An Open Letter to the AAS

So with the holidays coming up, my reading list – We interrupt this blog post for the following public service message:

Earlier this month, the Rosetta mission made history by landing a probe on a comet.  This is slightly more difficult than playing a video game, in case you were wondering.

t 2Dr. Matt Taylor was the spokesperson spokesman for the ESA, the organization which accomplished this feat.  He wore a shirt which caused some people to get knots in their knickers.  I discussed this at the end of my review of Interstellar.  I’d hoped we’d heard the last of this because the stupid, it burns.

Then the AAS (American Astronomical Society) issued a statement.  Let’s look at it in detail, shall we?

The following statement was issued on 19 November 2014 by the Executive Committee of the American Astronomical Society on behalf of the AAS Council:

The past few days have seen extensive international discussion of an incident (known online as #shirtstorm or #shirtgate) in which a participant in a European Space Agency media conference wore a shirt with sexualized images of gun-toting women and made an unfortunate remark comparing the featured spacecraft to a woman. Viewers responded critically to these inappropriate statements, especially jarring in such a highly visible setting (one in which very few women appeared), and the scientist apologized sincerely. But in the meantime, unacceptable abuse has been directed toward the critics, from criticism of “over-active feminism” to personal insults and more dire threats.

We wish to express our support for members of the community who rightly brought this issue to the fore, and we condemn the unreasonable attacks they experienced as a result, which caused deep distress in our community. We do appreciate the scientist’s sincere and unqualified apology.

The AAS has a clear anti-harassment policy, which prohibits “verbal comments or physical actions of a sexual nature” and “a display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures.” Had the offending images appeared and comments been made under the auspices of the AAS, they would be in clear violation of our policy.

We also note the important sentiments that preface the policy:

As a professional society, the AAS must provide an environment that encourages the free expression and exchange of scientific ideas. In pursuit of that environment, the AAS is committed to the philosophy of equality of opportunity and treatment for all members, regardless of gender, gender identity or expression, race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion or religious belief, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, veteran status, or any other reason not related to scientific merit. All functions of the Society must be conducted in a professional atmosphere in which all participants are treated with courtesy and respect…

The AAS Council reaffirms the importance of the Society’s anti-harassment policy to our mission to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe. Only when all astronomers feel welcome and supported in the profession can our discipline realize its full potential for excellence.

OK, so once again the outrage overwhelms the accomplishment.  No surprise there.  Then we get to who is outraged.  The viewers.

Um, what viewers would that be?  Oh, the ones watching on TV.  Why are they important?  Well, the ESA is ultimately funded by tax money.  So when these viewers gripe to politicians, the politicians get nervous about their chances of being reelected and respond.  The response usually takes the form of cutting funding (the kiss of death in scientific circles), and the politicians can brag about how they did something about that horrible person at their next campaign stops.

t 2

The knicker-knotting shirt, in case you missed it the first time.

Dr. Taylor is then commended for his sincere apology; he should have told his critics to sod off.  The man cried because he’d hurt someone’s feelings.  Around these here parts, that’s viewed as pathetic.  (I suspect his job was on the line, or more importantly, his boss’s job was on the line.)  So you don’t like his fashion sense?  Suck it up, Buttercup.  That shirt isn’t hurting you or anyone else.  You want to know who is hurting women?  ISIS.  Boko Harem.  When a shirt does that kind of hurt, maybe I’ll be more sympathetic to your position.  Until then, try to maintain some perspective.

The statement then goes on to say “in the meantime, unacceptable abuse has been directed toward the critics, from criticism of “over-active feminism” to personal insults and more dire threats“.  Since when is disagreeing with someone unacceptable abuse?  I’m sorry, but “someone expressing an opinion contrary to mine” isn’t “unacceptable abuse”.  I think “over-active feminism” is a pretty accurate term.  And please, what exactly are the personal insults and more dire threats?  Provide references.  (For you nonscientists out there, scientists love references.  Their papers are full of them.)  There are always going to be trolls and other lowlifes who will use the anonymity of the internet to spew vile opinions and threats.  Don’t lump honest discourse, debate, and discussion with them.

The next paragraph continues this theme.  (Should that all be one paragraph?  My senior English is probably spinning in his grave over this structural flaw in their statement.)  Note the use of the terms “unreasonable attacks” and “deep distress”.  Again, since when is disagreeing with someone an ‘unreasonable attack’?  You would think the scientists who wrote this had never been to a scientific meeting where two scientists with opposing theories get into a public spat.  And if disagreement, whether civil or not, causes you deep distress, maybe you need to find something else to do with your life.  Like go back to junior high school.

After stating its support of the knicker-knotted and commending Dr. Taylor for being a crybaby his sincere and unqualified apology, the ASS AAS states that Dr. Taylor can be glad he didn’t wear his shirt at one of their sponsored events.   (The AAS had no direct involvement in this mission, although some of the scientists involved are likely members.)

I find the list of things that the AAS demands equality of treatment for interesting.  Is it just me, or do some of the things on the list tend to lend themselves to mutual exclusivity, especially where religious belief is concerned?  Yeah, good luck equitably enforcing that policy as it’s written.

Then we get to the final sentence of the statement: “Only when all astronomers feel welcome and supported in the profession can our discipline realize its full potential for excellence.”   I really have to wonder how many people on the committee who wrote this sentence have been to a scientific meeting, especially when the authors of competing theories or projects are in the same room.  They’re not exactly love-ins where everyone sits around in a circle, holds hands, and sings Kumbaya.

To the AAS.  Stop trying to be the Thought Police (or the Fashion Police).  Humans are, well, human.  They are going to rub each other wrong, get on each others nerves, and at times fail to play nice.  You’re never going to eliminate things that are disrespectful, if for no other reason than because everyone has a slightly different idea of what does and doesn’t constitute disrespect.  Stick to science and don’t try to raise my social consciousness.

And to all those people who seem to look for things to offend them:  There is no such thing as a right to be entirely free from offensive material.  The only way to do that is to stifle the freedom of expression for lots of other people.  And that is more disrespectful than any shirt.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post, already in progress:  – and that’s what in my TBR pile at the moment.

3 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the AAS

  1. Woelf Dietrich

    Yep, good article and on point. The incident was absurd. The amended policy is absurd, and I wonder how it is possible they don’t see the hypocrisy of their words. Their lack of honesty is frustrating.


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