Limitations of the Finkbeiner test

This post was republished on The Wire on January 8, 2018.

The Finkbeiner test, named for science writer Ann Finkbeiner, was created to check whether a profile of a female scientist published by a mainstream news outlet was produced in the first place because its subject was a woman. It’s a good check to make when writing about a professional scientist’s work; if you’re going to write the piece because the subject’s a woman and not because you think her work is awesome, then you run the risk of presenting the woman as extraordinary for choosing to be a scientist. However, more than being a good check, it could also be too subtle an issue to expect everyone to be conscious about – or to abide by.

As The Life of Science initiative has repeatedly discussed, there are many systemic barriers for India’s women in science, all the way from each scientist having had few role models to admire growing up to not being able to stay in academia because institutional policies as well as facilities fall short in being able to retain them. And apart from working towards making these deficiencies known to more people, women have also been leading the fight to patch them once and for all. As a result, talking about successful women scientists without also discussing what needed to fall into place for them could ring hollow – whereas the Finkbeiner test seeks to eliminate just such supposedly miscellaneous information.

For example, a 2015 report by Ram Ramaswamy and Rohini Godbole and a 2016 article by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj both stressed the need for affirmative action on part of the government so more women are retained in scientific pursuits at the higher levels. This means science journalism that focuses on a working woman scientist because she belongs to a particular gender and not on her scientific research at the outset becomes useful in the eyes of young scientists but also quickly fails the Finkbeiner test. Does this mean the piece becomes detrimental? I’d think not, especially because it would certainly serve the function of holding the people charged with instituting policy and infrastructural corrections accountable.

For another example, I’ve learned from several The Life of Science profiles that one reason many of the women who have become successful scientists with faculty-level positions were backed up by supportive families and partners. One profile in particular – of Mayurika Lahiri – stood out because it discussed her research as a cancer biologist as well as her achievement in setting up a full-fledged daycare centre in IISER Pune. However, the Finkbeiner test penalises an article on a woman scientist if it discusses her spouse’s occupation, her childcare arrangements or the fact that she could be a role model.

Two notes at this point. First: Some women might not like to be characterised in a way that the Finkbeiner test says they shouldn’t be characterised as. In such cases, the journalist must and will respect their choice. Second: To be fair to The Life of Science, the Finkbeiner test is intended only for mainstream publications and not specialist projects. At the same time, this caveat could come off as short-sighted because it aspires to make a stronger distinction between changes that remain to be effected for (India’s) women in science to have it as good as its men already do and the outcomes of those changes that have been implemented well. Persistence with the former results in the latter; the latter encourages the former to continue.

In countries where women receive more institutional support than they do in India, it’s possible to expect meaningful insights to arise out of applying the Finkbeiner test to all mainstream profiles of women in science. In other countries, the test could be altered such that,

  1. A discussion of women’s needs is treated on an equal footing with their science instead of having to ignore one or the other – This way, writers will have an opportunity to make sure their readers don’t take the pervasiveness of the conditions that helped women succeed for granted while also highlighting that their work in and of itself is good, and
  2. Profiles of male scientists include questions about what they’re doing to make science a non-problematic pursuit for people of other (or no) genders, if only to highlight that men often have a mission-critical role to play in this endeavour.

Featured image credit: bones64/pixabay.

Why do we cover the Nobel Prize announcements?

The Nobel Prizes are too big to fail. Even if they’ve become beset by a host of problems, such as:

  1. Long gap between invention/discovery and recognition,
  2. A large cash component given to old scientists,
  3. Limiting number of awardees to three,
  4. Not awarding prizes posthumously,
  5. Not awarding prizes to women, especially in the sciences, and
  6. Limiting laureates to those who had published in English or European languages*

… they have been able to carry over the momentum they accrued in the mid-20th century, as an identifier of important contributions, into the 21st century. The winner of a Nobel Prize gets his (it’s usually ‘his’) name added to a distinguished list, and has the attention of the world’s press turn towards him for 12-24 hours. The latter in particular is almost impossible to achieve otherwise. As a result, the Nobel Prizes, for all their shortcomings, still stand for a certain kind of recognition that is not easily attainable through other means.

Any other prize instituted today with the same shortcomings as the Nobel Prizes will struggle to be taken seriously (unless the cash component is overwhelmingly high). It is thanks to these qualities of its legacy that even those who write against the Nobel Prizes and their import can at best hope to fix the prize, and not have it cancelled. And this is also why people continue to lament problems #3 and #5 instead of neglecting the Nobel Prizes altogether.

I personally wish the Nobel Prizes stopped being important – but it’s a conflicted desire because of two reasons:

  1. It’s an opportunity – even only if it’s for one week of the year – to talk about pure science research instead of having to bother with what it’s good for, and still be read. Otherwise, there’s a high cost attached to ‘indulging’ in such articles.
  2. The Nobel Prizes are not going to drop in value among the people if only I abstain from covering them. Either all journalists have to stop giving a damn (they won’t) or the Nobel Committee itself will have to rethink the prizes (so far, they haven’t).

So if only I sit out and not write about who won which Nobel Prize for what, only I – rather, The Wire – loses out. I’d much rather make a bigger deal of homegrown awards like the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize, specialised prizes like the Wolf, the Abel and the Lasker, and the international – and more au courant – Breakthrough Prizes.

*I’m speaking only about the science prizes.

Some thoughts on the Mack/Dorigo Twitter exchange, and Zivkovic, Feyerabend, etc.

This exchange made me squirm:

(In case Dorigo deletes his tweets, screenshots here, here and here.)

If you didn’t know: Katherine Mack is a theoretical astrophysicist at Melbourne University and Tommaso Dorigo is an Italian particle physicist working at CERN. Mack’s Twitter feed is one of the best places to learn about astrophysics, and Dorigo’s blog is one of my preferred sources of information and analysis of LHC results. I consider them both very knowledgeable people. At least, I used to – until this short exchange on Twitter disabused me of the notion that they might be equally knowledgeable.

As my friend put it, Dorigo’s comment “makes it sound like being bi is a privilege” – especially since Mack goes on to detail the non-privileges being bisexual comes with. While I’m familiar with the issues surrounding gender and sexuality, I’m not entirely conversant with them, and yet even I know that Dorigo is being facile and refusing to engage substantively with the topic at hand. His response to Mack’s sharing the link is proof enough, conflating two attributes in a way that makes no sense:

I’m inclined to call this “Dorigo’s fall from my graces”. Some would argue that we ought to separate his technical expertise with his views on topics that seem to not directly relate to what made me pay attention to him in the first place. But I’m becoming increasingly wary of this line, particularly since allegations of sexual harassment were visited upon Woody Allen in 2014. While many hold that an appreciation of his films doesn’t require one to be okay what kind of a person he is, I disagree because the separation of professional achievements and personal conduct overlooks how one might enable the other, and together help establish structures of power and authority.

My example of choice with which to illustrate this is Bora Zivkovic, the former ‘All Father’ of Scientific American‘s famous network of blogs. His leadership as well as abilities as a communicator made young and aspiring writers flock to him for advice and favours. However, a string of allegations (of harassment and impropriety) emerged in 2013 that put paid to his job and, at least temporarily, his career. It was obvious at the time the scandal broke out that Zivkovic had abused his position of power to take advantage of trustful women and solicit crass things from them. When I first heard the news, I was devastated.

Now, science – rather, STEM – and science journalism already have a problem retaining women in their ranks. When they do, sexual abuse, harassment and sexism are rampant, often ensconced within organisational structures that struggle to remain cognisant of these issues. So when you embed men like Zivkovic and Dorigo – and, of course, Geoff Marcy – into these structures, you automatically infuse the structures with insensitivity, ignorance, etc., as well as increase the risk of women running into such men. And by paying attention to Dorigo – even when he’s talking about hadron-hadron collisions – I feel like I will be feeding his sense of relevance and legitimising his persistence as a scholar of note.

(Caveat: I’m keenly aware that mine could be a precarious position because it could displace a very large number of people from my self-aggrandising graces, but I choose to believe that there are still very many people who are good, who are aware, sensible and sensitive, who are not abusive. Katherine Mack is a living example; Dorigo would’ve been, too, if he’d had the good sense to apologise and back off.)

So where does Paul Feyerabend fit in?

From his Against Method (fourth edition, 2010; p. 169-170):

I have much sympathy with the view, formulated clearly and elegantly by Whorf (and anticipated by Bacon), that languages and the reaction patterns they involve are not merely instruments for describing events (facts, states of affairs), but that they are also shapers of events (facts, states of affairs), that their ‘grammar’ contains a cosmology, a comprehensive view of the world, of society, of the situation of man which influences thought, behaviour, perception. … Covert classifications (which, because of their subterranean nature, are ‘sensed rather than comprehended – awareness of [them] has an intuitive quality – which ‘are quite apt to be more rational than over ones’ and which may be very ‘subtle’ and not connected ‘with any grand dichotomy’) create ‘patterned resistances to widely divergent points of view’.

(Emphases in the original.) Our language influences the weltanschauung we build together. While Feyerabend may have written his words in relation to his idea of incommensurability in the philosophy of science, their implications are evident in many spheres of human endeavour. For example, consider product advertisement: a brand identity is an intangible thing, an emotion trapped within a cage of words, yet it is built and projected through tangible things like design and marketing all embodying that emotion.

Similarly, involving this or that scientist in a conversation is to include a certain point of view that – even in the presence of robust safeguards – suggests not an endorsement but definitely a willingness to ignore something that may not always be ignorable.

Featured image credit: coldbrook/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.