Friday, April 12, 2019

And Then The Trolls Came For Katie Bouman

Of course we all knew that this would happen:

As the world stared in wonder this week at the first image of a black hole, a new star was born here on Earth: Katherine Bouman, a 29-year-old postdoctoral researcher who developed an algorithm that was key to capturing the stunning visual.
On the ugliest corners of the Internet, however, this sudden fame for a young woman in a male-dominated field couldn’t stand. A corrective was quickly found in Andrew Chael, another member of the Event Horizon Telescope team, who, not coincidentally, is white and male.
On Reddit and Twitter, memes quickly went viral contrasting Bouman with Chael, who — per the viral images — was actually responsible for “850,000 of the 900,000 lines of code that were written in the historic black-hole image algorithm!”
The implication was clear: Bouman, pushed by an agenda-driven media, was getting all the attention. But Chael had done all the real work.

I expected that response.  It's in the family of Damore-like knee-jerk reactions to the very idea that any woman could do well in mathematics, computers or science in general:  Those fields belong to men and women are biologically incapable of excelling in them, never mind the fact that women are also biologically programmed to care only about people, not things, except for pink frilly things.

But what was refreshing of this MRA troll-attack was that the man, gay by the way,  they chose as their champion refused that role:

But those claims are flat-out wrong, Chael said. He certainly didn’t write “850,000 lines of code,” a false number likely pulled from GitHub, a Web-based coding service. And while he was the primary author of one piece of software that worked on imaging the black hole, the team used multiple different approaches to avoid bias. His work was important, but Bouman’s was also vital as she helped stitch together all the teams, Chael said.
“Katie was a huge part of our collaboration at every step,” Chael said.

As the linked article points out, these kinds of projects are, of course, based on the ideas, work and collaboration of many individuals and no one person can claim all the credit.  And that has also been true in the past history of science.

Still, it's important to understand that such past collaborative events (whether the collaboration took place in one setting or just refers to many people working on the same problem) routinely omitted and erased the contributions of female scientist.  It's that routine erasure* of women which has made the relatively small number of past female scientists look even smaller, and it's that erasure that I have tried, in some small ways, to correct.

* Which still appears to continue, unless we pay attention to it.