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Nov 17 2013

Bobblehead Thanksgiving

There’s this guy Joe Hanson, a biologist and the host and writer of PBS Digital Studios’ video series It’s Okay to be Smart. He reports that his latest video took some heat.

My desk is covered in bobblehead dolls of famous scientists. This week I put out a video where they joined me for Thanksgiving Dinner.

Many people have contacted me on Twitter in the past day to say they are offended by that video. To you, and others, I am deeply sorry.

The criticism directed at the video (and much of it at me personally) centers around Albert Einstein’s advances toward Marie Curie. I should mention that Madame Curie is the only female science doll at the table for the simple reason she is the only female science doll available for purchase in bobblehead form.

Ok so I watched the video. I’d read the post first, so I was primed to look for stuff to object to, if not to be offended by, but I watched it anyway.

I dunno. I like the goofy conceit of having a party with the bobblehead dolls, but the resulting video not so much. It needed better dialogue all around.

In producing this video, we guided improv voice actors to create caricatures of dead scientists so we could lampoon the most extreme aspects of their personalities. Then we made dolls act out those extremes, flaws and all. We tried to present the way in which these characters might actually act, in their own time. Galileo doesn’t get evolution. Tesla is obsessed with Edison. And Einstein reflects the dark reality that many men in his time acted inappropriately toward women.

This video makes a joke to call attention to the sexual harassment that many women still today experience, often from wannabe Einsteins. The joke is uncomfortable because these issues are uncomfortable. To be very clear: that joke is not an endorsement of sexism in science. We aimed to ridicule miscues of science in society, past and present, using dolls, and we failed.

Well, yes. They needed a much better script, at the very least. (And, to be picky but then again this kind of thing does matter, notice that he calls Marie Curie “Marie” but he calls Charles Darwin “Darwin” and Nikola Tesla “Tesla.”)

3 comments

  1. 1
    Blake Stacey

    “Our video was a puppet-theatre performance based on caricatures which were in turn based on a near-total lack of research. Oh, how could it ever have gone wrong??”

  2. 2
    lpetrich

    Should have called them by nicknames, like “Leo” and “Zack” or “Chuck” or “Tom” or “Nick” or “Al”, like:

    Tom: Alternating current: electricity sloshing back and forth?
    Nick: I’ve got it all figured out. Tom, you may be a great businessman, but you are a mathematical illiterate.
    Tom: I will concede that your AC systems work, but you like dangerously high voltages.
    Nick: Dangerous? So what?
    Tom: Dangerous as being able to kill people. I once showed off how one can kill an elephant with it.
    Nick: Lots of things are dangerous. Like horses and trains and ships. Just be careful.
    Tom: Sure, sure. Enjoy playing Russian roulette with your high voltages, Nick.
    Nick: Russian roulette? Tom, that’s the nice thing about alternating current. It’s much easier to change voltages. You don’t need a motor-generator set, just an electromagnet. That’s what a “transformer” is. You can use a high voltage for transmission so you use less current and have less resistance loss in the wires.
    Tom: Long-distance transmission? Nick, that’s absurdly overdesigned. All you need are neighborhood powerplants. Also, how do you keep different AC powerplants from getting out of sync with each other? DC is free from that problem.

    “The War of the Currents”

    As to female scientists, why not have a Lynn Margulis bobblehead? Or press some other bobblehead into service as her?

  3. 3
    iknklast

    I’m glad you pointed out that last bit, about the names. I’ve been trying to make this same point to people I know, but they don’t seem to notice it. No one where I teach seems to notice that students instinctively and religiously call all the male professors “Mr” or “Dr”, even though almost all of them ask to be called by their first names. The female teachers are always addressed by their first names, no matter what they say they want to be called. So I started a policy: I will not answer any student who calls me by my first name. It feels strange to me, but I refuse to be disrespected in that way.

    I thought about this a lot after my husband read me an article by a sportswriter who was talking about how they juvenilized all the black athletes by calling them by their first name; the white athletes were give the last name treatment, to show them the respect due to adults. Women get that all the time, too. It’s Obama…and Hillary. (I will concede that calling Hillary by her first name does have the advantage of separating her from Bill, who is also Clinton, but still…)

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