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Writing – Life as an Extreme Sport
Life as an Extreme Sport

A Penis Isn’t A Punchline (But It Is A Biological Structure)

Have you heard the one about Neotrogla? Neotrogla is an interesting cave insect discovered Brazil; instead of being blind or transparent or having other neat cave-specific adaptations, Neotrogla mixes things up with sex. In specific, Neotrogla females have a penis, while the males have an internal cavity that receives the penis. A great summary of the science can be found at Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of not-great science communication attempts out there with Neotrogla, and Annalee Newitz took aim at them over at io9. Unfortunately, Newitz got it wrong, too.

In particular, the issue with Newitz’s piece is it’s also conflating issues, mixing human gender-related issues with the more technical biology and anatomy of sex. She says

almost every news outlet covered the story by describing the insects as “females with penises.” This isn’t just painfully wrong ”” it’s bad for science.

and then goes on to support her assertion that this isn’t a penis, but a new structure (citing the also-incorrect Jason Goldman’s post for io9 on Neotrogla).

Newitz asks if we’ve ever heard of a penis inflating, or having barbs, or of marathon mating sessions, and the answer to all of those things is yes. NeotrogOctoIllustration A penis can have barbs and spines (cats), inflate (dogs), and mating can happen for a period of time humans consider long (moths). But as Professor Diane Kelly notes, a penis is, technically/biologically, an appendage that transfers reproductive material between mating creatures—which is why octopus have them, even if they’re weird little hentai-inspiring arm things. So yes, Neotrogla has a penis.

That said, Newitz is absolutely right that there has a lot of offensive coverage on the topic, and that? That should be called out. I saw the play on “chicks with dicks” she refers to, I saw “gender-bending insects!”, I saw articles referring to “the tranny bug” and other charmingly awful things. (Note: after thought, I decided not to link to any of the offensive articles. They don’t deserve the clicks. If you want to see them, Newitz had a good running list in her io9 post.) That sort of writing needs to be called out for what it is: offensive and wrong. The lazy writing that, as a whole, the science communication community should be ashamed of, is conflating issues of biological sex and gender for crude humour that requires the butt of a joke to be someone whose gender and biological sex don’t “match,” and we as a community should be better than “Crying Game cave insect” jokes.

But the thing is, naming and shaming those who want to use transgender, intersex, and other issues of identity and biological non-conformity is separate from an actual discussion of the biological structure of Neotrogla. Ultimately, noting that there is a female insect with a penis does do exactly what Newitz wants: emphasizes the awe-inspiring diversity of science. Because Neotrogla‘s female is female—she just happens to have a penis, too. Which means that how people want to define gender (as the rigid representation of biological structure, ie “men have penises, women do not”) is continuing to crumble. And that? That’s a good thing.

Real Identity on the Internet (My Variation)

I have been online a long time. I have a digital trail that sometimes feels like it’s a mile wide, where I benefit more from the fact that a lot of content from the early days of the world wide web weren’t archived before servers went down than anything else. I’ve been anonymous, pseudonymous, known by my married name and my given one. TalkCityMissingIt gives me at least a little bit of perspective over the current debate over identity online, and it makes me uncomfortable to see me mentioned, even in passing, as a good “open identity” idea to emulate.

I, truth be told, never gave much thought to what it meant to be visible online before my editor, reading an article I’d handed in for my third op-ed, asked me if I was sure I wanted to publish it. Had I really thought about what I was saying, and was I okay putting it online? She closed the file and told me to think about it for a day before making my decision.

I did think it over. I thought about what I was saying, but I also thought about what I had already said over the last 18 months of courses and teaching and work and outreach, and realized I wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t already said elsewhere. I was okay putting it online. After all, I was writing an op-ed for a university paper; how many people really read those, anyhow?

A few weeks later, another column ended up, along with my headshot, on the dartboard outside the offices of a department at that university, and I realized that at least people on campus were reading what I wrote. Honestly? I laughed when I heard that, I was delighted over the hate mail my editor received, and I felt like I was doing something right.

I moved on from there to graduate school, which came along with writing for higher profile blogs on both bio and broader medical ethics. The idea of not writing under my given name was never even broached; I was developing an academic presence in a field known for controversy—and I admit that I relished the attention controversial posts received. (I sometimes think bioethicists seek validation in decibels, or at least in the number of opposition papers aimed at you.)

And then things collapsed around me; when I applied to other graduate schools, I was told, in confidence and by several different people at several different schools, that I would never work in bioethics again. My name and my record were too linked to things that had nothing to do with me, but would taint me via association.

Shortly after that, I ended up on Twitter, mostly as a lark. Some of you likely remember my first icon: one of my cats, not me. I used my first name, but I didn’t have a picture of myself online, and I didn’t closely tie my Twitter handle to my website; I never posted what little blogging I was doing to Twitter.

I don’t recall precisely when I decided to link my blog to Twitter. I was drawn back into blogging about bioethics by Twitter, so I would guess it was probably some time in early 2012. mentoledo_reasonably_smallAs for my face being out there, that came shortly before Science Online 2013, when attendees were asked to have a recognizable icon. (For a while, I seriously thought about bringing a cutout of my cat’s face to wear.) My full name didn’t get added to Twitter until last week, when people were confused about what that last name was, and I realized it wouldn’t hurt to be slightly more clear.

But here’s the thing: I really don’t have anything to lose by being Kelly Hills on Twitter. I don’t have anything to lose being open in criticizing Nature, or telling Science Online where I think they’ve gone wrong, or with anything else. What was of value to me has already been taken away. So Henry Gee can’t really threaten to put me on a hit list or take me out or destroy my career when that’s all already been done to me. In fact, given that I’ve been accused of throwing servers (that were on fire!) off of buildings in some sort of malicious revenge scheme, Gee’d have to do a lot worse to even get me to blink.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t been threatened, but it is to say that I am privileged in a way that most people aren’t, regardless of their race, class, or status: I have nothing, and that makes me a very difficult person to threaten.

I, if nothing, am your cautionary tale. I am the one that should be pointed to when people say be careful, because I am in the place you end up when the narrative spins out of your control and the idea of controlling damage is as laughable as your reputation.

We often talk about privilege as a good place to be, and most of the time it is. But there is privilege from being so far beyond damaged that you no longer have to care, and it’s not a good privilege. morpheus1I am privileged in that I can say what I think, but that’s because there are no longer any consequences for me in the particular places where I use my voice.

I am nothing but sympathetic to those who feel that their lives, their careers, their reputations, require some degree of caution when they are online, and as such choose to write either anonymously or pseudonymously. They’re doing a delicate calculus, attempting to balance incredibly contradictory and competing needs, and I would never presume I know what’s better for those people, and I rail against the idea that I should be held up as any example of good because, if you really want to, you can find out my middle name. If anything, where I am now—that you know who I am—is an act of defiance. It’s a giant “bring it” of bravado in front of “what else do I have?” It’s trying to make the best of a bad situation, and it’s the sort of thing people should be able to choose, rather than face with resignation.


This post came about both from discussions happening over Henry Gee, a senior editor for Nature, outing a pseudonymous blogger, discussions of what it means to boycott Nature, and a really excellent series over at Hope Jahren’s blog on real life identity and the internet.

And just for the general record, it’s not all been bad. I’ve made friends and met some amazing people I wouldn’t have met in a million years otherwise, including my fiancé.

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?
Continue reading

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.