Opinion: The real problem with Rosetta scientist’s inappropriate shirt

Guest blogger

I’m loving #Shirtstorm. It just won’t end. Let’s see how it’s gone so far:

• On Wednesday the European Space Agency’s 10-year-old Rosetta probe landed on the surface of a comet for the first time in human history.

• But who cares? That’s because on Nov. 13 physicist Matt Taylor, Rosetta’s project scientist, for a live stream of the successful landing by the robot Philae on a 300-million-mile-away comet hurtling through space, wore a feministically incorrect shirt. Made by a female friend of Taylor’s, the Hawaiian-style shirt was printed with colorful illustrations of females who were not only busty and minimally clad but, adding insult to sexist injury, were wielding guns.

• Feminist Twitter-bomb strafing! Its gist seemed to be that pictures of alluring dames in black underwear discourage women from entering STEM fields. (You try to follow the reasoning in that one; I can’t.) “[A] shirt feature women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in science,” tweeted astrophysicist Katie Mack. A tweet by Rose Eveleth, a tech writer for The Atlantic, observed sarcastically, “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.”


• On Friday Taylor apologized. Actually he burst into tears during what was supposed to be a press briefing on the Rosetta mission. Attired this time in a penitential-looking black hoodie, Taylor said, “I made a big mistake and I offended many people and I am very sorry about this.”

• But if you think that Taylor’s tearful apology halted the feminist firing squad, you’re mistaken. Rachel Feltman, a science writer for the Washington Post, blogged: “Of course, I personally hope that one day (when he’s a little less busy) Taylor will say a bit more on the subject, and show that he understands why the shirt wasn’t okay.”

• Then, on Monday conservative Glenn Harlan Reynolds took the apparently offensive step of actually siding with Taylor in USA Today instead of the avenging furies of feminism. In a column titled “1 Small Shirt for a Man, 1 Giant Leap Backward for Women,” Reynolds wrote: “It seems to me that if you care about women in STEM, maybe you shouldn’t want to communicate the notion that they’re so delicate that they can’t handle pictures of comic-book women.” He accused the anti-Taylor Twitter-bombers of “‘Mean Girls’ online mobbing” and “bullying.”

• The feminist tweeters have now set their sights on Reynolds. The new meme seems to be that his column amounted to a personal attack on Taylor’s critics. Slate’s Phil Plait also chimed in, complaining that “a frothing torrent of backlash misogyny” has “swept over social media.”

So now it’s “backlash misogyny” to say boo to Taylor’s critics.

Eventually #Shirtstorm will die down, like other storms. But meanwhile I have this observation: Taylor’s shirt really was in bad taste. But not because he’s some sort of “sexist pigdog,” as one critic called him. It’s because he falls into a recognizable human category: Science Nerd.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in Pasadena, home of Caltech, mother ship of science nerdery, but I recognized Taylor’s type immediately. Take a look at him: the dorky eyeglasses, the beard that’s not really hip enough to be hipster, the elaborate tattoos that spill out from under that shirt all the way to Taylor’s wrists. The man even had a tattoo of the Rosetta landing needled onto his leg back in January! And garish casual shirts of all kinds are part of his everyday wardrobe. Matt Taylor could be a character in “The Big Bang Theory.”


And part of Science Nerd culture seems to be that if your brain is big enough, it’s OK for you to dress for every single occasion as though you were pondering the theory of relativity while walking your dog. It’s why Mark Zuckerberg wears that gray T-shirt everywhere. So Matt Taylor donned completely inappropriate wear -- inappropriate because a scientist ought to dress professionally when presenting his work to the public, which is not the same as messing around in a lab.

So, yes, Taylor should have worn a different shirt. A shirt made of Oxford cloth and maybe a tie. Even geniuses need to learn a little about tasteful dress.

Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.

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