Sexism in science leads to willful blindness
‘T here are several ways of looking at Delicate Arch,” Edward Abbey proclaims, recalling his seasons as a ranger in Arches National Park in 1957 and 1958. “Depending on your preconceptions, you may see the eroded remnant of a sandstone fin,” he writes in what has become a classic of American nature writing, “a triumphal arch for a procession of angels, an illogical geologic freak, a happening — a something that happened and will never happen quite that way again, a frame more significant than its picture.”
Abbey published “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness” a decade after his tours at Arches. In the nearly 50 years since, it has become part of the canon for the faith that the American wild has value beyond measure. This summer I took it as my guide on our family vacation, a road trip across southern Utah with my wife and teenage son.
The book was as advertised — iconoclastic, beautiful, bombastic, sometimes slyly fictional, a blend of memoir, polemic, essay, travelogue, elegy, manifesto — and always, unequivocally, an unbending defense of the idea that the human spirit requires wilderness. “The beauty of Delicate Arch explains nothing” Abbey insists, and then within a paragraph joyfully contradicts himself: “A weird lovely fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us . . . that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men.” It’s a great book.
But as I kept reading, it became ever harder to ignore something that Abbey clearly did: Women.
There are unnamed girls in the book, recalled as objects of love and lust; one unnamed Mormon wife who kindly agreed to link her soul with his; 19th-century prairie women writers dismissed with mock-titles like No Sin in the Saddle. But not one actual woman with her own voice, agency, or, above all, even the possibility of participation in what the wilderness offered Abbey himself. It fails the Bechdel test, in other words. So for all the soul-affirming, spirit-testing celebration of skill and toughness and human spark in the face of nature’s implacable indifference — Abbey’s desert was a man’s world.
That lapse, that blindness to half of the world, doesn’t render “Desert Solitaire” null and void. It remains powerful, vital reading — and in any event, one can always trot out the familiar rationalizations: It’s a work of its time; Abbey was following convention in rolling humankind into “man”; Abbey’s goals are on the side of the angels. Surely that trumps his lapses, whatever they may be.
Except they don’t. By their absence, women are written out of what Abbey himself saw as transcendently necessary for the good life. Anyone reading those essays today has to write them back in.
So, through Arches and across Abbey country, I argued with the man. Usually I’d say trying to talk sense to the writer — long dead — of a 50-year-old book would be private recreation. Who cares, after all, what some old guy thought about women in the backcountry? But then, Sir Tim Hunt opened his mouth.
Before June 9, 2015, Hunt was very well known to not very many people. He shared the Nobel Prize in 2001 for discoveries on the molecular mechanisms that regulate cell division, a process called the cell cycle. It made him a celebrity among working biologists but hardly in any pop-culture sense. That changed overnight, when, at the World Conference of Science Journalists held in Seoul, Hunt told an audience of women journalists and scientists of the problems posed by women in the lab: “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” Hunt went on to muse that gender-segregated labs might be a good idea before switching to more standard lunch-speech platitudes congratulating Korean female scientists for all their good work.
The inevitable happened. Several of those present shared the event on Twitter and other social media platforms, Hunt — no longer actively engaged in bench research — was asked to resign from a pair of honorary positions, and, best of all, dozens of women scientists joyously shared their passion for science under the Twitter hashtag #distractinglysexy.
In some sense, this was the best possible outcome, one in which Hunt performed an inadvertent service: Women scientists showing with wit and verve how little they cared for Hunt’s antediluvian attitudes, and how much joy they found in their work.
The backlash that followed was probably predictable, driven by the impulse to protect a powerful man from the minor embarrassment of being exposed as an antiquated fool. Some prominent British scientists rallied to Hunt’s defense against what Richard Dawkins called “a baying witch-hunt . . . unleashed among our academic thought police.” Twitterers snarled at Hunt’s critics, claiming that an Internet mob had ruined the laureate’s career. A sustained and deeply misleading set of posts and articles soon followed, seeking to rewrite the record of that fateful lunch in Seoul, asserting that Hunt had been joking; that his remarks were misrepresented to bring a great man down.
That furor has largely died down now, but the underlying reality remains: proximately, that Hunt truly did say what he said, and subsequently affirmed that he meant it — and, much more significantly that in doing so, he told a vital truth, though not the one he imagined.
That is: To suggest Hunt had to have been joking, is to say the practice of science has changed, that no longer is it as hostile to women as everyone concedes it was until not that long ago. Marie Curie remains famous; Rosalind Franklin is a touchstone; a fictionalized Barbara McClintock is the star of children’s books because they were exceptional. Theirs are heroic tales — with a hard emphasis on the battles these women had to fight — that show that it is possible to imagine a life in science for a woman.
A constant theme of those lives as retold now? Curie and Franklin and all the others can be seen as great figures from a history that we have long since left behind — or rather, it’s seductively easy to see ourselves not only as more knowledgeable than our predecessors, but wiser.
In that context, Hunt’s real accomplishment in Korea — amplified by the backlash in his defense — was to blow up such self-congratulation, reminding everyone a dishonorable history isn’t actually past, that the habits of the mind that distinguish between the genders did not magically disappear sometime in the last few decades.
That’s hardly news to those who live the daily life of the lab, of course. For just one example, in 2010, researchers at Yale performed a now notorious résumé study to show the persistence of gender bias at the entry level of science. Professor Jo Handelsman, a molecular biologist; a post-doc Corinne Moss Racusin; and other colleagues prepared résumés that differed in only one detail: in half of them, the subject’s name was John, and in the other half, Jennifer.
Those résumés with (again, identical) supporting material were sent out to 127 scientists who were asked to rate the applicants as potential lab managers. When the replies came back, “John” trumped “Jennifer” on every trait except likability — and was slotted in for a salary $3,730 dollars higher than his fictional female twin.
That result held up no matter whether those rating the application were women or men — a classic signature of implicit bias, the thumb on the scale invisible even to those pressing down. Such blindness is the defining symptom of the pathology Eileen Pollack documented in her 2013 article on the missing women of science: how, from the beginnings of their education, women in science face the constant pressure of interactions with advisors, research managers, recommenders, and the like who never say a women shouldn’t do science . . . but still perceive Jennifer as worth 12 percent less than John.
Hunt’s remarks made explicit the usually unconscious — or at least unstated — beliefs that constrain any ambitions Jennifer might have. There’s a cost to bias, as always — most obviously, in the waste of talent and energy that follows unequal treatment — but there is a deeper loss involved too, one to be found within what Edward Abbey saw in his summer of rock.
Abbey followed me all the way across Utah, from Arches’ harrowing elegance to the fools-rush-in mazes of Canyonlands, past Capitol Reef and over the hill towards Bryce and Zion. I took it with me into California, up into the fire watchtower on top of Mount Harkness, where over the summer of 1966, Abbey had written what became “Desert Solitaire.’’
I read the last few pages there, as a guest of this year’s lookout, Dave LaGrove. When I was done, I thanked him and clambered down to the mountaintop. Later, I returned to the passage about Delicate Arch quoted above. A little further down that same page, Abbey finds in that formation his credo, written here in perhaps its most compact form: “If this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.”
Scientists, the best ones, say something very similar. Albert Einstein in his account of the moment he felt the call of the scientific life recalled that instead of “an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings,” he felt drawn to “this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings . . . a great eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.” For Einstein the wilderness of science, the point at which the researcher leaves the map, offered a path into the good life, a well lived one. Wrestling with that unknown, Einstein told one audience, yields a “state of mind . . . akin to that of the religious worshiper or a lover.”
Einstein, like Abbey, found it almost impossible to imagine women among those who might venture off the map. I’m willing to bet neither man noticed who wasn’t there.
But we do now — which is what torques the meaning drawn from their memories, and from the more explicit dismissiveness shooting through the Hunt imbroglio. When the prize is transcendence, it is more than wrong to hobble any person in pursuit of strange and daring adventures. It is inexcusable.
Yes, certainly and thankfully, we’ve seen formal barriers drop to participation in science by women and other groups unseen in the lab over the last few decades. Yet, sadly and infuriatingly, the habits of mind that once almost entirely barred women from the lab remain, less potent, perhaps, but still at work. The Delicate Arch, as remembered in a secular psalm that exceeds the vision of its singer, reminds us yet again that such views are dangerous nonsense.
Thomas Levenson is professor of science writing at MIT and an Ideas columnist. His book “The Hunt for Vulcan” will be published by Random House in November.