow-ups). But this is what you also state in this post! So what's the problem?

As for objectification - I expect everyone who object to objectification (pun intended) to go out and do their part to stop it. I know I do.

Well, I think the reactions to Razib's post are mostly just over reaction. Sure, on analysis, there are some points a person can critisize but I don't think there was intent to be hurtful. Being over sensitive can be just as bad as being a bigot or whatever. The stereotype about hot women not being smart is pretty common in american culture. Heck, if a person is hot and smart they probably aren't in desperate need of defense anyway. There is the ad with the hot women discusing some new drug (birthcontrol maybe?) or something and it turns out the one is a doctor...it's totally playing on that stereotype. The most interesting thing to me is that it seems that people jump on "ethnic" people for holding stereotypes a lot harder than they would if the person was "white". It's like white people are the only ones that are supposed to "have stereotypes" or something. The other day my indian friend was telling me how to use cumin, "Put it in a pan with butter and cook it, otherwise you get that bitter mexican taste." Hahaha, this is funny, lighten up people. I love both indian and mexican food and I'm a white woman who used to be darned attractive (but probably not totally hot) and read sci-fi (the sci-fi and attractive were at the same time), so I guess I can laugh at things like this. It's good to think about and discuss what we say about other people but lets not put ourselves in a strait jacket of fear. Razib was just making an observation.