Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hot Science, Cold Feelings

I had thought that my first post after my laser eye surgery was going to be a cringe-worthy yet successful story of the procedure, but I had to write this post first. Do you ever encounter those moments when you think "There is no way that I will ever hear something more illogical and ridiculous than what I have just heard"? Unfortunately, these past couple of weeks contain incidents that enter the realms of the Perpetual Facepalm and the Everlasting Head-Desk.

First, my own country has essentially flipped science, scientific exchange, and support for research stations, specifically the Experimental Lakes Area Research Station, the big fat Bird. The ELA station was firmly centered in the government sniper cross-hairs, despite efforts of other political parties and scientists lobbying to keep the research station (operating for almost half a century) open. Then, Vote No. 631 in the House of Commons was sponsored by Kennedy Stewart (NDP), which stated, and I quote:

"That, in the opinion of the House: (a) public science, basic research and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making; (b) federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public; and (c) the federal government should maintain support for its basic scientific capacity across Canada, including immediately extending funding, until a new operator is found, to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility to pursue its unique research program."

Here's where a logical person will think "Who would possibly vote against this?" Logic and reason did not win the day. This vote was negatived, despite the fact that the Liberal, NDP, Green, Independent, and Bloc Quebecois parties all voted Yea. You see, we have a Conservative majority, and not one Conservative voted Yea.

Not. A. One.

You tried, Mr. Stewart. You All tried. For All who voted Yea, scientists thank You. I thank You. We are just sorry it was not enough. This will essentially continue the gag order on all federal scientists, forcing them to obtain government permission before discussing any of their findings with the public, and giving government the ability to tell a federal scientist what they can and cannot submit for publication.

I did not mean for this to turn into a political post, but I am sad, angry, and ashamed of this decision on behalf of my country. I am worried about the future of Canadian science and research. I needed to vent.

That was the Everlasting Head-Desk from my country. Prior to that, the People of the Internet provided a Perpetual Facepalm. It apparently took the People of the Internet by surprise when the administrator of the Facebook page I Fucking Love Science posted a link to her Twitter profile that included her picture. The part that surprised the People of the Internet was the "her" part.

Some people were amazed that only one person managed the IFLS page: the volume and diversity of the cool new science posts is amazing! However, because many who have a wireless connection and a keyboard also come with their Relevant and Appropriate Dialog Filters disabled, more comments than I believed possible followed these themes:

1) I'm completely surprised you're a woman!
2) You're hot!

...and my favorite combination...

3) Wow! You're hot and smart!

We meet again, Tired Old Stereotypes!

The Tired Old Stereotype #1 of the a) public perception and b) the lower numbers of women active in the STEM fields is annoying, but it is an issue that is being addressed.

The stereotypes that perplexed me are the ones related to physical appearance and science. One can infer the assumptions that led to the comments:

A) Women scientists (or women interested in science) are not attractive, and
B) Attractive women are not interested in science.

Here is where I was going to have fun with Venn Diagrams and show how illogical it is to assume that all scientists are unattractive, but then the realization dawned. I had also been trapped by the sneaky assumption that:

C) How a person (specifically, how a woman) looks is relevant.

Trying to combat assumptions A and B by promoting "Hot Fashionable Women Scientists" leads to public relations disasters, such as the original video (here's a link and a shameless redirection to one of my previous posts) for the European Commission's "Science: It's a Girl Thing!" campaign. The EC took the critiques of their original campaign seriously, and now has a page that actually profiles real women in science.

This question comes screaming into my mind:

Who gives a Flying Spaghetti Monster what a person who is interested in science looks like?!?

Yes, we are primates with complex visual processors, and the first aspect we notice about someone is the physical aspect. Yes, a portion of the population is biologically programmed to assess members of the opposite sex as potential mates. Yes, scientists are people who do not exist in a vacuum away from society (no matter how tempting this may be on the days when Everlasting Head-Desk events are encountered) and are also subjected to whatever standards society sets on appearance.

This has nothing to do with the scientific world. Scientists do not send in mug shots when they submit their research papers. Women researchers do not have to complete a special form that asks them to detail their chest-waist-hip measurements during the online paper submission process. If a new hypothesis is a great hypothesis, it will still be a great hypothesis even once you find out the researcher responsible for it has two heads and three arms, and is the worst dressed sentient being in the known Universe.

The knee-jerk reaction when meeting and greeting a woman is to compliment her on her appearance. This can range from the innocuous "You look nice" to the more insulting-yet-simultaneously-laughable comments.  We're trained to do this, and women are trained to receive these compliments as a normal part of social interactions. We're trained at an early age: Lisa Bloom's article on "How to Talk to Little Girls" highlights that using compliments on appearance as a socially acceptable icebreaker teaches girls that "...their appearance is the first thing you notice [and] tells them that looks are more important than anything." Conversations with women peers revealed that this even happens at scientific conferences. I don't think this happens among male colleagues. If it does, let me know! I'd love to hear some examples. Heck, for a good laugh I'd like to hear some awkward compliment stories from female researchers.

Barnum Brown was hot. Seriously, his core body temperature was likely slightly above normal when doing fieldwork whilst wearing his fur coat.

So, a woman who is interested in science, and who operates a great social media page promoting science in all of its awesome glory, received the digital version of walking past the archetypical construction site once the People of the Internet found out her appearance. In a sad and awkward attempt to say something complimentary, they fell back on their basic social icebreaker training and produced a completely irrelevant and pathetic Facebook comment. Social programming fail.

What keeps this incident from being classified as an Everlasting Head-Desk is the amount of fun that was poked at the people who could think of nothing better to say other than "You're female" and "You're hot". I thoroughly enjoyed Dean Burnett's article in the Guardian on how women should know their place in science. Also, many of the comments did fall into the "Thanks for a great site!" and "Nice to meet you!" thread (as well as incredulity at the annoying comments). It is a thoroughly ridiculous idea that a person's gender and/or appearance should matter when it comes to science. Great discoveries do not need to be draped across models like clothes or makeup to convince people they are great discoveries. Science is hot in of itself.

I couldn't resist at least one Venn Diagram.

Until next time,

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