The latest women-in-science fail comes via Entangled Bank’s “Consensus” event of “original science presentations, group discussion, and geek-pop” featuring Richards Dawkins, Wiseman and Fortey (with a Bill, Jonny and Quentin thrown in too) scheduled for 16 November at the ExCel Centre.
After a small amount of internet WTF-ing yesterday morning, the organisers took down their oh-so-jokey FAQ, which posed the question:
I am a fanatical, misandristic ‘feminist’. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch abusive, bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters?
A clue to the limited scope of this event may come in the answer they gave to the now-deleted FAQ:
We’re actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is how it was. As scientists we have no option but to accept reality.
Entangled Bank have now apologised - and it should be noted that the comment does not reflect the views of the people invited to speak at the event: at least one of the speakers says he was "furious" when he saw it and "demanded it be taken down". But the contention that "as scientists we have no option but to accept reality" raises an interesting question.
Perhaps Entangled Bank don’t know about all those politically-engaged scientists who wished to change society with their ideas. It also reflects a lack of imagination as to what science is, and can do.
Scientists have a conflicted relationship with this thing we call “reality”. On the one hand they speak up for it, working on what we can best know as being actually true about the world. In that respect, I get the point Entangled Bank want to make. But scientists also know that a big part of their job is to question our assumptions about what reality is. Savvy ones also know that any claim to speak for reality is a highly political statement, and that anyone telling you to “get real” should be questioned.
None of this is easy. One person’s “There are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy” is another one’s “really, stop dicking about” or, more plainly, “bullshit”. (If you’ve never read Merchants of Doubt, do.) A list of reality-bucking revolutionary scientists could easily get a bit Galileo complex. Instead, I’ll recommend you read an obit for Ruth Patrick, who died on Sunday aged 105. Her studies of freshwater ecology in the 1930s helped galvanise the environmental movement and led Congress to pass the 1972 Clean Water Act, which she also helped write. In 1996, Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Science even though, when she first tried to get a job at the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1934 she was told not to expect to get paid.
So here’s a basic tip for anyone running a similar event: why not book a woman first? Then look to see if the Dicks, Jonnys, Steves, Robs, Brians and Jameses are free to join her. Ask yourself why there are so few non-whites on your shortlist of possible panelists, and how many went to state school, and realise that the relative paleness and maleness of science in society might well be to do with structural discrimination which you yourself are perpetuating with your event. Pull your finger out, have some imagination, be willing to change and end up doing something more interesting as a result. It’s not hard. It’s also more fun.
Similarly, we don’t need a “female Brian Cox” any more than we need a Jeremy Clarkson for cycling. We need to dismantle the cultures and political systems which assume white men are our only lead for social change and appreciate that awesome and amazing as the good Professor Cox is (I am a fan) there is a lot more to science than just him alone. We won’t find that diversity – let alone share it and let it grow – if we stick to the status quo.
If anyone’s looking for an event that celebrates women in science and technology, try Ada Lovelace day. Or try one of the Bright Clubs or Science Showoffs, which do often involve a few white men too, but usually only the nice ones who know science is at its strongest and most interesting when it’s diverse.