What was that quotation by Oscar Wilde, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us aren’t reading the Daily Mail“? Last week that particular element of the gutter press took the opportunity to display its aptitude for racism and sexism in a snide piece about the appearance of two female (shock!) and non-white (horror!) scientists on Newsnight. It’s not really a surprise that the Daily Mail would publish such a scummy article, but it’s still depressing to see how the minds of some people work.
For the record I’ll say that I only know one of the scientists concerned personally (Hiranya Peiris of University College, London). Speaking as a cosmologist, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that if someone from the press had phoned me up and asked me to suggest an expert to invite onto a television show to explain the BICEP2 results then Hiranya would have been right at the top of my list - because she’s a brilliant scientist (in exactly the relevant area) and a gifted communicator to boot. Is it really so hard to grasp the idea that a brilliant scientist can be female? Or born in Sri Lanka?
Anyway, University College was quick to criticize the Daily Fail in an open letter from Professor David Price, Vice-Provost for Research. Meanwhile a flurry of enraged emails was going around the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society (of which I am a member) that led to a collective response being issued on Friday.
Here follows the RAS statement on the matter which I reproduce here in full, apart from the link to the offensive Daily Mail “article” which I have removed because I don’t want them to profit from traffic sent by this blog.
The statement was written by RAS President David Southwood and RAS Press Officer Robert Massey who are to be congratulated for their measured yet forceful riposte. The last two paragraphs are particularly good.
I’m glad the task of responding to the Daily Mail wasn’t left to me. I would have been far less diplomatic.
The Council and President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) have offered unequivocal support to astronomers Dr Hiranya Peiris and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. An article in the Daily Mail suggested that they were selected to appear on an episode of theBBC Newsnight programme on the basis of their ethnic background, nationality and gender.
The two astronomers discussed results from the BICEP-2 experiment announced earlier this week, which offered evidence of gravitational waves in the early universe and for a rapid expansion of the cosmos (known as inflation) shortly after the Big Bang. If confirmed, this discovery is of huge significance and was rightly covered by news media all over the world.
Dr Peiris is a world-leading cosmologist now based at University College London (UCL), with degrees from Cambridge and Princeton. In 2012 she received the RAS Fowler Award in recognition of her immense contribution to her field at an early stage of her research career.
Dr Aderin-Pocock has a background in space engineering and science communication and is now co-presenter of theBBC’s The Sky at Night, a role which demands the ability to convey complex ideas to the public at large.
Both scientists are thus exceptionally well qualified to discuss the BICEP-2 results and were natural choices for the Newsnight piece.
In the Daily Mail article, columnist ‘Ephraim Hardcastle’ (the nom de plume of Peter Mackay) not only ignored their expertise entirely but incorrectly suggested that the BICEP-2 team consisted only of white, male, American astronomers.
Astronomy world-wide has long ceased to be a closed male world and the backgrounds of astronomers have long been culturally diverse. Specifically in Britain, women now make up 27% of UK university lecturers in astronomy [see e.g. the RAS Demographic Survey (2011)] and lead space- and ground-based research projects alike.
RAS President Prof. David Southwood commented: “Astronomy did not begin in Western Europe and has always been an international science. Today researchers from many nations and many cultures routinely work together to achieve shared goals. In the UK, our field is enriched by some of the most talented people from all over the world who choose to join teams in this country.
“It is deeply regrettable that the Daily Mail column chose to overlook the scientific achievements of the BICEP-2 team and the expertise of Hiranya and Maggie and instead concentrate on their skin colour and gender. The implied and deplorable message – that astronomy is the exclusive business of people who are white and male – completely ignores the successful efforts made by the RAS and other scientific bodies to create an environment where science can be done by those best suited to do it, irrespective of background culture, nationality or gender.”Follow @telescoper