Sexism is harmful even if you are ‘Startalk’

On Monday, March 18th the official account of Startalk Radio republished a meme which many find it offensive.

A few hours later the admin of the page deleted this post, but in the age of the internet, you really can’t remove anything and hope that people forget it.

Startalk Radio is a popular science podcast. It describes itself as a junction between science, pop culture and comedy. The success of this podcast actually encouraged the National Geographic TV channel to produce the TV adaptation of this program.

 And you can’t separate this show – both Radio and TV – from its celebrity scientist host, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

During the last decade, Tyson brands himself as a face of modern science. His passionate speeches and talks and his presence in night shows with his famous astronomical vest turn him into a superstar.

He introduces himself and acts as a defender of science, rationality and skepticism in the age of fake news. He is always ready to engage in a scientific argument.

When a few years ago, producers of the COSMOS Tv series decided to relaunch the series, it was evident that Tyson is a great host to replace the legendary Carl Sagan.

There is no doubt that Tyson and his colleagues are the reason that many people became interested in science. There is no doubt that many episodes of Startalk and other public events and outreach activities of Tyson play a significant role in increasing the enthusiasm for science among the young generation.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Tyson’s approach on science popularization.

One critique about him and his approach is the way he defines himself and using science and his position as a scientist to stop the dialogue. in another word just because he considers himself a scientist, we should accept his views on most of the issues. It is obvious that this is not how science works. Even when you are a scientist, you have to prove your perspective by the rational argument, citing the sources and data and the analysis and even after that you will be open to the debate and counter-arguments. There is nothing sacred in science, and there is nothing like God’s word in it. Even if you are the most reliable face in a specific filed among the scientific community, you can’t transfer your speciality and credit to other branches of science. Maybe I am a credible and respectful astrophysics with the focus on the interstellar medium, but when I am talking about evolution or nanotechnology then I can’t use my scientific reputation as astrophysics and say to you: “you have to believe me, I am a scientist and therefor what I am saying about the evolution is true.”

Once again we have to cite Uncle Ben: “With the great power comes the great responsibility.”

Tyson does this kind of argument over and over again. Maybe the main problem here is most of the time when he acts as a presenter or science communicator, he doesn’t accept this role and try to bring his ‘scientist’ position in the debate.

In the first episode of the new cosmos tv shows, he mentions this issue and emphasises that his role as guide, host and narrator of series is not from the position of science communicator but from the high throne of the scientist.

The other issue about him and some of his colleges is the issue that John Horgan calls it “capital-S Skepticism”. People who create a cult-like group around science.

He describes some of the issues with this group in Scientific American (May 16, 2016):

“ ‘The Science Delusion’ is common among Capital-S Skeptics. You don’t apply your skepticism equally. You are extremely critical of belief in God, ghosts, heaven, ESP, astrology, homoeopathy and Bigfoot. You also attack disbelief in global warming, vaccines and genetically modified food.

These beliefs and disbeliefs deserve criticism, but they are what I call “soft targets.” That’s because, for the most part, you’re bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you. You end up preaching to the converted. Meanwhile, you neglect what I call hard targets. These are dubious and even harmful claims promoted by major scientists and institutions.”

You can put Tyson in this category.

But all of these criticisms can’t make you ignore the fact that he and his colleagues are the faces of science in our age. His name and his voice are among the most compelling voices between people who are interested in science.

And once again we have to cite Uncle Ben (from Spiderman): “With the great power comes the great responsibility.”

When you have such a social position – no matters if it is a rightful place for you or not – you have to consider the social impact of your behaviour. If you do some wrongdoing, it could go far beyond your personality and affects the idea that you are known as a champion of it.

When Tyson was accused of sexual misconduct and even rape, It wasn’t just about one person. This accusation affects the face of science in the mind of the general public. This story is not about that scandal, but I encourage you to read the excellent story from SHANNON PALUS in about this issue.

So when you have such a high social place and you connect every aspect of your life to science, then if official handler of your brand published such a sexist meme, it is a significant problem. You can not just delete it and pretend nothing happens. At least you should recognise your wrongdoing and apologise for that.

Screen Shot from the Startalk Instagram page

In this meme (which is published initially by madeforgeeks account) a couple is lying in the bed, and the young woman is looking over her shoulder to the young man. The idea is while the young woman is thinking about the probability that the young man is unfaithful or thinking about another woman he actually thinking about the origin of the energy in the world.

There is no need for explanation about the offensiveness of this image. It is enforcing all the wrong cliché about the difference between man and woman and when you remember that women in the science community – like other aspects of life – are struggling with the gender discriminations and sexist prepositions, you can see how harmful, such a post from a significant and influential brand in science could be.

One day after publishing this meme “Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck” became the first woman ever that won the Abel prize (one of the two most prestigious awards in Mathematics). It was just only four years ago that Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman who won the Fields medal (the other prestige Mathematical prize) in the history of this medal.

Science doesn’t have gender unless we enforce theses cliche on it.

Even now and in 2019 women are facing more struggle to go forward in science. So maybe it is a good idea that if you are a famous and influential brand, be more careful about what you are publishing on social media and more importantly if you did something wrong and had to retract, say it and apologise for it.

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