A sudden intake of breath

A sudden intake of breath

Emily Rosa is the youngest person to have a paper published in a peer reviewed medical journal. Her story is an inspiring one, how at age nine she conducted research that debunked therapeutic touch. Little wonder that the tale is often told, including, in 2011, by Michael Shermer at a talk he gave right here in Ottawa.

I was in the audience that night, sitting with a group of friends: my wife, a female scientist friend of ours, and various other acquaintances. Now the exact words are forgotten and the reason why he told the story is forgotten but I do remember how it ended, which was by flashing up on the screen an image of the adult Emily Rosa in a bikini with a comment that was something like, “and look what she grew up to be.”

And – certainly from our little corner of the auditorium – there was a sudden and sharp intake of breath.

Shermer gave a great talk that night, entertaining, educational, fascinating,  but when we were talking afterwards among ourselves, several people mentioned the picture of Emily Rosa in a bikini. It was incongruous, it was odd, and it made at least several people that I know of uncomfortable.

Maybe there wasn’t a point; perhaps it was just supposed to lighten up the talk at midway. I’m sure no harm or offense was intended, and yet… I’ve talked about this specific moment since then, over a year after Shermer gave the talk, and had a few more people say that yes, they remember that slide and that, yes, it was… odd. One person recalled that moment without my prompting them. That it was incongruent. Uncomfortable. Yet another person spontaneously said, when I asked if they remembered Shermer’s talk, “oh yes, that was the really sexist one.” Why? Because so many of the images he’d used to illustrate optical illusions were of parts of women’s bodies (or things that look they are).

So: Shermer came to Ottawa and gave a very interesting talk, but a talk where many of the images used were of women’s bodies and where at least one of the female bodies shown was to illustrate a story about a nine year old girl scientist. As one of my female friends said, “it’s like it was a talk for boys but a bunch of women had inexplicably also been invited.” Again, this was an unprompted comment after being asked if they remembered his presentation.

Many of us know, and indeed are, women, and it’s a good idea to think about how women might respond to a communication style heavy on close ups of female bodies and bikini shots. I’ve sufficient evidence from my peer group to tell me that Shermer’s talk was not a universal hit among that group of people. It’s worth considering why that might be. And if he’s still giving this particular talk, with these particular visual aids, It’s time to stop. Skepticism isn’t a boy’s club anymore.