Friday, November 18, 2011

Nature Error

OK, OK, yes I saw the stupid "Futures" story(?) titled Womanspace in Nature in late September, I read the comments (many of which are great), and I agree that Nature should not have published this thing, not just because it is offensive, but because it is bad -- bad writing, bad story, bad way to crank up traffic on the site -- and should not be in a journal, not even in an obscure corner of a journal website. The editor showed appalling judgement.

Many of the ensuing comments are great, and I don't have much to add, except that some of the comments struck me as outstanding examples of classic responses flung out whenever there is a suggestion that something just might possibly be sexist or at the very least offensive to many people. In the case in question, that something was written (and published in Nature) explicitly for male readers with female significant others, portraying women in general as having certain shopping tendencies, and including generalizations that would be unthinkable to write about people of, say, a particular religion or ethnicity (but are apparently OK if you are writing about women as a group).

One of the classic responses is along the lines of: "I was just joking. If you weren't so humorless you would see how funny I am." I have written about these "jokes" before. They have no place in a professional venue.

The other insidious classic response is the "My wife wasn't offended by what I wrote and she is a woman and not only that but she is also really smart and I sometimes do the cooking at home and therefore my participation in what is traditionally a very female household job makes me by definition a non-sexist, hear me roar."

Or something like that. Variations on this are "I am that man's wife and I thought what he wrote was very funny" (so he is not sexist; see the comments in Nature, including the one from the author's wife) and/or "I am a woman and I wasn't offended".. ergo, the author is not a sexist.

I am not sure I am following the reasoning here. Is it that men are only sexist if they say they are, but they never are if someone else says they are? And any woman can speak for all other women (just as we apparently all shop the same way) and therefore if only one woman is not offended, sexism doesn't exist, even if many women (and men) were offended? That is, sexism can never exist, it can only not exist?

I think I am beginning to develop a hypothesis. Maybe Nature will publish it?


Anonymous said...

Unbelievable. I hadn't seen the Nature piece until I saw your blog, and am now suitably appalled. Almost beyond belief that this was published in Nature, and that the editor - (correct?) - logged in to register surprise that there weren't more outraged comments. So much for claiming innocence and misunderstanding. I feel like I work in a dept filled with people like this - (But what did I do wrong? Its all so funny ... what are so bent out of shape about? It was all intended in good fun ...). Nightmare old boys club.

sempoi thinker said...

it might be best to respond to satire with a flavor compatible to its emergence.

perhaps im emotionally oblivious, but i have failed to sense any form of condescension in womanspace, which begs the question ..

why do *you* find it sexist? you have succinctly expounded the various ramification of others on the subject, but what say you?

Anonymous said...

at the very least offensive to many people.

I can't believe Nature would post such juvenile unfunny drivel, but not because is "offensive to many people".

Evolution is offensive to Christian fundamentalists, yet we publish papers on evolution and so we should.

It shouldn't be published because its a pile of unfunny, worthless generalizations of no scientific value published in a scientific journal. I think it would be helpful if we are more precise about why this is objectionable

Anonymous said...

To me it appears to have been nothing else but simple trolling. What's more annoying, I bet that the author of this piece is now merrily going around telling the story: "These feminists! I actually made an experiment once. I wrote a harmless piece of fiction which I got officially certified as funny, and additionally vouched as non-sexist. And still I got a crowd of rabid feminists demanding that I should be sacked! Now do you see how these people are just blind to objective facts, and only care about their ideology!"

Jenny said...

I honestly did not have the patience to read the whole garbage or the comments for that matter. It wasn't worth my spent brain cells to comment on it there. Why is this trash published in Nature? What is the scientific value or contribution of this piece? Did the editor think that he was provoking higher level discussion by publishing it? Sorry Mr. Gee, but the editors of National Enquirer show more taste and tact in choosing their controversial pieces.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the whole bit about saying, "I was just joking! Don't you have a sense of humor?" is much more insidious than it appears. It's called 'gaslighting' and what it does is try to convince the victim that their emotions are off-base in an attempt to dominate them. The relationship is typically a man to a woman or a white person to a person of color. It's about dominance, not about covering up. Read a good piece on it here:

GMP said...

I must admit I am totally desensitized to stupid jokes like that. I am unable to get worked up about them any more...

Stephanie said...

I don't think that piece belongs in Nature and I don't find it particularly funny, but it doesn't offend me per say. I honestly think there are some differences between how men and women shop IN GENERAL. Obviously anything having to do with humans is going to be on a bell curve and the distributions probably overlap quite a bit. But this happens to me all the time. I go shopping with hubby, I stop for what seems like 5 seconds to look at something and when I look up he is nowhere to be seen. Luckily it's 2011 so we have cell phones and I can locate him.

I also think there is something to women being able to find things in the cabinet that men can't. We have a very egalitarian relationship and he hates when I say this, but I do think I'm better at finding stuff in the fridge or cabinets; even he admits it sometimes when he gives up on finding something. I know many other women who say the same thing, but I'm not sure how many of them can actually be blamed on biological differences. My husband cooks more than I do so it's not that I'm in there more than him.

I'm a feminist in that I think women should have equal rights and equal pay for equal work and equal access to the STEM fields, but I do think men and women have differences, at least, bell curve distribution shifts with much overlap. These are likely differences due to hormones and not xx vs xy. Listen to This American Life's episode titled Testosterone. It's silly to say that some generalizations aren't true...yes, they aren't true always because of bell curves, but many can seem pretty darn true when you haven't met outliers.

It is a fine line between generalizations and keeping women in their place so I know it's really something we have to be careful about. But still, I'm not going to act ignorant of the bell curve distribution center shift between men and women in various traits just because it pisses other feminists off. I think we can be aware of the subtle differences but not force all women OR MEN to fit the stereotypical (which may or may not correlate to the center of the distribution) female or male traits. Whether the difference is biology or nurture is another question.

Would you find that piece sexist if it were a blog post on someone's blog? Obviously it is written from a male perspective to other men, but I can write things from a female perspective to other females that I don't consider sexist (though my husband may disagree...he thinks I'm sexist for having gals nights)

Anonymous said...

Agreed, that nature is not a place to publish such things, but I am woman and a scientist as well and as far as shopping habit is concerned, I belong to the category of one of those author's wife. If I send my husband to buy something, he will buy (or not find) exactly what is asked without thinking what else is missing or needed in home, whereas I enjoy looking into aisles and finding many more things which otherwise I don't remember to put it in the list of things to buy. I don't get many of these shopping days, but whenever I can, I do enjoy them.

Katie said...

"It shouldn't be published because its a pile of unfunny, worthless generalizations of no scientific value published in a scientific journal."


Additionally, I am in the I-don't-find-it-offensive-camp. Seeing as I was tagged in a post on Facebook where the discussion seemed to lean towards the piece being sexist, I am also curious as to why FSP finds it offensive. If anything, I think it's anti-man sexist - it just sounds like another example of a man realizing a woman is better at something than he is. Nothing new ;)

Anonymous said...

To me, what was "sexist" about this story was as follows.

1. The men in the story are the ones talking about science, while the women were in the kitchen, cooking. Each gender doing their stereotypical roles.

2. The men, wanting to get out of any family responsibility, offer to help the wife by going to the store. Doing something to help her was a pretense.

3. In the end, they get what they want - out of the house - and fail to help out the wife by bringing home what she asked them for.

4. They find it funny that they failed to help her.

So, the story is that the men are doing science, not helping out at home, and thinking they are funny in avoiding family responsibilities, thus, neatly keeping men and women in their stereotypical, and male dominated, roles.

Ok, so I read this kind of stuff all the time, and as a story, it's hard to get really worked up about it.

But in Nature??


How is this anything remotely relating to scientific research? I really do not get even the pretense for a reason for publishing it in what is supposed to be one of the two most prestigious scientific journals.

And as for the wife standing by her man... I am so sick of seeing that as evidence that he's not sexist... from John Edwards to now Herman Cain and all those before and in between and who will come after.

Anonymous said...

It started offensive. Aside from the idiotic and cliched plays to stereotypes, the writing was simply defocused. By the end though, I was amused. Probably not for the reason the author intended, but I was amused.

Good satire is hard. Perhaps this guy should leave it to the pros?

Anonymous said...


P.S. I'm NOT sexist and my wife thought this was a REALLY FUNNY article and SHE's a SCIENTIST! ...And so did some other SCIENS GIAS wives. So I WIN PREEMPTIVELY!!!

Female Science Professor said...

I think it would be fine if someone wanted to post that story on their own blog. The issue is that it was published in a scientific journal, even if a rather informal part of the journal website.

I personally don't know or care whether men and women have different shopping habits, and not everything I read has to be written for me, about things that interest me. However, as some commenters on the piece noted, writing about stereotypical characteristics of African-Americans or Jews would be offensive, but writing about women and shopping is apparently OK with the journal Nature.

Another focus of the ire of some readers was this statement in the Nature piece:

"Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other as you wend your way through the complexity of a supermarket.."

(as if only men read Nature?)

Anonymous said...

"My wife is a scientist and she doesn't think I'm sexist."

If a guy is a pig or a philanderer, of course he's going to marry someone who is ok with that. People like this know how to find each other. Being a scientist doesn't make one immune.

So, what exactly are we supposed to learn from his wife when she supports him?

Anonymous said...

I am afraid I couldn't get too worked up either, because it was not funny and it was poorly written. I'm one of those women who keeps thinking deep math thoughts, can't find a darned thing in the cabinets and has to keep asking her husband to find her tupperware so she can pack her lunch, doesn't shop -- really -- almost ever -- and has to deal with going to Menards for one item and then turning around after a microsecond to find her husband gone, only to reappear in some random aisle half an hour later with two carburetors (?), some caulking, a mousetrap and a piece of wood. And you know what? That's pretty boring. Why would I want to read about it?

This "reverse sexism" "oh aren't women wonderful they can do housework" "they are so much more talented than us poor men" "that's why we need to be left alone to watch football and write textbooks" "we are so useless" apologism is also just stupid. Cut the talk. Grow up and do your fair share.

The whole delayed kerfuffle does demonstrate that it's mostly only old guys who read Nature for the fiction.

Renee said...

I really don't see why so many people got so worked up about this story.
It's fiction (even if based on a true story) and in any story you pick your protagonists and antagonists to best suit the story you want to tell.

So if the story he wanted to tell was

"women can access parallel universes in order to find things, whether they do it consciously or not. They have probably always been able to do this, and now there is fierce speculation as to whether this constituted the evolutionary advantage we had over other primates"

(which, honestly, sounds as more of a compliment and statement of admiration than as X-chromosome trashing), then of course his best protagonists would be two clumsy males incapable of getting the simple task done. And of course he would take the women as the modern-day (well, gas-stove era) gatherers.
There really would have been no story if he had just had everyone participate in the cook-out while discussing the weather, now would there?

The only thing that might alienate readers (although in my case it simply pulled me out of the story) was when the author started addressing his audience as if they were all male readers with wives at home. That was stylistically stupid, but really... aren't there more important things to get worked up about?

nicoleandmaggie said...

What this says is that the editor of Nature is a misogynistic jerk and he doesn't care who knows.

You can't tell me that having a misogynistic jerk as editor doesn't lead to different choices in what gets published. That he doesn't look at female-authored pieces as different than male-authored pieces. That he doesn't have biases about what kinds of gender-related research get published, thus providing them with legitimacy.

That's not science. Bias keeps us from finding the truth.

Henry Gee needs to step down or be fired. For the good of science.

Rebecca said...

If Man is Hunter, then Ed Rybicki and his pal are evolutionary dead ends.

Anonymous said...

This is a minor point, but did anyone think it was strange that in the Nature essay, the two men first wandered around looking at computers and CDs before eventually making it to the supermarket where they were supposed to go, and yet the author of the piece says that men "hunt" (they go to a store, get what they are supposed to get, leave) whereas women "gather" (they get other things in addition to the intended items). That's not what they describe for their own behavior, although they seem to think it is. Is the difference that these guys didn't actually buy a computer or CD (not to mention what they were supposed to buy at the supermarket), whereas a woman might buy "to-die-for discounted shoes" in addition to some frozen fish? I don't think we have learned anything about men or women here, just that these 2 men are ineffectual (and it's clearly not because they are so busy thinking lofty thoughts).

Kea said...

My wife wasn't offended by what I wrote and she is a woman and not only that but she is also really smart and I sometimes do the cooking at home and therefore my participation in what is traditionally a very female household job makes me by definition a non-sexist, hear me roar.

Translation: I am a P-compliant woman's Real Man, who let's her be smart sometimes because she is a Doctor you know, and I even do the cooking when, like, she has an Emergency, and so because I know how to do the cooking when I have to, I am NOT SEXIST, so there, you dumb bithces.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday I sent my husband to the store for a bag of corn, and he came back three hours later with ice cream, two bottles of hot sauce and a book from a store across town. Which one of us (both Ph.D. scientists, BTW) lives in an alternate universe?

I actually might have found this article slightly humorous if it had been published anywhere but Nature.

Anonymous said...

I think there's important context to consider here - (as Renee alluded to above) this was published in the Futures section of Nature, which is explicitly devoted to Science Fiction. I think that it clerarly qualifies as such so there's little point in getting riled up about it being published in Nature.

Of course, we can all agree that it's crap Sci Fi (poorly written and weak on original science-thought-experimentation) but not unusually so for a Futures contribution...

anarchic teapot said...

Bloody hellfire. the number of people saying, in essence "I don't find it funny but it's not really sexist because I recognise myself in one of the stereotypes" is scary.

Yes, it would still be sexist if written on a blog, but this wasn't on a blog; it was in a public magazine and therefore cannot be ignored as the incompetent scribblings of a foolish, blinkered chauvinist.

Perhaps this might help