Life as an Extreme Sport

Suggestions Forward for Science Online (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)

In the wake of Bora Zivkovic’s multiple resignations last week (amazing index here, if you were out on a research cruise and missed it), I was asked if I was going to participate in offering further advice or recommendations to Science Online, since I had been visible and vocal in my impression of what needed to happen. My silence on the blog, save to discuss the difference between con(vention) and con(ference), shouldn’t be read as disinclination to proffer my opinion, but the much more prosaic: holy fuck, I’m tired.

I also wanted to pull back and let other people have the conversation; science online is a community that I am (I would argue marginally) a part of, but the issue with Twitter and blogs is that sometimes the voices that are amplified are the ones that are most present, not the ones with the most thoughtful things to offer.

…okay, fine, and Maryn McKenna beat me to the punch, posting five recommendations for the science communication community to consider moving forward; I unreservedly support her suggestions. I also have a few more.

While I have emailed these suggestions to Karyn Traphagen, (per request), I am also listening them here because the very first suggestion I have is the most important one: transparency.

Right now, an awful lot of trust has been violated, and strange things happen to a community when your ability to trust is shaken. We navigate life based on trust, and we make a lot of decisions based on the very simple feeling of whether or not we trust something, or someone. In a lot of ways, trust is a limiting factor; it helps us make decisions because it automatically narrows down the choices available for us; we can discard many options because we have no trust in the person or the process associated with those options.

When emotional trust is broken,

our options become limitless, and we are paralyzed, not in fear, but in choice. We have no way of narrowing down the potentiality of an event/situation without the ability to trust. But we trust — or not — based on prior events, and to override those prior events that taught us that we cannot believe our instincts is something that can only be done on faith.

Above all else, this is probably the most threatening thing for Science Online right now: broken trust, and the threat of becoming stuck. Right now, the best way I can see towards overcoming broken trust and fear of “what if,” is to continue the very public and transparent discussions.

The rest of my suggestions can be broken down into those that are immediately applicable, and more generalized future changes. The one thing that I think must (yes, back to that word) happen for Science Online 2014 is that some sort of reporting/anti-harassment committee must be set up, easily identified in conference literature, and promoted to all members.

– Anti-harassment Committee — A committee of 5—7 (odd numbered) people should be assembled with the express purpose of being there to handle any harassment going on at the conference. This should be a diverse group of people; half of the group should commit to a single-year term and the other half should commit to a two-year term. Replacing half of the group next year, then, with new people who are also committing to two-year terms, should create an institutional memory, as well as remove concerns of cliquishness. These people should not be (or be related to) any conference organizer or board member.

Essentially, the idea here is for a group of people who are present on Twitter and eMail (likely via a single, shared Twitter and eMail handle) to be easily accessible if someone is feeling harassed. This group should determine whether or not someone is violating the Science Online anti-harassment policy, and have the authority to remove someone from the event, if necessary.

– Offer non-alcoholic socializing options — This has been amply discussed on Twitter, but I wanted to throw my endorsement behind it, as well. Right now, one of the things that blurs the line between convention and conference for Science Online is that the drinking appears officially endorsed. As has already been extensively discussed, clarifying the line between officially endorsed event and “event happening in conjunction with” would be useful. Removing the focus on evening drinking and creating more options would also, at least per Twitter feedback, give more introverted people chances to socialize on their terms.

– Have a buddy system for the opening night social — Partner up new attendees with old hands for the first night mixer, so that the newbies have someone to talk to, show them the rope, and help them get settled in. This is a several hour commitment at most, but would go a long way towards preventing groups of people clumped in corners at a science museum, not knowing anyone (as did happen in 2013). Having someone to go “hey Chad, have you met Allie?” will go a long way in helping newbies integrate, place Twitter handles to faces and names, and have familiar faces around over coffee the next morning. Plus, it’s just nice and helps to build community!

– Have a strong, clear harassment policy, and be willing to enforce it — Signing off on having read the Science Online sexual harassment policy should be required before allowing anyone, old or new, to register for Science Online 2014. While I was inclined to say that sexual harassment training should be mandatory, the reality is, that’s not possible on the scale the conference has grown to. However, resources are readily available online and for free; these should be prominently visible on the Science Online website, and people who are uncertain as to precisely what is harassment is—which is okay, not everyone has been through multiple iterations of harassment training from human resources—should be encouraged to view and take training videos without stigma or shame.

~

The other suggestions I have are likely more long-term, not implementable for Science Online 2014. I still think that they are important to include.

– Decide on the unconference — I’ve heard “it’s an unconference” associated with Science Online, but the reality is, by planning the majority of sessions ahead of time, SciO is not an unconference. Continuing to call it such creates an incorrect image of what people should expect. It’s one of those things that either needs to be fully embraced (which could be interesting) or fully dropped. Because of how planning has worked, and the fact that a small committee makes the choices on what presentations are ultimately available, it seems to me that “unconference” should be dropped for either con(vention) or conf(erence).

– Ditch the size limit — As many people have pointed out, limiting the size of Science Online creates an exclusionary atmosphere. Chad Orzel has had some great things to say about this, from pointing out that random registration times are difficult for those with jobs, families, and other obligations, to noting that because of the prominence Science Online appears to play in helping people get started in online/science communication—an event that helps shape careers—it cannot even have the appearance of being exclusionary. In fact, Orzel said it so well, I’m just going to quote him:

The problem is that #sciox seems to have become an important, even essential meeting for people getting started in online scicomm. If #sciox is going to have that kind of must-go-to-make-it role in community, the bar for inclusiveness has to be much higher. If #sciox is an event that shapes careers, it can’t also be or even appear to be an exclusive party for a select in-group.

I realize that conference centers are booked several years in advance, and a change of size will take time. But as Science Online continues to grow in popularity, and be seen as the place to attend to make connections (and a career!), it will be necessary to make sure that the conference grows proportionally. Not doing so, and making attendance based on a combination of opaque session suggestion acceptance, luck of the draw when registering on the internet, or literal luck of the draw with a lotto, creates different classes of people, and perpetuates the feeling of exclusivity.

Why is the path unclear,
When we know home is near.
Understand we’ll go hand in hand,
But we’ll walk alone in fear. (Tell me)
Tell me where do we go from here.

 


(With thanks to Eva Amsen, David Dobbs, Maryn McKenna, Nicholas Evans, Alice Dreger, Emily Willingham, Rose Eveleth, Karen James, David Shiffman, and oh, about 300 other people I’ve had what feels like almost on-stop Twitter and email discussions with this last week. While many of these people discussed these ideas with me and helped me refine them, if you take issue with anything, that’s my fault, and should be taken up with me.)

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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Revoking Power Redux

Last night was interesting. There was embarrassing praise and flattery, a few trolls, a debate over my use of the word “must” instead “should,” and quiet, thoughtful support and disagreement from several people, including Kathleen Raven.

It’s tempting to address the language concerns first, because they’re easier. But that needs to be put aside for the more immediate: this morning, Kathleen published “Two Stories” on Medium. These created a bookend to her own experience of harassment, and while she didn’t name her first harasser, she did name the second: Bora Zivkovic.

Raven did something different than Byrne or Waters, though. Byrne and Waters shared their experiences, their perceptions, snippets of remembered conversation.

And narratives are powerful. They tell stories and share experiences. But some people will dismiss them because narratives are told from a specific point of view: that of the person telling it. Even if it’s not an outright dismissal, conversations like the one that did float around Twitter and in blogs will happen: was it really that bad? Maybe, maybe, it’s just about needing to learn or given a chance or…

In many ways, it’s the flip side of a good horror movie. A good horror movie leaves a lot off-screen, and lets the viewer fill in the blanks, because the viewer will always put in something much scarier than film could show. In this case, some people were guilty of the reverse: minimizing what could have possibly been said or done by Zivkovic, because he is a friend, mentor, colleague, beloved. And this is not to say that there is anything wrong with that; people have been faced with the idea that someone they respect did things that they don’t respect. At the very minimum, that is confronting and—as many people noted—it takes time to work through.

Raven did something that doesn’t allow people to at all shy away from what it is Zivkovic did, that doesn’t allow people to look away, that doesn’t allow people hope.

Raven shared email.

And now it’s out there. Everyone can see, and there’s no way to hide behind hope or denial, or the gentle prayer that it might not be as bad as it sounds.

It is as bad as it sounds.

And that’s where we are now, with a lot of people reeling from more revelations and trying to wrap their heads and hearts around Zivkovic’s blatant abuse of power and harassment, and to figure out what is next. Which brings us back to my post from last night; several people who liked/supported what I wrote asked me if, in light of Raven’s revelations, what I proposed needed a revision.

No, and yes, and this is where I need to be honest.

In the ensuing Twitter conversations about my post on revoking power in the face of harassment, I noticed that one thing was left out of the conversation: that my prescriptions, the things that must be done, were for a one-year minimum.

That wasn’t an accident.

Receiving praise for being balanced and fair in light of what I was tweeting to the ripplesofdoubt hashtag was a very uncomfortable experience for me, because I wasn’t being fair or balanced.

I was being calculating.

I’ve been in a similar position to this before, and I strongly suspected that it was simply a matter of time until someone else came forward. Until either enough stories or enough details piled up that people wouldn’t be able to do anything other than what I initially stated and supported on Twitter: Zivkovic needs to be removed from his positions of power. Permanently.

But it’s been my experience that people react against ultimatums in the face of what is felt to be less-than-conclusive proof of “genuinely bad behaviour.” That while people were still debating “just how bad was it,” and what sort of impact said behaviour had on Zivkovic’s position as Scientific American blogs editor, the notion of a swift and universal ban/firing was going to be labeled over-reactive and inappropriately permanent.

And so I suggested a moderate course of action that I knew would seem prudent and calm, that most people would be able to support. I did this because I believed that by the time the one-year moratorium was up, enough information would have come out that the decisions to remove Zivkovic from positions of power would become permanent. Because I assumed that by then, the violations of trust would be great enough that, even if individuals made peace and were able to continue friendships with him, no one would contemplate placing him back into the power nexuses that he so abused.

But I want to be clear: I also made the suggestions I did for the sake of precedence. I believe that people, communities, need to have clear actions to follow when someone transgresses, especially when it comes to harassment (of any kind). And has been repeatedly stated in conversations on Twitter, blogs, and even by people we might consider experts, harassment is a form of discrimination and abuse that, at root, is about the abuse of power and authority.

Therefore, power and authority must be removed when a harasser is identified.

The idea of placing a minimum timeframe on that removal of power is something of a safety net: it gives people whose transgressions were genuinely minor a chance to regain trust (a redemption arc, if you will). At the same time, though, that net can easily become a noose, giving those whose transgressions were more severe the rope necessary to be hung.

To me, the decision is clear and the knots around the noose tight. But I am only one voice among many, and I only speak for myself.


Edited to add: At near close-of-business Friday, Scientific American posted that Zivkovic offered his resignation and they accepted it.

Revoking Power in the Face of Harassment

Like many people, my head is swirling. It’s been a heady, deep, painful, traumatic, confusing week–and my inclination is to make a joke here about the debt ceiling crisis that was resolved last night. Joking creates space, a distance.

But chances are, you know that what I’m talking about is actually the revelation of harassment in the science blogging community; it, after all, has made it to mainstream media. In very short sum, two young women have named Bora Zivkovic, the Scientific American “blogfather” and editor, as harasser. Zivkovic did not deny Monica Byrne’s accusation or account, and has (as of this writing) been silent regarding Hannah Waters’ account, other than to say there is no need to defend him. Zivkovic has also stepped down from the Science Online board of directors while further involvement in Science Online is being determined, and has apparently taken a temporary leave from Scientific American.

Which leaves everyone–and the conversation–mired in “now what?”

Two answers are already very clear: Twitter has become a clearinghouse for people to discuss harassment and support one another, and Ladybits (on Medium) has issued a call for stories on harassment, with what seems to be the idea of shining a light on what harassment is so that everyone is better at recognizing it, and at shutting it down.

But there’s an elephant in the room, one that people (at least on Twitter) are running up to briefly to tackle before retreating. And that is this: what should happen to Zivkovic? Should he lose his job?

To those of you on the edges or outside of this particular science online writing/blogging community, the answer might seem simple. But in reality, we are talking about a community where many consider Zivkovic a friend and credit him with their career. It’s a lot harder when it’s someone you know; I understand this (really, I do). But the problem is simple: Zivkovic used the influence and power from his position as the Scientific American blogs editor to harass at least two women.

A lot of people have questioned if he actually used his position as blogs editor to ill gain, but this seems pretty clear: the meeting with Byrne was supposed to be regarding freelancing/blogging work, and while contact with Waters spanned SciAm to SciOnline and general science community events, it certainly included his role as editor and mentor on Scientific American.

But it’s about more than just his actions against these two women, as this long, sad, and powerful thread on Twitter shows. Waters questions her talent in her post; is she where she is because she’s talented, or because she’s cute? The flip side is also true: many people are now talking about their doubt; how they wonder if they weren’t nurtured and didn’t get blog posts and exposure because Zivkovic didn’t think they were pretty enough.

This won’t go away with a slap on the wrist.

If Zivkovic remains in his role as Scientific American blogs editor, there will always be the question, people will always wonder: am I getting this because I’m talented or because I’m cute? Was I turned down because I am not pretty enough? Am I too old? Do I not smile enough? Did I earn this?

140_with_great_powerThis isn’t about Zivkovic damaging the Scientific American brand, this is about the trust people have in Zivkovic-as-blogs-editor being broken. And as such, Zivkovic must no longer function in that role; he has shown that he is incapable of properly wielding the great power and responsibility of that position, and should be held accountable. Part of that accountability is removing his power and influence.

When someone abuses a privilege, that privilege is taken away. In this case, that privilege is the power of his position as blogs editor; without the reach and influence that position holds, he would have much less sway over people, many of whom are young and vulnerable based on their junior status and positions.

Does this mean that Zivkovic should lose his job completely? That he is beyond redemption and should be shamed and shunned for eternity by the community at large? This might surprise some people, but no, not necessarily. Zivkovic can be commended for not dragging this out, for stepping down and removing himself, for asking people not to defend him, and showing contrition. Is the contrition genuine? Does he mean the gestures or is he just acting out the proper script, seeking absolution without change? Only time will tell.

And that’s why, in the time until things are told, the following must happen. Zivkovic must:

    • step down from the Science Online board permanently (done, as I understand it);
    • have no further involvement with Science Online, until voted back with full support of the board and/or member resolution;
    • be banned from attending any Science Online-related event, including the flagship conference, for a minimum of one year;
    • step down from or be reassigned to a position other than Scientific American blogs editor. The new position should not be allowed unsupervised contact with freelancers for a minimum period of one year.

This achieves several things:

    • the Science Online community will have a chance to define itself without Zivkovic’s presence/influence;
    • people will be able to use the flagship conference to discuss sexism and harassment without worrying about a direct confrontation with Zivkovic;
    • there will be no concern or worry from anyone that they’ve been excluded from presenting at Science Online or blogging at Scientific American because of retaliation;
    • freelancers can be assured that their work is being judged based on what it is, not what they look like;
    • there is the possibility for Zivkovic to demonstrate his contrition and improvement;
    • everyone enough time to process, digest, and decide how they as individuals want to engage with Science Online, Scientific American, and Zivkovic himself.

And, most importantly, other victims of harassment will see that there is genuine support to be found in the online science writing and blogging community when speaking out against harassment, against someone beloved and with power; to show that there will be swift and severe consequences for bad behaviour.

The Exploratorium

The Palace of Fine ArtsThe first time I dissected a cow eye, I was at The Exploratorium in San Francisco, a fantastic science museum that was housed on an absolutely beautiful campus, a part of the Palace of Fine Arts. Those of you of the right age and not from San Francisco will recognize this as where Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” video was filmed – for me, it was always the fun science place.Those of you with very long memories will also note that this is where I got married, once upon a time. That was more needing a pretty outside place in January in San Francisco, though, than any particular link between that marriage and the location.

I think of the museum fondly, and somewhat frequently. It was always fun to run around the Palace (before or after playing in the museum), it’s part of one of my favourite urban fantasy novels, and it is very much one of the places that fueled my love of science, hands-on exploration, and discovery. I learned about optics and illusions and concepts of surface strength via bubbles, there. They made math fun, they made science an adventure, and they let everyone play, regardless of age. It was a fantastic, phenomenal place.

I’m talking about it in past-tense, which isn’t fair or accurate – the Exploratorium still exists. But when I was looking up information to share with Nick this morning,A conversation based on the idea of doing things you’re told not to do and the Mythbusters, of course. I had a rather surprising shock: the Exploratorium has moved.

They’re on Pier 15/17 now, or will be come mid-April. I’m so thrilled that they’ve grown enough in size and staff and exhibits to need a larger space. In an age where it seems like science isn’t valued and museums are always under threat of budget cuts and closures, that the Exploratorium can move and expand is beyond fabulous. But it’s also a little sad, at least for me – another small but seminal piece of my childhood gone. I guess it’s a sands-through-hourglass thing; changes continuing apace. And there have been a lot of changes lately.Not, mind, that I’m complaining. Especially the cleaning the house related bits, just because it’s nice to get rid of things after having done so and then had Unexpected Life Events create a somewhat untenable situation of too many items, some with memories that made dealing with difficult. But I think it’s also easier to notice change when you’re in the middle of change, especially change that runs hard with nostalgia and memory.