Science Fiction That's Not Only Anti-Woman, It's Anti-Science

You can't really be a fully fledged sexist prat without also being kind of a bad scientist. The science supporting the idea that women are less rational than men is looking flimsier all the time. So it's probably not a surprise that the outrageously sexist science fiction story that blew up the Internet, "Womanspace", is bad science as well as bad gender politics.

Because when you venture into the realm of the dumbest stereotypes, you leave all rationality behind. Next stop: caveman metaphors!

Top image: Benis Arapovic/Shutterstock.com

So here's what happened — the science journal Nature publishes science fiction from time to time, usually very very short stories, aka "flash fiction." Usually, Nature's forays into science fiction are excellent and science-focused. Until they suddenly decide to publish something like "Womanspace" by Ed Rybicki.

If Rybicki's story was a great piece of science fiction that happened to feature insanely retrograde 1950s stereotypes about women, there would be a bit of a dilemma here. It would call, perhaps, for a nuanced approach, praising the good depiction of science while lamenting the stereotypes.

Fortunately for those of us who like to write the occasional searing rant — and unfortunately for everybody else — Rybicki's story is A) not really about science, and B) not really much of a story at all. It's mostly a rambling series of "observations" about how women like to shop, and how men are Hunters and women are Gatherers, because we're all still basically homo erectus, deep down. And then it lurches into a really flimsy scientific conceit — which is not explained at all — in the final couple paragraphs. It's a shaggy dog story that turns into a "Here's An Idea, The End" story towards the end.

(The whole thing is an ultra-quick read, although I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn't missed something.)

To the extent that there's a science-fictional idea here, it seems to be that women defy rational explanation — so one has to venture into the realm of parallel universes just to find a rationale that fits. It's like trying to understand why you lose one sock in the drier, or why your cat wants to sit on your computer keyboard. Or maybe why it never rains unless you forgot your umbrella. Women are like that.

Science Fiction That's Not Only Anti-Woman, It's Anti-Science

The Rybicki story seems to have gone online in late September, but the outcry only began in the last couple days, after Nature published two letters of complaint. (The image at left is an absolutely brilliant mockup by entomologist Alex Wild, posted over at Scientific American.)

There's a great roundup of all of the takedowns of "Womanspace" over at Contemplative Mammoth — they're all worth reading in their entirety.

Enough has been said about the sexist stereotyping elsewhere — as Galileo's Pendulum so eloquently puts it, the depiction of "incompetent and impractical (yet strangely brilliant and clever) men, and magical women with access to arcane knowledge about how to buy mysterious stuff like underwear."

So instead, I'd rather talk about the fact that this story is so anti-science.

There's the fact that the scientific method, in this story, consists of "we went on the internet and posted stuff, and then our Twitter friends figured out the secrets of the multiverse." Which, okay. Sure. Why not.

There's the fact that the whole story is about throwing Occam's Razor out the window, and replacing it with a rusty spoon.

But most of all, there's the fact that stereotypes, by their very nature, are unscientific. They are about lazy thinking, rather than empiricism. We reach for stereotypes because we feel hostility and annoyance towards a class of people, from deep in a pre-rational part of our brains, and the whole business of dealing-with-the-world-as-it-is seems like too much effort. This is really true of all stereotypes and clumsy generalizations — and we've seen over and over that when scientists start with a stereotype as a hypothesis, the result is usually crap science.

A big part of what makes science fiction great is that it dramatizes the search for the truth — both scientific truth, and the truth about who we are and our place in the universe. So yeah, anybody who loves science fiction ought to be disappointed by a story that's about stumbling towards a justification for the dumbest assumptions about human nature.

And finally, the story reinforces the sense that scientists are a tribe, rather than a profession. A homogenous, male-dominated tribe, who share certain cultural attitudes. This, more than anything, is why this particular science fiction story is bad for science... and why it's so weird that a science magazine chose to publish it. [via Genreville]