I’ll stop here, both because the phrase “elephant cellphone” is hard to top (and would incidentally make a great band name) and because I don’t mean to rip this article in particular to shreds, tempting though it may be. That’s because the problems with this Times article aren’t unique to this Times article. They expose the pressures and prejudices that affect the way both science and women are covered in the mainstream press.
Articles that compare television characters to elephants get written because popular science writers are under a lot of pressure to dumb down and sex up scientific research to make it click-worthy. (The author of this article succeeded on this count—at the moment, it’s at the top of the Times’ most emailed list.) In the process, they inevitably take some shortcuts, elide some nuances, and make some generalizations.
Sometimes these generalizations are relatively benign—the “elephant cellphone,” in and of itself, is an ungainly and inaccurate but inoffensive way of trying to make animal behaviors make sense to people. But sometimes pop-science writers take liberties with facts that work the other way around: Instead of helping people understand scientific phenomena by translating it into human terms, they dehumanize people by relying on lazy stereotypes.