In the past week, the Twittersphere at the intersection of science, technology, and journalism exploded at hands of Elon Musk. What started with a completely reasonable belief that journalism should be responsible and accountable (though based on an entirely unreasonable belief that any negative press about him or his companies is biased lies) turned into an idea of a platform where the general public can rate the reliability of news sources (because Yelp has literally never had problems due to people with agendas rating establishments). This then devolved into a bizarre and frankly paranoid goading of "the media". When prominant science communicator and PhD candidate Upulie Diviskera called this goading "pathetic", Musk and his legion of fans lashed out at her and her science. Upulie is molecular biologist studying drug delivery on the nano (AKA, teeny tiny) scale, as well as the founder of the popular Twitter account Real Scientists, which lets a different scientist curate the account and share their passion every week. Musk declared that her opinion was irrelevant because her Twitter bio referred to nanoscience, which he claimed was "100% bs". His fans jumped on that train, arguing that she would never win a Nobel Prize, therefore her science had no value, that she wasn't a real scientist because she has a Patreon account (which exists to fund not her research, but her science communication efforts), and that being a PhD candidate in molecular biology doesn't mean that she knows anything about molecular biology or the nanotechnology she researches (somehow implying that Musk's dual bachelor's degrees in economics and physics do give him expertise).
At this point, The Daily Beast science writer Erin Biba stepped up to point out that in our current cultural climate, blindly swinging the sword to hack indiscriminately at science as a whole, as in the Upulie situation, and journalism as a whole could potentially have some very negative consequences, and that when people with power and followings make these sorts of accusations or charges, they need to be cognizant of the potential impacts. This did not go well. I want to state here on public record that I have so much respect for this piece. I don't think I could have written something with as much grace and maturity as she did, giving Musk so much of the benefit of the doubt and calling on him to demonstrate the care for humanity that his companies indicate. This also did not go well.
I'm not usually one to add -gate to the end of every bit of drama, but Elongate has perfectly encapsulated a lot of things I've been feeling for a while-- years really, but that have coalesced into coherence over the past few months. Although I write and I am passionate about science journalism, I want to come at this situation, and what it represents, from the science side of the equation.
I write this with the caveat that every single thing I'm about to say applies to people of color and gender and sexual minorities as well. I write this from the perspective of a straight, cis, white woman, but that application is not where this story ends.
Lauren Seyler, a postdoc at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, made an incredibly astute observation on Twitter in April.
"I used to think that we needed to get more young girls interested in science but I see now that that was never the problem. We are here, we love science. The problem is creating an environment where we are supported, recognized, and rewarded for our work."
This Tweet really got me thinking about all of the environmental and systematic barriers for women/POCs/GSMs once they're already in the sciences. I particularly started thinking about the things the "good guys" do that can make minority groups feel isolated or like they have to work harder than their white male colleagues. I am surrounded by these people in my life- good, open-minded, well-intentioned men that would absolutely balk if they knew that they were negatively impacting the women they work with a respect. But they do negatively impact them.
Let's take the Musk bros. Much like Donald Trump fans, there is a hardcore segment of them for whom Elon Musk is a deity who can do no wrong. They will go to battle and use dirty warfare anytime he is perceived as being besmirched (well, almost any time). It doesn't matter what points anyone makes or how respectfully they make them, the "attacker" is wrong, because Musk is supreme. These are the men that the women in Erin Biba's story ran into. They are quite often people in STEM fields- engineers, computer/IT workers, people excited about and interested in science. To a man, these are coworkers, colleagues, and consumers of our work. And for this set, a situation like Elongate brings up a horrible truth: that for some of the men we work with, we are the slightest perceived insult away from them revealing their predeliction for dismantling our opinions based on our appearance, devaluing our work, or unleashing a vitriolic mountain of misogyny. This normally won't come to the surface...as long as we fall in line.
But there is another subset of white, cis males that I have come into contact with far more frequently. The ones that are the bigger problem, the harder barrier to cross. It is far easier to dismiss the openly misgynistic and hateful statements (when they come bubbling out), but far more difficult with the good guys. Elongate has perfectly highlighted this group, too.
I don't like Elon Musk. I haven't for a long time, and I'm not shy about that. I don't think he wants a better future for humanity; I think that he wants to create a better future for humanity so that he can profit from it and control it. I thought the whole "Tesla into space" thing was an arrogant testament to a narcissitic man and a future that prioritizes these exact rich, white, male STEM bros. I find his management style abhorrent and not indicative of someone who truly has humanity's best interests at heart. Frankly, I think he's a prick. And because I wasn't the target of any of the legion's vitriol, probably because I was too afraid, I am glad Elongate happened. The situation has led to the mid-range Musk fans, the ones that think he's doing really cool stuff and has a great vision and is a humanitarian, but not necessarily a god, realizing that what we've been trying to tell them has been right the whole time.
These are the men who think "Well...that sounds like some well-sourced science, so maybe he's got a point?" when things like the Google memo comes out. Many of them are rejecting Jordan Peterson on the whole, but do feel a need to caveat that with "But this is a good point". These are the men that every single time I've brought up my distate for Elon Musk, have challenged me on it. And not necessarily my premises, but my feelings. When I say "From my perspective as a woman, this is how this situation makes me feel", they respond that I'm reading too much into the situation, or that something he said that was problematic was simply misspoken, or that it was trivial in the grand scheme of everything else he's doing. The people that I've spoken to think they're doing a good thing by giving the benefit of the doubt, but what they're often actually doing is dismissing and devaluing the experiences and perceptions of the minority they're speaking to.
On one hand, I'm glad Elongate happened, because a lot of that group is starting to see that the red flags, concern, and discomfort that people were raising was actually well-founded. On the other hand, there is no reason that a situation should have to explode and become a firestorm before you listen to the people who are raising concerns.
This goes beyond just Elon Musk. It's something that I've seen in my day to day work in science. When a male coworker is behaving in ways that makes the women in the room feel uncomfortable, they often convince themselves that they shouldn't say anything, because it wasn't really anything overt and maybe it wasn't really that bad. When they do say something, they're often not the ones benefitting from the "benefit of the doubt" game the good guys play. Maybe he's just socially awkward, maybe he doesn't realize he made you uncomfortable. I have personally had experiences where I've told a supervisor that a coworker who was in no conceivable way above me on any ladder was treating me in a demeaning fashion and devaluing my expertise, only to be met with the response of "Well, it's probably not personal".
And when these situations, much like Elongate, inevitably blow up, and they do often blow up spectacularly, the women who have made complaints and raised concerns are forced to sit through the shock of the men in the room. The revelations of "It seems so unlike him" or "I can't believe he would do such a thing", while the women are all silently screaming that we've been trying to tell you for years. You, someone who may have had issues or at the very least knew about them, are forced to listen to these good, caring guys care more about how the perpetrator is doing than how the people who were made uncomfortable at his hand are. Should they reach out and see how he's doing? Does he need defending? When you bring up that this is incredibly uncomfortable for the women in the room, you get told that you should give these good guys a break, because they might not know the whole story. Your discomfort is diminished and you're made to feel guilty for it, because you're not being charitable enough.
A prime example of this is the horrendous New York Times interview with the Arrested Development cast. Jeffrey Tambor apparently at one point verbally abused castmate Jessica Walters. When it came up, the other males in the room, primarily Jason Bateman, found a way to excuse Tambor's behavior, downplay the situation, and completely dismiss Walters' feelings. In front of the victim, Bateman stated that if Tambor wasn't asked to return to Arrested Development, he wouldn't return either, immediately making it clear that the experiences of the less enfranchised person in the room were not significant enough to warrant rebuke of the aggressor. This comes on the heels of Tambor being fired from another show for harrassment. Trying to smooth over a painful or difficult situation in this way makes the target in the room feel guilty for being upset and like their feelings aren't important, no matter how many times you throw in a "not that it wasn't a big deal". It makes the women in the room feel unwelcome, even when the good guy thinks they're doing the right thing.
One of the excuses for bad behavior that is often made is brilliance. There is a tendency to forgive bad behavior based on perceived contribution to a field. To quote my boyfriend on the subject of Elon Musk, "I ... dismissed those things because of the good that I believe he has done". In science, most of the greats with the most power happen to be straight, white men. While demographics in many scientific fields are changing, the fact is that women and minorities tend to be on the younger side and not carry as much clout as the intellectual giants. Even within an academic generation, men tend to get more first author publications and hold higher positions, and therefore have more clout. Our society embraces the trope of the brilliant asshole, think Gregory House, Sheldon Cooper, Temperance Brennan, Dr. Cox, and any other number of examples. We forgive jerks because they're valuable. We write off and excuse a degree of "eccentricism", which is really often just douchebaggery. Because of some of the engrained institutions and practices of science, this system favors the brilliant asshole male being a brilliant asshole in the direction of females. While it is absolutely true that sometimes the intellectual giant is female and the target can definitely be male, it is disproportionately male abuse towards a female, and the victims are constantly faced with being witness to their feelings being brushed aside at the hands of a cultural excuse. They're then forced to sit and watch as praise is heaped upon the brilliant jerk who's made their life hell, and supposed to feel lucky for have gotten the opportunity.
The same boyfriend quoted above told me to use him as a reference of someone who didn't get it at all until he was confronted with what women in science have to endure. While I have so much respect for him for acknowledging that he was wrong and being willing to own up to it, this is part of the "good guy" problem. Women and other minorities have been screaming at the top of our lungs about how science is a toxic environment for years. We've been calling out bad behavior, doing surveys, writing articles, holding workshops. We have been telling you, but it takes a personal, close relationship with someone who experiences these things daily to start to listen. These men have managed to ignore or excuse the situations we've been pointing at until they are witnesses on a personal, not just professional level, or until they're bombarded with it from a single individual speaking solely to them about specific situations. On one level, I don't think it's necessarily their fault. It's easy to think someone is reading too much into a situation or being overly sensitive when you haven't spent every day of your life being trained to pick out these scenarios. When you're bombarded with it, you know which "poorly worded statements" are red flags, and which "trivial" things are just part of a bigger pattern. Ironically, women's experiences have been so devalued that trying to tell someone that you feel devalued is often dismissed because the listener doesn't fully understand the value of your experiences. It shouldn't take someone getting fired or someone going bonkers attacking female professionals for the people with power to listen to the people who are uncomfortable with a situation, and the fact that it currently so often is one of the biggest reasons that science can still be uncomfortable for women-- even when they're surrounded by good guys.