#shirtstorm: men hurting science.

Or “why the signs and symbols that create the Leaky Pipeline are unethical, and compromise the integrity of science itself.” This post because Katie Hinde asked, and this is just as important as the other writing I’m doing.

If you float through my sector of the Internet, you’ve probably heard or seen something about #shirtstorm: the clown in the Rosetta project—which just landed a robot on a comet—who decided it’d be the height of taste to be interviewed wearing this:

Yes, that’s Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor in a shirt depicting a range of mostly-naked women. The sexist, completely unprofessional character of this fashion choice is pretty obvious. Taylor also doubled down by saying of the mission “she is sexy, but I never said she is easy.”

Way to represent your field, mate.

Better people than me have talked about why the shirt is sexist, why it marginalizes women, why the response is horrid, and why the shirt—as a sign—is bad news. I’ve also seen a lot of defenders of Taylor responding in ways that can be boiled down to “woah, man [because really, it is always “man”], I just came here for the science.”

But the pointy end of that is that this does hurt science. Taylor, and his defenders, are hurting science—the knowledge base—with their actions.

As a set of claims about the world, science is pretty fabulous for the way that claims can be subjected to the scrutiny of testing, replication, and review. Science advances because cross-checking new findings is a function of the institution of science. It’s a system that has accomplished also sorts of amazing things—including putting a robot on a comet.

Image courtesy Randall Munroe under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Yet science advances only as far, and as fast, as its membership. This has actually been a problem for science all the way back to before it was routinely called “science,” when STEM was more or less just “natural philosophy” (“you’re welcome”—Philosophers). When American science—particularly American physics—was getting started in the 19th century, it went through an awful lot of growing pains trying to institutionalize and make sure the technically sweetest ideas made it to the top of the pile. It is the reason the American university research system exists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science exists, and why the American PhD system evolved the way it did (and yes, at the time it was basically about competing with Europe).

Every country has their own history, but the message is clear—you only get science to progress by getting people to ask the right questions, answer those questions, and then subject those questions to a robust critique.

The problem is that without a widely diverse group of practitioners, you aren’t going to get the best set of questions, or the best set of critiques. And asking questions and framing critiques is highly dependent on the context and character of the questioners.

The history of science abounds stories in which the person is a key part of asking the question, even as the theory lives on when they die (or move on to another question). Lise Meitner in the snow, elucidating the liquid drop model of atomic fusion. Léo Szilard crossing the street, enlightened by the progression of traffic lights into the thought of the nuclear chain reaction. Darwin and his finches. Goodall and her chimpanzees. Bose and his famous lecture that led him to his theories of quantum mechanics.

The point is that the ideas of great scientists, and the methods they use, depend on the person. Where they came from; how they experience the world. In order to find the best science, we need to start with the most robust starting sample of scientists we can.

When people are marginalized out of science—women, people of color, LGBQTI people, people with disabilities, people of other religions—the sample size decreases. Possible new perspectives and research projects vanish from science, because a bunch of straight white dudes just can’t think of it. That’s bad science. That’s bad society.

This has real, concrete implications for science and medicine. Susan Dodds, a philosopher and bioethicist at the University of Tasmania, has a wonderful paper called “Inclusion and exclusion in women’s access to health and medicine” (You can find the paper here). Dodds notes that the way our institutions are set up, access to healthcare and medical research is limited by the role of gender. Women’s health issues—again, in care and research—tend to be sidelined unless it has something to do with reproduction. This is to the point that research ostensibly designed to be sensitive to sex and gender often asks questions and uses methodology that limit the validity of experimental results to women, individually or as a group. The scientific community quite literally can’t answer questions properly for lack of diversity, and asks questions badly from an excess of sexism.

You can imagine how that translates across fields, and between different groups that STEM has traditionally marginalized.

So when you defend Matt Taylor, allow people to threaten Rose Eveleth, and tolerate the vitriol that goes on against women—in STEM and out of STEM—you limit the kinds of questions that can be asked of science, and the ways we have of answering those questions.

You corrupt science. You maim it. You warp it.

I realize this shouldn’t be a deciding factor—Matt Taylor’s actions are blameworthy even if he wasn’t engaged in a practice that contributes to the maiming of science. But for those who can’t be convinced by that, who “just want to be about the science,” take a good, long hard look at yourself.  If the litany of women scientists who never got credit for their efforts wasn’t bad enough, there are generations of women scientists—Curies, Meitners, Lovelaces, and Bourkes—that never were. We’re all poorer for that.

So next time you want to be “just about the science,” tell Matt Taylor to stick to the black polo.


39 thoughts on “#shirtstorm: men hurting science.

  1. krulac

    I thought that was an awesome shirt! I contacted the creator (a woman) and she’s considering putting it up on Ebay for mass sales!! Can’t wait!!!

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      Awesome – though if you wear it to work while you represent 17 countries in the pursuit of science, I’ll probably say something similar. Just so ya know.

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      I don’t understand that at all. Every profession has standards – why on earth would science want to be different? The only thing being claimed here is that it isn’t appropriate in the context of representing an international scientific endeavor.

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      Really? How so? Has it contributed to a legacy of systematized marginalization that has been empirically demonstrated to discourage white dudes from entering science? Have I misrepresented my workplace and field on an international scale on this here personal blog?

      No? No, I didn’t think so.

      1. Nicholas Evans Post author

        So first, the validity of my argument has nothing to do with the word “clown.” You can try it for yourself—remove clown, add “person,” or any other word you like, and you’ll see the argument changes nada.

        Secondly, this may or may not be a cultural thing; I’m trying to figure it out. In my home country, “clown” is a polite enough phrase for it to be used under Rules of Order in the parliament. Yes, it expresses disappointment, annoyance, and anger, but it isn’t considered unprofessional. I’ve since discovered that—at least in the US, and I’ve no idea from where you are writing—it is substantially more pejorative term. I wasn’t aware of that at the time, and will probably refrain from using it in future due to my status as an expat in the USA. I defend my use; I’m also aware that idioms change substantially on different sides of the Pacific.

  2. GruntOfMonteCristo

    Um, as a “straight white dude” and therefore a defective rocket scientist without the ability to see your point, I have to disagree. You know, ‘scientifically.’ I don’t remember any of the outstanding women engineers and scientists working the MSL landing being remotely this sensitive or deluded. Many of them are the most enthusiastic about cheekiness during EDL ops in the MCR. If you weren’t a PhD in Psychology, maybe you’d have some of that experience and not see science as corrupted when people have some freedom to be themselves, or at least to accept cheeky gifts from female friends, like the woman who designed that shirt, for him.

    In any case, I have a hard time listening to anyone so willing to bully people into limiting their freedoms (and I notice that even reducing the latest enemy to a tearful public apology wasn’t enough for the broad-minded and generous Rose Eveleth). At one time, individual choices seemed to be important to women. Or was that just a one-way thing?

    1. GruntOfMonteCristo

      And no, legitimately good guys like Matt don’t hurt science. Calling him sexist is a horrendous injustice, and you SHOULD care about that. But you prima-donna-enablers corrode science beyond recognition. I’ve personally seen the damage that having the wrong women, promoted beyond their ability because of political expediency, absolutely destroy science. They’re always aided and abetted by guys like you. Nice work, princess-stroker.

      1. GruntOfMonteCristo

        No, not surprised. What I’m surprised about is that you’d rather pre-mock comments to your blog on Twitter than release them from moderation. Coward. Forgive me if I now don’t wait around for whatever clever response you eventually come up with.

    2. Nicholas Evans Post author

      Okay, my PhD is in Philosophy. I mean, geez.

      Second, I know more than enough folks in aerospace and astro—because my initial training was in physics—to know that what you’re describing is so very not the norm. And if it were? It’s just as egregious. Expecting women to put up with bullshit like that as the price of entry to a field is just as awful.

      Don’t talk to me about freedoms. No one has suggested anyone force Taylor to not do something—they are saying he was an arse to wear the shirt. And anyone suggesting his workplace should’ve known better is acknowledging that workplaces around the goddamned world expect AT LEAST minimal standards of attire. That’s hardly giving up freedoms, and the fact that you think this is relevantly so speaks volumes. No one said he can’t own that shirt, or wear it. Just not when he’s representing 17 countries on an international space mission.

      As for corroding science, you’ll notice the only thing I suggested was that more people be encouraged to do more science. How on earth anyone can think that’s corroding science is beyond me. I also didn’t say women should be promoted “beyond their ability.” I said that barriers to entry that have nothing to do with skill should be lower, and that diversity benefits science.

      Maybe instead of me hanging around scientists, you could do with hanging out with some logicians.

      Cry me river about Taylor. The fact that some are skeptical about his apology is that he’s still promoting the shirt online, and people like you are still fighting the good fight on his behalf, or whatever the hell it is you are doing. You’ve completely missed the point, including that the end I’m advocating for is actually MORE SCIENCE. If you think a t-shirt is worth more than that, you’re beyond help.

      Forgive me for not replying to each and every one of your posts – I’m a little busy doing research.

      1. GruntOfMonteCristo

        If you think this is just about a t-shirt, then maybe you’re beyond help. It’s about the freedom to do science without bullies trying to get your job taken away from you over what you choose to wear. And that’s very much how serious this is. You must have read the other tweets about trying to get the whole chain of command at ESA to “answer” for this? You don’t think that’s a threat to freedom?

        Anyway, thanks for the response, and I apologize for being so harsh to you on your blog. You have my respect for being man enough to do downhill mountain biking. That shit rocks. And you’re ok. Perhaps I just think you should consider being a little more skeptical of some of these big girls, kinda like this little girl is:

      2. Nicholas Evans Post author

        Mate I’m Aussie – we’re poisonous and we charge.

        Getting ESA to “answer” for something really depends on what people mean by “answer.” I’m honestly not wanting people to get up and fired, jobs to be lost, funding cut… no, what I want is people to go “that was a stupid idea for Taylor to wear that shirt, what the hell were we thinking near that guy near a camera as the face of the ESA for even a moment?!” That’s an answer I’d be interested in seeing, but that’s not even a slap on the wrist.

        I left a career path in science for philosophy, mainly to write my PhD about threats to scientific freedom—so yes, I worry a lot about it. But I don’t think—certainly haven’t seen—people out for Taylor’s job. The ask is much, much more modest- create a space where women scientists, in teaching, training, and research feel safe to go and do their thing and compete for careers. Every woman that gets out of the biz because she’s sexually harassed, because she can’t deal with the endless boys-club bullshit, anything, is a waste. I don’t mind competition – I just want to compete in the right ways for the right thing.

        Does that impact on freedom? Maybe. But it limits the freedom of others to shut people out of science for ANY reason other than science itself. No one, and certainly not me, is suggesting Taylor shouldn’t be in science. They just don’t want him acting to push others out of science (even if unintentionally) through his words and actions. I don’t see that as a huge violation of his freedom—if any—and the status quo is certainly a violation of people’s freedom.

        As for skepticism, I spent a decade researching the status of women in science and research, the effects of gender on economics and health, and how sexism manifests, before I started acting like I have (just this year!). I’ve worked in health policy on reproductive liberties; I’ve researched how scientific research (I was paid to study medical research, but have also written on fields as diverse as nuclear physics and industrial chemistry) can leave the lives of women worse off. This is an experimental problem that can be proven and solved, to me.

        My entire career is built on the study of how science progresses. Let me tell you, as an expert on THAT? Equality of the sexes isn’t going to harm science, anymore than trying to stop doctors from assaulting and harassing female patients stopped medicine’s practice. It actually made things better.

        Worry about cuts to basic research funding; about military concerns coopting the other legitimate aims of science; about excess regulation (or not enough) stopping adequate safety testing, or leading to monopolies in some areas. They are all real threats right now. Not women wanting a fair go to show their brilliance. The women I know aren’t looking for a handout- they want to compete.

      3. Nicholas Evans Post author

        Mate, I left science to study philosophy and science policy. I love me some science – the questions I had just couldn’t be answered from within the field I was in (physics)

  3. GruntOfMonteCristo

    I really do get your point, having been raised during the height of American feminism, and being sympathetic, myself. I often find myself in your role of discouraging the boy’s club and protecting the women brave enough to play ball.

    However, the simple fact of this case is that there’s a clear violation of any concept of equality. Like the kid points out, if it’s wrong to bully women about what they wear, then it’s also wrong to bully men. End of story. Besides, the gist of the feminist argument here is that women are too weak to control their own reactions upon gazing on men and their seductive shirts. It’s a demand for men to wear burkas, plain and simple. It’s repulsive.

    And, BTW, your claim above that he is “representing” the international space community is simply wrong. That was a “locker room” interview that was completely unofficial in the inner sanctum of the MCR and every knows it. The “official” word is given later, most likely by women in suits. Only at that time is it appropriate to remark about choice of optics. Really.

    1. GruntOfMonteCristo

      Oh my God. I was going to ask why you were ever coerced by someone like Katie Hinde (so much heavy lifting… *snork*) to write an argument that your heart clearly wasn’t in, but I just realized that your wife is Kelly Hills. I am so deeply sorry to have troubled you, Brother. Fare well.

      1. Nicholas Evans Post author

        What the actual f***?

        Did you not read the bit when I told you that this is my thing? Well, let me enlighten you a bit more, mate. I started working on structural issues in scientific research and innovation a good half-decade before I’d met my wife. I love this stuff with a passion. I wrote a PhD on it, I’ve got a book coming out on it, I present on it around the world. This is my job; I don’t need to be pushed into writing about this. Unless you are referring to the fact that I’ve got so many publications deadlines that it was a toss-up to write because I just wasn’t sure there were enough hours in the day to do so.

        As for “coerced,” maybe the whole problem with shirtstorm, Gamergate, and every other misogynistic harassment free-for-all masquerading as an actual debate is that y’all don’t actually know what words mean. I wasn’t coerced to write this by anyone. Hell, I didn’t follow Hinde until after I’d started writing this post—I saw her request through a friend’s feed. If that’s coercion, then I can now understand the vitriol consuming American Men: you’ve all been taught language backwards.

        Seriously, we were having a decent debate until you pulled this nonsense on me. I didn’t agree with you, but you didn’t piss me off like most of the other so-called critiques of my position. You’re the best that’s come along; I weep for America if you’ve got to resort to psychologizing my actions and denying that I could’ve come up with this on my own.

    2. Philop

      “Like the kid points out, if it’s wrong to bully women about what they wear, then it’s also wrong to bully men. End of story. ”

      Is that an absolute statement? If the lead scientist at NASA were to turn up to work in a shirt featuring cartoon KKK characters or Jewish stereotyped characters, would you support his right to wear that to work and to represent a government funded agency on the international stage?Would you tell his Jewish and Black colleagues that they are denying the shirt-wearing scientist freedom of speech if they complained of racism or anti-semitism?

      The equality issue regards slut shaming right? It’s seen as wrong to bully women for revealing too much flesh. So the comparable situation would be for the lead male scientist of a mission to appear on TV with his arse hanging out of tight leather trousers and for lots of people to make a noise about how he was a slut for showing his body.

      1. Nicholas Evans Post author

        Right on, mate. I’ve seen a number of attempts to compare the reaction to Taylor’s shirt to slut-shaming, and I just don’t see it.

        As for the kid’s comment, I totally agree. We all agree there is a line that people can cross in what they wear; we’re debating where that should be. As my post indicates, I draw it a little more conservatively than “KKK gear” when the speaker’s on international TV representing an international space project.

      2. GruntOfMonteCristo

        Philop- Obviously not. There’s a line, as Nicholas said.
        Dr. Evans- I agree with you. But we’re not having a debate. The ladies you hang out with never tried to have any kind of debate. Didn’t they tell you? They simply pronounced judgment on Taylor without knowing any particulars, and that judgment was “HERETIC!!!!!!!!!” That is why they are being considered for the enviable title of “The Nailers of the Last Nail in The Coffin of Feminism.” Because they lack the common sense or discipline or restraint necessary to not shoot themselves in their dainty feet with those big guns they normally use on men. I only use the gun metaphor because you dislike that so. I might add that I was out with the family at the range today with the wife and one of the sons, and it was delightful. Everyone was very professional, and no one shot themselves in the foot. That’s strange, because I remember you saying recently, just to spite people like me, that “More guns equal more crime.” Did you check the number of immigrant murders recently in Australia, which is pretty much gun-free before you said something so ignorant? Please do next time. Expert.

      3. GruntOfMonteCristo

        Sorry! I was supposed to leave you alone, and I will. But let me do so on less of a combative footing. Let me leave you with 2 thoughts that are not accusations or questions that need addressing. These are just things you might consider that are not in the purview of physics or psychology:

        1. Women in Israel live in a very hostile environment where threats are a daily occurrence. They also carry guns with them everywhere they go. Is it possible that attempting to disarm a society before it’s secure from threats is counter-productive to the security of women and feminism itself? I think so.

        2. You mention below to Ben that your main concern is the *occasion* of the wearing of the “ThatShirt” while he was “representing” 17 countries. Is it possible, in general, that one should be aware of the customs of the space community in determining where and when people represent anything? If it is actually the custom, in that community, that the MCR is a sanctuary, like a locker room, where no one represents any country, where in fact countries do not really exist, but the engineers function as a *team* and press is almost never allowed, wouldn’t that change the assessment? And in that case, wouldn’t the engineers on that team and their bosses be the only ones capable of making that assessment?

  4. Pingback: Shirts, Science Communication, and Why Appearances Can Be Important › Communication Breakdown

  5. Conan Balfour

    Dude. Its a shirt. Calm down. The reaction to it has been far more disgusting than the shirt itself. You lot should hang your heads in shame for the way you’ve treated this man.

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      Actually no, I won’t. No one that I know who lodged a complaint about Taylor’s shirt also issued doxxed women, or threatened me and my wife with death and/or rape. You’ve got a twisted assessment of morality if you think calling some sexist bullshit out on the internet is worse than actual threats of violence.

  6. Lorin Thwaits

    Anyone offended by the shirt has my invitation to not be involved with science. You are hindering progress. Saying that women can’t work in scientific fields because some guy has tattoos or a crazy shirt puts your closed-minded hang-ups above scientific discovery. Some of the best work in science comes from the weirdest people on the planet. If you want to normalize society into some sterile place then SCIENCE WILL NOT PROGRESS AS FAST OR AS FAR.

    Let’s all work together, keep it weird, and discover cool new stuff.

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      Boring. No one’s progress was hindered—a robot was landed on a damned comment.

      As for progressing far and fast, there’s good historical and empirical data to suggest that underrepresentation actually stifles science. That openness needs to not only be at the publication level, but the access level. You also clearly haven’t read the empirical literature on access barriers to science based on gender, SES, race, and other institutional features.

      And fwiw, I didn’t say a thing about his tatts. I’ve got no problem with them; I’ve got no beef with Taylor at all. I do take issue with this ridiculous, myopic, mid-20th century ideal of science you’ve got going on. Michael Polyani called, and he wants his ideas buried with him.

  7. Titus Brown

    Yeah, a bad idea (and a sign of general insensitivity) to wear the shirt; completely apart from the effect on workplace dynamics, it’s just unprofessional. But (in some sense) fairly minor, just another sign of the problems in science.

    But what I don’t get is why people think it’s OK to threaten and harass people who complain about it… that’s where all the people should be rethinking their approach. I frequently disagree with people about things like politics but generally I respect their right to have an opinion. It’s not OK to harass people over honestly expressed opinions. Sigh.

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      It’s got me stumped too, mate. I’ve had friends and family torn to shreds on this: threatened with rape and death, and mutilation; doxxed; and harassed by everything from pro-trolls to bot networks. The reaction is completely disproportionate to event.

  8. Ben

    Good scientists help science, Whiny idiots concerned with tokenism armed with a soapbox for a seemingly unlimited amount of petty whining about a man wearing a shirt designed and made by a woman hurt science.
    I’m not sorry if pinup art makes you feel insecure. Go be a grumpy frumpy in silence. Instead of bullying “nerds” who actually do good science, you could keep your entitled, narcissistic, SJW smear campaigns and DIAF.

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      Pinup art doesn’t make me feel insecure; the effects of the structural bias against women in entering, competing in, and staying in STEM fields gives me reasoned to be concerned for the progress of science. Hell, I don’t care what Taylor or anyone else wears on their day off. I care what he wears when he’s representing 17 countries on one of the biggest nights for science in 2014.

      As for SJW, really?! I mean, that basically writes you off as a serious part of this debate. It boggles my mind that people use “justice” and “warrior” as a pejorative.

      I’m half-expecting you to come back at me with some Ayn Rand quotes.

  9. Pingback: Changing minds. | postdocstreet

  10. CroneGeek

    I’m wondering if ESA management kind of set him up for this, encouraging him to be hip and cool, and he took it way too far.

    Matt Taylor has only been working on Rosetta a couple of years, he was formerly working on northern lights research. All the profiles of him being such a cool guy and a scientist too seem to be a good part of why he was hired for the position of lead scientist — to project a hip geeky image for Rosetta and ESA.

    This may help explain why no one questioned his choice of attire — that was part of the job the execs at ESA hired him to do, to be edgy.

    I also wonder if none of the women he worked with said anything to him because they wanted to see him get his comeuppance in public. He has twitter pics seeming to show him wearing the shirt to the office in October. Since he was the lead scientist, maybe no one felt free to say anything about it, or maybe someone said something and he blew it off.

    I do want to know if that shirt is considered acceptable workplace attire at ESA.

    I accept Matt’s apology and don’t feel he needs to be further punished, assuming he’s been thoroughly educated on proper workplace decorum now.

    But the ESA management and PR team still have some explaining to do. This was a livestream they tried to get into schools! A major part of the mission of NASA and ESA is education, to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. How could they not have planned and supervised the proceedings with a general audience, including school kids, in mind? ESA, not just Matt Taylor, owe the public and the science teachers / students an apology, imho.

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      Thanks for your comment.

      I can’t comment on the set-up part, but I do know that the ESA has a dress code of “smart casual,” and Taylor wasn’t that. I do hold ESA accountable to an extent, for someone not pulling Taylor aside and saying “celebrate on camera all you want, just lose the shirt.”

      1. CroneGeek

        Just to be clear, I should have said I wonder if ESA management inadvertently set up Matt for this, by encouraging him to be hip. I’m sure they didn’t want this result — they were looking for the next cool NASA Mohawk guy and instead they got #shirtstorm.

        London’s mayor has now come out in full incoherent attack on feminists, defending Matt. I wonder how Matt feels about some of the people defending him? I can imagine he wants to throw shoes at some of these blowhards.

  11. vic00

    Dear Nicholas,
    I’m a female scientist and full professor, and all I can say, is, I love your post, and I love your responses to those commenters who have criticized you. Their comments reveal that they have never been a PI in charge of running an inclusive, diverse lab. and have also likely not taught large, culturally diverse undergraduate science courses.
    I’m sending this around to my faculty. cheers, dawn

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      Sorry for the belated reply—not much time for blogging 🙂 you are very welcome. For interest, this post has since inspired a paper that I hope to have developed and doing the rounds of conferences, in preparation for publication sometime next year. I feel it’s important, as a matter of the scholarly record, to put down that this really is a substantive ethical issue for STEM, and everywhere else.

  12. Pingback: Confronting Structural Sexism in #STEM: Pt 2 | Dawn Bazely: forthright, collaborative, interdisciplinary & fun

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