Is Science Online a Con or a Conference?

As is inevitable in a situation like this, the dialog around Bora Zivkovic’s harassment of women has moved beyond his actions and resignations, and is now looking at the larger community and what sort of operational changes need to be made. This is clearly a more opaque process at Scientific American, since they have remained mostly silent–one presumes on the advice of lawyers. For Science Online, it’s a debate that’s happening out in public, on blogs and Twitter. Over the weekend, Chad Orzel saw comments I made on Twitter, and it motivated him to put forth his own specific take on the core issue affecting Science Online right now. Orzel’s post is well worth the read, both for the history of this particular blogging group and the Science Online conference. Orzel’s summary of the problem is this:

Science Online has been trying to split the difference between functioning as a kind of professional society for science communicators and a party of a bunch of like-minded friends.

It was in talking to someone over the weekend–and my apologies, there were a lot of conversations and they’ve gotten more than a bit blurry–where I realized that for me (and I want to stress, as always, that this is my, and only my, opinion), the difference that Orzel points out, and that I was commenting about on Twitter, boils down to this: does Science Online want to be a con or a conference?
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SciAm Doesn’t Think Sexism in Science is “An Issue”–Will They Think Boycotts Are?

There has been a lot of talk this year about supporting women in science and related tech fields, about how >it’s not okay to sexually harass a graduate student or colleague, about how rape jokes aren’t okay, and in general, how hostile academia, science, and technology can still be for women.

Yesterday, a Biology Online editor gave a pretty stunning example of this: he called biologist DNLee an urban whore for refusing to write for the Biology Online for free. We know about this because she blogged about it over at her Scientific American blogs column, Urban Scientist. And this was important for several reasons. First, many other biologists had casually agreed to work with Biology Online without being aware of the sexism of at least one of their editors (and many have now pulled posts due to it). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, DNLee’s experience is a data point that shows why the on-going discussion of sexism and harassment of women in science needs to happen. It’s an insight into what women in science face–and why science has a woman problem.

Naturally, Scientific American was proud to be a part of the on-going conversation about how women in science are treated, and the importance of shining a light on the ways women are harassed in science, in order to help prevent such a thing from happening again, right?

Oh. No. Instead, Scientific American pulled DNLee’s blog post without comment. Other people stayed calm, saying it must be a technical error, and I admire them for their ability to give the benefit of the doubt.

sciam-responseMy cynicism was rewarded this morning. Mariette DiChristina, the EIC and Senior VP of Scientific American, confirmed that DNLee’s post was removed on purpose. For apparently not being “about science.” Even though that was not the Scientific American blogs editor’s position (as seen here). In fact, Bora (said blog editor) and I have actually had some very specific arguments about the role of the Scientific American blogs, recounted by Nicholas over here. In short, Bora has explained that his view of the blogs is that people can and should write what they are interested in and about, even if they are not experts in the topic, and that it’s okay if they’re wrong, because the commenters can come in and correct them. As you can probably imagine, I don’t agree with this, and in fact had a several hour long Twitter argument with Bora about it. I do think that if you are blogging under the Scientific American banner, you are being extended authority and thus should write responsibly about what you know.

But in this case, I am 100% convinced that DNLee knows about the sexism women face in science, just as I am 100% positive that this is an important–necessary–conversation to be having. And I would like to think that even were she wrong, Bora’s policy, as outlined in his argument with me and his comments about Christie Wilcox’s blog being “her space,” would support an on-going discussion in her blog rather than outright removal.

Right now, to paraphrase what Crip Dyke so eloquently noted on Dr. Isis’s blog, DiChristina has made it very clear, through her actions, that Scientific American finds “fighting racism & sexism is unscientific.” Especially if it involves someone in their partner network. As such, and until such a time that DiChristina and the rest of those involved with this decision at Scientific American apologize to DNLee for their actions, as well as to those fighting to end sexism in academia, I will be joining Dr. Isis in her boycott of Scientific American.

You can read DNLee’s account of what happened at many blogs, at this point; Rebecca Watson reposted the blog, with permission, at Skepchick.

edited to add
DiChristina released a statement to Buzzfeed after they picked up the story, saying

“I’d like to elaborate on the original brief statement on Twitter that this blog fell outside Scientific American’s mission to communicate science. While we interpret that mission with a lot of latitude, Dr. Lee’s post went beyond and verged into the personal, and that’s why it was taken down. Dr. Lee’s post is out extensively in the blogosphere, which is appropriate. Dr. Lee is a valued member of the Scientific American blog network. In a related matter, Biology Online has an ad network relationship, and not an editorial one. Obviously, Scientific American does not want to be associated with activities that are detrimental to the productive communication of science. We are pursuing next steps.”

Of course, as Kate Clancy, Janet D. Stemwedel, Christie Wilcox and Melanie Tannenbaum note, science and science blogging is personal. People–women–discuss their bodies, their rapes, sexual assaults, and miscarriages, all topics I have seen covered on the SciAm Blogs.

By supporting, via their lack of removal, these personal blog posts (for example, Drs Clany and Stemwedel both highlight several of their own “non-discovering science” blog posts within the SciAm blogs network) by other women and men, DiChristina is making it hard to excuse SciAm from the single thing that it seemed they had going for them that Biology Online didn’t: racism. Because what seems to separate Dr. Lee from the other bloggers, in the “verging in to the personal”, is that Dr. Lee is a woman of colour.

The implications here are incredibly ugly, and bear examination by everyone who write for or reads anything within the Scientific American publication sphere. (Personally, I have a digital membership which I will be canceling posthaste.) It’s not a significant sum of money, but it’s money I don’t want supporting sexism or racism.

In Which An Editor Obnoxiously Brags About Her Author

I spent much of the fall grumbling – mostly good-naturedly – about editing a dissertation on the dual-use dilemma in the life sciences. I fell into editing the project rather late,1 which led to some memorable crankiness on my part (I actually sent back one chapter with “no” and “rewrite”), and sleep turned into a precious commodity for a while.

Overall, though, I’m incredibly proud of the small part I had in the project, and extremely proud of the author in general. You can’t read the dis (yet), but you can see a little bit of Nick’s writing over on the Scientific American guest blog, today, where he looks at the proposed DHHS policy on gain-of-function research in the life sciences:

Yet even if we do overcome the hurdle of identifying what is beneficial, and what manifestly dangerous, the proposed actions given by the framework are somewhat alarming. The framework gives the option to transfer dangerous gain-of-function research to agencies that conduct classified research, such as the Department of Defence or the Department of Homeland Security.

Yet classified government research in the life sciences doesn’t have a great track record of being in the public interest: the Defence Intelligence Agency’s attempts to make genetically modified anthrax, the Defence Threat Reduction Agency’s milling weapons-grade anthrax in secret, or the CIA’s creation of Soviet-style “bomblets” that are used to disperse biological agents (in the name, so claimed, of assessing their effectiveness in use against the US), are all example of deeply troubling classified life sciences research purported to be in the public interest.

The possibility of taking research we’ve already ascertained is problematic, and giving it to an agency with a history of misuse of research, is frightening. We should question this new policy to the extent that it leaves open this option. If research is risky to public health, or doesn’t show merit regarding actually emerging infectious diseases, why open the way for that research to be done in secret?

You should go read it because you’re excited about the idea of a new, non-American voice in bioethics, or because you’re interested in the life sciences and dual-use research, or because you want an idea of what I was working on in the fall, or because you see the issues here for corruption, or just because I said so and you know I have fantastic taste.2 Whatever the reason, go read.

  1. Note, fellow editors: don’t take on a large project like that with a two-month window, especially not when you have two academic conferences of your own to prepare for and attend, plus your day job. []
  2. I do. Bias aside. And if you haven’t picked up on the bias yet, you’re just a wee bit slow now, eh? And I don’t know what this lampshade is doing on my head. []

Found Those Million-odd Pieces

Oh, I was doing so well until I wasn’t. But at least when I wasn’t, I was really committed to it.

I’m not sure what threw the anxiety into overdrive today, but by about 10am I was a quivering mess. And once again, it wasn’t so much the potential diagnosis as it was not knowing what was going to happen in the afternoon. I suppose my primitive brain assessed threats and figured that not knowing this afternoon was a more immediate concern than what may come from that test.

As for the biopsy itself – well, I had been tempted to live tweet it. Let’s all be grateful I didn’t, as I would have had to expose you to proof I’m a sailor’s daughter (I certainly swear like it), and then probably just would have slipped into somewhat mindless screaming. It seems that my cervix is as contrary as the rest of me, and a procedure that should have taken five minutes took closer to 25, and involved seeing stars at several points – and not the fun kind.

Never have I been so grateful for the deep breathing practices of my religion.

Of course, all this means is that the first step is done. The ob/gyn was honest: she’s not sure what’s going on, but the ultrasound images are concerning. The next step is the biopsy results, and from there we’ll figure out options. The results themselves won’t be in for a week, perhaps more at this time of year. I’ll call Thursday and she’ll either have the results or know when I should expect them.

Which yes, means that at minimum I have several more days of riding the roller coaster of anxiety, wondering if my bitchiness is the inherent or stress-induced variety, and trying not to overreact too much in the opposite “experience all the things” way.

Power Broker Bioethicists

Alice Dreger has a new post up discussing How to be a Bioethicist. She admits, upfront, that she sort of sucks as one, and not for reasons the snarkier or more vindictive readers of this blog might assume. Rather, she sucks as a bioethicist because she has a penchant for naming names and citing her work, because she is concerned about principles, and because she hasn’t figured out how to get a staggeringly high salary, regardless of currency. (Of course, she missed the fourth reason she makes a bad bioethicist: her unfortunate affliction with XX Syndrome.)

Sarcasm, and even personal issues aside, I think Dreger raises a very interesting point about North American bioethics as a whole: what I rather jokingly referred to as the advent of “power broker bioethics” before I realized that this, indeed, was actually and precisely the correct phrase.

A power broker, for those of you who missed the 80s or anything to do with Wall Street, is “a person who is important by virtue of the people or votes they control; a power broker who does you a favor will expect you to return it.” It, in many ways, describes the behavior Dreger details: attempts to suppress dissent via appeals to authority; trading favors for benefits; obfuscating financial details in an effort to hide paper trails; and always, always looking for ways to inflate one’s sense of self via title and position.
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