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Science and sexism

Jun 15 2015 07:18
*Mandi Smallhorne

HOO boy. I am rather sad that a gathering such as the World Conference of Science Journalists 2015 (which I’ve been attending in Seoul as president of the South African Science Journalists Association and the African Federation of Science Journalists) should be going viral because of some stupid remarks made by Sir Tim Hunt, rather than because of some of the serious, interesting and vital issues addressed at various sessions during the event.

I mean, as Pulitzer prize winner Dan Fagin, who is a professor of science journalism, pointed out in his keynote address on June 11, science journalism (like all journalism) faces a “long, simmering crisis”: the changing face of the media landscape, which sees legacy media (newspapers, for example) staggering in the USA with Europe following suit (although outgoing World Federation of Science Journalists board member Pallava Bagla, a science editor in New Delhi, and Diran Onifade from Nigeria pointed out that newspapers and other legacy media are doing well in parts of the developing world).

Traditional revenue models have buckled under pressure from online, but online revenue models haven’t come near to replacing the lost funds, which means funding for good journalism is shrinking.

It shows, doesn’t it? We used to have powerful and meaningful investigative journalism that challenged and questioned and held the powers that be accountable. There’s still some around, of course, but it occupies less media terrain and is ‘consumed’ by fewer people.

Audiences are now able to tailor-make their reading, listening and viewing preferences so that, as Fagin noted, people in the USA who used to be forced to absorb the occasional challenging viewpoint along with desirable news (such as weather, stock and share reports, agricultural news and the like) are able to tailor-make their media consumption so they can go days, even weeks and months, without seeing anything but ideas and views that support their own – what we call ‘confirmation bias’.

'Nothing left but spin'

“Cross-cultural conversations have been stifled, which has had a corrosive effect on our shared culture,” he said. What happens if journalism disappears, he asked? “There’ll be nothing left but a world of spin.” He challenged the science journalists in the audience to fight for the values of real journalism: “Verification and fact-checking are what distinguishes journalism,” he said.

In the short term, a lot of people will be very happy if that function disappears – governments which spend public funds in ways that are not acceptable, for instance; companies which dump toxic matter into living waterways (Fagin won his Pulitzer for a bestselling book about such dumping - Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation).

This mentoring role, this rattling of comfortable cages, is not just satisfying for journalists, it is critical to a healthy society and a healthy economy.

But instead of focusing on what was being discussed about the role of journalism and how it can be salvaged and bolstered, world attention was turned to Nobel Prize winner Hunt. Ah well. It, too, was necessary.

He has now resigned from his position at University College London, spurred by the furore provoked by his comments at the conference that  ‘girls’ were trouble in the lab, crying when criticised and causing emotional entanglements, and his subsequent poor excuse for an apology: "'did mean the part about having trouble with girls,' he said.

‘I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it's very disruptive to the science because it's terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field. […]

‘I'm really, really sorry I caused any offence, that's awful. I certainly didn't mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually'."
(Question: is it not equally important that people are on a level playing field, umm, let’s see, in the office, teaching department, hospital wards, catering industry, and so on ad infinitum? So why don’t we segregate all work environments, then? LOL. And WT*, know what I mean? And if you don’t apologise for the offence itself, if you can only muster an apology for the 'offence' caused, please, don’t bother.)

Sexism among some of science's more admired men

Given that one of the worthwhile sessions at the conference was on sexism in science and its damaging effect, I suppose this was a useful if irritating way of airing this particular piece of dirty laundry, giving it a good shake and letting the world see just how sexist some of the more admired men in science are, and the impact that has on women.

Closing down the space in science for women – which sexism does – or making it harder for women to be and to flourish in science, is damaging to society. We need science – looking at what a science and technology-focused Korea has managed to achieve in recent years is an object lesson in this.

Science is the engine room of innovation and hence crucial to growth and development. Depriving us of any young women who might turn away from a career in science because of this toxic attitude is depriving us of much-needed talent and brains to fuel that engine room.

And to all those people who are yelling about ‘the mob out with their pitchforks and tar buckets’, let me ask you this: do you have a daughter, or any young girl in your life about whom you care? How would you react if someone told her she was a cry-baby and disruptive?

Yes, I thought so. Me too.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  sexism


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