Twenty-five years later.

Twenty-five years ago today, on December 6, 1989, in Montreal, fourteen women were murdered for being women in what their murderer perceived to be a space that rightly belonged to men:

Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student

Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student

Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student

Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student

Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department

Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student

Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student

Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student

Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student

Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

They were murdered because their killer was disgruntled that he been denied admission to the École Polytechnique, the site of the massacre, and because he blamed women occupying positions that were traditionally occupied by men for this disappointment, among others. When their killer entered the engineering classroom where the killing began, he first told the men to leave the room, because his goal was to kill the women. In their killer’s pocket, discovered after his death, was a list of more women he had planned to kill, if only he had the time.

Shelley Page was a 24-year-old reporter who was sent to cover the Montreal massacre for The Toronto Star. On this, the 25th anniversary of the event, she writes:

I fear I sanitized the event of its feminist anger and then infantilized and diminished the victims, turning them from elite engineering students who’d fought for a place among men into teddy-bear loving daughters, sisters and girlfriends.

Twenty-five years later, as I re-evaluate my stories and with the benefit of analysis of the coverage that massacre spawned, I see how journalists— male and female producers, news directors, reporters, anchors — subtly changed the meaning of the tragedy to one that the public would get behind, silencing so-called “angry feminists.”

Twenty-five years ago, I was a 21-year-old finishing my first term in a chemistry Ph.D. program. I was studying for final exams and the qualifying exams that would be held in January, so I was not following the news about much of anything outside my bubble of graduate school. When I did hear about the Montreal massacre, it was a punch in the gut.

It was enough already to fight against the subtle and not-so-subtle doubt (from the faculty in our programs, from our classmates, even from our students) that women were cut out for science or engineering. Now it was clear that there existed people committed enough to science and engineering being male domains that they might kill us to enforce that.

The murders were political. They did not target particular individual women in the forbidden domain of engineering on the basis of particular personal grievances. Being a member of the hated group in the social space the murderer thought should be for men only was enough.

But the murders also ended the lives of fourteen particular individual women, women who were daughters and sisters and friends and girlfriends.

The tragedies were deeply personal for the survivors of the fourteen women who were murdered. They were also personal for those of us who understood (even if we couldn’t articulate it) that we occupied the same kinds of social positions, and struggled with the same barriers to access and inclusion, as these fourteen murdered women had. They made us sad, and scared, and angry.

The personal is political. The challenge is in seeing how we are connected, the structures underlying what frequently feel to us like intensely individual experiences.

I’m inclined to think it’s a mistake to look for the meaning of the Montreal massacre. There are many interconnected meanings to find here.

That individual teddy bear-loving girls and women can still be formidable scientists and engineers.

That breaking down barriers to inclusion can come at a cost to oneself as an individual (which can make it harder for others who have gotten into those male preserves to feel like it’s OK for them to leave before the barriers are completely dismantled).

That some are still dedicated to maintaining those barriers to inclusion, and where that dedication will end — with words, or threats, or violent acts — is impossible to tell just by looking at the gatekeeper.

Because they were murdered 25 years ago today, we will never know what contributions these fourteen women might have made — what projects they might have guided, what problems they might have solved, the impact they might have made as mentors or role models, as teachers, as colleagues, as friends, as lovers, as parents, as engaged citizens.

In their memory, we ought to make sure other women are free to find out what they can contribute without having to waste their energy taking down barriers and without having to fear for their lives.

Giving thanks.

This being the season, I’d like to take the opportunity to pause and give thanks.

I’m thankful for parents who encouraged my curiosity and never labeled science as something it was inappropriate for me to explore or pursue.

I’m thankful for teachers who didn’t present science as if it were confined within the box of textbooks and homework assignments and tests, but instead offered it as a window through which I could understand ordinary features of my world in a whole new way. A particular teacher who did this was my high school chemistry teacher, Mel Thompson, who bore a striking resemblance to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and would, on occasion, blow soap bubbles with a gas jet as we took quizzes, setting them alight with a Bunsen burner before they reached the ceiling. Mr. Thompson always conveyed his strong conviction that I could learn anything, and on that basis he was prepared to teach me anything about chemistry that I wanted to learn.

I’m thankful for the awesome array of women who taught me science as an undergraduate and a graduate student, both for their pedagogy and for the examples they provided of different ways to be a woman in science.

I’m especially thankful for my mother, who was my first and best role model with respect to the challenges of graduate school and becoming a scientist.

I’m thankful for the mentors who have found me and believed in me when I needed help believing in myself.

I’m thankful for the opportunity graduate school gave me to make the transition from learning knowledge other people had built to learning how to build brand new scientific knowledge myself.

I’m thankful that the people who trained me to become a scientist didn’t treat it as a betrayal when I realized that what I really wanted to do was become a philosopher. I’m also thankful for the many, many scientists who have welcomed my philosophical engagement with their scientific work, and who have valued my contributions to the training of their science students.

I’m thankful for my children, through whose eyes I got the chance to relive the wonder of discovering the world and its workings all over again. I’m also thankful to them for getting me to grapple with some of my own unhelpful biases about science, for helping me to get over them.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to make a living pursuing the questions that keep me up at night. I’m thankful that pursuing some of these questions can contribute to scientific practice that builds reliable knowledge while being more humane to its practitioners, to better public understanding of science (and of scientists), and perhaps even to scientists and nonscientists doing a better job of sharing a world with each other.

And, dear readers, I am thankful for you.

A guide for science guys trying to understand the fuss about that shirt.

This is a companion to the last post, focused more specifically on the the question of how men in science who don’t really get what the fuss over Rosetta mission Project Scientist Matt Taylor’s shirt was about could get a better understanding of the objections — and of why they might care.

(If the story doesn’t embed properly for you, you can read it here.)

The Rosetta mission #shirtstorm was never just about that shirt.

Last week, the European Space Agency’s Spacecraft Rosetta put a washing machine-sized lander named Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Landing anything on a comet is a pretty amazing feat, so plenty of scientists and science-fans were glued to their computers watching for reports of the Rosetta mission’s progress. During the course of the interviews streamed to the public (including classrooms), Project Scientist Matt Taylor described the mission as the “sexiest mission there’s ever been”, but not “easy”. And, he conducted on-camera interviews in a colorful shirt patterned with pin-up images of scantily-clad women.

This shirt was noticed, and commented upon, by more than one woman in science and science communication.

To some viewers, Taylor’s shirt just read as a departure from the “boring” buttoned-down image the public might associate with scientists. But to many women scientists and science communicators who commented upon it, the shirt seemed to convey lack of awareness or concern with the experiences of women who have had colleagues, supervisors, teachers, students treat them as less than real scientists, or science students, or science communicators, or science fans. It was jarring given all the subtle and not so subtle ways that some men (not all men) in science have conveyed to us that our primary value lies in being decorative or titillating, not in being capable, creative people with intelligence and skills who can make meaningful contributions to building scientific knowledge or communicating science to a wider audience.

The pin-up images of scantily clad women on the shirt Taylor wore on camera distracted people who were tuned in because they wanted to celebrate Rosetta. It jarred them, reminding them of the ways science can still be a boys’ club.

It was just one scientist, wearing just one shirt, but it was a token of a type that is far too common for many of us to ignore.

There is research on the ways that objectifying messages and images can have a significant negative effect on those in the group being objectified. Objectification, even if it’s unintentional, adds one more barrier (on top of implicit bias, stereotype threat, chilly climate, benevolent sexism, and outright harassment) on women’s participation.

Even if there wasn’t a significant body of research demonstrating that the effects are real, the fact of women who explicitly say that casual use of sexualizing imagery or language in professional contexts makes science less welcoming for them ought to count for more than an untested hunch that it shouldn’t make them feel this way.

And here’s the thing: this is a relatively easy barrier to remove. All it requires is thinking about whether your cheeky shirt, your wall calendar, your joke, is likely to have a negative effect on other people — including on women who are likely to have accumulated lots of indications that they are not welcomed in the scientific community on the same terms.

When Matt Taylor got feedback about the message his shirt was sending to some in his intended audience, he got it, and apologized unreservedly.

But the criticism was never just about just one shirt, and what has been happening since Matt Taylor’s apology underlines that this is not a problem that starts and ends with Matt Taylor or with one bad wardrobe choice for the professional task at hand.

Despite Matt Taylor’s apology, legions of people have been asserting that he should not have apologized. They have been insisting that people objecting to his wearing that shirt while representing Rosetta and acting as an ambassador for science were wrong to voice their objections, wrong even to be affected by the shirt.

If only we could not be affected by things simply by choosing not to be affected by them. But that’s not how symbols work.

A critique of this wardrobe choice as one small piece of a scientific culture that makes it harder for women to participate fully brought forth throngs of people (including scientists) responding with a torrent of hostility and, in some cases, threats of harm. This response conveys that women are welcome in science, or science journalism, or the audience for landing a spacecraft on a comet, only as long as they shut up about any of the barriers they might encounter, while men in science should never, ever be made uncomfortable about choices they’ve made that might contribute (even unintentionally) to throwing up such barriers.

That is not a great strategy for demonstrating that science is welcoming to all.

Indeed, it’s a strategy that seems to imbed a bunch of assumptions:

  • that it’s worth losing the scientific talent of women who might make the scientific climate uncomfortable for men by describing their experiences and pointing out barriers that are relatively easy to fix;
  • that men who have to be tough enough to test their hypotheses against empirical data and to withstand the rigors of peer review are not tough enough to handle it when women in their professional circle express discomfort;
  • that these men of science are incapable of empathy for others (including women) in their professional circle.

These strike me as bad assumptions. People making them seem to have a worse opinion of men who do science that the women voicing critiques have.

Voicing a critique (and sometimes steps it would be good to take going forward), rather that sighing and regarding the thing you’re critiquing as the cost of doing business, is something you do when you believe the person hearing it would want to know about the problem and address it. It comes from a place of trust — that your male colleagues aren’t trying to exclude you, and so will make little adjustments to stop doing unintentional harm once that they know that they’re doing it.

Matt Taylor seemed to understand the critique at least well enough to change his shirt and apologize for the unintentional harm he did. He seems willing to make that small effort to make science welcoming, rather than alienating.

Now we’re just waiting for the rest of the scientific community to join him.

When your cover photo says less about the story and more about who you imagine you’re talking to.

The choice of cover of the most recent issue of Science was not good. This provoked strong reactions and, eventually, an apology from Science‘s editor-in-chief. It’s not the worst apology I’ve seen in recent days, but my reading of it suggests that there’s still a gap between the reactions to the cover and the editorial team’s grasp of those reactions.

So, in the interests of doing what I can to help close that gap, I give you the apology (in block quotes) and my response to it:

From Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt:

Science has heard from many readers expressing their opinions and concerns with the recent [11 July 2014] cover choice.

The cover showing transgender sex workers in Jarkarta was selected after much discussion by a large group

I suppose the fact that the choice of the cover was discussed by many people for a long time (as opposed to by one person with no discussion) is good. But it’s no guarantee of a good choice, as we’ve seen here. It might be useful to tell readers more about what kind of group was involved in making the decision, and what kind of discussion led to the choice of this cover over the other options that were considered.

and was not intended to offend anyone,

Imagine my relief that you did not intend what happened in response to your choice of cover. And, given how predictable the response to your cover was, imagine my estimation of your competence in the science communication arena dropping several notches. How well do you know your audience? Who exactly do you imagine that audience to be? If you’re really not interested in reaching out to people like me, can I get my AAAS dues refunded, please?

but rather to highlight the fact that there are solutions for the AIDS crisis for this forgotten but at-risk group. A few have indicated to me that the cover did exactly that,

For them. For them the cover highlighted transgender sex workers as a risk group who might get needed help from research. So, there was a segment of your audience for whom your choice succeeded, apparently.

but more have indicated the opposite reaction: that the cover was offensive because they did not have the context of the story prior to viewing it, an important piece of information that was available to those choosing the cover.

Please be careful with your causal claims here. Even with the missing context provided, a number of people still find the cover harmful. This explanation of the harm in the context of what the scientific community, and the wider world, can be like for a trans*woman, spells it out pretty eloquently.

The problem, in other words, goes deeper than the picture not effectively conveying your intended context. Instead, the cover communicated layers of context about who you imagine as your audience — and about whose reality is not really on your radar.

The people who are using social media to explain the problems they have with this cover are sharing information about who is in your audience, about what our lives in and with science are like. We are pinging you so we will be on your radar. We are trying to help you.

I am truly sorry for any discomfort that this cover may have caused anyone,

Please do not minimize the harm your choice of cover caused by describing it as “discomfort”. Doing so suggests that you still aren’t recognizing how this isn’t an event happening in a vacuum. That’s a bad way to support AAAS members who are women and to broaden the audience for science.

and promise that we will strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups and not assume that context and intent will speak for themselves.

What’s your action plan going forward? Is there good reason to think that simply trying hard to do better will get the job done? Or are you committed enough to doing better that you’re ready to revisit your editorial processes, the diversity of your editorial team, the diversity of the people beyond that team whose advice and feedback you seek and take seriously?

I’ll repeat: We are trying to help you. We criticize this cover because we expect more from Science and AAAS. This is why people have been laboring, patiently, to spell out the problems.

Please use those patient explanations and formulate a serious plan to do better.

* * * * *
For this post, I’m not accepting comments. There is plenty of information linked here for people to read and digest, and my sense is this is a topic where thinking hard for a while is likely to be more productive than jumping in with questions that the reading, digesting, and hard thinking could themselves serve to answer.

Successful science outreach means connecting with the people you’re trying to reach.

Let’s say you think science is cool, or fun, or important to understand (or to do) in our modern world. Let’s say you want to get others who don’t (yet) see science as cool, or fun, or important, to appreciate how cool, how fun, how important it is.

Doing that, even on a small scale, is outreach.

Maybe just talking about what you find cool, fun, and important will help some others come to see science that way. But it’s also quite possible that some of the people to whom you’re reaching out will not be won over by the same explanations, the same experiences, the same exemplars of scientific achievement that won you over.

If you want your outreach to succeed, it’s not enough to know what got you engaged with science. To engage people-who-are-not-you, you probably need to find out something about them.

Find out what their experiences with science have been like — and what their experiences with scientists (and science teachers) have been like. These experiences shape what they think about science, but also what they think about who science is for.

Find out what they find interesting and what they find off-putting.

Find out what they already know and what they want to know. Don’t assume before doing this that you know where their information is gappy or what they’re really worried about. Don’t assume that filling in gaps in their knowledge is all it will take to make them science fans.

Recognize that your audience may not be as willing as you want them to be to separate their view of science from their view of scientists. A foible of a famous scientist that is no big deal to you may be a huge deal to people you’re trying to reach who have had different experiences. Your baseline level of trust for scientists and the enterprise of scientific knowledge-building may be higher than that of people in your target audience who come from communities that have been hurt by researchers or harmed by scientific claims used to justify their marginalization.

Actually reaching people means taking their experiences seriously. Telling someone how to feel is a bad outreach strategy.

Taking the people you’re trying to reach seriously also means taking seriously their capacity to understand and to make good decisions — even when their decisions are not precisely the decisions you might make. When you feel frustration because of decisions being made out of what looks to you like ignorance, resist the impulse to punch down. Instead, ask where the decisions are coming from and try to understand them before explaining, respectfully, why you’d make a different decision.

If your efforts at outreach don’t seem to be reaching people or groups you are trying hard to reach, seriously consider the possibility that what you’re doing may not be succeeding because it’s not aligned with the wants or needs of those people or groups.

If you’re serious about reaching those people or groups ask them how your outreach efforts are coming across to them, and take their answers seriously.

Heroes, human “foibles”, and science outreach.

“Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

— Richard Feynman

There is a tendency sometimes to treat human beings as if they were resultant vectors arrived at by adding lots and lots of particular vectors together, an urge to try to work out whether someone’s overall contribution to their field (or to the world) was a net positive.

Unless you have the responsibility for actually putting the human being in question into the system to create good or bad effects (and I don’t kid myself that my readership is that omnipotent), I think treating human beings like resultant vectors is not a great idea.

For one thing, in focusing on the net effect, one tends to overlook that people are complicated. You end up in a situation where you might use those overall tallies to sort people into good and evil rather than noticing how in particular circumstances good and bad may turn on a decision or two.

This can also create an unconscious tendency to put a thumb on the scale when the person whose impact you’re evaluating is someone about whom you have strong feelings, whether they’re a hero to you or a villain. As a result, you may end up completely ignoring the experiences of others, or noticing them but treating them as insignificant, when a better course of action may be to recognize that it’s entirely possible that people who had a positive impact on you had a negative impact on others (and vice versa).

Science is sometimes cast as a pursuit in which people can, by participating in a logical methodology, transcend their human frailties, at least insofar as these frailties constrain our ability to get objective knowledge of the world. On that basis, you’ll hear the claim that we really ought to separate the scientific contributions of an individual from their behaviors and interactions with others. In other words, we should focus on what they did when they were being a scientist rather than on the rest of the (incidental) stuff they did while they were being a human.

This distinction rests on a problematic dichotomy between being a scientist and being a human. Because scientific knowledge is built not just through observations and experiments but also through human interactions, drawing a clear line between human behavior and scientific contributions is harder than it might at first appear.

Consider a scientist who has devised, conducted, and reported the results of many important experiments. If it turns out that some of those experimental results were faked, what do you want to say about his scientific legacy? Can you be confident in his other results? If so, on what basis can you be confident?

The coordinated effort to build a reliable body of knowledge about the world depends on a baseline level of trust between scientists. Without that trust, you are left having to take on the entire project yourself, and that seriously diminished the chances that the knowledge you’re building will be objective.

What about behaviors that don’t involve putting misinformation into the scientific record? Are those the kinds of things we can separate from someone’s scientific contributions?

Here, the answer will depend a lot on the particulars of those behaviors. Are we talking about a scientist who dresses his dogs in ugly sweaters, or one who plays REO Speedwagon albums at maximum volume while drafting journal articles? Such peculiarities might come up in anecdotes but they probably won’t impact the credibility of one’s science. Do we have a scientist who is regularly cruel to his graduate student trainees, or who spreads malicious rumors about his scientific colleagues? That kind of behavior has the potential to damage the networks of trust and cooperation upon which the scientific knowledge-building endeavor depends, which means it probably can’t be dismissed as a mere “foible”.

What about someone who is scrupulously honest about his scientific contributions but whose behavior towards women or members of underrepresented minorities demonstrates that he does not regard them as being as capable, as smart, or as worthy of respect? What if, moreover, most of these behaviors are displayed outside of scientific contexts (owing to the general lack of women or members of underrepresented minorities in the scientific contexts this scientist encounters)? Intended or not, such attitudes and behaviors can have the effect of excluding people from the scientific community. Even if you think you’re actively working to improve outreach/inclusion, your regular treatment of people you’re trying to help as “less than” can have the effect of exclusion. It also sets a tone within your community where it’s predictable that simply having more women and members of underrepresented minorities there won’t result in their full participation, whether because you and your likeminded colleagues are disinclined to waste your time interacting with them or because they get burnt out interacting with people like you who treat them as “less than”.

This last description of a hypothetical scientist is not too far from famous physicist Richard Feynman, something that we know not just from the testimony of his contemporaries but from Feynman’s own accounts. As it happens, Feynman is enough of a hero to scientists and people who do science outreach that many seem compelled to insist that the net effect of his legacy is positive. Ironically, the efforts to paint Feynman as a net-good guy can inflict harms similar to the behavior Feynman’s defenders seem to minimize.

In an excellent, nuanced post on Feynman, Matthew Francis writes:

Richard Feynman casts the longest shadow in the collective psyche of modern physicists. He plays the nearly same role within the community that Einstein does in the world beyond science: the Physicist’s Physicist, someone almost as important as a symbol as he was as a researcher. Many of our professors in school told Feynman stories, and many of us acquired copies of his lecture notes in physics. …

Feynman was a pioneer of quantum field theory, one of a small group of researchers who worked out quantum electrodynamics (QED): the theory governing the behavior of light, matter, and their interactions. QED shows up everywhere from the spectrum of atoms to the collisions of electrons inside particle accelerators, but Feynman’s calculation techniques proved useful well beyond the particular theory.

Not only that, his explanations of quantum physics were deep and cogent, in a field where clarity can be hard to come by. …

Feynman stories that get passed around physics departments aren’t usually about science, though. They’re about his safecracking, his antics, his refusal to wear neckties, his bongos, his rejection of authority, his sexual predation on vulnerable women.

The predation in question here included actively targeting female students as sex partners, a behavior that rather conveys that you don’t view them primarily in terms of their potential to contribute to science.

While it is true that much of what we know about Richard Feynman’s behavior is the result of Feynman telling stories about himself, there stories really don’t seem to indicate awareness of the harmful impacts his behavior might have had on others. Moreover, Feynman’s tone in telling these stories suggests he assumed an audience that would be taken with his cleverness, including his positioning of women (and his ability to get into their pants) as a problem to be solved scientifically.

Apparently these are not behaviors that prevented Feynman from making significant contributions to physics. However, it’s not at all clear that these are behaviors that did no harm to the scientific community.

One take-home message of all this is that making positive contributions to science doesn’t magically cancel out harmful things you may do — including things that may have the effect of harming other scientists or the cooperative knowledge-building effort in which they’re engaged. If you’re a living scientist, this means you should endeavor not to do harm, regardless of what kinds of positive contributions you’ve amassed so far.

Another take-home message here is that it is dangerous to rest your scientific outreach efforts on scientific heroes.

If the gist of your outreach is: “Science is cool! Here’s a cool guy who made cool contributions to science!” and it turns out that your “cool guy” actually displayed some pretty awful behavior (sexist, racist, whatever), you probably shouldn’t put yourself in a position where your message comes across as:

  • These scientific contributions were worth the harm done by his behavior (including the harm it may have done in unfairly excluding people from full participation in science).
  • He may have been sexist or racist, but that was no big deal because people in his time, place and culture were pretty sexist (as if that removes the harm done by the behavior).
  • He did some things that weren’t sexist or racist, so that cancels out the things he did that were sexist or racist. Maybe he worked hard to help a sister or a daughter participate in science; how can we then say that his behavior hurt women’s inclusion in science?
  • His sexism or racism was no big deal because it seems to have been connected to a traumatic event (e.g., his wife died, he had a bad experience with a black person once), or because the problematic behavior seems to have been his way of “blowing off steam” during a period of scientific productivity.

You may be intending to convey the message that this was an interesting guy who made some important contributions to science, but the message that people may take away is that great scientific achievement totally outweighs sexism, racism, and other petty problems.

But people aren’t actually resultant vectors. If you’re a target of the racism, sexism, and other petty problems, you may not feel like they should be overlooked or forgiven on the strength of the scientific achievement.

Science outreach doesn’t just deliver messages about what science knows or about the processes by which that knowledge is built. Science outreach also delivers messages about what kind of people scientists are (and about what kinds of people can be scientists).

There is a special danger lurking here if you are doing science outreach by using a hero like Feynman and you are not a member of a group likely to have been hurt by his behavior. You may believe that the net effect of his story casts science and scientists in a way that will draw people in, but it’s possible you are fooling yourself.

Maybe you aren’t the kind of person whose opinion about science or eagerness to participate in science would be influenced by the character flaws of the “scientific heroes” on offer, but if you’re already interested in science perhaps you’re not the main target for outreach efforts. And if members of the groups who are targeted for outreach tell you that they find these “scientific heroes” and the glorification of them by science fans alienating, perhaps listening to them would help you to devise more effective outreach strategies.

Building more objective knowledge about the world requires input from others. Why should we think that ignoring such input — especially from the kind of people you’re trying to reach — would lead to better science outreach?

Conduct of scientists (and science writers) can shape the public’s view of science.

Scientists undertake a peculiar kind of project. In striving to build objective knowledge about the world, they are tacitly recognizing that our unreflective picture of the world is likely to be riddled with mistakes and distortions. On the other hand, they frequently come to regard themselves as better thinkers — as more reliably objective — than humans who are not scientists, and end up forgetting that they have biases and blindspots of their own which they are helpless to detect without help from others who don’t share these particular biases and blindspots.

Building reliable knowledge about the world requires good methodology, teamwork, and concerted efforts to ensure that the “knowledge” you build doesn’t simply reify preexisting individual and cultural biases. It’s hard work, but it’s important to do it well — especially given a long history of “scientific” findings being used to justify and enforce preexisting cultural biases.

I think this bigger picture is especially appropriate to keep in mind in reading the response from Scientific American Blogs Editor Curtis Brainard to criticisms of a pair of problematic posts on the Scientific American Blog Network. Brainard writes:

The posts provoked accusations on social media that Scientific American was promoting sexism, racism and genetic determinism. While we believe that such charges are excessive, we share readers’ concerns. Although we expect our bloggers to cover controversial topics from time to time, we also recognize that sensitive issues require extra care, and that did not happen here. The author and I have discussed the shortcomings of the two posts in detail, including the lack of attention given to countervailing arguments and evidence, and he understood the deficiencies.

As stated at the top of every post, Scientific American does not always share the views and opinions expressed by our bloggers, just as our writers do not always share our editorial positions. At the same time, we realize our network’s bloggers carry the Scientific American imprimatur and that we have a responsibility to ensure that—differences of opinion notwithstanding—their work meets our standards for accuracy, integrity, transparency, sensitivity and other attributes.

(Bold emphasis added.)

The problem here isn’t that the posts in question advocated sound scientific views with implications that people on social media didn’t like. Rather, the posts presented claims in a way that made them look like they had much stronger scientific support than they really do — and did so in the face of ample published scientific counterarguments. Scientific American is not requiring that posts on its blog network meet a political litmus test, but rather that they embody the same kind of care, responsibility to the available facts, and intellectual honesty that science itself should display.

This is hard work, but it’s important. And engaging seriously with criticism, rather than just dismissing it, can help us do it better.

There’s an irony in the fact that one of the problematic posts which ignored some significant relevant scientific literature (helpfully cited by commenters in the comments section of that very post) was ignoring that literature in the service of defending Larry Summers and his remarks on possible innate biological causes that make men better at math and science than women. The irony lies in the fact that Larry Summers displayed an apparently ironclad commitment to ignore any and all empirical findings that might challenge his intuition that there’s something innate at the heart of the gender imbalance in math and science faculty.

Back in January of 2005, Larry Summers gave a speech at a conference about what can be done to attract more women to the study of math and science, and to keep them in the field long enough to become full professors. In his talk, Summers suggested as a possible hypothesis for the relatively low number of women in math and science careers that there may be innate biological factors that make males better at math and science than females. (He also related an anecdote about his daughter naming her toy trucks as if they were dolls, but it’s fair to say he probably meant this anecdote to be illustrative rather than evidentiary.)

The talk did not go over well with the rest of the participants in the conference.

Several scientific studies were presented at the conference before Summers made his speech. All these studies presented significant evidence against the claim of an innate difference between males and females that could account for the “science gap”.

In the aftermath of this conference of yore, there were some commenters who lauded Summers for voicing “unpopular truths” and others who distanced themselves from his claims but said they supported his right to make them as an exercise of “academic freedom.”

But if Summers was representing himself as a scientist* when he made his speech, I don’t think the “academic freedom” defense works.

Summers is free to state hypotheses — even unpopular hypotheses — that might account for a particular phenomenon. But, as a scientist, he is also responsible to take account of data relevant to his hypotheses. If the data weighs against his preferred hypothesis, intellectual honesty requires that he at least acknowledge this fact. Some would argue that it could even require that he abandon his hypothesis (since science is supposed to be evidence-based whenever possible).

When news of Summers’ speech, and reactions to it, was fresh, one of the details that stuck with me was that one of the conference organizers noted to Summers, after he gave his speech, that there was a large body of evidence — some of it presented at that very conference — that seemed to undermine his hypothesis, after which Summers gave a reply that amounted to, “Well, I don’t find those studies convincing.”

Was Summers within his rights to not believe these studies? Sure. But, he had a responsibility to explain why he rejected them. As a part of a scientific community, he can’t just reject a piece of scientific knowledge out of hand. Doing so comes awfully close to undermining the process of communication that scientific knowledge is based upon. You aren’t supposed to reject a study because you have more prestige than the authors of the study (so, you don’t have to care what they say). You can question the experimental design, you can question the data analysis, you can challenge the conclusions drawn, but you have to be able to articulate the precise objection. Surely, rejecting a study just because it doesn’t fit with your preferred hypothesis is not an intellectually honest move.

By my reckoning, Summers did not conduct himself as a responsible scientist in this incident. But I’d argue that the problem went beyond a lack of intellectual honesty within the universe of scientific discourse. Summers is also responsible for the bad consequences that flowed from his remark.

The bad consequence I have in mind here is the mistaken view of science and its workings that Summers’ conduct conveys. Especially by falling back on a plain vanilla “academic freedom” defense here, defenders of Summers conveyed to the public at large the idea that any hypothesis in science is as good as any other. Scientists who are conscious of the evidence-based nature of their field will see the absurdity of this idea — some hypotheses are better, others worse, and whenever possible we turn to the evidence to make these discriminations. Summers compounded ignorance of the relevant data with what came across as a statement that he didn’t care what the data showed. From this, the public at large could assume he was within his scientific rights to decide which data to care about without giving any justification for this choice**, or they could infer that data has little bearing on the scientific picture of the world.

Clearly, such a picture of science would undermine the standing of the rest of the bits of knowledge produced by scientists far more intellectually honest than Summers.

Indeed, we might go further here. Not only did Summers have some responsibilities that seemed to have escaped him while he was speaking as a scientist, but we could argue that the rest of the scientists (whether at the conference or elsewhere) have a collective responsibility to address the mistaken picture of science his conduct conveyed to society at large. It’s disappointing that, nearly a decade later, we instead have to contend with the problem of scientists following in Summers’ footsteps by ignoring, rather than engaging with, the scientific findings that challenge their intuitions.

Owing to the role we play in presenting a picture of what science knows and of how scientists come to know it to a broader audience, those of us who write about science (on blogs and elsewhere) also have a responsibility to be clear about the kind of standards scientists need to live up to in order to build a body of knowledge that is as accurate and unbiased as humanly possible. If we’re not clear about these standards in our science writing, we risk misleading our audiences about the current state of our knowledge and about how science works to build reliable knowledge about our world. Our responsibility here isn’t just a matter of noticing when scientists are messing up — it’s also a matter of acknowledging and correcting our own mistakes and of working harder to notice our own biases. I’m pleased that our Blogs Editor is committed to helping us fulfill this duty.
*Summers is an economist, and whether to regard economics as a scientific field is a somewhat contentious matter. I’m willing to give the scientific status of economics the benefit of the doubt, but this means I’ll also expect economists to conduct themselves like scientists, and will criticize them when they do not.

**It’s worth noting that a number of the studies that Summers seemed to be dismissing out of hand were conducted by women. One wonders what lessons the public might draw from that.

A portion of this post is an updated version of an ancestor post on my other blog.

A suggestion for those arguing about the causal explanation for fewer women in science and engineering fields.

People are complex, as are the social structures they build (including but not limited to educational institutions, workplaces, and professional communities).

Accordingly, the appropriate causal stories to account for the behaviors and choices of humans, individually and collectively, are bound to be complex. It will hardly ever be the case that there is a single cause doing all the work.

However, there are times when people seem to lose the thread when they spin their causal stories. For example:

The point of focusing on innate psychological differences is not to draw attention away from anti-female discrimination. The research clearly shows that such discrimination exists—among other things, women seem to be paid less for equal work. Nor does it imply that the sexes have nothing in common. Quite frankly, the opposite is true. Nor does it imply that women—or men—are blameworthy for their attributes.

Rather, the point is that anti-female discrimination isn’t the only cause of the gender gap. As we learn more about sex differences, we’ve built better theories to explain the non-identical distribution of the sexes among the sciences. Science is always tentative, but the latest research suggests that discrimination has a weaker impact than people might think, and that innate sex differences explain quite a lot.

What I’m seeing here is a claim that amounts to “there would still be a gender gap in the sciences even if we eliminated anti-female discrimination” — in other words, that the causal powers of innate sex differences would be enough to create a gender gap.

To this claim, I would like to suggest:

1. that there is absolutely no reason not to work to eliminate anti-female discrimination; whether or not there are other causes that are harder to change, such discrimination seems like something we can change, and it has negative effects on those subject to it;

2. that is is an empirical question whether, in the absence of anti-female discrimination, there would still be a gender gap in the sciences; given the complexity of humans and their social structures, controlled studies in psychology are models of real life that abstract away lots of details*, and when the rubber hits the road in the real phenomena we are modeling, things may play out differently.

Let’s settle the question of how much anti-female discrimination matters by getting rid of it.

* This is not a special problem for psychology. All controlled experiments are abstracting away details. That’s what controlling variables is all about.

Pub-Style Science: exclusion, inclusion, and methodological disputes.

This is the second part of my transcript of the Pub-Style Science discussion about how (if at all) philosophy can (or should) inform scientific knowledge-building, wherein we discuss methodological disputes, who gets included or excluded in scientific knowledge-building, and ways the exclusion or inclusion might matter. Also, we talk about power gradients and make the scary suggestion that “the scientific method” might be a lie…

Michael Tomasson: Rubidium, you got me started on this. I made a comment on Twitter about our aspirations to build objective knowledge and that that was what science was about, and whether there’s sexism or racism or whatever other -isms around is peripheral to the holy of holies, which is the finding of objective truth. And you made … a comment.

Dr. Rubidium: I think I told you that was cute.

Michael Tomasson: Let me leverage it this way: One reason I think philosophy is important is the basics of structure, of hypothesis-driven research. The other thing I’m kind of intrigued by is part of Twitter culture and what we’re doing with Pub-Style Science is to throw the doors open to people from different cultures and different backgrounds are really say, hey, we want to have science that’s not just a white bread monoculture, but have it be a little more open. But does that mean that everyone can bring their own way of doing science? It sounds like Andrew might say, well, there’s a lot of different ways, and maybe everyone who shows up can bring their own. Maybe one person wants a hypothesis, another doesn’t. Does everybody get to do their own thing, or do we need to educate people in the one way to do science?

As I mentioned on my blog, I had never known that there was a feminist way of doing science.

Janet Stemwedel: There’s actually more than one.

Dr. Isis: We’re not all the same.

Janet Stemwedel: I think even the claim that there’s a single, easily described scientific method is kind of a tricky one. One of the things I’m interested in — one of the things that sucked me over from building knowledge in chemistry to trying to build knowledge in philosophy — is, if you look at scientific practice, scientists who are nominally studying the same thing, the same phenomena, but who’re doing it in different disciplines (say, the chemical physicists and the physical chemists) can be looking at the same thing, but they’re using very different experimental tools and conceptual tools and methodological tools to try to describe what’s going on there. There’s ways in which, when you cross a disciplinary boundary — and sometimes, when you leave your research group and go to another research group in the same department — that what you see on the ground as the method you’re using to build knowledge shifts.

In some ways, I’m inclined to say it’s an empirical question whether there’s a single unified scientific method, or whether we’ve got something more like a family resemblance kind of thing going on. There’s enough overlap in the tools that we’re going to call them all science, but whether we can give necessary and sufficient conditions that describe the whole thing, that’s still up in the air.

Andrew Brandel: I just want to add to that point, if I can. I think that one of the major topics in social sciences of science and in the philosophy of science recently has been the point that science itself, as it’s been practiced, has a history that is also built on certain kinds of power structures. So it’s not even enough to say, let’s bring lots of different kinds of people to the table, but we actually have to uncover the ways in which certain power structures have been built into the very way that we think about science or the way that the disciplines are arranged.

Michael Tomasson: You’ve got to expand on that. What do you mean? There’s only one good — there’s good science and there’s bad science. I don’t understand.

Janet Stemwedel: So wait, everyone who does science like you do is doing good science, and everyone who uses different approaches, that’s bad?

Michael Tomasson: Yes, exactly.

Janet Stemwedel: There’s no style choices in there at all?

Michael Tomasson: That’s what I’m throwing out there. I’m trying to explore that. I’m going to take poor Casey over here, we’re going to stamp him, turn him into a white guy in a tie and he’s going to do science the way God intended it.

Dr. Isis: This is actually a good point, though. I had a conversation with a friend recently about “Cosmos.” As they look back on the show, at all the historical scientists, who, historically has done science? Up until very recently, it has been people who were sufficiently wealthy to support the lifestyle to which they would like to become accustomed, and it’s very easy to sit and think and philosophize about how we do science when it’s not your primary livelihood. It was sort of gentleman scientists who were of the independently wealthy variety who were interested in science and were making these observations, and now that’s very much changed.

It was really interesting to me when you suggested this as a topic because recently I’ve become very pragmatic about doing science. I think I’m taking the “Friday” approach to science — you know, the movie? Danielle Lee wants to remake “Friday” as a science movie. Right now, messing with my money is like messing with my emotions. I’m about writing things in a way to get them funded and writing things in a way that gets them published, and it’s cute to think that we might change the game or make it better, but there’s also a pragmatic side to it. It’s a human endeavor, and doing things in a certain way gets certain responses from your colleagues. The thing that I see, especially watching young people on Twitter, is they try to change the game before they understand the game, and then they get smacked on the nose, and then they write is off as “science is broken”. Well, you don’t understand the game yet.

Janet Stemwedel: Although it’s complicated, I’d say. It is a human endeavor. Forgetting it’s a human endeavor is a road to nothing but pain. And you’ve got the knowledge-building thing going on, and that’s certainly at the center of science, but you’ve also got the getting credit for the awesome things you’ve done and getting paid so you can stay in the pool and keep building knowledge, because we haven’t got this utopian science island where anyone who wants to build knowledge can and all their needs are taken care of. And, you’ve got power gradients. So, there may well be principled arguments from the point of view of what’s going to incentivize practices that will result in better knowledge and less cheating and things like that, to change the game. I’d argue that’s one of the things that philosophy of science can contribute — I’ve tried to contribute that as part of my day job. But the first step is, you’ve got to start talking about the knowledge-building as an activity that’s conducted by humans rather than you put more data into the scientific method box, you turn the crank, and out comes the knowledge.

Michael Tomasson: This is horrifying. I guess what I’m concerned about is I’d hoped you’d teach the scientific method as some sort of central methodology from lab to lab. Are you saying, from the student’s point of view, whatever lab you’re in, you’ve got to figure out whatever the boss wants, and that’s what science is? Is there no skeleton key or structure that we can take from lab to lab?

Dr. Rubidium: Isn’t that what you’re doing? You’re going to instruct your people to do science the way you think it should be done? That pretty much sounds like what you just said.

Dr. Isis: That’s the point of being an apprentice, right?

Michael Tomasson: I had some fantasy that there was some universal currency or universal toolset that could be taken from one lab to another. Are you saying that I’m just teaching my people how to do Tomasson science, and they’re going to go over to Rubidium and be like, forget all that, and do things totally differently?

Dr. Rubidium: That might be the case.

Janet Stemwedel: Let’s put out there that a unified scientific method that’s accepted across scientific disciplines, and from lab to lab and all that, is an ideal. We have this notion that part of why we’re engaged in science to try to build knowledge of the world is that there is a world that we share. We’re trying to build objective knowledge, and why that matters is because we take it that there is a reality out there that goes deeper than how, subjectively, things seem to us.

Michael Tomasson: Yes!

Janet Stemwedel: So, we’re looking for a way to share that world, and the pictures of the method involved in doing that, the logical connections involved in doing that, that we got from the logical empiricists and Popper and that crowd — if you like, they’re giving sort of the idealized model of how we could do that. It’s analogous to the story they tell you about orbitals in intro chem. You know what happens, if you keep on going with chem, is they mess up that model. They say, it’s not that simple, it’s more complicated.

And that’s what philosophers of science do, is we mess up that model. We say, it can’t possible be that simple, because real human beings couldn’t drive that and make it work as well as it does. So there must be something more complicated going on; let’s figure out what it is. My impression, looking at the practice through the lens of philosophy of science, is that you find a lot of diversity in the details of the methods, you find a reasonable amount of diversity in terms of what’s the right attitude to have towards our theories — if we’ve got a lot of evidence in favor of our theories, are we allowed to believe our theories are probably right about the world, or just that they’re better at churning out predictions than the other theories we’ve considered so far? We have places where you can start to look at how methodologies embraced by Western primatologists compared to Japanese primatologists — where they differ on what’s the right thing to do to get the knowledge — you could say, it’s not the case that one side is right and one side is wrong, we’ve located a trade-off here, where one camp is deciding one of the things you could get is more important and you can sacrifice the other, and the other camp is going the other direction on that.

It’s not to say we should just give up on this project of science and building objective, reliable knowledge about the world. But how we do that is not really anything like the flowchart of the scientific method that you find in the junior high science text book. That’s like staying with the intro chem picture of the orbitals and saying, that’s all I need to know.

Dr. Isis: I sort of was having a little frightened moment where, as I was listening to you talk, Michael, I was having this “I don’t think that word means what you think it means” reaction. And I realize that you’re a physician and not a real scientist, but “the scientific method” is actually a narrow construct of generating a hypothesis, generating methods to test the hypothesis, generating results, and then either rejecting or failing to reject your hypothesis. This idea of going to people’s labs and learning to do science is completely tangential from the scientific method. I think we can all agree that, for most of us at are core, the scientific method is different from the culture. Now, whether I go to Tomasson’s lab and learn to label my reagents with the wrong labels because they’re a trifling, scandalous bunch who will mess up your experiment, and then I go to Rubidium’s lab and we all go marathon training at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, that’s the culture of science, that’s not the scientific method.

Janet Stemwedel: Maybe what we mean by the scientific method is either more nebulous or more complicated, and that’s where the disagreements come from.

If I can turn back to the example of the Japanese primatologists and the primatologists from the U.S. [1]… You’re trying to study monkeys. You want to see how they’re behaving, you want to tell some sort of story, you probably are driven by some sort of hypotheses. As it turns out, the Western primatologists are starting with the hypothesis that basically you start at the level of the individual monkey, that this is a biological machine, and you figure out how that works, and how they interact with each other if you put them in a group. The Japanese primatologists are starting out with the assumption that you look at the level of social groups to understand what’s going on.

And there’s this huge methodological disagreement that they had when they started actually paying attention to each other: is it OK to leave food in the clearing to draw the monkeys to where you can see them more closely?

The Western primatologists said, hell no, that interferes with the system you’re trying to study. You want to know what the monkeys would be like in nature, without you there. So, leaving food out there for them, “provisioning” them, is a bad call.

The Japanese primatologists (who are, by the way, studying monkeys that live in the islands that are part of Japan, monkeys that are well aware of the existence of humans because they’re bumping up against them all the time) say, you know what, if we get them closer to where we are, if we draw them into the clearings, we can see more subtle behaviors, we can actually get more information.

So here, there’s a methodological trade-off. Is it important to you to get more detailed observations, or to get observations that are untainted by human interference? ‘Cause you can’t get both. They’re both using the scientific method, but they’re making different choices about the kind of knowledge they’re building with that scientific method. Yet, on the surface of things, these primatologists were sort of looking at each other like, “Those guys don’t know how to do science! What the hell?”

Andrew Brandel: The other thing I wanted to mention to this point and, I think, to Tomasson’s question also, is that there are lots of anthropologists embedded with laboratory scientists all over the world, doing research into specifically what kinds of differences, both in the ways that they’re organized and in the ways that arguments get levied, what counts as “true” or “false,” what counts as a hypothesis, how that gets determined within these different contexts. There are broad fields of social sciences doing exactly this.

Dr. Rubidium: I think this gets to the issue: Tomasson, what are you calling the scientific method? Versus, can you really at some point separate out the idea that science is a thing — like Janet was saying, it’s a machine, you put the stuff in, give it a spin, and get the stuff out — can you really separate something called “the scientific method” from the people who do it?

I’ve taught general chemistry, and one of the first things we do is to define science, which is always exciting. It’s like trying to define art.

Michael Tomasson: So what do you come up with? What is science?

Dr. Rubidium: It’s a body of knowledge and a process — it’s two different things, when people say science. We always tell students, it’s a body of knowledge but it’s also a process, a thing you can do. I’m not saying it’s [the only] good answer, but it’s the answer we give students in class.

Then, of course, the idea is, what’s the scientific method? And everyone’s got some sort of a figure. In the gen chem book, in chapter 1, it’s always going to be in there. And it makes it seem like we’ve all agreed at some point, maybe taken a vote, I don’t know, that this is what we do.

Janet Stemwedel: And you get the laminated card with the steps on it when you get your lab coat.

Dr. Rubidium: And there’s the flowchart, usually laid out like a circle.

Michael Tomasson: Exactly!

Dr. Rubidium: It’s awesome! But that’s what we tell people. It’s kind of like the lie we tell the about orbitals, like Janet was saying, in the beginning of gen chem. But then, this is how sausages are really made. And yes, we have this method, and these are the steps we say are involved with it, but are we talking about that, which is what you learn in high school or junior high or science camp or whatever, or are you actually talking about how you run your research group? Which one are you talking about?

Janet Stemwedel: It can get more complicated than that. There’s also this question of: is the scientific method — whatever the heck we do to build reliable knowledge about the world using science — is that the kind of thing you could do solo, or is it necessarily a process that involves interaction with other people? So, maybe we don’t need to be up at night worrying about whether individual scientists fail to instantiate this idealized scientific method as long as the whole community collectively shakes out as instantiating it.

Michael Tomasson: Hmmm.

Casey: Isn’t this part of what a lot of scientists are doing, that it shakes out some of the human problems that come with it? It’s a messy process and you have a globe full of people performing experiments, doing research. That should, to some extent, push out some noise. We have made advances. Science works to some degree.

Janet Stemwedel: It mostly keeps the plane up in the air when it’s supposed to be in the air, and the water from being poisoned when it’s not supposed to be poisoned. The science does a pretty good job building the knowledge. I can’t always explain why it’s so good at that, but I believe that it does. And I think you’re right, there’s something — certainly in peer review, there’s this assumption that why we play with others here is that they help us catch the thing we’re missing, they help us to make sure the experiments really are reproducible, to make sure that we’re not smuggling in unconscious assumptions, whatever. I would argue, following on something Tomasson wrote in his blog post, that this is a good epistemic reason for some of the stuff that scientists rail on about on Twitter, about how we should try to get rid of sexism and racism and ableism and other kinds of -isms in the practice of science. It’s not just because scientists shouldn’t be jerks to people who could be helping them build the knowledge. It’s that, if you’ve got a more diverse community of people building the knowledge, you up the chances that you’re going to locate the unconscious biases that are sneaking in to the story we tell about what the world is like.

When the transcript continues, we do some more musing about methodology, the frailties of individual humans when it comes to being objective, and epistemic violence.


[1] This discussion based on my reading of Pamela J. Asquith, “Japanese science and western hegemonies: primatology and the limits set to questions.” Naked science: Anthropological inquiry into boundaries, power, and knowledge (1996): 239-258.

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Part 1 of the transcript.

Archived video of this Pub-Style Science episode.

Storify’d version of the simultaneous Twitter conversation.