This is a hard post to write, but I wanted to put some thoughts out there, and, more important, get the readers’ take on this issue. It’s about using sex to sell science. And I refer to science websites that have banners or photos like this (click on the banners to go to the sites):
Clearly, these are sexualized images intended to draw some readers’ (i.e., men’s) attention. My concern is that using semi-provocative images to help popularize science not only tends to demean the seriousness of the message, but also drive away some people who could benefit from learning science. This happens for two reasons: 1) such images turn off people who don’t like this kind of clickbait, or 2) the images could lead people to think that the best way to popularize science, especially if you’re a woman, is to show some skin. Remember that the Internet is an attention-span-limited venue, and many people will either read or skip a site based on a quick initial impression of that site:
Before I give my own tentative thoughts, let me issue some caveats, as this subject is a touchy one:
- Both of these women have serious messages to convey, and both have substantial scientific training. “SciBabe,” Yvette d’Entremont, has a B.A. in theatre, a B.S. in chemistry, and an MSc in forensic science with a concentration in “biological criminalistics”. I posted one of her videos, a debunking of homeopathy, yesterday, and she’s speaking at the Reason Rally in June. “Science Babe,” Debby Berebichez, who popularizes science mainly through videos and articles. has a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford and has done serious research, though she now works as a risk analyst on Wall Street. I have no real objections to the content of their sites (well, “The Physics of High Heels” seems a bit “Science Lite” to me), which is generally substantive. I admire both d’Entremont and Berebichez for choosing to take on the difficult task of selling science to an often recalcitrant public. My objection is only to how the sites are sold.
- I don’t think either of these women have done anything wrong, nor do I want to shame them for dressing as they choose. One could make the counterargument that these images show that one can popularize science and still be “feminine” in the traditional sense—that being able to dress the way you want is “empowering.” My concern is how the images sell the science, what message they convey, and whether they’re tactically effective.
- The problem that I’ll talk about briefly below is surely societal in nature: that is, people judge other people, especially women, by how they look rather than by the contents of their character and their cranium. Men aren’t usually treated the same way. It seems hypocritical for people interested in science to render judgement based on an initial perception of either a site or a person rather than on what they have to say.
That said, my concerns are severalfold. First, and this may reflect some prudishness on my part, I don’t like to see science sold salaciously. Nor does it have to be: there are plenty of women science popularizers who do an effective job without dragging sexuality into the mix: these include Jennifer Oulette on Gizmodo, Joanne Manaster at Joanne Loves Science, and people like Carolyn Porco, Pamela Gay, and Lisa Randall.
Second, these images are certainly going to turn away part of the demographic who need the message of science. I know this because several people have told me so over the years. Some women in particular consider images like the above as forms of objectification. Some have told me that the images convey the message that to be an effective female science popularizer, you have to show your body. The word “babe,” of course, means “attractive woman”. Others have said that it may convey the wrong message to women contemplating a science career, for they’re already underrepresented among the professoriate and researchers, and images like this convey the attitude that women in science (and women in general) are “always to be SEXY.”
Using sex to sell something is always a double-edged sword: it attracts a certain demographic (mostly lascivious males, I suspect); but it can can undermine your credibility, leading you to be taken less seriously than you should. As I said, that is largely a societal problem, but remember that popularization involves selling science to society as it is now. In other words, the use of sexuality to push science might trigger automatic prejudices against women who wear sexy gear to tout serious subjects. To me, a good science communicator should appeal to everyone and not offend or alienate part of the target audience. I worry that salaciousness, particularly on the Internet, can lead to instant dismissal of one’s message before it’s even absorbed. It is a tactic that can backfire.
Finally, I reiterate that I am not criticizing these women or their message. I am not saying they are “wrong” in doing what they’re doing. I like what they’re doing. What I am suggesting is that the way they choose to sell those messages may be counterproductive, alienating some of those they want to reach.
Now, readers can weigh in.