But I know I have to come right out and say it, because very few people in education technology will: there’s a problem with computer technology. Culturally. Ideologically. There’s a problem with the Internet. Largely designed by men from the developed world, it is built for men of the developed world. Men of science. Men of industry. Military men. Venture capitalists. Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old.

Audrey Watters

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That Shirt, The Culture of Science, and Political Correctness Run Amok

It has been an interesting week.

On Wednesday, while I was helping to cover the Rosetta landing, I saw astrophysicist Katie Mack1 tweeting about the offensive shirt worn by Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor on the livestream of the historic mission. Feeling clever, I responded thusly:

This quote was picked up by the Telegraph in their article about Taylor’s apology, and that quoted was eventually used as the basis for an op-ed in the same publication. I don’t have the platform of the Telegraph to get heard, so it’s unfortunate that Tim Stanley didn’t seem to be aware of anyone else’s opinion besides my single tweet when he published.

I do have my blog though, and since I’ve been commenting on and discussing this elsewhere, I figure it makes sense for me to organize this into something more coherent.

Mr. Stanley leads off with this straw man:

To remind you, Mr DiGioia is writing about a shirt. Not forced marriages in rural Pakistan but a guy wearing a tacky shirt with some ladies on it firing guns. And while that shirt was brutally occupying Mr DiGioia’s television screen like Germany invading Poland, a rocket was quietly touching down on a comet and making our dream of conquering the stars a little closer to reality. Wood? Trees? “You say potato, I say patriarchy.”

My response is pretty well summarized here, but this confuses me most because I spent most of that day doing my normal work for the World Science Festival, tweeting, posting, and assisting with the live coverage of the historic landing.2

He continues:

Imagine if these PC fetishists had been around on Twitter when we landed on the moon: “One small step for man? And one giant leap backwards for women. #sexistpigs”. Would they have reduced Neil Armstrong to tears upon his return for enforcing heteronormativity with his masculinist rhetoric about stepping? I don’t doubt it. After all, what was done to Dr Taylor was plain vicious. At the crowning moment of his life’s work, exhausted and elated all at once, this poor – brilliant – man had to say sorry for putting back female advancement by several thousand years with his poor choice of clothes. The whole scenario is as insane as it is cruel.

Besides the fact that the original quote was supposed to be “one small step for a man” and he flubbed it, those two things aren’t even remotely comparable. Comparing the use of pronoun to the display of scantily clad women too ridiculous to really believe he’s serious.

Really, though, I’m sorry he had to sustain that abuse, and I give the man a lot of credit for taking responsibility for his decisions, owning up to them, and apologizing for hurting people, and we can and should celebrate his achievements while also being critical of this decision.

I at least give Stanley credit for not arguing that the shirt isn’t sexist, which should be obvious given the number of women who felt put off by it. We can debate the relative importance of a project scientist wearing a sexist compared to the myriad other ways women are discouraged from joining the sciences, but that really isn’t an interesting conversation.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t that wore it; the problem is the fact that he wore it and no one said anything. It’s a symbol of a culture that doesn’t give any thought to how this is going to make half the world feel, and the responses to the outrage continues to justify that interpretation. Like Mr. Stanley, most people are simply more concerned with how the accomplished scientist feels than with how his shirt makes women who may be interested in the sciences feel, and it’s representative of the larger culture that does the same.3

an im not welcome here sign quote That Shirt, The Culture of Science, and Political Correctness Run Amok

And a culture that makes women feel unwelcome is certainly worth getting outraged about.


  1. Who had just written an excellent (if slightly controversial) review of the movie Interstellar for the World Science Festival. 

  2. Also, the landing was far from “quiet”; the lander bounced. Twice. Maybe if he was paying attention to the landing instead of being outraged by outrage, he would have known that. (CWIDT?) 

  3. I also touch on the question of the significance of culture in the comments under the apology

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The author here is the woman who made the graphic shirt for Matt Taylor, the ESA Rosetta scientist who made headlines recently by wearing it during the historical landing of Philae on Comet 67P. I wouldn’t criticize her for making the shirt in the first place, and the fact that there was a significant number of people attacking her is terrible and misguided.

The question of whether the shirt is inherently sexist is a more complicated question than whether it was sexist to wear it in that context. The fact that she made it, and the fact that she as a woman didn’t have a problem with it, doesn’t change the fact that wearing it during the landing, a moment when the scientific world was transfixed on a singular event, was offensive and off-putting to at least half the world.

I’m sorry to her for having sustained that kind of abuse, and in some ways, I’m sorry to him as well. He took responsibility for the mistakes he made and apologized for them. It’s unfortunate that the agency hasn’t done the same for failing to see this as a problem earlier.

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OMG this is amazing. The assumptions, straw men, and mental contortions required to write this are a sight to behold.

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Cats are really good at being persistent at something they appear completely indifferent to. – Heidi

Apparently, I’m a “New York blogger” now, but good on him for apologizing. The problem isn’t the shirt alone, though, but that no one else thought, “hey, maybe you shouldn’t go on TV with that.”

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