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Read This Zuckerberg: FB Didn’t Become “Cool” by Censoring News of Science Research

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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"censored" billboard added in front of image of unclothed men used in study about male attractiveness

Mautz, B. S., Wong, B. B. M., Peters, R. A. & Jennions, M. D. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2013), modified by Angela Cesaro

I recently saw The Social Network. It’s been out for years, but I usually wait until I can watch them in my living room for free.

The take-home from that movie was that Facebook survived—it was the cool one—whereas other social media sites faltered because they didn’t “get it.” I know. It was just a movie, but that idea seems plausible to me.

Plausible, that is, for the era depicted a decade or so ago. That was then. How about now?

Judging from something that happened this week on Scientific American‘s Facebook page, things have changed. The current goings-on at the premier social media site bring to mind another movie, another (much-better) film than The Social Network, that I actually paid to see, and which was very much worth the price of admission. I have in mind the Academy Award-winning The Lives of Others whose plot centered around the workings of the uber-paranoid East German Stasi.

What does a pasty-faced East German bureaucrat listening to the phone conversations of others have to do with the ne plus ultra of the digital world? A lot, in fact.

So what happened this week? Big thumbs down: a committee of Facebook reviewers—should be rephrased “functionaries—decided  to censor a story published on ScientificAmerican.com that we reposted to our Facebook page. Am I getting overexercised here? No, “censor” is the right word in this instance.

Okay, what story was that? Nature News reported on a scientific study published this week in the august journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group and we posted their story on our site and then later on our Facebook page). The story was widely tracked, not just by us, but by dozens of media outlets because the study was a scientific take on one of those perennial topics that is the stuff of collective fascination, whether you own up to it or not. So what topic was that? Okay, let’s coyly spell it out here: does size matter?

The study used a digital representation of naked men, depicted both in the research report and republished by Scientific American and elsewhere online, that showed  men  of differing heights with different penis sizes. A group of women subjects were quizzed about the relative attractiveness of these male simulacra. The hypothesis, of course, was that male proportions might matter just a bit in female choosiness, providing some explanation for the evolution of penis size as a sexual trait, a convoluted way of asking: does size really matter?

The answer to that question, hold onto your seats: It depends. Typical science study, right? One might even ask is this this a question worth studying? Was it even a good study?

But that’s not what this post is about and it doesn’t really matter here.

Am I the next to go Mark? (Facebook allows this image but not the less hunky, more clinical images above.)

What this post is about is the fact that after the story went to Scientific American’s Facebook page, it was censored. The “committee of reviewers” deleted the post because the social media giant has a “strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved.”  Huh? That comes as somewhat of a surprise, appearing as it did in the same issue of Proceedings (Impact factor 9.681) that also included articles with titles such as “Organization of lamprey variable lymphocyte receptor C locus and repertoire development” and “Biased assimilation, homophily and the dynamics of polarization.” This is science, not porn (it’s fairly clear that no one was harmed or exploited in the conduct of this study), and the study of sexuality, social psychology and evolution are essential, albeit still titillating, topics to the generation of knowledge about humankind.

Pornography? A committee of reivewers? My mind immediately jumps to the scenes from The Lives of Others in which a Stasi agents listen intently through their headphones to the calls of their fellow citizens—except the bland-faced monitors have been fast-forwarded to a cavernous roomful of hipper-than-thou, college-educated “reviewers” in Silicon Valley staring into their Macs.

This also brings to mind yet another image in which I return to that time when my elementary school librarian went through each new issue of National Geographic to make sure that no bare-breasted African tribal women made it to the shelves for the perusal of the boys in my third-grade class.

So back to the original question. Yes, size does matter. As far as male paraphernalia, who knows? But as far as avant-garde, digital media, it really does matter a lot. There is such a thing as being just too big. When organizations grow large, whether they be recently IPO-ed U.S. corporations or Soviet-bloc bureaucracies, they tend to lose their way.

And, yes, Facebook, you should respond to this post—with an apology.

Image Source: Mautz, B. S., Wong, B. B. M., Peters, R. A. & Jennions, M. D. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2013); Michaelangelo’s David: Wikimedia Commons

About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. bjnicholls 4:46 pm 04/11/2013

    If corporations are people, then Facebook is an idiot. Facebook allows a hate speech page that celebrates graphic violence against women, but apparently has a fear of CGI penises. Weenies.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rshoff 5:01 pm 04/11/2013

    So is this tired old topic really about science? Really? Every teenager in america is obsessed with penis size. Why not nose size, ear size, finger size, ore even clitoris size? And do we really need research into penis size by continent? Nah. The article was not even tertiary to a pertinent topic. As I remember from the SA site, it basically discussed penis size as it affects sexual pleasure for women and how that may impact women’s choices in men. It also, as I remember, discussed penis size to body proportion. But why? What’s the point? And why shouldn’t a private business like Facebook be able to filter an article off its site based on the articles sexual nature when it offers no real scientific perspective? Heck, we regular folk get censored all the time and no one seems to care much about it.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Cramer 9:18 pm 04/11/2013

    Yes, but unfortunately to the right-wing in this country, large corporations (foreign or domestic) can do no wrong; and should be able to run the world as they see fit.

    Censorship by a private company is not illegal, nor should it be. The Facebook “monopoly” could easily collapse. However, some large corporations/industries are firmly in control (Goldman and Morgan Stanley should have been allowed to collapse) of our planet.

    Even foreign corporations have power over the US government (and of course the people):

    Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) apologizes to BP
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gv0siXm2cpc

    Eric Holder — Banks Too Big to Jail (HSBC money laundering)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3zwhp5-jXA

    Link to this
  4. 4. ihatespam 7:22 am 04/12/2013

    rshoff, yes, this is science.
    “Why not nose size, ear size, finger size, ore even clitoris size?” Other researchers HAVE extensively studied how noses, ears, and fingers affect attractiveness. I’m not aware of any similar research regarding clitorises, but you are welcome to preform that scientific research and publish your findings.
    “And do we really need research into penis size by continent?” A perfect example of obviously useless research. Well, except maybe for the fact that it might SAVE LIVES. An AIDS prevention program isn’t going to be very successful if you’re delivering condoms which are too tight and break, or which are too loose and slip off. So yeah, even “penis size by continent” can be a life-and-death issue.

    I would like to propose a research subject. In my experience there seems to be an astoundingly high correlation between disdain for science and sexually repressive attitudes. In my experience this seems to be true of individuals here in the United States, it appears to be true in a other countries, and it also appears to be reflected in the technical development of entire nations and their level of social sexual repressiveness. Cultures that produce burqas inevitably produce zero Nobel prizes, and they produce minimal industry. Is this apparent correlation real? Is really a cross-cultural phenomenon? Can some common cause be identified? Or could there be some direct causal relationship between them? I’m sure certain types of people would consider this question to be a perfect example of a pointless waste of time and money. However could this research have practical application in advancing in science education? Could it help enable economic progress in underdeveloped nations?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Carlyle 7:27 am 04/12/2013

    Well before you get holier than though, what about the numerous times commenters have had their comments removed from these pages when the comments have disagreed with the article authors or given links to WUWT while waving through links to SkS?
    I think perhaps in the most recent couple of weeks there may have been some improvement actually, for which I am grateful. Though I agree with you about censorship, this publication has been far from a paragon of virtue in this regard.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Carlyle 7:40 am 04/12/2013

    Oh & yes, as other commenters have remarked, the article was trash.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Quantumburrito 10:55 am 04/12/2013

    Your argument is a little specious. This piece was about Facebook censoring a bonafide scientific study from a leading journal. The comments you are talking about link to unscientific denier websites for the most part.

    Link to this
  8. 8. jerryd 2:51 pm 04/12/2013

    Facebook has already jumped the shark and will be another MySpace soon. Once weenies get a little power they become Stasi like.

    But kids are fickle and they drive this and facebook is for old people now and they are moving on.

    Anyone who would censor such a piece should never be allowed to make judgments for anyone as they are clueless.

    If some people can’t handle reports like this, it’s their problem and their narrow minds should not trump others rights to say and read without a far, far, far better reason than this.

    Link to this
  9. 9. OlgatheGreat 4:01 pm 04/12/2013

    To be clear: was this the automatic kind of censor, that deletes pictures of oranges if they look like breasts? Or was this actually a group at Facebook deciding to take down the story. My guess is that it’s the former, in which case, it’s just a mistake.

    Link to this
  10. 10. hanmeng 9:00 pm 04/13/2013

    I believe there is something scientific to be said about American fear of nudity.

    Link to this
  11. 11. obusmu 6:17 pm 04/24/2013

    Interestingly, the largest Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten had the same experience with FB as SA when they published a nude photo of one of the most famous Norwgians, polar explorer,scientist, diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen on their FB page. This was a picture Nansen had taken of himself for some reason. Aftenposten was threatened with being thrown out of FB if this happende again.

    Link to this

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