Thursday, October 17, 2013

Creating a supportive environment for female scientists and science communicators

The article Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama? by Brysse et al. published earlier this year presents evidence that assessments of climate change science have leaned towards caution because of the dynamics of the scientific community.

The core argument raised predictable hackles in the blogosphere, despite the fact that several of the examples in the paper, such as estimates of sea level rise in the 2007 IPCC report and Arctic ozone depletion, are widely-known cases of scientists avoiding alarmism.

The news flooding my inbox about some of the largely male blogosphere coming to the defense of an influential male blogger who harassed a female science blogger brings to mind what I think is the most striking and important conclusion of Brysse et al: the gender implications of "erring on the side of least drama".

The risk of being accused of being overly dramatic, even hysterical, raises an additional (and worrisome) aspect of this issue: its gender dimension. Feminist scholars including Margaret Rossiter, Sandra Harding, and Donna Haraway have long discussed the strong association of science with supposedly male characteristics, such that ‘proper’ science is perceived to be “tough, rigorous, rational, impersonal, masculine, competitive, and unemotional” (Rossiter, 1982, p. xv; see also Harding, 1986 and Haraway, 1989). Scientists who come across as ‘too emotional’ or ‘too personal’ may thus be taken to be ‘unscientific’ by their peers, and a woman who exhibits these characteristics may be that much more rapidly dismissed. If this is so, then we may find either that women scientists publicizing the dangers of climate change may be more harshly judged for doing so than their male colleagues, or that women scientists may be particularly reticent to do so—to return to Hansen's phrase—for fear of losing hard-won scientific credibility. This poses another question for future research.

I don't claim to know enough about this particular case of harassment to add anything intelligent to that conversation. I do hope it gets more people thinking about women in science being exposed to overt sexual and subtle psychological harassment.

Most of my students have been women. I watch how here and elsewhere, despite some good intentions and good regulations, the atmospheres in our majority-male institutions, and many of the actual individuals in those institutions, can be unsupportive and at times threatening to female students. The same can be true of the science blogosphere. It is worth thinking about why the blogosphere  reacts so strongly and so paternalistically to the few outspoken female researchers, whether the uber-rational Tamsin Edwards, the lead authors of the Brysse et al. paper, both female science historians, or Judith Curry.

By now, I imagine some of you readers are preparing angry rebuttals. That's fine. We need to talk about these things. I ask only that you think a bit about your own gender before you write. The conversations here are, to my great dismay, largely among men. And men may not be best at judging whether men are being fair.

Brysse, K., Oreskes, N., O’Reilly, J., Oppenheimer, M. (2013). Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama? Global Environmental Change. 23(1): 327–337.


Stephen said...

I can't speak for any of the other people you mentioned, but in the case of Judith Curry, I think she gets a strong reaction because she tends to:
a) Sympathize with climate change skeptics;
b) Heap scorn on the IPCC, and;
c) Post abject nonsense.

Steve Bloom said...

Re Edwards (whose efforts I pay close attention to), IMO she would get more flack if she were male.

Re Curry, I can only agree w/ Stephen.

But re Brysse et al., my impression is that their work met with much more approval than disapproval. Certainly some pushed back, but my impression is that the divide was a consequence of differing physical intuitions. But maybe you saw some significant reactions I missed.

thingsbreak said...

It is worth thinking about why the blogosphere reacts so strongly and so paternalistically to the few outspoken female researchers, whether the uber-rational Tamsin Edwards, the lead authors of the Brysse et al. paper, both female science historians, or Judith Curry.

Isn't this itself a rather paternialistic take, made from a position of assumed privileged?

There is of course always a tension between treating people in minority positions with equality while not ignoring historical power imbalances. But this seems to me to be seeing the reactions to Edwards and Curry through the lens of their genders without regard to the quality of their arguments or the actions they have taken.

The criticisms of Edwards have struck me as quite mild relative to what they could be, given the potential perception of 'physicist thinks s/he can swoop in and fix what scientists toiling in field XXX could not'; her seeming disregard for the literature on communication and skepticism; etc. Edwards has received much more good will than, say, Richard Muller (though to be fair his actions and attitudes are probably more vexing).

As for Curry, I think she is being shown enormous leeway for how idiotic some of her statements and actions have been- though I don't think this has anything to do with gender, but is rather residual deference to her academic station.

Curry has said things on par with or worse than people like Pielke Senior or Lindzen, yet very few who freely criticize those two harshly and publicly seem willing to do the same to Curry.

This section of your comment seems unfortunate, because (as you seem to have anticipated) it is bound to inspire vehement disagreements, and I think this will cause your larger message to be lost.

To any who have not already read this (), please do so. Heartbreaking.

thingsbreak said...

Link appears not to have gone through:

Dawn Bazely said...

Thanks for writing about this in the week of Ada Lovelace Day.

I have no idea who Curry is - will look her up, out of curiousity.

On balance, this is really part of a much larger picture - heck, I was at an event yesterday, sponsored by Council of Ontario Universities on Sustainability and Science that had 2 all-male panels, on chemistry and alternative energy. Will check back in to let you know how my conversation about this, with multiple deans and science colleagues, as well as gov't funders and the main sponsoring agency, goes.

Simon Donner said...

These are all good points. The fact that my even raising the possibility that gender influences our reaction to scientific work or commentary in a pretty passive way - I wrote was "it is worth thinking about" not "this proves a strong gender bias" - upset people suggests there are sensitive and unresolved issues, one way or another.

Keep in mind I've not defended Curry's work one iota, safe to say, I don't think much of her recent publications. The post merely mentions her name in a short list that is "worth thinking about".

Steve Bloom said...

Simon, your sole evidence for "the blogosphere react(ing) so strongly and so paternalistically" to Brysse et al. was RP Jr., infamous for asserting that the IPCC goes too far beyond the science. One blog post by someone with known form does not represent the attitude of anyone but him. Note also that RP Jr.'s attack was directed against Oreskes and Oppenheimer, not the other authors. Brysse only got mentioned incidental to the identification of the paper.

Re Edwards, I think you were equally careless, although perhaps from lack of familiarity with her efforts. You must have seen the execrable Guardian article, but there's other stuff.

Finally, I don't think it was unreasonable to have taken your use of "paternalistically" as amounting to a charge of "strong gender bias." How not?

Simon Donner said...

Appreciate the comment Steve. Again, I'm just encouraging people to think about this, which you presumably have done.

The fact that the blogosphere reacts strongly to lots of people, including prominent male scientists, does not mean gender plays no role in the reaction to women scientists who speak out publicly. That role could be small. It could be entirely subconscious, and amount to 10% of the opinion one shapes. It is highly unlikely to be 0%. In other words, the Brysse et al and Edwards' Guardian column probably would have upset some people no matter the gender of the author, but the feminist scholars mentioned in Brysse et al. might suggest the react was stronger or more paternalistic because of the authors' genders.

(Note: I agree about Pielke's post. I've said Brysse et al inspired "predictable" hackles with a link to the very post you mention. That's not my "evidence". Brysse et al. was discussed widely on the blogosphere, not to mention in emails between bloggers. And Naomi Oreskes is the second author to which I refer.)