Math Confuses Princess: I Read It In Seed

One of the perks of being a Scienceblogger is getting a free subscription to Seed Magazine. Last week, issue 11 August 2007 arrived, and I happily began sampling its good stuff. There's a new feature this month called "Incubator" that tries to "capture the multifacted nature of science itself - from the minutia of the bench, to the personalities behind them, to the oversized ideas that propel us forward." One item included in the new feature is Workbench, a photo of a "scientist's natural hangout". The inaugural, and annotated, full-page photo is of the desk of 3rd-year grad student Kathleen Kristian, in Dr. Jack Norton's chemistry department lab at Columbia University. It's fabulous. It took me right back to my grad school days.

This is a great new feature in Seed, and by including women in this way in the Incubator section, Seed helps to normalize women's presence in science. So why did they have to kill my buzz and ruin their good works in the very same issue?

The buzz-kill came in the form of a brief piece on graphic artist David C. Lovelace, who has spent an inordinate amount of time (a year's work) transforming Rock, Paper Scissors into a complex game with 101 possible "throws", more than 5000 possible outcomes, and thus less than 1% chance of a tie. He calls it RPS-101. It's all very cute. Whoever wrote the short little piece for Seed naturally choose a few of the 5,050 possible interactions to illustrate the game. What did they choose?

"Beer refracts Laser"
"Scissors alert Airplane security"

and, hold your breath, here it comes:

"Math confuses Princess".

I am so not making this up.

My initial ire was apportioned equally between Mr. Lovelace, the nameless Seed journalist, and the Seed editorial board for allowing this piece of gratuitous sexism to make its way into a magazine that I am associated with by virtue of blogging under the auspices of Seed Media Group. It's as if PZ Myers strolled down to the mailbox, retrieved his latest issue of Seed, opened it up, and saw a little piece featuring a graphic artist's new game that includes a creationist making sport of evolutionary biology. Mr. Lovelace is free to be as sexist as he wants to be, I suppose, but Seed doesn't have to give him a forum to espouse his views, does it?

Then I discovered it was worse than I thought.

I spent a little time exploring Mr. Lovelace's RPS-101 website. There I discovered that while Math does indeed confuse Princess, it also confuses Prince. And Queen. And King. Also Man, Baby, and Woman. Computer has the same action on all the same characters. Mr. Lovelace has an equal opportunity low opinion of the human race when it comes to math and computers. Even though, it would appear, he used some math and certainly used his computer in producing his RPS-101 game and website.

So, okay, Mr. Lovelace is an artist who incorporates support for fear of math and computers into his clever little game, and Seed magazine, whose motto is Science is Culture...lauds him!

And not only that, the moron reporter who was charged with writing up this piece of crap managed to extract a "colorful" game throw that supports gender stereotypes! The original game is scornful of everyone, but you don't know that when you are reading the article. No, what you read is "Math confuses Princess". And if you don't immediately think of the infamous Barbie doll "Math is hard!" controversy, then you aren't breathing (or you're too young to remember it). Well, I guess the article just wouldn't have been as funny if the reporter had chosen "Math confuses King", would it? No, putting that out there by itself would have been something of a non sequitur, because we don't have cultural stereotypes about powerful men and math that we think are funny. But "Princess" and "math" in the same sentence - now there's a howler!

To select this particular throw from the game and highlight it in the article is completely irresponsible science journalism, and to allow it to go to press is completely irresponsible editorial oversight.

Now we reach the part where you tell me how I have no sense of humor and I'm over-reacting and it's not a big deal. If you feel that way, I have three words for you: you are wrong. This is why I am a humorless feminist: because, you see, I don't find sexist humor particularly funny. Somehow, I just can't swallow all the sexist things you have to believe in order to "get" the joke.

It may be one small incident, but it's thousands upon thousands of "small incidents" like this that accummulate to create the sea of sexism in which we swim. It's one more little thing that, if it passes unnoticed and unremarked, lends support to those who believe that women can't do math and don't belong in science. Or that it's okay to make jokes about women's math ability. RPS-101 may be a little thing, and the brief piece itself may not be much in the grand scheme of things. But it gives the appearance that Seed is explicitly A-OK with sexist humor and stereotypes in its pages. That is not a little thing.

Suppose instead of "Math confuses Princess", it was "Math confuses Blacks" or "Hip-hop confuses Asians".** I suspect the Seed editorial board would have been less likely to let either of those stereotypes slip by. But hey, if we're just laughing at women and math, it's all good, right?

Seed is supposed to be on my side, on the side of promoting equity and access and equal opportunity. Or at least, not impeding its progress. Or else what I am doing here at Scienceblogs? There's a little get-together for Sciencebloggers in NYC this August; it really grieves me to say this, but when I meet Adam Bly, I might just have to puke a wee tiny bit upon his shoes.

**I am indebted to Ron Eglash for his work on nerd identity and the reverse stereotyping to which Asian-Americans are subjected. See Eglash, R. "Race, Sex and Nerds: from Black Geeks to Asian-American Hipsters." Social Text, 20:2, pp. 49-64, Summer 2002. A version of this paper that he gave as a talk is available online here.

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"Now we reach the part where you tell me how I have no sense of humor and I'm over-reacting and it's not a big deal."

" If you feel that way, I have three words for you: you are wrong."

and then:
"This is why I am a humorless feminist: ..."

Would they be wrong or are you a humorless feminist?

As a woman who was always at the top in math and science class (and is smarter than your average male), thank you so much. I don't think my math and science instructors ever got why I decided to go into journalism instead of the sciences, but that's another topic. By the way, there's a great book on women's humor called "They Used to Call Me Snow White... But I Drifted" that has some interesting insights into women's sense of humor and why many men don't think we have one. Some of its references would be a bit dated for the younger set, but its insights are definitely mind-expanding.

Thanks so much for this post, Zuska.

It's especially well-timed as I've just come here because there is a discussion going on at one of my favorite sports-related sites about a minor league pitcher (Craig Breslow) who majored in molecular biophysics at Yale. Not math or CS, I know, but science. They're having a great deal of fun talking about how confused they were by a quote from an interview in which the poor guy tries to say a bit about what it was that he studied. Yes, he uses some big words ("elucidate"). But the whole point of the discussion is that "us folks" couldn't possibly make any sense at all out of that. This is an attitude I encounter all the time in all sorts of contexts, not just in this particular sports-related site.

These are people some of whom enjoy showing off their knowledge of history or literature. The cultural divide is alive and well.

People seem to bond over the notion that not only mathematics, but all of science, is something that is destined to go over their heads. Mathematics being merely an extreme case perhaps, but not an exception.

So I am also angry about this article based on what you've reported. I would expect Seed magazine to be more careful about propagating the very cultural attitudes that interfere with the propagation of knowledge and discussion about science.

For the Hibobs of the world, I thought maybe I should expand on the "This is why I am a humorless feminist" part of the post. You see, this is how it goes:

1. Someone tells a sexist joke.
2. Woman points out that the joke is sexist and not funny.
3. Someone accuses the woman of being a humorless feminist.

Because this three-step cycle is so common and so repetitive, I at once deny that I am humorless, and claim, in ironic terms, the label of humorless feminist. "This is why I am a humorless feminist...because, in the instance of sexist 'humor', I do not laugh, and you, holder of sexist beliefs, perceive me to be without humor because I do not laugh along with your sexism." I do not laugh because I cannot laugh at the "joke" unless I simultaneously buy into the sexist assumptions underlying the "joke". Your laughter, on the other hand, identifies you as a sexist, or at least someone who does not or will not perceive the sexist beliefs you are buying into in order to find the "joke" funny.

I am not, however, humorless in general. I laugh loud and freely, and find plenty of things funny. Just not things that are sexist, or racist, or homophobic. I find those things enraging.

You don't have to accept the prejudiced assumptions as true to accept a joke. I'm Jewish, and I'll laugh at a Holocaust denial joke if it's clever. Humor is just a way of dealing with sensitive issues for me.

I laugh loud and freely, and find plenty of things funny. Just not things that are sexist, or racist, or homophobic. I find those things enraging.

So you would go into a conniption fit if a Black comic made an RPS game that featured a throw "Dance befuddles Anglo," or if a female comic made a throw like "Rejection confuses fratboy"?

"Well, I guess the article just wouldn't have been as funny if the reporter had chosen "Math confuses King", would it? No, putting that out there by itself would have been something of a non sequitur, because we don't have cultural stereotypes about powerful men and math that we think are funny."

Some of us live in countries where members of the royal family _are_ stereotyped as stupid. In Britain "Science Confuses Prince" is a newspaper headline :-)

However it is amusing that what originally appeared to be a "stupid reporter writes about sexist game" story turns out, in reality, to be a "sexist reporter writes about stupid game" story.

100% behind Brandon on this one. If a joke is funny then it's funny, doesn't matter how sick or non-PC it is. I find anti-Scots jokes as funny as the next guy despite deploring and being genuinely worried by my country's horrific record for alcoholism on which most of them are based.

Not every joke is "funny 'cause it's true". Some are funny just because they pick away at and exaggerate old prejudices.

"If a joke is funny then it's funny, doesn't matter how sick or non-PC it is."

I quite agree. However, the reverse is also true. If a joke ISN'T funny, then it ISN'T funny, no matter how sick or non-PC it is. If you laugh at something that is not actually funny in itself simply because it's 'edgy', then you are no better than the schoolkid guffawing because someone said 'Penis'.

I'd say it was a dumb example to use and not funny, because women are inhibited by real, untrue stereotypes that they can't do math. Maybe 50 years from now there will be more women in math careers than men, and it would be funny then. Examples like "dance befuddles anglo" seem innocent by comparison because there probably are not thousands of white people struggling to get into dance careers but being held back because of their whiteness.

Audience matters too... the Seed audience isn't focused enough for this to be ok, but I imagine inventing such a game with a small group of friends and we would probably find the statement "math confuses princess" hilarious, because some people are moronic enough to actually think that.

All of that said, given that math can confuse anyone in this game, I think he probably just suffers from a lack of creativity more than anything. I'll bet that trying to make a game with 5,000 combinations without one of them being offensive would be quite a challenge - his biggest mistake was using one of the offensive combinations as his example.

Maybe only once or twice before have I removed comments from this blog. I am very liberal with my comments policy, because I like to foster open debate. But.

No Helen Keller jokes on my blog. No sexist jokes on my blog. No other kinds of tasteless jokes on my blog.

You've been warned. Post jokes like that again and I may just decide to ban you from the blog.

The Scots joke is not a good analogy for sexist and racist jokes. Scots-and-drinking jokes turn on stereotypes about drinking behavior among people from Scotland, but they do not turn on cultural expectations that such people are stupid and less qualified to pursue certain types of careers that happen to be more prestigious and better paid than the careers they are normally stereotypically expected to do.

If a joke is funny, it's funny to you because you accept its underlying premises as funny. So if you find sexist and racist jokes funny, you are accepting the underlying sexist and racist putdowns.

Here's a nice short little piece on why sexist and racist jokes still aren't funny, even if told by women/minorities.

If you're Jewish and you laugh at Holocaust jokes, that just makes me sad.

Jeffk, I appreciate your comments - you make clear that reversing the stereotype doesn't work because of the difference in power relations. People in Great Britain may laugh at their royals, but in general, "King" conjures up a notion of a powerful man, and powerful men aren't denied access to careers, or considered to be dumb before they open their mouths.

You know what? If I'm at a comedy club, and there's a guy up there telling Jewish jokes, I'm going to laugh. (as long as they're good, of course) I don't care if there's some skinhead in the audience who's muttering to himself, "Jews are so lame." I don't base my behavior on what the worst person in the room might hypothetically be thinking. Fact is, that skinhead was a jerk before walking into the comedy club, and he'll still be a jerk after walking out of it. Unless you can give me quantitative evidence that jokes that aren't excessively cruel can genuinely hurt people, I'm going to keep doing my own thing, and screw those who hate me for who I am.

Sorry about the Helen Keller joke, by the way. Regardless of my personal feelings, there's a virtue in not offending people needlessly. I was told the joke by an outspoken feminist, so I kind of assumed it was alright.

I get SEED magazine too, and I picked up on the same thing. I wondered whether anyone else would too.

WIRED magazine went from being an edgy, fascinating fringe tech magazine to being an outright "laddie" mag. I am afraid that SEED will do the same thing. Laddies for science, with those vodka bimbo ads and features on shiny gaming gadgets.


It certainly is the little things. I've been working in the area of gender and humour for the past year and you can imagine how frustrating it can be to see the responses to any paper that might even vaguely suggest that women have an equal sense of humour to men. And FEMINISTS with a sense of humour? Pish tosh!

And while we're talking about humorless women, did anyone catch Christopher Hitchen's blazingly sexist article Why Women Aren't Funny in Vanity Fair earlier this year? Or Bitch Magazine's counter-argument in their January Issue?

As for race and gender, I do think it's ok for folks to joke about these things -- but there is a way to do it that makes fun of stereotypes, rather than perpetuating them.