Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Sexy" Scientists, Objectification, and Feminism in Science, Part 1: Why Sexism Doesn't Matter

16 Sexy Scientists (with pics of course!), aka The Blog Post Heard 'Round The World. Short story: a fairly well-known atheist/science blogger posts the entry, featuring headshots of various women scientists (as well as some risqué shots from the overlap between "scientist," "woman," and "cheerleader/model"). People proceed to get very, very upset. Naturally, I'm weighing in.

I'm pre-emptively splitting this into multiple entries because otherwise it will get far too long. A highly-concentrated summary of whatever I end up writing here will hopefully make it on to the MSoE! blog.

First and foremost, I'm touching on this issue because science is something near and dear to my heart. (Why else would I make necklaces featuring Avogadro's number?) Corny as it sounds, the favorite part of my crafting is being able to reach out to women in a medium they feel comfortable in and get them more involved and interested in science, math, or both. Every necklace, every bracelet, every (eventual) scarf or hat or purse or whatever else is like a little piece of math-and-science proselytism. (Do you know how many times I've explained to people exactly how we use Euler's number in economics? Or what an irrational number is?) I don't want the women I potentially reach to encounter a community where they feel uncomfortable, unwanted, or unappreciated. What kind of welcome would that be?

Because of that, I feel obligated to write about it here, in the same space as my jewelry and craft ruminations. Feminism and women in historically male-dominated academic fields is another topic that is also near and dear to my heart (for obvious reasons), so I will admit to a bit of soapboxing as well. But—it's important to soapbox once in a while. Hopefully my contribution to the discussion, along with some others, will help to create an environment where women feel welcome and men don't have to worry about inadvertently setting off a landmine.

There's a multitude of issues to tackle here. In no particular order, they are:

  • The ethics behind using people's publicly posted photos in contexts they didn't necessarily intend them for.
  • What constitutes sexism / whether or not the post is sexist.
  • The (false?) dichotomy drawn between feelings & intellect (what does this date to, the Enlightenment?).
  • Boundaries and where/when someone has the right to draw them.
  • Male privilege/male "normativity."
  • Objectification.
  • Value judgments and the right to make them.
  • The "if some, then all" fallacy.
  • What does and doesn't constitute a valid ethical framework.

I bet there's a lot more, too, but this is what jumps out at me. Lacking any better heuristic, I'm going to go with the point I feel the most like talking about first. I don't know if I'll get to all of them, because many of them depart from what my focus for this blog is: math, science, and how it relates to (my) crafts—with a dash of IP Q&A thrown in for good measure.

Why doesn't sexism matter?

Most of the shitstorm seems to focus around whether or not the post was sexist. Lots of people say yes, lots of people say no, and to be honest, I think that misses the point entirely.

Being able to label something as ____ist (or not ____ist) in some kind of mythological "objective" vacuum is simply not going to happen. Because as much as we like to think of ourselves as being rational creatures who are totally objective all the time, we're not. This means you. I think, especially among the science enthusiasts, there is a tendency to somehow think this doesn't apply to them. But it does! Objectivity is like a calculus limit: one person can approach it, but on their own, they can never entirely get there.

("But oh noes solipsism!" you cry, but I'm not getting into that here because this is the wrong setting for that discussion. I'll be glad to discuss that topic elsewhere, though. But rest assured that I'm not a solipsist/moral relativist/etc.)

I'm also going to avoid the word "sexism" and "sexist" for now. Not only is it a loaded term that has a tendency to shut people out (because who likes being called sexist?), but there are other issues at work here besides just sexism and gender equality. Instead, I'll just say "unfortunate."

While we can sit here all day and argue about why or why not the post was "really" unfortunate, we can much, much more easily determine that a lot of people certainly thought it was!

Here, I think, is where you start to see the divide, based on what people prioritize in life. People who prioritize truth-seeking, objectivity, and rationalism focus with a laser-like intensity on "proving" that the post was either unfortunate or not-unfortunate. To them (I think, extrapolating here based on what I'm inferring from other's people's posts and arguments), it's something much more like a logic puzzle or identifying an unknown species. The idea is something like, "If we can prove that the post wasn't really unfortunate, the people who are upset because they think it is won't think so anymore, and they won't be upset anymore!"

Which is well and good, and certainly important to deconstructing the incident after the fact, but right now it's still "OMG too soon!" for people like me. While I am definitely a big ol' science cheerleader, at the end of the day, my top priorities are harmony, respect, and understanding between people. From that perspective, the obsession on the post and not so much the people involved comes across as insensitive.

Constantly repeating, "I understand why you might feel so, but..." is not enough to demonstrate that you actually understand; instead, it invalidates the feelings and opinions of the other party that the speaker purports to understand. Whatever follows that "but" is always a reason that tries to explain away the other party's emotional reactions or an attempt to categorize them as somehow being "irrational." Naturally, when you're with science and critical thinking aficionados, being dismissed (either explicitly or implicitly) as irrational is NOT going to go over well. ;)

A better way to demonstrate that you understand is to say, "I understand why you feel that way. What could be changed so that you don't feel that way anymore?" Emotional reactions don't happen in a vacuum; there is always a stimulus and reason for them, and if it's not too ridiculous or time-consuming request, accommodating people's feelings is generally a Good Idea. It's not "watering things down," it's not "selling out," it's being considerate.

Sometimes, sure, people probably need to hear that they're being irrational. But if your goal is to reach out to the other party and keep them as a friend and ally, then immediately shutting out their emotional reactions will do you no good. Some will tough it out and bury the hatchet, sure; others will be too alienated to want to return to the discussion. Don't forget, as well, that on the Internet, things stay on there for a long, long time. What if someone's first introduction to the CSA blog is that "Sexy Scientists" entry? Is that a first impression that's going to maximize the introduction of new readership? Readership that you'd want?

"But Luke shouldn't have to apologize for something he didn't do," the argument goes. This is the argument that stems from focusing on the original post and objectively trying to label it as unfortunate or not-unfortunate. Whether or not the post is "really" unfortunate, we can fairly easily and relatively objectively observe that he did upset people. People who he presumably values and considers intelligent, worthwhile colleagues and teammates, no less, and people who feel (or felt, maybe) the same way about him. And he did not apologize for that.

Being presented with contrary evidence and opinions on the topic, the general reaction was not really conducive to a rational, mature discussion: Luke (and other posters) appeared to simply not take them seriously, or they tried to undermine them with silly strawmen arguments. There was very little attempt to engage "the other side" in a way that didn't seem condescending or patronizing. In short, it was hardly an open-minded response. By digging in their heels, the "it's objectively not-unfortunate" camp not only undermined the claim that the post was not-unfortunate, but everyone's general image as a rationalist. It's hardly rational to, when provided with a counterargument, get incredibly defensive and dogmatic about your own. (This swings both ways, of course, and people on the "other side" are also guilty of the same thing. I would suggest, however, that being the originator of the controversial content gives someone more of an obligation to be as accommodating and understanding as possible, since they're already proposing something unsavory to begin with.) Being open-minded means sometimes admitting you're wrong.

Fortunately, Luke has transcended the initial stage of "I did nothing wrong! Deal with it!" via a lot of thought, discussion legwork, and heavy reading. A shout out to you, Luke:

After many, many hours discussing this, my moral intuitions have changed and now tell me that my original post was wrong. But as you know, I don’t trust my moral intuitions! So I’m trying to figure what is wrong with my original Sexy Scientists post, if there is indeed something wrong with it. And the “something wrong with it” doesn’t appear to be objectification.

But if you come up with anything better than intuitions, let me know! I’m all ears. I’d very much like to figure out why I’m wrong so I can apologize and get this over with. :)

For that I commend you, wholeheartedly. Even if I disagree with you on some of the details (objectification is still totally a large part of the "something wrong" with the original post, I think; plus I don't think your moral intuitions always need rationalization, especially when you're dealing with people, their boundaries, and yes, even their feelings), it takes balls (or ovaries) of steel to openly admit, "You know what? I was wrong." Especially, I think, in a community where people pride themselves on fact-checking, spell-checking, and everything-checking their content before they put it out there, because they are Scientists and Researchers, and that is what Scientists and Researchers do. It can be seriously tough. You're a thorough guy, Luke. I'm sure you'll find some sound reasoning to back up your moral intuition. :) Hopefully we'll see a blog post about that in the near future.


  1. You've obviously put a lot of thought into this, and it's very good. I'm digesting it slowly. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Thanks—I should add that of course sexism DOES matter, but what was much more jarring to me was the way that sexism was approached in the kerfuffle.

    It's important not to shut out people's warm squishy feelings in any scenario, but in this one (or any discussion of feminism and women in a typically male-dominated field) it's especially important because it can too easily hearken back to outdated assumptions about sex/gender and broken mental heuristics used to justify keeping women out of certain fields. ("Women would have terrible bedside manner, they shouldn't be allowed to become doctors," for example.)