Responding to the Mail

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.

–0–

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 pdfRAS 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.”

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12 Responses to “Responding to the Mail”

  1. I don’t know of Dr Hiranya Peiris but I’ve seen Maggie Aderin-Pocock a few times on The Sky at Night and thought what a good communicator of scientific ideas she was. This is down to both her expert knowledge and her clear yet enthusiastic tone (in the Daily Mail’s words, “giggly”. It would be routine for the Newsnight to present two pundits on any topic, say economics, with a scientist working in the field and a broadcaster or journalist used to explaining complex ideas to the public. It’s unfortunate for archaic institutions like The Mail that women (inc. women of colour) are finally advancing to this level.

    • telescoper Says:

      I never watch TV and had never seen Maggie Aderin-Pocock before seeing the Newsnight clip on Youtube. She did a good job. The fact that she annoyed a Daily Mail columnist was the icing on the cake.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    I think it was a petty article, and I think it was almost equally silly of UCL and RAS to respond.

    • telescoper Says:

      I disagree. If such things go unchallenged then the people responsible will just carry on.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Responding makes us look a bit too sensitive. I just think it wasn’t worthy of a reply. Leave them to rant at thin air.

      • That is wring. The two people personally insulted may best remain silent: they have nothing to win arguing with racists. But the community should show what it values are.. I thought the RAS got it spot on.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Wring (or even wrong)? I don’t agree that it was an insult to those two. It was meant to insult the people who chose those two to interview.

      • Anton Garrett: the writer insinuated that they had been selected to appear only because they were dark skinned women, and that dark skinned women were not acceptable to him as commentators on what he believed to be an announcement made by white men. If you don’t believe that’s insulting to them, I don’t think you’ve properly understood the situation.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I took the author to be saying that, of all the astrophysicists qualified to talk competently about the subject, the two were deliberately selected who were farthest from being white men. I have no idea whether that is true or not and I don’t really care as both are competent.

      • telescoper Says:

        There’s a piece about this in this week’s Times Higher by Dr Hiranya Peiris:

        http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/groundbreaking-science-is-blind-to-prejudice/2012225.article

  3. The Daily Mail piece was only 47 words long but it still managed to contain layer upon layer of tiny minded hatred and ignorance, the writer so consumed by bigotry that he felt moved to falsely claim that the research being commented on was done by white American men, as if that somehow was a reason that dark skinned women were unqualified to comment on it. Truly the most repulsive thing I’ve seen in a national newspaper. I thought UCL’s response was perfect. To not respond to such a vile piece would have been tantamount to condoning it.

    • I think it should also be pointed out to the Daily Mail that there were also some white males (and females) from Wales involved in BICEP-2 😉

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