Life as an Extreme Sport

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.

You Should Watch This SCOTUS Case, Just in Case Your Skin Sloughs Off

We’ve all been in the situation where we do something – crash a bike, step wrong on thawing ground, trip over a damnedbeloved pet – that leaves us with a painful injury that doesn’t go away. And when that happens, we go to the doctor to verify we’re not badly injured, and possibly pick up some anti-inflammatories. For most of us, when this happens, our skin won’t slough off, we won’t end up in a burn unit for treatment, and we won’t be in a medically induced coma for months.

Most of us aren’t Karen Bartlett, who suffered a rare side effect of NSAIDs when she took sulindac: toxic epidermal necrolysis. Aside from the extreme trauma of seeing your skin shed off you like wet tissue, Ms. Bartlett suffered permanent damage to her esophagus and lungs, and was left legally blind.

Rather understandably, Ms. Bartlett sued the manufacturer of sulindac, Mutual Pharmaceutical Company, the manufacturer of the generic formulation she took. She argued the drug design was defective and dangerous, and she won both the case and the appeal. Mutual Pharmaceutical Company, apparently attempting to live up to the reputation of pharmaceutical companies everywhere, has continued to appeal the decision against them, and this month the Supreme Court of the United States will hear the case.

At crux, Mutual Pharmaceutical Company is arguing that because they have no control over the design of the drug, they are not liable for any injuries sustained from taking it; they say this is the same as a recent SCOTUS ruling that does not allow patients to sue generic manufacturers for warning labels, as the company has no control over that information.

The problem I have with this argument is that we know that this is patently false. In October of 2012, the FDA removed approval of Budeprion XL 300, a generic version of Wellbutrin XL 300 manufactured by Impax and marketed by Teva. Why? Because their formulation was not therapeutically equivalent, and likely never had been.

The Impax/Teva Budeprion XL 300 was approved in December 2006; given that 80% of prescriptions filled in the United States are generic, it’s safe to say that quite a few generic prescriptions for Wellbutrin XL 300 were filled in that time. Almost immediately, the FDA began receiving reports that the generic form of the drug was not therapeutically equivalent; patients experienced reduced efficacy. Reduced efficacy is a polite way of saying that patients, many of whom were severely depressed, weren’t receiving any benefit from taking the drug, something I think we would all agree is a harm. And yet patients were taking this ineffective drug for six years, because the FDA was unable to quickly move to investigate the bioequivalence of Budeprion XL 300 to Wellbutri XL 300.

Clearly, generic manufacturers have the ability to change formulations, whether they should or it’s legal aside.

Generic manufacturers say that allowing juries to award damages to patients harmed by generics trumps the authority of the FDA, and the FDA is grudgingly siding with manufacturers on this. The problem here is that this argument presumes two things:

  1. that the FDA always has all information regarding a pharmaceutical, something that Vioxx alone clearly indicates isn’t true;If you want to read more about pharma behaving badly, hiding clinical trial results, etc, check out Carl Elliott’s White Coat Black Hat and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma.
  2. that the FDA has the ability to move quickly to protect patients, something the Budeprion XL 300 example shows is not the case.

Lawsuits are one of the few ways it seems that patients have any ability to advocate for themselves – and, as Ms. Bartlett’s lawyer notes, force pharmaceutical companies to reveal information that they often take effort to squelch. Hopefully SCOTUS recognizes both the limitations of the FDA and the need to give patients a venue wherein they can hold manufacturers accountable for damages inflicted by the product they produce.

The Problem with Highlighting Beauty Along with Brains

So apparently Business Insider thought that they would do the world a solid and highlight the fact that scientists can be attractive, sexy people, too. It seems the idea that there can be more to being a scientist than a messy-haired, lab-coat-wearing dweeb is not only newsworthy, but list-worthy.

Now, on the one hand, in a world where the People’s Sexiest list generates dialog for weeks, I can see why someone would think that the same should be done for scientists. And the other hand really appreciates the fact that the list was split 50/50, male and female. In the past, a list like this would have been invariably dominated by women; equal opportunity oogling FTW.

But the gripping hand. Oh, that gripping hand.

Business Insider is trying to cast this list of sexy scientists as some sort of outreach list – people who are sexy, who make science sexy. The problem is, it’s alienating as fuck. Suddenly, there’s one more area of life to be judged by looks rather than anything else, and for many people, especially many women, science has been a refuge where brains are what matter (or at least what matter first). Unlike many areas of life, in science, what you can do matters more than how you look.

Speaking from experience, starting at a young age, girls are pressured to conform to social norms about weight and appearance. I remember this vividly because I was always tall for my age, I am a natural blonde, and I hit menarche and puberty years before most of my classmates.“Amazon” was the politer name I was called. “Bazoonga Boobs” was much less polite, and sadly more common. I don’t recommend hitting bra size DD when you’re 12. It was, in a word, hell. “You could be so pretty if” coupled with being different than my peers; kids are kids and they were vicious and cruel. My refuge, the place where what I looked like didn’t matter, was the science and computer lab, where my brain could run wild and free and I was judged based on how I thought and nothing else. I was judged based on what I could control, because I could learn the scientific method, I could research and I could form hypotheses; I could experiment and importantly, I could stretch my mind in a zone where my height just meant I could reach the top shelf of chemicals, where all that mattered about my hair was that it was pulled back, and what I wore and even what my body looked like was hidden by a white lab coat.

And I can imagine how I would have felt, at 12 years of age, had I come across a list like this, because I still feel twinges of it now, regardless of largely having shaken off cultural conditioning over the years. The women are so pretty, so successful, (so much younger!). Something I can never be. So why bother? Why bother at all, when brain is being judged in conjunction with body against an ideal I could only achieve through surgery (and how nice for people commenting on the Business Insider piece to note that’s an option).

We already know that low self-esteem negatively harms teen girls, and we’re starting to see more acknowledgement of how this damages teen boys, as well. Science, at least for the people I associated with (and still do associate with) was a refuge from the pressures and a place where our self-esteem could flourish, and we could be proud of ourselves for our achievements, not our ability to be the culturally-sanctioned right shape and size for our gender.

While I believe that Business Insider had at least some decent motive, in attempting to show that scientists can be “all kinds of people,” by only focusing on the exact opposite of the “dweeb scientist” image, the article only serves to spread the toxic notion that beauty is an important criteria for evaluating a person.

As Jacquelyn Gill ”so succinctly noted on Twitter, “Highlighting “sexy” scientists doesn’t make science more accessible, interesting or relevant. It [merely] fetishizes some scientists as curiosity.”

Beginner’s Mind, Writing, and Time to Fail

I was expressing my general frustration with myself on Twitter this morning, noting that I wished I could take a master class in pitching from one of the writers/editors that I quite admire and like. One of them, Bora Zivkovic, picked up the conversation and talked about writing a post on what he’s looking for at the SciAm Guest Blogs, which is admittedly a different beast than pitching to magazines (let alone paid sources). He also linked me to The Open Notebook, which is a URL that Leigh Turner actually passed on a while back — something I both acknowledged on Twitter and then joked about, saying that I need to just carve out some time to fail.

That concept, though, struck me.Obviously, as I’m now nattering on about it here. Failure isn’t really something we celebrate, or even much encourage in society — and within both academia and writing, failure might as well be a four letter word. Maybe I feel this more acutely due to a variety of pressures, including frequently being labeled “one of the smart kids who’ll figure it out on her own” and the pervasive sense of impostor syndromeI know, I know, post-SciO13 post coming. stemming from the fact that I managed to fall into semi-professional writing without having to learn the ropes. But a lot of the process is opaque to me — while I seem decent at the first steps of networking, moving beyond that to the selling self point? No clue. (And there is some irony here, in that I’m really very good at connecting other people together. Perhaps I should ditch aspirations of writing and instead become an agent.) And more than the process being opaque, I’m not even sure who to ask to make it less — and the advice I have received has been quite similar to school: “oh you’re smart, you’ll figure it out.”

We could quibble all day over the first statement, so won’t — but there is pressure within the second half, the “you’ll figure it out.” Why? In some ways, it feels like it takes away the safety net of failure. The presumption — at least how I read it — is that this thing I’m wondering about, be it pitching or anything else, is so simple that I should have no problems figuring it out, and therefore I cannot fail. Since I’m not a surgeon or in some other lives-depend-on-me profession, the notion of not being able to fail is rather silly, but the idea that I cannot is, in itself, paralyzing.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered it, and I’ve heard from friends in the humanities, social and “hard” sciences who’ve had the same experience. Their PI or advisor tells them to take care of X, it’s so simple — one friend was told that a chemistry lab was so simple a monkey could do it. And he sat in the lab for several days, unable to decipher what he needed to do, but terrified to ask for help because he should be smarter than a monkey.

I wonder what we’re losing, by not giving ourselves — especially those of us just starting out — the chance to fail, and learn from those failures? I remember that being a common mantra from my mother when I was growing up: try. If you don’t succeed, try again. Learn from your mistakes. At some point, though, the idea of learning from mistakes dropped away and was replaced with the idea that there simply cannot be mistakes.

One of the most important concepts in Buddhism is that of beginner’s mind, perhaps best summed up by the quote that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This concept basically says that you should always remain open to the world, eager and without preconceptions, as a novice would be, rather than live within the world of expectations and boundaries that come when you are an expert. Children are the best examples of beginner’s mind, because they explore the world with an openness and creativity that isn’t bound up in fear of failure or acknowledgement of limitations.

My initial reply to Bora, that I just need to carve out some time to fail, was a joke, but the more I think about it the more I realize that it’s true. I need to carve out that time to try new things, and to fail and be rejected, to apply beginner’s mind beyond the meditation cushion and give myself permission to not be perfect on the first try, but instead learn from those experiences, dust myself off, and try (try) again.