The Elsevier journal Biological Conservation has put out an apology, but not a retraction, after outcry over a bizarre, misogynistic non sequitur in a book review by Duke conservation biologist Stuart Pimm.
Here’s the introduction to Pimm’s review of Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth, which went online in October ahead of its December print publication:
I confess to having had a teenage crush on Julie Christie, the actress in ‘‘Doctor Zhivago’’ and ‘‘Darling.’’ In the latter film, she has a scandalous affair with a married intellectual. When, at last, he finds that she’s having other affairs too, he walks her to the subway, refusing to send her home in the usual taxi. When she asks why, he replies: ‘‘I don’t take whores in taxis.’’ I teach this as a metaphor for academic discourse. Now, I spend my life in scientific debate: it’s what makes science so effective. That some scientists desperately seek attention, however, does not make giving it to them desirable.
This sparked debate on Twitter almost immediately:
This book review by Stuart Pimm in Biol Conservation slamming Peter Karieva and the “new-greens” is very troubling: http://t.co/LaTmOxEutU
— Madhusudan Katti (@leafwarbler) October 27, 2014
— Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) October 27, 2014
— Stephanie Wear (@stephwear) November 20, 2014
@leafwarbler Language does a serious disservice to a legitimate and important set of concerns with uncritical capitalist conservationists.
— Josh Lewis (@BayouLewis) October 28, 2014
On November 20, the journal released the following note (paywalled):
We would like to inform our readers that parts of the book review Keeping Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth by Stuart Pimm, Volume 180, pages 151–152 are denigrating to women. We have taken action to prevent such use of inappropriate language from recurring, and emphasize that the language used in this book review in no way reflects the policy or practice of Biological Conservation or Elsevier.
We reached out to Pimm for more details. He doubled down, initially sending us the following by email:
No, I do not think my wording was sexist.
In my review, I take a direct quote from a movie — the line is not mine — and I point out that I use it as a metaphor to criticise a man who has made exceedingly unpleasant about the conservation profession. Now, my group may be exceptional — they are all women apart from one man. A larger sample size is the Biodiversity Professionals Linkedin group, which appears to be more women than men. So, the notion that this is about old white men criticising women rather falls short. This is about someone using the bully pulpit of a large conservation organisation with a board almost entirely from industry to denigrate people who work hard to protect our world.
He followed that up with a phone call (emphasis ours):
What woman is being denigrated? The lead actress in the movie? It’s clear that I’m not – there’s no woman I’m criticising. I’m basically saying I believe this is an organization that started out conserving nature and is now dominated by industries that do not have the most salubrious environmental record.
The thing I find interesting and the reason I refused to change it: it seems entirely self-evident I wasn’t referring to any particular woman other than the line in the movie. This does not denigrate women, it bitterly criticizes a man and an organization that has dramatically changed its direction to be brutally critical of people who are trying to do great things.
In that first paragraph, I don’t see any way you can interpret that first paragraph and say I’m trying to offend a particular woman. You might say I shouldn’t say Julie Christie is an attractive actress – well, guilty as charged when it comes to that.
Go to the Oxford English Dictionary…and you should look up the definition of the word whore. It means prostitute of course, but it also means more generally someone who sells themselves to the highest bidder. When I used the word prostitute in the last paragraph, that’s in common usage for people selling themselves to the highest bidder, typically to industry.
The incident comes to light amidst a pattern of behavior by some scientists that may help explain why there are so few women in STEM. The casual sexism ends up in papers, lectures, and even textbooks. As scientist and blogger Isis put it, in a post about the sexist shirt worn on TV by one of the scientists behind the Philae comet lander:
If it were truly one shirt – one isolated incident in women’s decades long careers – I could see their point. A woman leaving science over one shirt might earn her the fragile flower label. But, it’s never just one shirt.
I may have stuck it out, but I don’t blame women who feel that all of the sex references make them feel too uncomfortable to interact with these men. The problem then rears its ugly head when, because you’ve avoided these men for all of their talk about their johnsons and where they’d like to stick them, that you start missing opportunities.
We asked Pimm to clarify that the journal editors had asked him to edit the review:
I told them I had no intention of doing that. They asked me to do the review, and they looked at it and then they published it. And then they said a bunch of people are complaining and we want to stuff the genie back in the bottle.
I was told a bunch of people complained but I do not know who the accusers are.
Editor Richard Primack, who we’ve written about before for his assertion that scientific misconduct is a rare phenomenon, told us the journal would also be publishing a letter to the editor about the review:
The Book Review by Pimm is not being retracted. It just contains some offensive language. We want to emphasize to our readers that this type of offensive language does not reflect the policy or practice our journal or Elsevier. We also have taken steps to ensure that this situation does not happen again.
Primack said a letter to the editor from a conservationist had
just been accepted that provides more details on why the book review is so offensive.
It is a policy of the publisher that we do not take down articles just for inappropriate language.
We look forward to the details.
Update 4 p.m. Eastern, 12/10/14: The letter to the editor is now available online.