Monday, May 18, 2015


"Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call 'boys with toys.' I really like playing around with telescopes. It's just not fashionable to admit it." These are the words of Caltech Professor and Optical Observatories Director Shri Kulkarni, shared with NPR's Joe Palca on Weekend Edition Saturday May 16, 2015.

The photograph of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin on the left shows that women have also been fascinated by scientific instrumentation since before Kulkarni was born. They just haven't always had access to it, unlike the boys.

Kulkarni himself has supervised several female graduate students and postdocs, so his choice of words was surprising. They do seem like a prime example of unconscious bias. Are there still scientists, or others, who believe that they are completely objective and fair? If so, please share with them the Implicit Association Test, so that they can match their wits against a computer. For a little background, see this nice explanation within the SPLC Teaching Tolerance curriculum.

Words matter. When a leading scientist excludes girls, it sends the message, whether intended or not, that girls should not apply because they do not belong. The same  message is regularly heard by people of color, transgender people, and others. We expect better of our community members.

Fortunately, social media enables us to advance a different narrative, one that shows women (and, one hopes, people of color and other genders) playing with their scientific toys. I don't know how Twitter views compare with the audience size of Weekend Edition, but I know that it can have an impact. If more young people are drawn into STEM fields through the inspiration of  role models showing up under the #GirlsWithToys hashtag, Kulkarni's comment will have served a useful purpose.


Anonymous said...

I am very conflicted about this episode. Hopefully a few other commenters will set me straight.

Many people were enraged by this interview, and I thoroughly understand why that is a valid viewpoint and a valid reaction: astronomy and physics has a distinct problem with being an "old boy's club". Female colleagues and students are mistreated, and have to endure a great deal of bias to become as successful as their male colleagues. Our society as a whole also has a great way to go in order to achieve gender equality. Just consider the wage gap that still exists. Still. In 2015.

Am I wrong in thinking that many are taking Kulkarni's context out of context, or are at least reacting against something he didn't say? Many online seem convinced he was excluding women from physics/astronomy, but I find it difficult to be as upset as other people are. I mean, Twitter exploded! Tenured professors were throwing F bombs in disgust. This has now been covered by Buzzfeed, Slate, and others.

Here's the transcript:

"KULKARNI: Well, these are very profound philosophical matters, Joe. And usually, I consider myself - however oxymoron-ish it may sound - as a practical astronomer, whereas people who think about those things are academic astronomers. (Laughter).

KULKARNI: But you don't try to figure out what is beyond the universe 'cause that's getting pretty deep.

KULKARNI: Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call us, boys with toys."

Based on the context, and my comprehension of vernacular American English, I think Kulkarni was using an idiomatic expression, "boys with toys". It rhymes. He is guilty of not using gender neutral expressions, particularly when discussing something so sensitive as how women are represented (and underrepresented) in science.

It is similar to "all men are created equal". In 2015, we are aware that that is sexist language. Similarly, "boys with toys" is a bit outdated.

My perspective is that the context of Kulkarni's comments are "Look NPR reporter, you need to understand, scientists are not all philosophers. Many astronomers get up in the morning because they love how cool it is what they are doing. They love working with technology, like telescopes. They do not spend their lives thinking about what's beyond the Universe". He then clumsily says "boys with toys".

Am I completely incorrect here? Is this white male privilege blinding me from how I understand this?
Were people generally *this* angry after having listened to the NPR interview? Am I bending over backwards, rationalizing the bad behavior of another male because I am male?

Or, is it OK to think some people need to take a break from Twitter now and then? Kulkarni is getting an unfair rap. He was using an idiomatic expression. He was NOT excluding women. "Girls with toys" has an odd ear to it doesn't rhyme. "Scientists playing with their toys" sounds infantile I guess, but that is probably what he should have said.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that he makes similar comments regularly, just not on the record. When you make a habit of it, you deserve the firestorm that comes when you get caught on national media. I also haven't heard him apologize for anything he's said.

The SN/GRB community has not been doing itself any favors recently.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous anonymous post. One can see, the number of readers of classic literature has strongly dropped among scientists of my generation. Anybody who is used to reading ordinary novels, would not focus on digging into the words but rather on the meaning and the context of a statement (that has more than one single interpretation and IS interesting). People have unlearned how to read.

Also, the use of idiomatic expression is strongly correlated with culture, and the suppression of the use of idioms becomes indirectly a nationalism and suppression of other cultures.

Another such example of expressions, is the one of "witch-hunt", which is very applicable for the cases of Kulkarni and also Matt-the-shirt-guy during the shirt storm. By comparing it to a witch-hunt, does not mean I think Matt and Kulkarni are witches. It means I think the people who make a big deal of every imperfection are fanatic, individuality suppressing, integrity-suppressing, bullying people. Bullies, like those in school who used any little deviation to pick on a kid, or hit it, or whatever. You make the whole gender equality fight look bad and unserious. As a woman in astronomy, a young, white woman, I just feel ashamed about this. So many constructive solutions regarding the social conditions could be implemented.

Want more women? Then stop pushing everybody to do postdocs outside their home-university. Don't force us into being men or behaving like men, because we won't be AND WE DON'T WANT TO BE. Make us conditions where we feel safe, and don't feel we have to sacrifice our personal lives for a career as is now. Don't want to do that? Not practical? Well, let me congratulate you: you've just made it sure that we won't ever be gender equal in the STEM fields.

Reducing bias? Stop neglecting small groups. American scientists are famous overseas for ignoring and neglecting works of unknown scientists. This hierarchical attitude, is what subconsciously prevents many women from reaching the top. Treat all scientists work fairly and equal, regardless what university or group they come from. Every time you deliberately neglect to cite a work appropriately, you roll the wheel of unfairnesses.

I've seen witch-hunt as in the case of Kulkarni happening on conferences, I've seen it now at least twice in media. I wonder, what could be done to prevent this sort of harassment and ripping down of individuals. I think, listing bullies could be one way and rejecting them from participating on conferences, could be another extreme measure.

Anonymous said...

My thoughts exactly... While the #girlswithtoys episode has been great fun and illuminating for everyone, there are some people who are a little too outraged. Many of the angry people on Twitter probably didn't hear the unedited interview, so they don't know what he actually said. The way his clarifying comments were edited out was a little bit shifty on the part of NPR. His message that many scientists engage in science for the fun and "playing around" of it, and that's OK, seems to have been lost in the backlash.

I know Shri, and I don't think he is a bad guy. I would be curious to hear from his female grad students and postdocs what they think.

In any case, the main lesson here may be to refrain from colorful language when speaking to a wide audience. Some people love the gotchya game, and they would rather use what you say to advance their own agenda than listen to your intended message. This is routine in politics of course, but scientists are often naive about it.

At least the Twitterverse is an equal-opportunity controversy hyping machine. Only last week, people were viciously attacking perhaps the world's most influential woman astronomer, Sandy Faber, for her comments on the native peoples of Hawaii. Nobody gets a pass on Twitter!

Anonymous said...

Holy whiz, I can't believe the backlash about this. While it was perhaps a poor turn of phrase in the current environment of hyper-sensitivity about gender bias, I agree with the first poster about context.

Anyways, as a previous female student/postdoc of Kulkarni, I can say that he was always careful, supportive, and encouraging of women in astronomy and science.

Anonymous said...

And comments like these above are why there's an explosion: because every time women (and other minorites: racial, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic status, etc.) point out the many MANY biases against us, the many MANY obstacles, people like the anons above me (excepting May 19 10:41pm) start gaslighting us, telling us we're making mountains out of molehills, telling us we're being oversensitive. THIS is exactly why we're angry. You know the phrase "once is chance, twice is coincidence, but three times is conspiracy"? One comment like "boys with toys" is fine. A second comment is irritating. A third one is painful. A fourth is discouraging. And it happens over and over and over and over again. It gets to a point where even if we ARE being oversensitive, it's STILL too many times for this to be happening.

And this's why I should never read the comments.