#BiologistSpaceFacts: A Parable on Doing Your Research

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is one of the most well-known public faces of science in the world. He’s an astrophysicist and author, Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and host of Fox’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. He knows an awful lot about space.

However, today he left his lane: he tweeted “If there were ever a species for whom sex hurt, it surely went extinct long ago.” Now, maybe this was a joke. Maybe it was just an idle musing. But it is definitely incorrect, as many were quick to point out.

For most people, this would be a simple mistake, easily corrected; but Dr. Tyson is a trusted source for scientific knowledge for many people who may not otherwise know or care. He should, in my personal opinion, hold himself to a higher standard. He should have done his research before he tweeted, or else stayed in his own lane.

When it comes down to it, though, Twitter is Twitter, and scolding anyone over a single tweet doesn’t tend to be useful or productive. Having a good laugh, though? Science Twitter never skips an opportunity to have a good laugh. Thus #BiologistSpaceFacts was born, demonstrating the dangers of pontificating outside our realms of expertise. With jokes. Read on: https://storify.com/DownhereonEarth/biologistspacefacts.

#IStandWithAhmed

Yesterday, a 14-year-old boy named Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for building a clock and bringing it to school to show to a teacher.

14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was removed from class and arrested for building a clock: a

14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was removed from class and arrested for building a clock: a “hoax bomb”.

Ahmed, a high school student whose hobby is inventing and tinkering, made his small clock by wiring together a circuit board, power supply, and display, and placing the whole thing inside a pencil case. But when he showed his homemade clock to a teacher, their response was lukewarm and they advised him not to show anyone else.

After the clock beeped in the middle of an English class, Ahmed showed it to his English teacher, who said that the pencil-case-clock looked like a bomb and kept it. Later in the day, Ahmed was pulled out of class by the Irving, Texas school’s principal and a police officer and arrested. He was later released into his parents’ custody, but he was suspended from school for three days and may yet be charged with building a hoax bomb. The school later released the following statement:

The takeaway message from this letter, in the last large paragraph, requests that students not bring prohibited items to school and that they report suspicious items or behavior. However, it is unclear what exactly about Ahmed’s creation was prohibited or what about his behavior was suspicious: is an interest in engineering suspicious? Is a homemade clock prohibited? This case is strikingly similar to that of Kiera Wilmot, a young African-American student whose homemade rocket got her expelled and arrested. In both cases, a young person of color faced massive overreaction to small homegrown science projects: their interest in STEM brought them into racially-charged police situations.

More hearteningly, as in Kiera Wilmot’s case, scientists and others (and the President) are rallying around Ahmed’s cause and thinking actively about what they can do to create a more supportive environment for students from underrepresented minority groups. Much of this thought is happening on Twitter, and I’ve aggregated some of the tweets on Storify here.

Tinkering and building is a keystone of any young scientist’s education. The sort of ingenuity and determination displayed by Ahmed should be encouraged, not quashed by paranoia. I stand with Ahmed because I want the future of science to be filled with curious and dedicated minds like his.

UPDATE: No charges will be filed against Ahmed.

Sexual Harassment in the Carletonian

First, some background. About a week ago, my school’s newspaper, the Carletonian, published the advice column below:

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This column offers some problematic advice, including both touching the female TA and asking for an unnecessary private tutoring session. That may work in the movies, but in real life you are just making someone uncomfortable and wasting their time, in a situation where they are not allowed to leave. The original article was flawed but, in my opinion, largely innocuous. That was, perhaps, a charitable view, but my experiences with the Carleton community in general have been that nearly everyone is very sensitive to gender issues. At first, I thought of it as simply poorly thought-through, the sort of thing that would likely correct itself.

However, physics majors spoke among ourselves, and the more we talked about it the more upset we became. There are 55 declared physics majors at Carleton, 17 of whom are women and, as far as I know, only 3 of whom are TAs. Only one of those TAs hosts tutoring sessions. So, when Aphrodite decided to respond in the way that she did, she not only encouraged sexual harassment in the workplace in general, but also targeted a surprisingly small sample size of one woman. That one woman (and other female TAs across campus) now felt uncomfortable in her place of work. So, physics majors penned a letter to the Carletonian, which an overwhelming majority of students in the major agreed upon:

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Finally, we received two responses, one from the editors of the Carletonian and another from Aphrodite herself:

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Click to embiggen.

If the response had been a simple apology for making people uncomfortable, it would have been the end of the issue. But these responses are a problem. The editors distanced themselves from the problem, and Aphrodite (along with other people who felt physics majors were blowing this issue out of proportion) was both shockingly condescending and reflective of the unfortunate atmosphere around sexual harassment in STEM fields in general. Sexism and harassment are not a joke, and this response is not innocuous.

Aphrodite’s “defense” (because I’m loathe to call it simply a response) contained a dismissive tone which is all too familiar to women who have experienced sexual harassment, particularly in STEM fields. It trivializes a serious issue and encourages harassment in the workplace. We are not “blowing things out of proportion” or “unable to take a joke” and the Carletonian is not “fostering conversation.”  Encouraging harassment is unacceptable, and the response which not only did not deal with the problem but actively dismissed physics majors’ concerns and discomfort.

In a final response, we have created a petition to show the Carletonian and Aphrodite that these responses and the attitude which they perpetuate are unacceptable: https://www.change.org/p/carleton-community-and-friends-send-the-message-that-aphrodite-s-10-31-column-and-the-following-responses-are-unacceptable-representatives-of-carleton-s-community-and-values. I have been very impressed with the Carleton community’s response and with their intelligent and well-considered comments, and I hope that you will go there to read the comments and stand with the Carleton physics department against the perpetuation of workplace harassment.

Edit: I’d like to share Phil Plait’s blog post on #Shirtstorm and casual sexism here, and if you care about casual sexism but not about Matt Taylor’s shirt or Twitter, skip to the end: “It’s just it’s just it’s just.”