Posted tagged ‘gender’

And the Internet Shall Make Us Free, Gender Equity Division

August 12, 2014

I have a friend in the science writing game (many actually; I’m a wealthy man that way).  This particular friend has built a career out of writing about physics, mostly, along with a bit of math,* all with a truly distinct style, voice, and stance.  The work begins from the true premise: physics and the habits of scientific thinking penetrate (or should) every aspect of experience.  Science ain’t just for the boffins — it’s of value and available to anyone willing to crack a book and wind their brain.

My friend has lots of strengths as a writer, full stop, and as a writer about science.  It’s not just the catchy and earned interplay the work achieves between popular culture and real scientific concepts.  What I love as I read books and articles from my friend is the way each piece is built experientially.  The ideas emerge as the narrative voice lives, does actual stuff (road-trip to Vegas! drop acid! check out the rides at Disneyland!).  This is a writer who wants readers to feel their new knowledge down to the bone.  And to have fun with it while they’re at it.

So my friend put out a book a couple of years ago that showcases all this fine writerly stuff on a topic that doesn’t usually make most folks’ lists of beach reading.  Titled The Calculus Diaries it tells the story of what happens when a fully grown adult — a former English major –sets out to master calculus,  both for the beauty of the math involved and to discover its power as a  guide to just about whatever one may encounter in daily life.

My friend has lots of friends, as it happens, many of whom we share.  One of those was talking to yet a third party a few nights ago, and told that person about the book.  The next day, some of the details had vanished, as they are wont to do.  And so this last person in the chain did what anyone would:  ask the magic Google machine to find that tome about the English major who decided to learn calculus.

Then this happened:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 5.14.25 PM

Oops.

Or rather, what’s telling is that plenty of folks are pissed off at the Google-bot’s assumption here, but no one, I think, is even remotely surprised.  Ben Lillie — the man behind Story Collider, by the way — is the person who told McManus (whom I don’t know) about The Calculus Diaries, by Jennifer Ouellette, possibly also known to some of you as Jen-Luc Picard, proprietress of Cocktail Party Physics.

La_Leçon_d’astronomie_de_la_duchesse_du_Maine_-_François_de_Troy

Ben wrote up a lovely post for his Tumblr on all this, with at least two motives behind the writing, both of which I share.

One is simply to make sure that our mutual friend Jennifer gets all the credit she deserves for having written a wonderful tale and guide-for-the-math-perplexed that I believe serves as a great gateway drug to really important mathematical ideas.  Also, maybe, this’ll help sell some  books.

The other is to use this bit of search-algorithm-“optimization” to cast the obvious sidelight on the fact of embedded sexism in tech — and really society at large.  That pathology is easy to see when you get dudebros making obvious and public tools of themselves.  But (and of course you see this in the way racism persists) when you set the non-sexist/racist/bigot/asshole bar at the level of not being that guy, not using the c word or the n word, or what have you, the deep social and cultural conditions in which actual racism, sexism, discrimination makes itself felt don’t get touched.  Ben wrote a line I can’t beat on this theme:

One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are.

And so they do.  And what this one little story means as a practical matter is that as long as the assumption that men do math and women don’t runs so far below the surface that even the Google breathes it back at you….then that’s how you know the war on women, like plenty of other battles, ain’t close to over.  La lucha continua, as we used to say.

Discuss — and go buy some books.

*There’s been a recent detour into mind-brain stuff, but we all have our briar patches, don’t we?

Image: François de Troy, Astronomy Lesson of the Duchess du Main, 1702-1704

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel edition

December 18, 2013

It’s the third Wed. of the month again (remarkable how that comes around), and I’ll once more be doing my internet radio thing on Virtually Speaking Science (a program within the Virtually Speaking empire that recently featured our own Richard Mayhew in conversation with Jay Ackroyd).

This evening at 5 p.m. ET/ 2 p.m./PT, I’ll be talking with Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and science writing.  (We’ll also be live in Second Life at the Exploratorium’s joint.  Come join the live studio audience if you’ve got that kind of virtual bent.)

Titian_-_Rape_of_Europa_-_Google_Art_Project

As many of you I’m sure know, it’s been a tumultuous couple of months in the science writing world. Since October, we’ve seen Dr. Danielle N. Lee, a researcher and blogger at ScientificAmerican.com get called an “urban whore” for the sin of politely declining to write for free — and then have her equally polite explanation why that’s not OK deleted on spurious pretences by a Scientific American editorial staff who thus, effectively silenced an African American woman trying to let the world know this sh*t still goes on — every damn day.  You can listen to Lee herself on all of this as part of the invaluable Story Collider series of tales of science and life.

In the wake of Lee’s story, first one woman, then two, then three reported incidents of sexual harassment by then-Scientific American blog editor and Science Online co-founder Bora Zivkovic.  Of particular note at this stage of events was the pattern of reactions to the news about Zivkovic, who was a cornerstone of the English-language science blogging world, widely known and liked.  By me too, btw.  Devoted fans of my Virtually Speaking Science gig — yes, all 6 of you, counting my cat — will recall that Bora was on the show last January.  He was kind to my fledgling blog as he was to many others, and the reserves of good will he engendered play a role in this story.  The concept of “community” was invoked to suggest that Zivkovic’s role in fostering community as an end in itself suggested some kind of amelioration or alternate context for the one incident on the table.  As more women came forward, that line of argument largely evaporated — but it set the context for the public debate that followed.

Moving forward, there was Rapey-Einstein-Curie-Bobblehead-gate.  I kid you not.  Joe Hanson, who writes the It’s OK To Be Smart blog for PBS digital posted a Thanksgiving video showing famous historical scientists (bobbleheads) gathered around the table.  Marie Curie was the only woman on hand, and the video ended up with Einstein assaulting Curie.  Oy.

What made that particular embarrassment worse that neither Hans0n nor PBS seemed to get quite what was wrong with the piece — as Kate Clancy* writes, Hanson apologized, but said he was trying to draw attention to the insufficient representation of women in science through the video.  PBS merely lauded Hanson and itself for  opening up “up an important, though difficult, debate” — as if the conversation about rape, discrimination or abuse of power was suddenly brought to our attention by this act of intellectual courage.

One of the most striking aspects of the whole last few months was the surprise gap.  Women in science writing were unhappy to hear of each insult and act of diminishment imposed on other women — but, at least as documented in that immaculate scientific assay, Twitter, they were utterly unsurprised by the pervasiveness of the phenomenon.  Men, those with some power and those pretty much without, mostly had a different reaction. They — and this certainly goes for me — had a collective “I had no idea that this happens to all of y’all” reaction.

Cole_Thomas_Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden_1828

But it does.  Crap gender behavior is a constant, it seems; at least every woman I’ve spoken to in the science writing world reports interactions ranging from the unnecessarily and workplace-inappropriate awkwardness to outright sucker-should-be-in-jail awfulness.  The data on women’s advancement through the ranks of power in both science itself and public science communication reflect both the leaky-pipe impact of such environments and the power of old-boy networks, even in this day and age.  See this and this and this for examples, with Janet Stemwedel’s post as context.

So we’ll be talking about all of this:  what happened to bring the issue of sexual harrassment and gender discrimination to the fore in the professional world of science communication; what it means on the ground for the craft — and hence, inter alia, for the goal of engaging the public in science and the use of scientific thinking for civic participation; and what can be done to address the systemic flaws that have enabled gender discrimination to persist, for all the (often quite spectacular) self-congratulation science communicators have allowed themselves in the very recent past.

As to my guests.  Maryn McKenna is a return visitor to the program, having joined me in April to talk antibiotic resistance and why we’re all doomed.  She’s one of the country’s leading public health journalists, who has spent the last several years diving into the problem of antibiotic overuse and the evolution of increasingly resistant microbes.  She’s also someone who has thought long and deeply about gender issues in our shared profession, and you can find some of her writing on the subject on her blog (variously linked above).

Janet Stemwedel is a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University who teaches the philosophy of science and its ethics, among other concerns.  She’s known on the web as Dr. Freeride, and she blogs about a wide range of issues of ethics and public responsibilty in science.  It’s both too horrible and necessarily inaccurate to say that someone is “the conscience” of a group, but Janet is nonetheless one of those to whom many of us turn when we want to talk through a question with rigor and humanity.

Should be a rich conversation this afternoon. Hope y’all can make it, or check out the podcast when it suits your schedule.

One more thing:  it should go without saying, but in case it doesn’t, there’s nothing unique about science journalism or public outreach.  Some of us in the business (almost exclusive the male sort) thought there was, that we had enlightened ourselves as a group past the broader social issues raised by ongoing gender crap.  This program is both a result of and an attempt to further disabusement of that notion — and, I hope, whatever I’ll learn from Janet and Maryn will also serve as a guide to navigating the same issues in settings beyond science writing.

IOW — this may all look like inside baseball for science writers.  It’s not.

*BTW — as I write this the news just came off embargo that Kate’s been named one of the journal Nature’s 10 — “Ten people who mattered this year,” recognized for her work in developing data to demonstrate the reality of sexual harassment and physical or sexual assault in research settings.

Images: Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1559-1562.

Thomas Cole, The Expulsion from Eden, 1828.

 

Nod’s As Good As A Wink To A Blind Bat, Guv’nor: Sarah Palin Edition

October 3, 2008

Just to add one data point to Hilzoy’s argument about Palin as flirt.

Several in the blogosphere — Sullivan and Benen, for two who shared Hilzoy’s disgust — have noted with disbelief Rich Lowry’s transports of delight at the virtual pole dance he seems to have witnessed while watching Governor Palin debate.

Hilzoy went one step deeper into the morass and did a little dissection of the electoral implications of Palin’s tease technique:

I’m sure I’m not the only female in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, rolled her eyes and thought: oh, dear God. We have all seen just that wink deployed at guys like Rich Lowry. We have all watched in amazement as it actually works, despite its transparent manipulativeness. What, we all wonder, could those guys possibly be thinking?

I’m sure she’s right — though absent some real research, “sure” only to a certain value of certitude.  But there is this:  each time Palin winked, at least three in all, my wife howled in disbelief and rage.

So now we’ve doubled our sample.  If we can now just get the exponent on this sample size to ten, we might know something.

I will say this on my gender’s behalf:  one of the few good things of making it into the neighborhood of 50 is that it gets easier even for those of us down one X to see through this kind of thing.

So, just as a working hypothesis,  Palin’s numbers continue to tank with women, this may one big reason why.

As a bonus…here’s the Monty Python sketch that inspired the title of this post.  Remember, when asked, say that “She’s from Purley”…from whence I am sure she could see Russia….

Image:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Moulin Rouge:  La Goulue,” 1891.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: NPR/Nancy Pelosi edition + a little housekeeping

July 28, 2008

Housekeeping first:

I got another vacation coming — this one a honker of a trip to South Africa (family/animals — the key test will be making sure I keep the differences between the two groups clear in my head). I’ll be gone most of August. This blog will keep ticking over — with some help from at least one guest blogger. But I can’t pretend that Inverse Square will be operating on all cylinders (mixed metaphor alert) for the next few weeks. Nothin’ much will be happening anyway.

Anyway — for the month, the style of the blog is going to shift a little — more quick hit posts, fewer illustrations. In that spirit:

Check out this interview with Nancy Pelosi on NPR’s Morning Edition, July 28 edition. It’s a mostly conventional, uncontroversial conversation centered on the release of Pelosi’s new book.

Pelosi went off the rails, for me at least, at the very end of the piece. There, she spoke of how a woman in power would be able to say this:

“I think in an intuitive way and that special quality and that special grace that women bring to it all is something that would be such a source of strength to our country.”

Now, there has been a wealth of research, some of it even reputable, about differences in cognition and other brain functions between the genders. See this, if you want to begin tiptoeing into that field.

Note also that all of the population studies in the world do next to nothing to help you guage the capacity of an individual man or woman. John McCain’s analytical and quantitative skills — categories sometimes trumpeted as strengths of male minds — have not been anything to write home about on this campaign. Hilary Clinton’s mastery of policy analysis was widely seen as a distinction to be drawn against her primary and the putative general election opponent. (As you’ll see from the headline on that link, Brad DeLong’s mantra: “Why, oh why…” has retrospective power

But the point isn’t that individuals are all, by definition, exceptional in some way. It is that it is not intuitive reasoning that women bring to the table as a particular strength — after all, that master of gut knowledge, George Bush, has put thinking by feel into justifiably ill repute as a qualification for the Presidency

No — Pelosi actually got it right the sentence before the one quoted above. It is the distinctive experience of women that would give a female President something new and valuable to bring to the table. Everything to pay disparities to a grasp of what it takes to maintain the daily logistics of families in which men, on average, still do not carry an equal load.

That is: it is a mug’s game to claim for women special fitness for office because of a presumed, at least partially magical quality of how their brains work. Just think of the counter argument, substitute men for women, and rational for intuitive, and think of the justified howls that would result. It is a perfectly legitimate claim to say that women’s lives are different than those of men in the aggregate and in particular — and that such experience is relevant to governance, leadership and policy.

Image: Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, “The Kitchen Maid.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.