October 24, 2012
There's nothing quite like a world-renowned neuroscientist Facebooking about the lack of hot chicks who study the brain.
University of Chicago professor Dario Maestripieri is the esteemed author of many books on the minds and psychology of primates, and an expert on what the human brain finds attractive in the opposite sex, including the famed waist-to-hip ratio.
But his Facebooking about the paucity of gorgeous female neuroscientists at a recent international convention became public, and now it's triggered much angry and feverish commentary on the science blogs, including the problems women in science endure at the hands of cads and bounders.
Let's just call it 50 Shades of Neuroscience.
The Facebook remarks about a conference in New Orleans were captured by a "Facebook friend" (they're not all friends) and published on Inside Higher Ed, an online publication targeting colleges and universities.
"On Oct. 14, Maestripieri posted 'My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The supermodel types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone.'"
Some might certainly be offended, but someone must stand up for Maestripieri. It is obvious that he is A) a man of science, B) balding — perhaps an indicator of raging testosterone — and C) offering further proof that scientists, like all primates, are intensely curious by nature.
"I love it," said Shooter, my able assistant. "Men can have no hair and be running up in years and still think they're so hot."
But I don't think she really loved it.
Perhaps the professor might someday study why there are so many Brad Pitt and George Clooney types who spend hours indoors, in laboratories, watching monkeys, or, as Shooter calls it, "The Geekfield."
Still, shouldn't a scientist be free to offer a hypothesis, run experiments and reach logical conclusions based on the evidence? Of course. It's not as if Maestripieri is some nerd who hides in his laboratory. He's been on TV, talking about how monkeys and humans respond to social situations. And he's also been quoted in newspapers about how the brain works when aroused.
"Men are attracted to women with a certain hip-to-waist ratio," Maestripieri was quoted as saying in a Tribune RedEye story under the headline "Researchers are busy in the lab trying to unravel the rules of romance." He added that tiny waists and bigger hips communicate fertility.
"Men also tend to like women who look young, as that also indicates ability to procreate," he said then.
Who can dispute that?
Well, how about Neuroscience Girl?
She posted on the feminist blog Jezebel, disputing the professor's contention that there was a lack of gorgeous females at the conference.
"Um, what this man says is completely false. I was in attendance at this conference and was actually quite surprised by the large number of attractive women there (they far outnumbered the attractive males). That said, I'm a neuroscientist who works part time doing modeling (admittedly I'm no supermodel, but still you don't get these kinds of gigs without the looks)."
But serious journalists can't do reporting based on anecdotal evidence from anonymous attractive female neuroscientists, so we called the Society for Neuroscience in Washington. Kat Snodgrass, the society's spokeswoman, said she hadn't heard about the controversy.
"That's interesting, but we've never taken a poll or anything quite like that," Snodgrass told me. "The society doesn't have an official stance on attractiveness."
She told me that there were more than 28,000 neuroscientists in attendance at the conference in New Orleans. Thousands of scientific papers were presented, with nearly a dozen news conferences offered on discoveries.
"We don't have any studies about whether someone in science is attractive or not," she said to a question about the number of physically attractive neuroscientists, male and female. "We have studies about why people are deemed attractive and how the brain responds to someone who may or may not be attractive."
But what about Maestripieri's observation about the lack of beautiful neuroscientists?
"You are welcome to ask him," she said.
So we tried and called his office and emailed him, but to no avail. I hope he's not married, or then he's in real trouble.
The U. of C. doesn't want to touch this, but the esteemed institution of higher learning did release a statement from Provost Thomas Rosenbaum.
The statement is basically a statement about the fact that nobody's going to talk about it.
"The university does not speak for individual faculty members and will not take a position on the opinions expressed by our faculty. At the same time, faculty members do not speak for the university. The university has had from its founding a commitment to free and open inquiry, which requires that we welcome the broadest range of perspectives. We are dedicated to creating an environment that supports the best scholarship possible, and women are essential members of this academic community," Rosenbaum said.
It went on to talk about the steps the U. of C. has taken in support of female faculty members. But none of these identified any physical characteristics, i.e., hotness.
After all the hypotheses, evidence and controlling for variables, there's only one conclusion: Don't say dumb #$%* on Facebook.
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