First published on STEM Women on 27th of June 2013
ScienceAlert, a pop science news site, has published a “science news” story using a sexist image, which prominently features a woman’s breasts. Several issues arise about the use of sex to sell science publishing. One major issue relates to links between “everyday sexism” women encounter through their daily lives, including through the media, and the professional barriers that women face in STEM careers. Another issue relates to the scientific value of using sexism to specifically sell pop science reporting. The image is designed as “click bait.” We’ll analyse this in the context of the science in the article and the subsequent discussion on ScienceAlert’s Facebook page. The issue we highlight is how the blurring of sexist marketing and pop science news leads to a decreased public understanding of science, while also hurting educational campaigns to boost public awareness about women’s contribution in STEM.
Appetising BroScience Marketing
The first issue is that the ScienceAlert story is about a new powdered caffeine product, but the science is sorely lacking. Its sale is being promoted through new salt shaker packaging. Now bear in mind that the producers are seeking funding for these salt shakers. So where is the science in ScienceAlert’s article? Other than listing three ingredients (maltodextrin, caffeine and vegetable oil) and kindly directing readers to the product’s crowdsource funding page, ScienceAlert’s scientific content is sorely lacking. The only hint is in the concluding remarks: “It’s clear that we’re now living in a time where we now not only don’t have time to be sleepy, we don’t even have time to drink a coffee to perk us up. And for better or worse, researchers are there to help us out.” Ah; “researchers”! Sounds deliciously science-y! Here lies the first of several issues with this article. Does all “research” always make for a legitimate science story? If so how should this “research” be discussed and promoted?
Everything we use in our daily lives has been informed by science – from the technology you’re using to read this blog, to the food you eat, and yes even to make salt shakers. In its (often incorrect) vernacular use, googling a phrase is referred to as “research.” But, much like science reporting, not all “research” is equal. Scientific research must adhere to scientific principles, which includes producing valid and reliable results that can be replicated. It includes producing credible peer-reviewed evidence to back up arguments. The difference between science education and useful science reporting is that scientific processes (methods, evidence and analysis) should be reported on. These basic requirements are not met in this case. ScienceAlert has not actually told us anything about the science in this product. So why would they bother reporting this story?
Digesting Sexism as Clickbait
The second issue is that the article uses sexism to masquerade as science. We don’t see the product. What we get instead is a generic stock image of a woman’s chest as she’s sprinkling a white substance over her food. Why this photo? Well, for one it was published as part of the press release on Caffex, the company that makes this product. But that’s no excuse for a science site; and here’s why. The woman’s face is cut out of the photo. She is not a whole woman; she is a sexualised marketing gimmick – one that we are unfortunately all too familiar with and sadly one that is starting to crop up in science publications.
Previously on STEM Women, we discussed a science paper published by the Journal of Proteomics, which used a photo of a young woman holding coconuts over her naked torso. We argued that sexist images in STEM are never neutral, unintentional or otherwise benign. Given the professional and institutional barriers women in STEM continue to face, using sexism to market science is damaging.
So given this context, what is the relationship between the ScienceAlert image and its story on caffeine salt shakers? ScienceAlert has chosen to stick with a stock image of a headless woman and her breasts. The product is not specifically marketed to women (though the product website does use another stock image of woman eating “energy pizza”). What’s the relationship between the decision to market this story with a sexist image of a woman? The answer: click bait. The image is designed to get people to click on the story, regardless of the relationship and validity of the image and the story. ScienceAlert is using sexism to sell this science story because, in an odd turn of events, there’s no actual science in their article.
Needs More Science Sauce, Bro!
The third issue is about science moderation of sexist comments in a science context. ScienceAlert promotes itself as a science news site that collates sciences news from universities and think tanks. Evidently it will also publish press releases by companies regardless of the scientific rigour behind a product. ScienceAlert has failed to describe the possible physiological side effects of this product, and the scientific method behind the product or even the science credentials of the company. Heck, it listed three ingredients and didn’t bother to inform readers anything about their scientific significance. At the very least, the article might have drawn on the plethora of scientific research that addresses the potential benefits and side-effects of caffeine.
ScienceAlert promotes itself as a social media news site, specifically on Facebook, but it has failed to address the science questions about this story on its Facebook page. The site has almost 5.5 million Facebook followers. One of the ScienceAlert founders and Managing Director, Chris Cassella, who describes himself on his Twitter as an “Ex-Microsoft programmer & failed neuroscientist turned professional science enthusiast,” notes that he specifically promotes, “Facebook as a platform to inspire and engage young people around the world with science.” Given that this particular story has garnered over 1,800 likes, almost 700 shares and hundreds of comments, it is odd that ScienceAlert has not jumped in to answer any of the questions or comments, even though their followers are debating both the safety of this product and the scientific validity of the story.
At the time of writing, this story had been published on Facebook for 11 hours. The top comment speaks to the first issue, the science behind the product. This person says: “and next we’ll be reading about teens having heart attacks after chugging a whole shaker of caffeine….darwin at work” [sic]. This comment, made by a woman, which has thus far received 70 “likes” and eight replies, evokes the idea of Darwin’s natural selection thesis. The idea is that if the product is unsafe, that should be self-evident, and people who are harmed through its use are not intelligent enough to bother worrying about. Setting aside the unethical argument, and notwithstanding the fact that Darwin never addressed human evolution, the debate about the safety of this product is a valid one specifically because the product is being de facto promoted on a science site. The product’s scientific content has not been adequately critiqued by ScienceAlert, and ignoring the science of caffeine is not only reckless it is perplexing given they’re supposedly a science site.
The second top comment on ScienceAlert’s Facebook page is also by a woman, and it speaks to the second issue, and it is the focus of our critique: “Boobs.” This comment has received 45 likes and eight replies. Similar comments are peppered throughout the Facebook thread (see images). Some of these comments are either clearly sexist, or they wryly point out the click bait angle of the story. “I didint [sic] notice the cafine… i notice something else first,” and perhaps the best comment: “This has less to do with science and more to do with obnoxious marketing“ (our emphasis).
Also sprinkled throughout the Facebook conversation are debates about what the biological responses might be to the product when coupled with the cumulative caffeine people consume in their daily lives. There are many references likening the product to a drug. There are various musings about what would happen if one “snorted” the product; something that ScienceAlert also evokes in their article. The Facebook responses range from celebrating the product as another way to consume more caffeine, to concern about how this product may be abused both intentionally and unintentionally, given that the shaker gives the illusion that you’re consuming less caffeine.
Even a cursory look over ScienceAlert’s most recent Facebook posts will show that their Facebook threads are left to flounder without moderation. It is their page, so whatever their rules are obviously works for their market. But if they promote themselves as a science site and they specifically say they provide a “service” of “quality feature articles and opinions from qualified Australasian scientific and science writers,” then might muse that their audience should expect some science information and, perhaps – dare we hope – a dash of science education?
ScienceAlert distinguishes itself from other pop science news services by claiming to focus on Australian news, rather than on American news as do most other large science sites. But again, a look over their most recent posts will show you few stories are clearly focused on Australia or New Zealand. The rest are generic science posts you can read anywhere else. Take this caffeine salt shaker story. We’ve got screen grabs showing that the story has largely cut and pasted several sentences that are clearly from a company press release as they also appear verbatim on other sites. In fact this was first published on Motherboard on the 4th of June (which ScienceAlert links to). That’s no crime; the job of press releases are to make the jobs of lax writers easier, through a process of churnalism, “a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added”. The problem is when that science story is suspect to begin with and where the use of sexist images is being used to cook up social media hype. The negative effect is compounded by the fact that the sexist conversation goes unabated by actual scientific input.
ScienceAlert’s founders note that science news is a competitive business, but in 2012, they said they were “selective” about what they publish, and that they “don’t run spin or puffery.”
The internet is very competitive, and you’ve got to build a following – it doesn’t just happen. You must have something people want. And with regard to science, they want news they can trust.
So the more clicks, the better, right? And should that come with a bit of sexism, well who does this hurt?
It hurts women in STEM. Women are both consumers of science news and more importantly, we are producers of scientific knowledge. Most of ScienceAlert’s recent posts focus on science imagery (planets, insects, microbes and so on), but this does not excuse this particular case where sexism is on the menu. Sexist comments are allowed on the thread and indeed encouraged by the image itself.
ScienceAlert’s writing staff are largely science journalists rather than practising scientists. The author of this caffeine salt-shaker article, a woman, has an undergraduate degree in Zoology and Graduate Diploma in Journalism. One might imagine that with some basic training in science, the author might have pre-empted her audience’s conversation and addressed some actual science when reporting on this product. Perhaps ScienceAlert is not interested in educating its followers, so long as people click on their articles – and by whatever means necessary. In this case,science is but an optional ingredient. So let’s take a brief look at the product itself.
Salt on Science Wounds
The product’s website claims to be informed by science. As you’ll see in the image below, “the science behind CaffeinAll” equates to a series of vague science phrases. For example: “Caffeine is one of the few substances that can pass through the blood-brain barrier,* thanks to being a very small molecule that is both water – and oil-soluble” Science! (*By the way, this is not a science term.) There are other science-y references to “molecular structure,” “brain cell remembrances,”adenosine,” and “the brain’s slow-down chemicals.” All of these slap-dash references merely describe a series of chemical reactions which barely tell us anything about how caffeine, a stimulant, elicits a physiological response. It certainly tells us nothing about the “science” of the actual product. But there’s a diagram that looks science-ish, so… hooray science!
So, in brief, to the science questions ScienceAlert has not bothered to answer: is the product safe? And perhaps more pertinent to this discussion, is this article about science? The answer to the first is probably not, when coupled with scientific evidence about how caffeine is consumed, and the answer to the second question is a resolute no – this is not science!
The FDA notes that “the average adult has an intake of 200 mg per day, the amount in two 5-ounce cups of coffee or four sodas” (further supported by longitudinal research). The FDA also notes that experts see caffeine as both a “drug and a food additive”. They include a table showing how incidental consumption of various drinks, chocolate, yoghurt and other products adds to the intake of caffeine. Additionally, government health organisations have been focused on how the consumption of energy drinks and some alcohol can lead to adverse health effects.
CaffeinAll recommends that users indulge in “no more than 3 sprinkle shots, containing (about 3000 mg caffeine) a day” [sic]. So these three sprinkle recommendation is actually the maximum recommended daily dosage of caffeine, meaning that these sprinkles should replace all other caffeine intake. This is not made explicit. Instead, they also promote that it’s “Easy to carry” and “Convenient to use.” They say each bottle contains 2000 doses “200 cuts of strong coffee’s worth.” They note you can use it in everyday cooking, at the gym, at work, during exercise.
Caffeine is not an illegal substance, but much research in North America focuses on its overuse and side-effects, especially in non-traditional products marketed as energy sources (such as the marketing of the product at hand). High consumption averages at almost three times the recommended dose (548mg), primarily through coffee and soft drinks. Researchers and medical professionals see the ever-growing energy drink market in particular as a public health risk. Over-consumption of caffeine is also a health concern for vulnerable groups such children, teenagers, especially depressed youth and those suffering from chronic illness, behavioural disorders other mental illnesses, university students, minorities, military service members, and women at risk of injury. There are additional risks for users who don’t adequately keep track of how much caffeine they’re consuming throughout the day in products beyond the coffee cups they drink. In a science article, one might expect some of these scientific considerations to be reported on, but not as far as ScienceAlert is concerned. They serve up a sexist image and let their readers’ scientific imaginations run wild.
Sexist recipe for disaster
The trend of using sex to sell science is not one that the scientific community should stand by. If the “Broteomics” debacle taught us anything, it is that behind the need to use sexist imagery is a strong desire for website and social media clicks and a weak commitment to equality in STEM. The fact that the ScienceAlert article was written by a woman does not change its impact, as the Broteomics article was similarly authored by a team including a woman, and like ScienceAlert, the publication founders are men. In the case of the Journal of Proteomics, the editors continued to argue that their use of a woman was meant as a bit of fun. They denied to the media that their image choice was sexist, even though a large number of scientists took to social media in protest. In response to that incident, STEM Women argued that institutions need to implement safeguards and provide sexism awareness training for scientists in order to prevent sexism. The same applies to science news publishing for popular media.
Images are never just a bit of fun. They are chosen for a reason. Why did ScienceAlert not post a different picture of the product being marketed to promote their story? The decision to use the company marketing photograph with a close-up of a woman’s breasts was a deliberate marketing choice by the ScienceAlert editors. The fact that other publications used the same image (and words) provided by the product’s company does not excuse this choice. The decision not to cover any science in their article was another editorial decision that is perplexing, as was the decision to ignore comments on their Facebook page. But perhaps this is not surprising when viewed in the fierce contest for marketing and click through rates dressed up as science news.
ScienceAlert is currently promoting a space-themed science event that is more clearly headed by science experts and aimed at a popular audience. That’s terrific. Most of their content is focused on science, though much of it lacks original scientific analysis; as noted, it is mostly a rehash of press releases that does not always link to the original peer-reviewed study. ScienceAlert’s science communication is not moderated. It’s within their right to do with their social media as they please. But if their business model is to simply get people talking about science, even if that conversation promotes sexism, then that’s everyone’s business.
An undercooked science story without any science, filed under “Health” without any scientific evidence about health is a bad recipe in science communication. Selling bad science with sex appeal does science communication a great disservice and this ultimately undermines the scientific excellence of women STEM professionals everywhere.
We must not allow shallow, sexist science publications to get a free pass. Writing about science without bothering to address science or sexist marketing is damaging to public science education. That’s not useful for anyone. Science communication, much like scientific research and practice, does not occur in a vacuum. It is connected to broader social practices that have real consequences. Sexism is never okay, so let’s not allow ourselves, or others, to become complacent. If you see sexism in science as a reader or as a scientist, speak up. If you’re a science writer or editor, consider gender and diversity awareness training for your staff and review your publishing policies.
If you don’t see an issue with sexist marketing, you’re part of the problem. Stop holding back gender equality in STEM.
Have you seen sexist imagery or language used in science news sites?