THE Scholarly Web - Fat is a social media issue

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

June 13, 2013

“Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, then you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.”

These words were tweeted (and, very shortly afterwards, deleted) by Geoffrey Miller (@matingmind), associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of New Mexico and a visiting professor at New York University’s Stern Business School, prompting a deluge of angry reaction online.

Chris Chambers (@chrisdc77), researcher in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, was one of the first to respond. He tweeted a letter that he had sent to Jane Ellen Smith, chair of the UNM psychology department, expressing his concerns.

“This is an extraordinary public statement from a member of the academic community,” he wrote. “I would like to know the extent to which this statement reflects the policy of UNM Psychology regarding the appointment criteria for PhD students.”

He said the “promotion of bigotry” by members of the psychological community “is offensive and unethical, and draws our discipline into disrepute”.

Professor Miller made it clear in a subsequent tweet that his words in no way reflected the process by which his university appoints PhD students, before offering his “sincere apologies to all for that idiotic, impulsive, and badly judged tweet”.

His university responded by posting video footage of Professor Smith in which she recounts how her in-box started to fill up with emails expressing concern shortly after the tweet was sent. “The idea that any department at UNM would be discriminating against people because of their shape or size is outlandish - it’s not something we would ever do,” she says in the film.

The university’s written response, on the same web page, says that the university administration and faculty were “surprised” by Professor Miller’s tweet. “We are deeply concerned about the impact of the statement, which in no way reflects the policies or admission standards of UNM. We are investigating every aspect of this incident and will take appropriate action.”

The statement then reveals that he told the university his tweet was “part of a research project”, a claim that is being investigated by the university.

“We are looking into the validity of this assertion, and will take appropriate measures. As members of the UNM community, we are all responsible for demonstrating good judgment when using social media or other communications vehicles,” it concludes.

Others were quicker to pass judgement. In a tweet, Jason DeCaro (@jason_decaro), a biological anthropologist and biocultural medical anthropologist in the department of anthropology at the University of Alabama, urged rejected UNM PhD applicants to save Professor Miller’s tweet for a “potential lawsuit”. He also called him a “jerk”.

Deborah Lupton (@DALupton), senior principal research fellow in the department of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney, tweeted these wise words: “The #miller scandal tells us two things: fat- shaming is not OK, and academics need to be careful about what they tweet.”

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