Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Richard de Grijs. Richard is Associate Dean (Global Engagement) and Professor of Astrophysics at Macquarie University in Sydney. He served as scientific editor of The Astrophysical Journal from 2006-2012 and Deputy Editor of The Astrophysical Journal Letters from 2012-2018. Richard is currently Associate Editor for the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage.
When NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, announced in August 2020 that it would retire the use of potentially offensive astronomical nicknames, sections of the Internet immediately railed against the organization’s perceived ‘wokeness’. Numerous social media commentators complained about political correctness gone awry.
As a senior academic, AuthorAID Steward (senior advisor), and freelance provider of academic skills training, I agree that a careful balance must be struck between freedom of expression and the right not to be offended in the workplace. However, I also question the commentators’ implied entitlement that they should be able to use potentially offensive expressions indiscriminately. It seems rather elitist to assume that any of us can simply decide which terms may or may not be offensive to sections of the population we are not part of. NASA’s announcement, combined with the common use of potentially inappropriate terms in my own discipline of astronomy and astrophysics, recently led me to reconsider the inclusivity of my own communications — both in my peer-reviewed scholarly publications and in my public speaking engagements.
The use of inclusive language in scholarly communication is increasingly seen as important, and a number of publishers and societies have issued their own guidelines, including Nature Astronomy, the American Astronomical Society, the American Psychological Association, and a growing number of higher education institutions around the world. Academic writing often aids in molding societal behavior and perceptions. Unconscious biases can result in unintentional stereotyping or exclusion simply through ill-considered word choices. As scholarly communicators, we are often seen as role models—to our students, peers, and even to society as a whole. Inclusive language in scholarly communication serves to acknowledge and celebrate diversity, extend respect to different sections of society, and ultimately promote equitable opportunities.
My aim in contributing this post is to initiate an informed and respectful discussion about expressions that are often thoughtlessly used by scholars and scientists in their communications, but which could be perceived as offensive, inappropriate, or discriminatory. I have attempted to collect as many such terms as I could find in my own discipline area, and I am keen to hear of similarly problematic expressions in other academic fields. This is, therefore, an invitation to all Scholarly Kitchen readers to actively contribute to an engaging discussion on this topic.
In the NASA announcement, two astronomical objects were singled out: the Eskimo or Clownface Nebula and the Siamese Twins, a spectacular collision of two galaxies, each similar to our own Milky Way. Both objects were discovered by William Herschel (1738–1822), the German–British astronomer commonly credited with the discovery of infrared or ‘heat’ radiation.
In historical, somewhat blurry images, the nebula — officially known by its catalog number NGC 2392 — resembles a face surrounded by a fur parka. It is a so-called ‘planetary nebula’, a star at the end of its life that has ejected most of its atmosphere. And although the object’s ‘Eskimo’ monicker had been introduced much earlier, a stunning image taken with the Hubble Space Telescope following its December 1999 repair mission propelled the nebula into the spotlight.
While the origin of the term ‘Eskimo’ to describe Inuit people remains a matter of contention, its use is considered disrespectful. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) Charter of 1980 defines the Inuit as “Indigenous members of the Inuit homeland recognized by Inuit [my emphasis] as being members of their people [which] shall include the Inupiat, Yupik (Alaska), Inuit, Inuvialuit (Canada), Kalaallit (Greenland), and Yupik (Russia)”. The ICC resolutely rejects the externally imposed term (exonym) ‘Eskimo’, a stereotype assigned to Arctic inhabitants by non-Inuit people.
The merging galaxies known as NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 — both located in a dense group of galaxies known as the ‘Virgo Cluster’, at a distance of some 65 million light-years from Earth — have long been known as the Siamese Twins. The original ‘Siamese twins’ were two men, Chang and Eng, born in 1811, who were joined at the waist yet led active lives until their deaths in 1874. However, referencing an entire race — Siamese (Thai) people — through a birth defect is clearly inappropriate; ‘conjoined twins’ is now the preferred term.
Care is also needed when naming new tools. In the same context of referring to sections of the population in offensive ways, one potentially problematic acronym for a software environment developed for the analysis of astronomical radio observations is GIPSY, the Groningen Image Processing System. Since the software tool’s inception in the late 1970s, the plight of the Romani people has become well-known. Their popular designation as ‘gypsies’ is a second example of an exonym that is widely seen as pejorative. For example, the Merriam–Webster equates ‘gypped’ with being swindled, defrauded, or cheated, whereas the Oxford English Dictionary traces the term back to its first use in the 1899 Century Dictionary: “… probably an abbreviation of gypsy, gipsy, as applied to a sly, unscrupulous fellow.” Perhaps the time has come to reconsider this acronym.
At the time of NASA’s 2020 announcement, Thomas Zurbuchen of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate anticipated that additional objects might appear in their crosshairs. Perhaps the dense group of galaxies formally known as ACT-CL J0102–4915, dubbed El Gordo – the Fat One – in 2012, may also be on the chopping block. In fact, this is not the first time astronomers inappropriately considered a pun about obesity humorous. Incredibly, around the same time, a new software tool was introduced, with the rather contrived acronym FATBOY – The Florida Analysis Tool Born of Yearning for high-quality scientific data. Really?
And what about references to the Naked quasar, HE0450–2958? A quasar or quasi-stellar object, is the manifestation of a very dense and massive ‘black hole’ (more about black holes below) at the center of a very distant galaxy. In this case it’s classified as ‘naked’ because the black hole responsible for the ejection of high-energy beams of radiation lacks a galaxy to reside in — but there are plenty of alternative expressions that would be less potentially offensive…
Astronomical object naming is the purview of the International Astronomical Union, which has established careful and thoughtful processes to reach global consensus. Even so, it is not unheard of that objects are renamed following a public backlash. For example, the object 486958 Arrokoth — the most distant object in the outer regions of our own solar system that has thus far been visited by a spacecraft — was originally called Ultima Thule. That designation led to an outcry, however, given unintended associations with the homeland of the mythical Indo–European ‘Aryan’ race idolized by the Nazis.
A minefield of potentially offensive terms
Nevertheless, other terms associated with that dark period in European history continue to appear routinely in the astronomical literature, including the acronym SS, which stands for ‘symbiotic star’ (a binary star system of which one is in the process of losing most of its atmosphere to the other) — not a reference to Hitler’s much-hated security, surveillance, and terror organization, the Schutzstaffel.
More often than not, intentionally ‘funny’ expressions found in scientific articles turn out to be particularly and disproportionately demeaning to our female and non-binary colleagues. This ranges from the thoughtless use of the acronym for ‘holographic optical elements’ to references to the allegedly promiscuous nature of binary star systems and ‘black widow’ pulsars. Pulsars, short for ‘pulsating stars’, are very dense and rapidly rotating stars at the end of their lives that emit beams of radiation from their poles. Black widow pulsars orbit small (‘dwarf’) stars, and just as a black widow spider eats her mate, these pulsars could gradually erode the gaseous outer atmospheres from their dwarf companion stars until the latter cease to exist. The expression ‘black widow’ — “characterized by or involving indiscriminate mingling or association, especially having sexual relations with a number of partners on a casual basis” — is disparaging to women; there is no equivalently disparaging term for men.
In my own area of research into the origin and fate of star clusters — dense groups of hundreds of thousands to millions of stars that presumably formed in the most violent environments in the universe — references to infant mortality abound. The concept, which refers to the disappearance at young ages of a large fraction of star clusters that formed approximately at the same time in a given galaxy, was introduced in 2003. It has since become rather popular; at the time of this writing, NASA’s Astrophysics Data System returned 69 abstracts containing the designation (admittedly including some of my own).
You might dismiss this latter warning as overly sensitive. However, earlier in my career I experienced up close the impact of my thoughtless use of the infant mortality concept. A female colleague became visibly distressed when I used the expression in a scientific presentation. I later heard that she had suffered a miscarriage. It was a good reminder to be really mindful of one’s language; a mistake is easily made but difficult to correct.
As such, I was rather disturbed to learn of an attempt by a junior male colleague to introduce the notion of a cruel cradle effect in this same subdiscipline. There must surely be an acceptable, less offensive description of that process, which describes the effects of tides on star clusters by external gravitational forces…
On much larger physical scales, violence in enormous clusters of galaxies is routinely referred to in terms of strangulation (gas loss from a galaxy cluster, eventually halting new star formation in its member galaxies) and harassment (repeated, high-speed encounters and collisions between galaxies). Yet again, both terms are disproportionately insensitive to female and non-binary colleagues. Their use is now deemed largely inappropriate in the context of our field, given their pejorative connotations.
‘Strangulation’ is usually associated with domestic violence; it is often a telltale sign of escalating tensions in an intimate relationship. Meanwhile, the Australian Human Rights Commission states that “harassment can be against the law when a person is treated less favorably on the basis of certain personal characteristics, such as race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, breastfeeding, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or intersex status.”
Some database abbreviations also have the potential to cause offense. For example, an entire generation of astronomers has built their careers on the rich data set of variable stars, that is, stars that show brightness variations over time, provided by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment -– OGLE. Yet, any English dictionary will reveal that ‘ogling’ has the singularly inappropriate meaning of objectifying female members of society.
However, scientists pursuing the nature of the so-called ‘dark matter’ — a type of matter that we cannot see directly, but which causes an effect on nearby, visible matter through gravity alone — have defined some of the most inappropriate acronyms in the field, including MACHOs (MAssive Compact Halo Objects), WIMPs, super-WIMPs (Weakly and super-Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, respectively), and GIMPs—Gravitationally Interacting Massive Particles. I am aware of a number of colleagues that have indeed taken offense at these terms.
Just be mindful…
My key message is that we should be mindful of our language at all times. Consider whether any expression used might offend the reader and check if the adopted terminology passes the ‘pub test’.
It is, of course, not always easy to strike the right balance, and offense might be taken even if an expression easily passes stringent suitability criteria. Take the African–American county official from Texas, who objected to the term black hole, used figuratively, or the numerous social media discussions about the use of the term blackbody, which may perhaps be acceptable as a single word, particularly in the context of radiation physics, but certainly not as two.
Public speaking and scientific writing can present daunting minefields for the unprepared but, by tackling this issue at the individual discipline and broader community levels, we can create safe spaces and work towards a more inclusive environment for everyone.