News and Commentary

Science Twitter Explodes In Allegations Of Racism And Sexism Over Joke About Worms
Roundworm, Nematode, Parasite, Strongyloides Filariform Larva. (Photo By BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Photo By BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A Twitter joke about worms turned into a multi-day social justice education session, according to the Daily Beast, as woke members of “science Twitter” accused a flatworm detractor of perpetuating racism, sexism, and oppression in the scientific community.

Late last month, the host of the popular zoology podcast, “Just The Zoo of Us,” asked scientists who work with living organisms to name the “most overhyped” animal. “The post made the rounds of the loose community of researchers, zookeepers, and wilderness enthusiasts that makes up Science Twitter, a community whose passion often manifests as friendly smack-talk,” the Daily Beast reported. “Answers flowed in: blue whales, lions, penguins. A grand time was had by all.”

That is until the next day when Dr. Michael Eisen, the editor of eLife, a research communications platform, and online scientific journal, dared to attack roundworms, a “model species” that is the subject of frequent scientific experiment —  experiment that has yielded some considerable breakthroughs. Although other species were fair game, blasting the roundworm, it seems, was a bridge too far.

C. elegans,” the editor noted on  Twitter, making the case for the roundworm as the “most overrated animal.” “They wiggle forward. They wiggle backwards. And occasionally they f*** themselves. That’s it.”

Initially, the post attracted just a few responses — a few people were critical of Dr. Eisen’s use of profanity, and others tried to educate Dr. Eisen on the roundworm’s contributions to science. But after just 24 hours, things escalated markedly, as the “worm community” chimed in, accusing Dr. Eisen of not just normalizing anti-worm sentiments, but of perpetuating the oppression of all marginalized peoples.

” As mystified observers raised the question over whether C. elegans researchers were taking the whole thing a bit seriously, a small handful of researchers responded by arguing that jokes about worms were in some way equivalent to jokes about women and people of color,” the Daily Beast notes.

One particularly researcher, “Dr. Skop—who did not respond to a request for comment by The Daily Beast—argued extensively that making jokes about worms was merely the tip of the iceberg when it came to making jokes about marginalized identities, or an example of a ‘bystander effect’, a psychological theory arguing that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim in a crowd.”

Scientists of color tried to point out that the two situations were in no way similar — that marginalized ethnic groups have suffered far more than the roundworm — but it was to no avail. Worm Twitter had spun out of control.

“For a solid three days, the worm discourse dominated Science Twitter, between arguments, meta jokes about the arguments, and people plaintively wondering why everyone was talking about something called ‘C. elegans’ and when it was going to stop.”

Fortunately, the ruckus seems to have faded — at least until the next time someone insults the humble roundworm.

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