Scientist provokes ire of Twitter after saying roundworms are useless

Wormageddon! Scientist provokes ire of Twitter users and is accused of sexism, racism and privilege after saying roundworms are ‘overhyped’

  • On July 18 @JustTheZooOfUs tweeted: ‘What is the most overhyped animal?’ 
  • Michael Eisen, editor of science journal eLife, replied that it was the roundworm
  • Social media exploded with defense of roundworm and threats to boycott eLife
  • Eisen was accused of promoting sexist, racist and privileged points of view 

The editor of science journal eLife has enraged fellow scientists on Twitter by saying that the roundworm was ‘overhyped’.

In a debate designed to spark friendly banter, podcast host Ellen Weatherford tweeted on July 18 to her 3,500 followers from @JustTheZooOfUs: ‘What is the most overhyped animal?’

Michael Eisen, the editor of eLife and an expert in fruit flies, replied a day later that the roundworm was, in his opinion, overhyped.

‘They wiggle forward. They wiggle backwards. And occasionally they f*** themselves. That’s it,’ he tweeted.

Social media then erupted with outrage at his slight of the roundworms, with the criticism escalating into accusations of racism, sexism and white privilege.

Caenorhabditis elegans worm, colored scanning electron micrograph. Twitter erupted in fury after the editor of eLife journal said he believed the worm was the ‘most overhyped’ animal

Editor of science journal eLife, Michael Eisen, weighed in on the debate – with explosive results

Many began by questioning his use of an expletive.

Others said it was unfair to researchers in that particular biological field – the roundworm is frequently studied because it provides an easy proxy for understanding biological processes, and was the first multicellular organism to have its entire genome and neural system mapped. 

Studies of it have been used in research on Alzheimer’s, nicotine dependence, and muscle atrophy due to time spent in space.

‘Look, I’m sure he thinks this is all hilarious. But many of us have had grants and papers rejected based on *exactly* this reason,’ wrote one researcher.

Some said that their community of researchers – like any other community – has the right to feel upset about the tweet.

Irini Topalidou, a scientist at the University of Washington, was unimpressed with Eisen’s tweet.

‘The worm community has the right to be sensitive over these issues the same way that any other community that has received unfair criticism has the same right,’ she wrote.

Seattle-based scientist Irini Topalidou was particularly angered by Eisen’s tweet

Ahna Skop, a cell biologist based in Madison, Wisconsin, agreed that Eisen’s tweet was unacceptable, describing it as a ‘microaggression’.

‘Jokes are often microaggressions,’ she wrote. ‘Meant to be funny, but in turn hurting others and your community.’

Skop said that Eisen’s joke was a microcosm of discrimination faced in the wider world.

‘It’s an allegory that revealed how the privileged continue to support the privileged.

‘And that light hearted jokes are microaggressions, whether intention or unintentional communicate hostile, derogatory insults towards any group.’ 

Another scientist, Yale-based Dr Valerie Horsley, tweeted: ‘It’s just a joke… women and POC have heard that one before.’

She later deleted the tweet, writing: ‘I am sorry for my actions in a recent tweet that I have since deleted. I hear you and understand how you feel. My comparison to racism and sexism to putting down a scientific model system were inappropriate. I will continue to listen and learn.’ 

Microbial biologist Dr Maureen Berg responded: ‘Please someone release me from this timeline.’  

Ahna Skop’s tweets, shared by Dr Berg, accused Eisen of ‘microagressions’

Dr Horsley likened Eisen’s tweets to racist and sexist abuse, before deleting her remarks

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