Archaic lingo and the endeavour for total inclusivity in science
9 April 2020 — Sydney, Australia.
As scientists increasingly communicate with the general public, we need to re-evaluate our use of terms. Some words that are non-controversial to professional scientists can be deeply offensive to members of the wider community. Behavioural ecologists, in particular, face a minefield. Many terms that have been in common use for decades can cause distress if extrapolated to human behaviour – and as a result, cause distress to members of groups such as the LGBTQIA community.
As an example, male snakes that produce female-like pheromones (and thus attract courtship from rival males) have been termed “she-males” (R. Shine et al Nature 414, 267; 2001), a term that can be offensive to transgender people and cross-dressers. Clearly, the scientists using that term had no desire to give offense – but languages and communities evolve, and words may change their emotional context as times change, or when phrases developed in one context are applied in another. The explosive growth of citizen science and science blogs ensures that words like “she-male” will increasingly reach the attention of people who are hurt by the unintended consequences of that terminology. Similarly, scientists continue to use the term “dwarf male" long after society in general has abandoned the word “dwarf”; and terms like “sneaky mating strategy” can be misinterpreted to imply endorsement of conventional sex roles.
The solution is simple. We need to be more careful in choosing descriptors for the attributes of non-human organisms, to avoid the danger of alienating and offending people for whom such terms have severe negative connotations. Some will argue that this is political correctness gone too far; but if we are truly committed to inclusivity in science, we need to avoid terminology that some groups within society find deeply pejorative.
Although I am mildly uncomfortable with the idea that this may come across as virtue signalling, I think that this one of those issues where you need to stand up and be counted. Opinions are nowhere near unanimous about terminology issues.