Who needs Nobel Prize Winners, anyway?

You may have noticed that I like science. I also like scientists–heck, let’s expand this to most of STEM. Good folks.

Scientists tend to be quiet, unassuming folks who get on with the business of making the world a better place by curing cancer, inventing airplanes, and developing the germ theory of disease.

I don’t like it when political ideas try to dictate science. It was bad enough when the Soviet Union tried it (and Maoist China, remember that exciting time when Mao declared that the concept of diminishing returns was bourgeois capitalist lies and that just planting more seeds in your fields would result in more crops, and then millions of people died? Fun times!)

Sometimes scientists say or think unpopular things, like that humans evolved from apes or that some human populations have lower IQs than others. Or that women cry easily or that Global Warming is real.

The mature reaction to someone saying something you find offensive is to make a logical counter-argument. (Or, you know, ignore them.) Indeed, as I’ve said before, one of the beauties of science is that the whole point of it is to disprove incorrect ideas. If there’s an idea floating around in science that you don’t like, well, disprove it with science!

If you can’t, then maybe you’re the one who’s wrong.

Republicans have traditionally been the anti-science side. 49% don’t believe in evolution, versus 37% do. Throwing Democrats and independents into the equation doesn’t help much–overall, 42% of Americans don’t believe in evolution, versus 50% who believe in some form of evolution, (including god-directed evolution):

At least evolution is getting a tiny bit more popular
From Gallup

Unfortunately, a lot of those people who claim to believe in evolution don’t.

For example, according to Gallop, 2005, the majority of Americans–68%–believe that men and women are equally good at math and science. Only 10% believe that men have an innate advantage in math and science, and 8% believe that women are superior.

Do you know how depressing this is? I mean, for starters, the question itself is badly worded. Men and women are about equal on average, but men are disproportionately represented at the high end of mathematical ability and at the low end. As I noted yesterday, this is a natural side effect of Y chromosome variation. But for the purposes of doing math and science as a career, which takes rather more than average talent, men do have an innate advantage.

But instead of getting intelligent discussions about these sorts of things, we get people shouting insults and trying to ruin each other’s careers.

This popped up on FB today:

Does this count as a microaggression?

“Sexist,” of course, is an insult, akin to saying that you hate women or believe that they are inherently inferior. So according to these people, anyone who thinks that, IDK, men are more aggressive on average because their brains produce more testosterone is a bad person. Never mind that science supports this notion pretty soundly.

(BTW, it’s pretty hard to argue that society’s anti-woman views are nefariously keeping women out of STEM when the majority of people think men and women are equally talented. For that matter, if there’s any group of people that I’ve found to be extremely accepting of and decent toward women, it’s the folks in STEM. Seriously, these guys are super awesome.)

So you may remember that whole kerfluffle in which Tim Hunt–some nobody who’s contributed nothing of worth to humanity except maybe Nobel Prize-winning work in Medicine/Physiology, small stuff on the scale of human achievement–made some comments about women in science and the entire world spent about 5 minutes losing their collective shit and then a lot of pictures of female scientists got posted on the internet. (Actually, the pictures are kind of nice.)

Oh, and Tim was forced to resign from some honorary professorship.

“The days that followed saw him unceremoniously hounded out of honorary positions at University College London (UCL), the Royal Society and the European Research Council (ERC).

“Under siege at his Hertfordshire home, he sank into despair.

“‘Tim sat on the sofa and started crying. Then I started crying,’ his wife, Professor Mary Collins (herself a prominent scientist) later recalled. ‘We just held on to each other.’”

When it came to light that Tim Hunt may have just been trying to make a joke–a bad one–the provost at his erstwhile University indicated that, (in The Guardian’s words) “Professor Hunt would not be reinstated, it was impossible for an institution to tolerate someone to whom they had awarded an honorary post, even a 71-year-old Nobel prize winner, expressing views even in jest that so comprehensively undermined its own reputation as a leading supporter of female scientists.”

I am just thrilled, oh so thrilled, that university science departments now see their primary purpose as public works programs for women, rather than, IDK, the pursuit of actual fucking science.

Do you know what happens to your science department when you stop focusing on science and turn it into a pity-festival for women? You end up with a bunch of women who can’t hack it in science. Accept men and women on their merits, and you end up with quality scientists. Accept people based on their qualities other than merit, and you end up with hacks.

BTW, I’m female.

You might think Hunt’s comments were totally silly (in which case, go ahead and ignore them,) but I’ve known couples that started in labs. I don’t think it’s any big secret that people sometimes fall in love with co-workers. Is this a problem? I don’t know. Do women cry more than men? Anecdotal experience says yes.

The intelligent response to Hunt’s comments (if you want to do anything at all,) would have been to document whether or not women cry at a higher rate than men when you criticize their lab work and whether lab romances are a problem–and if gender segregated labs would actually work any better, or end up with their own issues. The unintelligent response is to make a big deal out of how offended you are and try to get someone fired.

So what does Connie St Louis, the female scientist journalist who’s actually not a scientist (The Daily Mail claims that St Louis made up/faked a large chunk of her CV, if you believe anything the Daily Mail prints,) and so probably has less experience running a lab than Hunt does, but never mind, we’re all experts now, have to say about starting the whole firestorm that made Hunt lose his probably not very important honorary position?

“The likes of Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox should focus on taking up the real issue of sexism in science. It is absurd to say that scientists can do and say what they like in the name of academic freedom.”

Let’s read that again. “It is absurd to say that scientists can do and say what they like in the name of academic freedom.

What else does St Louis have to say?

“…eight Nobel laureates, plus the ubiquitous Richard Dawkins, have come out in support of Hunt. There are over 2,000 signatures on an online petition to reinstate him to his honorary post at UCL. Contrast this with 200+ signatures on a petition that I started calling on the Royal Society to elect its first female president. The Nobel eight made an idiotic attempt to equate the upset caused by Hunt’s ill advised and sexist comments with some kind of “chilling effect” on academics.”

Of course it has a chilling effect. No one wants to get fired. How does a journalist even presume to claim to know what does and doesn’t have a chilling effect on someone else’s profession, when rather respected people in that profession are claiming that chilling effects exist?

Hell, there’s a reason this blog is anonymous, and it’s people like Connie St Louis. But she continues:

“This is an absurd idea and deserves to be outed for what it is, a deeply cynical attempt to say that scientists can do and say what they like. In the name of academic freedom? Is science so special that any old sexist (or for that matter racist) words that they utter are allowed? The answer is and must be a resounding no.”

Free inquiry is dead.

Remember whom to thank when we all die of cancer plague.