Men Challenge Scientists With Alternative Or Conspiracy Theories More Than Women

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In the past few weeks, I’ve had two tweets go viral. One was a confession that I enjoy a few songs by the Korean pop group BTS. As of last count, the tweet had 60,000 likes and 22,000 retweets, respectively. The other tweet that seemed to garner interest is below:

I get a lot of crackpot emails or calls with oddball theories about weather and climate. A colleague asked me how many men vs women. The answer is not even close, 100% men. Is this consistent with other colleagues’ observations…?

I have been an atmospheric scientist for 25 years studying weather and climate at NASA and the University of Georgia. I have gotten used to people posing (or many times aggressively arguing) alternative ideas that have not been published in the peer-review literature or vetted by external review. The topics are usually related to about to controlling hurricanes, climate change, or tornado formation. When a colleague asked how many of these are typically from men, I really did not even have to think about it. It is pretty “a 45+ or older man” 100% of the time. There are typically some other commonalities shared by colleagues below. Sadly, some of these challenges end up being harassing or abusive.

Men, women, and discourse on science. It sometimes can be harassing or abusive.U.S. government Office of Women’s health

At this point, a reminder of what the Dunning-Kruger Effect may be useful. In a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger described the concept of people not recognizing their own incompetencies thereby creating unrealistic or inflated self-assessments. My summary of the academic jargon is simple: people overestimate what they know about things (or underestimate what they don’t know). Professor Katharine Hayhoe is a friend, colleague, and noted climate scientist at Texas Tech University. She gets harassed and challenged all of the time by a barrage of Dunning-Kruger Effect. She was one of 125 people that commented on my tweet, which also received 946 likes and 273 retweets, respectively. Dr. Hayhoe tweeted,

I’ve roughly tracked this, and out of several k dismissives who’ve come at me on social media, I’d estimate 0.5% women, 60-70% clearly self-identify as male, the rest likely male but can’t tell for sure from avatar/handle, and to that I’d add <1% self-identify as non-white.

Professor Hayhoe was one of the women featured in an outstanding article in Scientific American recently. It profiled sad and pathetic element of this topic, the uptick in harassment as female scientists speak out on topics like climate change. Writers Scott Waldman and Niina Heikkinen point out,

Studies show climate skepticism is a male-dominated perspective. Men are less likely than women to accept scientific conclusions about people being responsible for rising temperatures. And they’re more likely to overestimate their knowledge of the issue.

On a related note, I recently shared an experience in which I was racially targeted by a group of men (actual scientists by the way) because of a climate change discussion.

Another interesting observation that seemed to emerge from the tweet thread is that the majority of colleagues in physical-based sciences or engineering shared similar  observations to mine.  Mathematician, engineer, and scientist Mary Cameron tweeted her experiences in the following way,

Always male, usually white, American, & >50. It takes a huge ego to think you’re smarter than the whole scientific field, so of course it correlates w/ prejudice. Imo, worse in energy research, and not limited to non-scientists.

Astronomer Dr. Sarah Kendrew of the European Space Agency tweeted, “I’ve received many such emails about astrophysics, cosmology, gravity theories – not one from a woman.” Science journalist Michael Marshall noted, “I’m a science journalist with 10+ years experience responding to comments, emails and letters. The crackpots have been almost all male: I never thought to compile data but *at least* 80%, probably higher.” Severe storm expert and meteorologist Roger Edwards revealed, “Tornado-control e-mails have numbered in the hundreds, BTW. All variations of the same four unoriginal “methods” (explosives, physical barriers, freezing, electromagnetism). More than 98% from (apparently) guys. Many claiming to be engineers, a few “physicists.”

There was a few notable exceptions, however. Many scientists said there is more gender balance when it comes to the topics of “chemtrails” and vaccination. Some people argue that the long white cloud trails are “chemtrails” coming from air planes are being used to control our minds or affect public health. They are actually just condensation trails or “contrails.” Forbes Pharma and Healthcare contributor David DiSalvo has a nice debunk of contrails at this link. Many commenters in the tweet thread noted that women are quite active in the chemtrail world and within the anti-vaccination movement. A recent study found that the vast majority of anti-vaccination advocates are women. One common thread that I notice is that both of these topics have a connection to health. Is that the common denominator to engage women in scientific alternative theories? I am not really sure, but I do hope more sociological studies explore these tendencies observed by scientists.

Maryland-based atmospheric scientist Dr. Edward Colon said that he remembers a study suggested women may be less comfortable expressing viewpoints on science than men in general. Another possibility is that physical sciences, math and engineering (STEM fields) have been male-dominated (and still are). This may result in a “pool” of men that feel that they are qualified to weigh in on science. Frankly, another quite viable theory has been stated above: arrogance, harassment, and superiority complexes.

Contrails over the southeast United StatesNASA

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