Good Clothes, Good Girls

I don't actually recommend this outfit for tortoise-wrangling.

It’s “appropriate”, but I don’t actually recommend this outfit for tortoise-wrangling.

It is really easy to find yourself fighting the wrong fight, particularly on the internet.

As people, we tend to get defensive when people argue with us, whether they’re right or wrong, justified or not, aggressive or friendly.

The impulse to defend yourself is strong, particularly when it comes to issues of your own body, your own identity, your own worth.

And so I found myself arguing the wrong question this week.

Context: I know not to fight with the trolls. I skim comment threads to get a general feel for them, but I can usually avoid reading them in their entirety.

I can let the insults roll off my back in most cases. After all, this is the internet. I am a woman. I have strong opinions. And I am using what little platform I have to fight for those opinions. This means I get insulted. A lot.

But then something small will happen. It could be one comment in a 300+ comment thread.

In this case, it was an accusation that I was, in reality, flashing people in my costume.

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Slut Shaming and Concern Trolling in Geek Culture

The skirt length is Starfleet Regulation. I wouldn't want to go against the admiralty.

The skirt length is Starfleet Regulation. I wouldn’t want to go against the admiralty.

“Honey, your skirt is a little short.”

To be fair, it was a little short. It was short intentionally. I was dressed in a science officer costume from Star Trek: The Original Series. Not the sleek little work-appropriate but still sexy jewel tone tunics from the new movie, but the flared, strangely-constructed, unapologetically teal and chartreuse polyester cheerleader dresses that fit perfectly with the (now) retrofuturistic vibe of the original show. It’s a screen accurate dress. And by “screen accurate” I mean “short”. And at the beginning of the day, I just assumed the lady who commented was pointing out that I needed to tug down the dress a bit. That was the first comment. After the next 30 or so, I had had enough.

I was at Balticon, a great science fiction convention that leans more to the literary side than the ones that are normally in my wheelhouse. This was my second year going to this con, and my second year costuming there. Last year I brought several costumes, but only wore one: a fairly conservative X-Men costume that didn’t involve skintight spandex, cleavage or even any bare skin below my neck. I did that because I knew the moment I walked in that it wasn’t the kind of con I wanted to wear my Ms Marvel costume. I wore that outfit for all of Saturday, became extremely annoyed with the response I was getting and then dressed in normal clothes on Sunday.

As a costumer, you have to develop a fairly keen sense for what is a safe space and what is not. I felt safe at Balticon both years. It isn’t a space where any harm would come to me. I could wear anything I want there and I wouldn’t come to any legal form of harm. That said, the responses I was getting made me want to run away. Or possibly take a shower to wash off the feeling of eyes and comments.

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Dear News, stop trying to entertain me.

No, really. Stop it.

I don’t need flashy graphics, scary music and breathless reporters. I don’t need to “Find out after the commercial break!!”

I don’t want you to be the first with your breaking news and speculations.

I *really* don’t want you to interview heartbroken relatives, shell-shocked neighbors and terrified kids.

Ever.

You don’t need to make this a human interest story. You don’t need to create false suspense.

It is a human interest story already. Anyone with a heart and a mind is already interested.

You don’t need to relate it to local people. What is local in the age of the internet? When we can watch our friends tweeting from lockdown? When we can read their fear in Facebook updates and see through their eyes on Instagram?

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Star Stuff and the Beauty of Ideas

My tattoo - spells out "I am star stuff" in amino acids. Photo by Colin Schultz

My tattoo –  “I am star stuff” in amino acids. Photo by Colin Schultz

There are many beautiful ideas in science.  We see them as beautiful because they seem to have some sort of unifying force. Or because they’re simple and elegant. Or because some talented writer put words to them that are so perfect that they ring in our heads as we go about our day to day life. But most importantly, they’re beautiful because they’re true.

The idea that strikes me as the most beautiful is one that has been said by many, many scientists, in many many ways.

As Carl Sagan said, we are all star stuff.

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Social Media, Silence and Tragedy

My cat, in her Fortress of Solitude. Following the grand internet tradition of expressing emotions through cat pictures.

My cat, in her Fortress of Solitude. Following the grand internet tradition of expressing emotions through cat pictures.

Social media creates an interesting paradox. It allows us to express emotion communally. To work through fear and confusion and anger and sadness with likeminded individuals, in a way that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. When I watch a tragedy unfold, I can’t help but take a step back and look at how people are relating to it, and to each other.

I don’t comment on it, most of the time. In fact, I don’t say anything at all, most of the time.

I’m sure it makes me look callous, and unfeeling. Or at the very least self-centered and oblivious.

And therein lies the paradox. Social media creates a communal place to pour our emotions. To share them, and to work through them publically.

So what about those of us who don’t do public emotion?

Those of us who, when faced with something horrible happening are just as likely to stare dumbly at the imparter of the news and mold their face into some approximation of sadness or sympathy, or whatever is the expected outward expression of our inner turmoil

I’m not saying that I don’t feel sadness for the lives lost, or anger at the person or people who did hurt others. I’m not saying I don’t sympathize with those who feel pain or fear that something else is coming.

I feel it. Intensely. Deeply. To the point of paralysis.

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Cosplaying While White

Photo by Paul Cory

Photo by Paul Cory

 I am lucky.

I look like 90% of the women on the big screen, the small screen, on the covers of novels and in the pages of comic books.

I am white, skinny and have learned how to use makeup (as well as a few laser surgeries) to cover the birthmark on my face with which genetics graced me.

That doesn’t make me a good cosplayer.

In fact, it means that I can be a little more lazy with my costumes than someone who doesn’t share the basic physical characteristics of a character.

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Ignorance, Explainers, and Knowing What We Don’t Know

One of the most interesting parts of being a knowledge omnivore is discovering a blind spot. You can be pursuing some obscure technology that existed for 5 years at the turn of the century and suddenly you stumble on Omnipresent Bit of Modern Life That You Do Not Understand. At All.

That was me, last week. I’ve been researching the real technological roots of Steapunk science for a talk I’m giving at the Steampunk Empire Symposium at the end of April. I found myself down a rabbit hole of dead end steam tech innovations when I started wondering how we switched from external combustion engines (aka steam-based) to internal combustion engines. So I started looking up the early history of internal combustion. The first thing I noticed was that internal combustion engines were developed much earlier than I thought they were (1876 for the gasoline engine and 1878 for diesel! How cool!). The second thing I noticed was that I was lost when the articles were talking about variations on internal combustion engines.

Completely and totally lost.

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It’s Not You. It’s Me. Misogyny, Social Justice and (My) Personal Narrative

Pendant by Amy Davis Roth.

Pendant by Amy Davis Roth.

My last post focused on the microaggressions that women face, both online and off. Because of it, I was asked, by a good friend and a feminist ally who wishes to remain nameless, why I focused so narrowly on women’s experiences when it might have been stronger as a post about all the experiences of non-privileged populations, one of which he belongs to.

I originally wrote the introduction to the post with thoughts about how my experiences extended beyond my feminist outrage. It was a more academic and less-personal post. Then I took that out. I feel like my writing stands better as a personal account. This doesn’t mean that I believe women’s issues are the end all and be all of social justice. I write about them because they are what I experience. I have a personal narrative for them because they are *my* personal narrative. I don’t have a strong personal narrative of racism, transphobia, homophobia, body shaming or any of the other issues that mean just as much to me, and anger me just as much.

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It’s Not Just the Internet. It Never Has Been.

difference

One of my favorite necklaces, by the fabulously talented Amy Davis Roth at Surly-Ramics.

You hear the lament again and again, while reading about anti-woman trolling online.

“Oh, the anonymity of the internet makes people behave badly!”

“If we just used real names, there people wouldn’t be as vicious.”

“Oh, that’s just 20-something guys in internet chatrooms. That’s how they all are.”

On the contrary, the viciousness we see, isn’t just a side effect of the internet. It’s a side effect of our culture.

No, I would go beyond that. It isn’t a side effect of our culture. It *is* our culture.

Why would I ever say this? I mean, everyone knows that those anonymous trolls on reddit would *never* act like that in the real world. It’s the structure of the internet that allows them to be assholes. Everyone knows that if we just avoid the problematic sites, like reddit, or the skeptics movement, or, well, anywhere else online, we wouldn’t have to deal with this.

Bullshit.

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How to Not be an Expert.

Trust me, I’m not an expert.

Bora Zivkovic has a fantastic post up on his blog concerning the future of science writing: The Other Kinds of Expertise.  I love the great majority of this piece. His description of what it will take to be a good science writer in the future (or now) is spot on, and I love that he includes accuracy as an important aspect of good writing.

However, his description of who should be able to talk about a subject strikes me as overly narrow. He limits the people who can write about a topic to people with “expertise”. He does say that people who write longer pieces outside of their field can gain a “temporary expertise”, but then qualifies that those fields should be related to the original expert field.
The quote that really got me thinking was this one:

 

 

Every one of us is an expert on something, at least one thing, probably several things.
This also means that each one of us is completely non-expert on many other things.

The first part is not true of me, though the second part is. I am not an expert in any subject. Academically, I have studied historical geology, epistemology and forensic anthropology, but not to the extent that I could be considered an expert.

That doesn’t stop me from teaching. That doesn’t stop me from writing. That doesn’t stop me from talking.

The list of things I’ve taught over the years is long and rather more inclusive than exclusive, including, but not limited to:

entomophagy, tall ships, karst geology, ice age geology, megafauna evolution, human origins, origins of agriculture, human anatomy, dance, folk arts, water pollution, sustainable architecture, puppetry, volcanoes, trilobite diversity, beavers, historical gold panning, steamships, the civil war, science of baseball, stream ecology, deep sea taphonomy, American Indian cultures, human migration, crab migration, history of trains, physics of trebuchets, human genetics, cat genetics, evo devo, anthropology of race, Vatican archaeology.

And those are the things that I remember off the top of my head.

The thing you’ll note is that only two of those topics even slightly overlap with my formal education (ice age geology and human anatomy). These aren’t all topics that I would have necessarily chosen to talk about, and several I’m not even interested in at all, but they are things I had to teach about for one reason or another – some I was tying in with current events or exhibits that the museum had, others I was going along with the topic of the nature center summer camp I was teaching.

The wide range of subjects is nothing unusual for someone in my line of work. Informal educators aren’t specialists. Or if they are, it’s to the extent that they teach in an institution located in a specific ecosystem, or in an institution with a specific focus. That can limit the subjects they are required to talk about on a daily basis, but it’s an artificial limit, and not often one that has anything to do with formal training.

So, are we all talking out of parts of our anatomy with no mouths when we discuss things outside of our “expertise”?

Not necessarily.

You see, we’ve developed different expertises. The expertise to know how to quickly research an entirely new subject. The expertise to find trustworthy sources in a field we’re completely unfamiliar with. The expertise to know what other people will want to know about the new subject. And the expertise to be able to explain to the limits of our knowledge in a way that will be accurate, relevant, engaging, thought-provoking and will, hopefully, make the person we’re talking to go look up more information.

Would someone get a better lesson on physics from someone who actually studies it formally? Probably. Not just from the formal study, but also because that person, presumably, is familiar with the best ways to teach that particular subject, where I need to not only learn the subject, but find a way to explain that subject quickly and concisely. If I could, I would love to see every person take a physics course to learn how trebuchets works, as well as a course on chemistry to study cave formation, and one on the history of traversing the ocean to learn about tall ships. All, of course, taught by experts in each field.

If my career path wasn’t necessary, I would be the first person celebrating. If people had the time to pursue full education in every subject they’re interested in, the world would be a much more interesting place.

Unfortunately, we all know these things aren’t true. People can’t learn everything from experts. There just aren’t enough experts or (more importantly) places that will pay experts to teach.

There is a place for the generalist educator in this imperfect world. I may not know every detail of the subject I’m teaching, but that’s not necessarily important. I do know one important detail, that makes all the difference: I know what I don’t know. And I know not to make stuff up when I come across something I don’t know. I also know how to steer people to the real experts, which can be just as important.

Likewise, there is a place for the generalist science writer.

Yes, Deborah Blum, Maryn McKenna and Emily Willingham and too many other fantastic writers to name are experts in the fields they write about, but that doesn’t mean everyone is immediately aware of them. The act of writing something, as a non-expert doesn’t take away from the expertise of the real experts. A quick summary post on breaking news, or an introductory post on a topic that people are interested in shouldn’t be considered competing with the experts, but as providing a bridge to the experts.

We all have different audiences. When I am in the role of informal educator, and even when I am just posting things on Facebook, I am talking to people who wouldn’t necessarily go read a science blog at Wired or Scientific American or any of the other media outlets that tend to specialize in the subjects that interest me. They might be talking to me because they came into the museum wanting to know what the weird rock they found in their yard is. Or they might know me on Facebook because we know each other from any number of contexts. I know the people I talk to aren’t going to have folders full of bookmarks of experts on every subject under the sun. They are more likely to go to a site that covers a whole bunch of topics quickly, and then follow up on the ones they’re most interested in.

What I’m trying to say is this: if you are a generalist writer, or a generalist educator, or are considering being either, don’t feel like you *need* to be an expert to talk. There is a place for your voice. The more people reaching out about important subjects, the more people will be reached, often in unpredictable ways.

This doesn’t take away the requirement of accuracy from the generalist writers and educators. We have to be just as careful to not spread misinformation if not more so, since our audiences are generally going to not be as engaged with science as the audience of an expert. We have to make sure we know who the *right* experts are to link to, and the best resources to throw at people who are interested.

And, most importantly, we need to know when we can stop talking and let someone else take over.

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