“Womanspace,” sex stereotypes, and things that are “bad for” science

Ed Rybicki’s “tongue-in-cheek” sci-fi vignette, “Womanspace”, has provoked quite the controversy in the weeks since it was published.  Various critics are calling the story sexist, anti-science, and unworthy of publication in a science journal (it appeared in Nature). Some have even suggested Nature is trolling.

I went to read the story and see what all the fuss was about. But I can’t say I agree with the critics. At less than a thousand words, “Womanspace” has a bare-bones structure (the quotidian setup, the aha! moment or “idea” at the end) reminiscent of vintage sci-fi, which was often only a rudimentary vehicle for an “aha!” moment. So it’s difficult to read too much of a political agenda into it. I understood the story to be nostalgic fluff, a retro-tinted nod to the golden age of science fiction. It even reminded me a tiny bit — ever so ironically — of James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon — the fascinating science fiction author who used both male and female pseudonyms. (Check out Sheldon’s “Screwfly Solution” for a truly chilling and well-written take on gender conflict, and/or this NPR account of Sheldon’s pseudonymous correspondence & writings.)

As I understand it, the main complaints about “Womanspace” seem to be that (1) the narrator-scientists’s POV is stereotypically male/sexist, (2) he discovers a scientific principle that is gender-discriminatory, reinforcing a socially constructed male/female dichotomy, (3) he does so in a totally unscientific way, and (4) it’s just not a very good story. (More nuanced concerns have arisen as the discussion went on, but I’ll just keep to these main concerns about “Womanspace” itself, which I’ve seen over and over in slightly different forms). While these criticisms are often well articulated, and are coming from people I respect, I don’t quite see it the way they do. And I don’t think Ed Rybicki needs to apologize.

I’ll refrain from comment on (4), because literary merit is in the eye (and library) of the reader. Personally, I didn’t think it was that bad (I kept imagining a Stephen Fry voice narrating it, and evoking Stephen Fry is never a bad thing!) but suffice it to say that the story itself is much less interesting than the ongoing conversation about the story. I’d have immediately forgotten I read it, if it weren’t for the blogospheric kerfuffle.

On (1), though: as a former English major, I have to insist that the use of an unreliable, biased narrator is not in itself a bad thing. Period. Much (if not most) good fiction has unreliable, biased narrators: we don’t read modern literature in an attempt to emulate sanitized saints, but rather to understand the complex and messy human condition. So the complaints about how the story’s first-person protagonist indulges in gender stereotyping seem odd to me. In fact, they smack of an implicit scientific exceptionalism: they seem to suggest scientists, unlike everyone else, are/should be completely bias-free. But scientists are human beings, and are therefore susceptible to the same biases and cognitive errors as anyone else. We delude ourselves if we pretend otherwise.

While those with empirical training may be more likely to recognize and account for their own biases — and I emphasize “may” quite deliberately — we are by no means immune to bias. You can likely recall a PI or postdoc who, while exemplifying objectivity at the bench, displayed glaring political/ideological blind spots the minute s/he walked into the breakroom.  And there are genuine differences between the genders (obviously) — which is how this story differs from the racist variants put forth by some critics. Whether cultural or biological in origin, gender differences are part of daily life; people generalize about them all the time. To be sure, it’s a mistake to pre-judge individuals based on those generalizations, but that doesn’t mean aggregate differences don’t exist, and aren’t part of our culture.

The plot of “Womanspace,” inasmuch as it has one, appears reflective of traditional gender roles and stereotypes: a cake-baking woman in the kitchen sends her hapless, domestically helpless husband and his friend out to run errands, at which he fails. But I don’t think that’s quite why the story bothers people. After all, just because an isolated couple (in fiction or real life) espouses traditional gender roles doesn’t mean all people do, or should. Extrapolating from a single data point to everyone is just as wrong as extrapolating from a bell curve to an individual personality. As Isis put it in her critique, “[the narrator’s] experiences certainly do not point to a universal truth.” And let me take a moment to quickly make two points: first, the narrator is the houseguest of the apparently traditionalist couple: what exactly is he supposed to do to do — criticize their domestic arrangements in the story? As far as I’m concerned, and I think most people would agree, the narrator’s hosts can be as traditional as they like. It’s their choice. Second, there’s an adjective in the story about the wife — “astrophysics-qualified” — that I think people are missing completely. The wife of the apparently traditionalist couple is a scientist, too! A professional woman should be able to celebrate her gender in whatever way she wants, whether it be by painting her nails and baking cakes, while simultaneously being successful professionally. Why assume that just because she is baking a cake, she’s not also a scientist? I know lots of two-scientist couples, and in fact, I assumed she was a scientist as well when I first read the story.

So I don’t think the controversy is just about putting a female astrophysicist in the kitchen. Rather, I think people are offended because the narrator reinforces traditionalist gender differences by appealing to science — by seeking a quantifiable justification for different gender roles. Which brings us to (2). Let’s set aside the reality that evolutionary biology has already probed in that direction. It’s an understandably controversial direction, because neither women nor men should be limited or defined as individuals by their gender.

But I read the narrator’s discovery a little differently – not as justifying his cultural worldview, but as a product of that worldview. The narrator’s befuddled resort to a paradigm-busting physics revolution just to explain the quotidian mysteries of marriage seems to me to be a caricature with some truth. We really do hope science will explain the things that puzzle us, including the subtle differences between us. Sometimes this hope deludes into making generalizations about, and seeking systematic explanations for, things that aren’t really there, or aren’t really all that important. Even if we don’t realize it, the choices we make in research — which project, which new direction, which hypothesis to pursue — may be nudged one way or the other by our social context, our deep-held biases, and our unexamined presumptions.

Do I think those inherent biases completely hijack science? Not at all — I think biases and steretypes hijack the public perception and portrayal of science far more often than they hijack scientific research. But biases can influence the scientific agenda. From phrenology to Henrietta Lacks to the dearth of women subjects in clinical trials, science has, in the past, embodied outdated social presumptions about gender. So I’m not so sure that presenting science as the occupation of biased, all-too-human people meandering around in search of explanations for their subjective life experiences is really that unfair. It’s not terribly epic, but it’s not unfair.

For that reason, as to (3), I don’t see how “Womanspace” itself is inherently anti-science. No one can plausibly think that the gendered “physics” it describes is real, nor that the scientific process in which the narrator engages (which consists basically of having a fringe idea and posting it to social media) is a model of the scientific method.  And I would argue that the underlying concept — that scientific discoveries are prompted by looking anew at daily mysteries — is correct.  I can totally imagine an absent-minded physicist stumbling on a profound secret of the universe while out fetching household supplies. Don’t most of us have sudden insights while lying in bed, or running, or shopping, or driving? Don’t silly details of everyday life prompt us to discover patterns of nature? I can also relate to the idea that we don’t know how much we don’t know, because we often don’t notice things right in front of us (for all I know, when I lose my keys, they are in another dimension — and if I ever felt odd as I switched dimensions, I’d probably chalk it up to lack of coffee, or deja vu).

While I firmly believe science is the best and most objective way we have to understand the world, it is by no means bias-free. It’s human, because we’re human. And humans (including scientists!) are silly, imperfect people who tell silly stories and are blind to the obvious.

I read Ed’s story (whether he intended it or not) as comment on how modern science still carries around some of the cultural baggage of yesteryear. At first, I thought iO9 recognized as much when it said,

the story reinforces the sense that scientists are a tribe, rather than a profession. A homogenous, male-dominated tribe, who share certain cultural attitudes.

Totally! “Womanspace” is an illustration of how when science is dominated by one type of person (traditional white men), it produces discoveries that are geared toward their needs and worldview (why are women so hard to understand?).

But then iO9 went on:

This, more than anything, is why this particular science fiction story is bad for science… and why it’s so weird that a science magazine chose to publish it.

Wait, what?

You may reject my rosy, slightly postmodern reading of “Womanspace.” You may think I give the author too much credit. You may well be correct — there’s no right answer in armchair/blogosphere lit-crit. But even assuming the narrator is unashamedly chauvinistic, and not doing real “science,” how exactly is this story “bad for” science? Does it portray a tribal/male-dominated version of science with propagandistic approval, arguing that science should be dominated by men? I didn’t think so. Is it “bad” because the public is likely to misunderstand how science is done, or who does science, and think it’s really like this story? Implausible — plus Nature’s core audience is scientists, not the nonscientist public. Or is it “bad” in that it’s gratuitously offensive? Is the portrayal of scientists with cultural biases offensive in itself?

Call me a contrarian liberal arts major, but I just don’t accept that a story that gave so many people fodder for conversation can possibly be “bad” for science, or anything else. Now, as to (4), it may well be a bad story, as in a poorly executed work of fiction. But it’s too extreme to say it’s bad for science. Science is far too robust for this silly bit of fiction to wound it. Let’s bracket the fact that you can look at most blog comment threads to see far more overtly sexist and hateful material; the mere fact that worse stuff exists doesn’t excuse anything. But I just don’t find this story sexist. If it portrays science/scientists in a less than optimal, “tribal” light, maybe it’s useful to provoke a conversation about whether science/scientists might actually deserve that criticism. I think many of the critics of “Womanspace” would agree that there is still male bias in science — right? So I think it’s disturbingly PC to expect that fiction or art about science should be purged of all such human bias. Fiction that represents a sort of Gene Roddenberry-esque, sanitized utopian vision is simply not interesting to me — it’s more like propaganda than literature. Shudder. And expecting an author to apologize for writing a piece of fiction whose narrator does not reflect the approved ideology? That deeply bothers me, because it can be so easily flipped to effect censorship of unpopular views. The cure for offensive speech (assuming that’s what “Womanspace” is) isn’t suppressing or publicly shaming the author — it’s more speech to set things right, which the blogosphere is demonstrating it can do, amply.

I do converge with some critics, however, in that I might be persuaded that it was “bad for science” for Nature to choose to publish this story: maybe Nature should apologize. The story obviously plays on stereotypes, to which female readers (and males!) might well be sensitive. Many women in science have had negative encounters with such steretoypes — for example, the time one of my college physiology students told me he thought women should be housewives, not scientists (I still fail to see how he thought telling this to his female professor was a good idea). We are not likely to find such assumptions cute or amusing. And the story could plausibly be read as Nature’s complacent acceptance of such stereotypes. At least some readers have taken it that way:

I felt completely sick to my stomach because I couldn’t believe that NPG would knowingly publish overt sexism. I felt completely alienated and abandoned by a journal that is supposed to publish science, not fiction that represents offensive cultural biases.

Now, that reaction, even if it’s not universal, is not good at all.

Nature publishes, almost exclusively, expository scientific writing, and the context of a piece of fiction influences how that fiction is read. I understand how many people might not share my meta, tongue-in-cheek reading of “Womanspace”. It’s not like it was an SNL skit (and I have seen way worse SNL skits) or, as one commenter put it on Isis’ blog, a Dave Barry column. So it may be fair to say that publishing it in Nature was inconsistent with the values of science, because it risked alienating an important constituency: young female scientists, like the one quoted above. Nature should support that constituency, for the benefit of science as a whole, not undermine its legitimacy. That fact is reason enough not to publish “Womanspace” in a journal that serves a professional function so vital to these young scientists’ academic careers.

At the same time, however, I feel that some of the backlash is based on a feeling that Nature shouldn’t publish fiction at all – that mixing fiction (ambiguous, subjective, provocative) with research (objective, serious, to be repeated/emulated) isn’t a good idea in the first place. As one critic put it, “nobody is interested in reading fiction in a science journal.” I can’t agree with that. I don’t think it’s “bad for science” to have the “Futures” fiction column appearing in Nature — it’s not like fiction is categorically unworthy of proximity to Real, Serious Science. (Calling Jules Verne!) We can pretend that science is pure, and exists apart from society in a perfectly objective world, but that’s really not true.  Many of the papers that have appeared in Nature over the years must have originated in human foibles, biases, and prejudices. I don’t think it’s “bad for science” to acknowledge that. To the contrary: science is all about questioning underlying assumptions (and identifying hidden biases that skew results).

Ultimately, I think it would be “bad for science” if the backlash against this one piece dissuades Nature from publishing “Futures.” I think (obviously; it’s BioE’s whole “blog d’etre”) that juxtaposing fiction, art, culture, and science can stimulate creative debate and crosstalk. We may well question the editorial wisdom of this particular selection, given its potential to offend and the ease with which that should have been anticipated by Nature’s editorial staff. Even if potentially offensive fiction has provocative value, that doesn’t mean an editor needs to publish it. This particular selection was clearly tone-deaf. But overall, the Futures section as a concept seems to me to be valuable. This is not the only Futures story ever, and some of the others are quite intriguing.

It seems pretty clear that Ed Rybicki did not mean to offend when he wrote “Womanspace.” And I do hope Nature did not deliberately cause offense in order to generate traffic or debate. That doesn’t mean no offense was taken — it clearly was — but I hope that this is all just a collision of worldviews. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking collision, airing some important realities about bias and assumptions in the scientific community.

In that vein, I leave you with a more inspiring piece of writing: a bit about science fiction author Alice Sheldon.

Alli [Sheldon] had many sides or selves, and [the male pseudonym James] Tiptree gave her more room to be those selves: worldly, analytical, independent, bloodthirsty, and funny. He gave her space to play, make jokes, or, on a bad day, annihilate the human race. He gave her space to love women (though not always to like them). Sometimes he said things she didn’t have words for, in the days when no one wrote honestly about women’s experience. . . .

Tiptree helped Alli to write partly because he wrote science fiction. “Literature,” with its famous injunction to “write what you know,” cannot always help us discover what we don’t know. Science fiction gave Alli a language for writing around the boundaries, for imagining what cannot yet be said. It has been seen as a masculine genre. And yet, with its metaphors for alienation and otherness, its unruly imagination, and its power to predict change, it is highly suited to talking about women’s experience.

Now that’s womanspace.

Excerpt about Alice Sheldon from James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips.

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