Sunday, November 23, 2014

why not pop down to your local comet

Let's kick off with a bit of light-hearted smut: here's the BBC News article featuring some high-resolution images of the Philae probe's landing site on comet 67P (more formally: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko). Note the wording of the headline:

I have a suspicion, particularly after looking at the section sub-headings within the article, that this was a deliberate (and clearly successful) attempt to slip something past the BBC website editors. How snigger-worthy you find it will depend on how keen you are on the puerile comedy trope of hearing someone say a sentence with a NOUN in it and responding by saying "what - your HAIRY NOUN?" The word "landing" is clearly eligible for this treatment owing to its similarity in meaning to "corridor" (what, your HAIRY corridor, etc.) and the reasonably well-known phrase "landing strip" (that Urban Dictionary link is work-safe, a Google image search probably less so).

Speaking of comets, and of things which are chuckleworthy among a group of your close friends, perhaps with some alcohol consumption involved, but which would be massively inappropriate at work, the other thing to make the headlines in relation to the comet landing - apart from the basic fact of humanity landing a SPACECRAFT on A FREAKIN' COMET, which everyone agrees is awesome - was British project scientist Dr. Matt Taylor's somewhat disastrous choice of shirt and words for the post-touchdown press interview.

There's been a lot of clueless outrage about the criticism on Twitter, as well as in various other publications who should know better. Most of it can be distilled down to this 6-second This Is Spinal Tap clip, but here's a slightly expanded summary:
  • if you're going with the "chill out, it's just a shirt" angle, it would benefit you enormously to read up on concepts like microaggressions, chilly climate and (most importantly of all) privilege. None of this is necessarily "obvious" or accessible via "common sense", nor would anyone be expected to know about it by default, especially if your daily focus was elsewhere, like, say landing a probe on a comet. 
  • it's also worth noting that three of the world's major astronomy organisations, in America, Australia and Britain, have issued statements echoing the view that it was inappropriate - the American Astronomical Society one went further and made the point that wearing such a garment at work would in many places be a violation of workplace anti-harassment policies. No word as yet from the Astronomical Society of America, though: splitters!
  • by what ought to be a fairly simple process of moral triangulation, if in any sort of discussion about social justice or gender politics you find yourself on the same side as Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi AliThe Federalist, Spiked and Boris Johnson you might want to reflect on whether you're actually one of the bad guys.
  • if you find yourself using the words "feminist" and "bully" in the same sentence, you might want to reflect on your ignorance about power gradients; see also "privilege" as above. Otherwise you might as well accuse Rosa Parks of "bullying" some white guy into a different seat on the bus in 1955.
  • anyway, once the message filtered through to Matt Taylor he issued (during a subsequent Google hangout session) a slightly stumbly but seemingly heartfelt and genuine apology. In response to which pretty much all of the original critics said, well, fair play, that can't have been easy, good man for doing the right thing, let's move on and revel in landing a SPACECRAFT on a FERREAKIN' COMET.
  • inevitably, in a sort of echo of Lewis' Law ("Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism") the backlash against those people flagging up the problem with the shirt (and the words) outweighed many-fold the volume and vehemence of the original complaints, and, despite it being by no means exclusively women who were complaining, it was inevitably women who copped most of the abuse.
If you want more, good summaries of the main points (plus links to some of the more egregious abuse, which saves me linking them here) can be found here and here.

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