Yong’s Very Social Science

As the “science writer” for The Atlantic, Ed Yong feels a special duty.

In December 2015, I wrote a story about the potential uses of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. That piece, based on a conference that I attended in Washington, D.C., quoted six men and one woman. The six men included five scientists and one historian, all quoted for their professional expertise. The one woman was a communications director at a tissue bank organization, and her quote was about her experience as the mother of a child with a genetic disease.

Was his story about CRISPR accurate? Factual? Correct? Bah. The real question was whether he included enough women.

These disparities, both in the absolute numbers of men and women, and the ways in which their quotes were used, leapt out at me, but only after the piece was published. They felt all the more egregious because the CRISPR field is hardly short of excellent, prominent female scientists. Indeed, two of the technique’s pioneers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, are women, and both of them spoke at the same conference from which I reported. And yet, if you read my piece, you could be forgiven for thinking that CRISPR was almost entirely the work of men.

It may well be that Ed Yong is coming to grips with his inner misogynist, that he’s ignored women in science who shouldn’t be ignored because he’s just a sexist guy. And he feels pretty badly about it now, realizing that his quotes, his “experts,” have failed to align with statistics.

Gender biases are also entrenched in the media, where, in the words of the sociologist Gaye Tuchman, women are being “symbolically annihilated.”

It may be unclear whether symbolically annihilated is anything like, well, annihilated, but it sure sounds terrible. And Ed, the science guy (who may be paid by the word, though I can’t prove that), wants to stop being part of the problem.

I’ve since been trying to actively redress the balance, by spending more time searching for women to interview. For any given story, I almost always try to contact several sources. If, for example, I’m writing about a new scientific paper, I will interview the scientists behind the work, but also pass the paper around to get comments from independent researchers. To find the right people, I’ll look at related work that’s cited by the paper in question. I’ll google for people who do similar research. I’ll check Twitter. I’ll look at past news stories. To find more female sources, I just spend a little more time on all of the above—ending the search only when I have a list that includes several women.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing, that Yong will just keep searching and searching until he can find a female source? If it’s a legit source, who may be overlooked because she’s been symbolically annihilated, then this seems like a legitimate means to bring deserving scientists into the mainstream. But then, if one has to search that hard, overlook other scientists who have established their bona fides in a field, their prominence, their expertise, to find someone of the correct gender, is that really science?

Yong dismisses this question as a straw man.

A related criticism is that it would be insulting for a woman to be interviewed simply because she is a woman. This is a straw man. I’m not asking people for their opinions because of their gender; I’m asking because of their expertise. Every single person I contact is qualified to speak about the particular story that I’m writing; it’s just that now, half of those qualified people happen to be women.

It may not be “simply” because of gender, but it’s primarily because of gender. As for “every single person” being “qualified,” this falls short of answering the question. Every lawyer is an “expert” in the law as far as non-lawyers are concerned, but we’re not exactly fungible.

And as with law, women have put together a list.

It is getting increasingly easy to find such people. The journalist Christina Selby, writing at the Open Notebook, compiled a list of tips for diversifying sources. The journalist Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato created Diverse Sources, a searchable database of underrepresented experts in science. 500 Women Scientists, a nonprofit, created Request a Woman Scientist, a similar (and larger) database. Both can be filtered by country, specialty, and more. Several scientists have compiled lists of women in microbiologyastronomyphysicsevolutionpolitical scienceneuroscience, and more. I keep a personal list of women and people of color who work in the beats that I usually cover. And if these all fail, the most basic journalistic method always works: Ask someone. Get people in the field to suggest names.

Are these experienced, knowledgeable, credible sources? Maybe. But they’re women, and when gender is your foremost concern, rather than accuracy, depth or actual expertise, any female will do the job. Yong rejects this concept.

[Should I] simply focus on finding the most qualified people for any given story, regardless of gender. This point seems superficially sound, but falls apart at the gentlest scrutiny. How exactly does one judge “most qualified”?

It’s a fair question, but the answer isn’t nearly as elusive as Yong suggests. If he, as The Atlantic’s science reporter, can’t figure out who is the “most qualified” to opine on quantum physics, then perhaps he would do better writing for Salon, as he lacks the chops to be a credible science writer.

Yong has a blog of his own at Nat Geo called Not Exactly Rocket Science. And indeed, it’s not. Then again, it’s not quite social science either, even if it means there aren’t as many female voices as he feels there should be. Or even if it means there are more than there should be. Science is about facts, and facts don’t care about gender, no matter how much Ed Yong does.

23 thoughts on “Yong’s Very Social Science

  1. Pat Riot

    Says it all, and what I was thinking from the beginning:
    “It’s a fair question, but the answer isn’t nearly as elusive as Yong suggests. If he, as The Atlantic’s science reporter, can’t figure out who is the “most qualified” to opine on quantum physics, then perhaps he would do better writing for Salon, as he lacks the chops to be a credible science writer.”
    Hopefully this PC nonsense will wear away soon – but I am not holding my breath.

    1. SHG Post author

      The question is how much damage will be done in the meantime, and whether it can be undone when we stop making up stories to match our beliefs.

    2. Onlymom

      It will end about a week after the silent majority just sit back and just say nothing and go along to get along stand up and announce. Shut up! get back in your corner or under the rock you came from. The adults are talking and ignorant children should be seen and not heard

        1. Onlymom

          Are you trying to say your mom never had to tell you that children should be seen and not heard?. When you come up with something stupid

          1. SHG Post author

            She did. She said other things as well. Her repertoire may have been somewhat larger than yours, and definitely less violent (that’s between us, OM, as you should know).

  2. PSmith

    Are you really suggesting there is a singular “most qualified voice” in any field of human endeavor and that voice is the only one which should be heard on the subject? That seems like a gross over-simplification.

      1. PSmith

        And, again, with the over-simplification. You’re the one who implied that there is someone “most qualified” to opine on quantum physics. Is it not more likely that there are a number of people who are equally well-qualified to comment on the topic? So what is the problem with finding out if one of those people is a woman?

        1. Patrick Maupin

          Yes, again with your oversimplification of Scott’s position. FWIW, the Jordan Peterson meme actually describes quite accurately how your oversimplification looks from here.

          Hypothetical: Fox News brings two global warming “experts” (a man and a woman) in to debate. The man says that there are many as equally qualified as him in the subject, including his opponent. The woman says that she is one of the top 3 scientists in this field, and her opponent, the man, is not nearly as well-versed in the subject, and anything he says should be discounted.

          If you find the woman believable, you are free to disregard the man’s argument, because the woman has explained he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

          If you believe the man, then you should believe the woman. After all, he has admitted that she is as qualified as he is. But then, of course, you don’t have to believe the man anymore.

          Of course, human beings being what they are, it is entirely possible that the man is merely being gracious and knows, in this field of endeavor, a lot more than the woman, and that the entire thing is a classic Dunning-Kruger exercise.

          So what do you do if the woman and the man disagree vehemently on the causes and cures of global warming? In order to untangle that and figure out who to believe, you’d have to be capable of non-binary thinking, and possess a stronger ability to parse more carefully than you have thus far shown.

          From your perspective, it might be much better for Fox News to pick a single expert to interview. Then you would implicitly know the truth, based on the fact that it is Fox News, and on how deferential the interviewer is to the scientist.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      Recognizing a gross oversimplification is a great start!

      The next lesson is on figuring out where it was made.

      That one can be substantially harder, requiring, as it does, a certain capability for introspection.

      1. PSmith

        Sarcasm is generally wasted on those who lack the capacity for introspection. But I’m sure you’ll get a really cool participation trophy just for trying.

        1. Patrick Maupin

          I have found that sarcasm can, in fact, sometimes help develop latent introspection capabilities. Of course, if the subject possesses no such latent capabilities, sarcasm will do no better or worse than any other technique, but I have had enough successes with it that I do not require a trophy of any sort, much less one for mere participation.

    2. Dan

      By definition, only one person can be the most qualified in any given field (determining who that person is, among many who are similarly qualified, can be difficult–even impossible–but it is axiomatic that only one can be “the most” qualified). Given the choice, why would you want to learn a subject from anyone else?

  3. delurking

    “If he, as The Atlantic’s science reporter, can’t figure out who is the “most qualified” to opine on quantum physics…[derision]”

    Unfortunately, your thesis fails because it is not possible with reasonable accuracy to rank-order people within ~10 rank locations by their fitness to opine on some topic in quantum physics (or molecular biology) in a periodical whose audience is primarily upper-middle-class educated professionals with little science education. If, given estimation error, you can’t accurately rank-order people within ~10 on that one metric, there is no harm to the scientific content of your stories if you try make your set of opiners over many stories representative of the general population on some other metric.

    Come on, you know that legal journalists couldn’t possibly accurately rank-order lawyers who specialize in some sub-field of law on their fitness to comment for the general public. I’m sure you would admit that even you couldn’t accurately rank-order to within 10 spots criminal defense attorneys on their fitness to opine in a magazine for a non-legal audience.

    1. SHG Post author

      In the scheme of expertise, within 10, even 50, would be more than sufficient for a credible and qualified opinion. When you hit 10,000, you’ve probably missed the mark by too great a margin. Don’t be so literal.

Comments are closed.