The October 2013 science blogging scandals and an emerging science blog aggregator/community in Canada (Science Borealis)

As I noted in my post earlier this week (Oct. 15, 2013), there are a lot of lovely things about the internet and concomitant media we use to interact with each other but there are also more difficult aspects as those of us who blog about science have discovered anew this last week or so. There have been a number of dramas being enacted and while there are websites which offer more comprehensive timelines, I feel obliged to offer something here otherwise my comments won’t make much sense to someone new to the situation.

It stated last week (Friday, Oct. 11, 2013) with DN Lee, a science blogger on the Scientific American blog network (SciAm blogs). She posted a piece about an interaction she had with a Biology Online editor who’d asked her to contribute as a guest blogger. She asked if she’d be paid and on hearing ‘no’ said something along the lines of ‘thanks but no’. The response from the editor, this is a direct quote, was this  “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” DN Lee then wrote about this incident in her Oct. 11, 2013 posting which was deleted within one hour of its publication by SciAm Editor in Chief and Senior VP,, Mariette DiChristina. (Arturo R. García offers a full timeline [up to his posting’s publication date] and commentary about the incident and the SciAm editor’s story as to why the posting was deleted [it has since been restored], along with an embedded video of DN Lee responding to the ‘whore’ comment, in his Oct. 14, 2013 posting on Racialicious.)

As far as I can tell, there was an online uproar which drove this incident to its current conclusion with Lee’s post reinstated and the Biology Online editor fired. I am making a point of mentioning this because it appears that the SciAm blogs editor (who has changed her story as to why the post was deleted in the first place) was pushed into reinstating Lee’s post due to the uproar and not because of any considered reflection. (For another take on these incidents with DN Lee, you can read Greg Laden’s Oct. 12, 2013 posting, on the SciBlogs website, where he partially contextualizes it with the Pepsigate incident, on SciBlogs some years ago, and how it was handled.)

It’ll be interesting to see what DN Lee does in the next few months as she continues to process and respond to what happened to her. She’s handled the situation with grace and offers some excellent advice about establishing your own bottom line in her video.

Ordinarily the story would end here, more or less. video. However, the furor has set off another set of incidents. First, Monica Byrne, writer and playwright, reposted a piece from the year before, Oct. 9, 2012, about an incident she experienced at some point in 2012 and slowly came to realize was a form of sexual harassment. She was propositioned by a respected, male science writer, blogger, and ‘mover and shaker’ within the science blogging community. It was done in a rather subtle way (it’s subtle when it’s being done to you) which is why it took her a while to understand what had happened.Byrne gives a good description of of the process of slowly realizing what happened and her various reactions to the realization and to Bora.

At the time in 2012 she didn’t name him but, this year, on Oct. 14, 2013, after reading about DN Lee’s treatment at SciAm blogs, she reposted the piece naming Bora Zivkovic as the male in question. For those not familiar with Bora’s prominence within the science blogoshpere, Laura Helmuth in her Oct.17,2013 piece for Slate describes it this way (Note: Links have been removed),

He [Bora Zivkovic] founded an extremely popular conference for science bloggers [Science Online], established science blog networks at various publications, and now (at least as I write) runs the well-respected collection of blogs at Scientific American. His nickname is the Blogfather. One common route into a science writing career in the past several years has been through Zivkovic: He routinely publishes young writers and promotes their stories with his large social media audience. Zivkovic has always been extremely solicitous of young journalists, generous with his time, charming, enthusiastic, gregarious.

Bora’s prominence and popularity meant he got lots of support and at least one person thought Byrne should not have named Bora publicly. Dr. Andrew Maynard (whom I’ve featured here many times and for whom I feel much respect and gratitude; he’s notably active on Twitter, with blogs, and elsewhere in the science blog, etc. community) decided to approach Byrne via email discussing the repercussions for Bora of the public shaming and strongly hinting that she remove Bora’s name from the reposted piece. You can read Andrew’s account of his actions, his email, and the comments he’s drawn from others in this Oct. 15, 2013 posting on the 2020 Science blog and some of his process as he realizes his own issues regarding sexual harassment and likable colleagues.

In retrospect Andrew’s email looks ill considered but he does bring up an interesting point, how do we deal with the sins other people commit upon us, and I’m offering this corollary: how does the sinner deal with those they’ve sinned against? Given that Bryne waited a year before revealing her harasser’s name, she either gave that some thought or had decided that she no longer cared about trying to get work in the science writing field or perhaps it was a bit of both.

In any event, Byrne decided to go forward and Bora offered an apology both in 2012 and in an Oct. 15, 2013 posting on his blog,

I am very ashamed of this incident which happened more than a year ago. Staff at Scientific American spoke to me and Ms. Byrne about our interaction at that time. I asked that my sincere apologies be conveyed to Ms. Byrne for the distress she suffered as a result of my inappropriate remarks and emails to her, and I also expressed my deep regret to the company about acting unprofessionally. The company offered her an apology as well. It was a difficult time for me personally and I made a mistake – I should not have shared my personal issues with her. It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since. [emphasis mine]

Unfortunately, there have been other incidents according to both the comments attached to Byrne’s blog posting and this Oct.17, 2013 posting by Hannah Wilton on Ladybits on Medium (Note: Links have been removed),

The reaction on Twitter was one of disbelief and anger from his network of science bloggers and friends. “Science blogosphere, I am tweetless… I can’t even retweet what has left me so stunned.” “Enraged children with a persecution complex are out on a witch hunt, it’ll blow over eventually…” “My closest friend is @boraz. I know him better than almost everyone. I would give my life for him. Thought you should know that.”

At first, I was paralyzed. But when I saw the “protect the herd” mentality among my friends, with some doubting that this behavior even qualified as sexual harassment, I had to speak up. I couldn’t leave Monica ridiculed and alone. Bora has been a friend and mentor for years. He recruited me to blog for Scientific American. And yet, even if she hadn’t named him, I would have recognized him from his behavior because I have gone through it too.

There are some voices in this discussion I want to include here, Priya Shetty in her Oct. 15, 2013 piece for Huffington Post condemns the silence about sexual harassment within the science community, Another Sexual Harassment Case in Science: The Deafening Silence That Surrounds It Condones It; Roger Pielke, Jr. in his Oct. 16, 2013 posting gives his perspective on the situation and why he thinks Andrew Maynard was wrong, Talking About Sexual Harassment in Science; and Alice Bell in her Oct. 16, 2013 posting for the Guardian, offers some context about science blogging, the Pepsigate incident, and her belief that this conversation about both incidents (Lee and Byrne), has revealed a dynamic community struggling to come to terms with sexual harassment in particular, Science, blogging, sexual harassment and the power of speaking out; The power of science blogging has always been the community, its members can find strength there.

Before offering a few of my thoughts on the issues. I am stating that In common with many others in the science blogosphere, I have had interactions (three or four?) with Bora. In my case they’ve been through this blog and on Twitter and through my involvement with Science Borealis (an aggregator/community for Canadian science bloggers that will be launched some time this fall (2013). I confess, I liked the man.

For me, the issues centre around Bora’s apology to Byrne and the institutional response (Scientific American) to the incidents. Leaving aside any question about the frequency with which he has met young women at coffee shops or elsewhere to share inappropriate personal stories and hint at a desire for an affair,,he’s had a year to consider the situation with Byrne. This latest  apology seems curiously bereft of any insight into his own behaviour or genuine remorse or empathy for the person he has sinned against. He’s ashamed (the first thing he says is about himself) and it was more than a year ago (so what Bora?). He expresses remorse (briefly) and acknowledges he was unprofessional. The next sentence is where the apology really falls apart, the company apologized too (?). I’m not sure how to interpret that phrase; does this mean the company is behind Bora or that Byrne now has three apologies (one from the company and two from Bora) which is above and beyond what’s necessary in this case?  The reference to the company apology is immediately followed by the statement that he was having a ‘difficult time’ and he made a mistake by sharing personal issues. Really? Sharing personal issues was the mistake?

Pretty much everyone has done this, i.e., offered a nonapology. Part of the problem here is that Bora has had a year to think about this incident so the apology seems a bit flimsy or cheap and, of course, the evidence strongly suggests this apology ends in a lie ” .. not behavior that I have engaged in before or since.”

The whole thing looks like a form of cheap grace, as per Diedrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian theologian, sourced from here,

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

It’s not a perfect quote for this situation but it does touch on a lot of what was going on in Bora’s 2013 apology.

As many people have pointed out the situation between Byrne (and others) brings up questions about power and its abuse. There’s an Oct. 18, 2013 posting on the Guardian which suggests Four ways to avoid becoming a leading sex pest; Be self-aware, recognise the trappings of power, deal with harassment proactively, and appreciate what leadership is really about. Those four points are important with regard to any situation where an abuse of power is possible. Mind you, it’s easy to come up with handy dandy guidelines, the difficulty is and always has been execution.

Who’s going to tell Bora he’s out of line? Until recently, it seems the answer to that is no one. Other than issuing an apology what did Scientific American do? And what will they do now?

Given the evidence, I’m looking at the situation with DN Lee, I’m not encouraged. The female editor at SciAm, Mariette DiChristina,, Editor in Chief and Senior VP, is trying to weasel her and the company out of responsibility for making the rather poor and ill-considered decision to remove Lee’s post. The first excuse, by the way, was that Lee’s piece was not about science. When that was contested by other SciAm bloggers who themselves had posted ‘non’ science pieces, a new excuse was found, they had to confirm the facts. It’s the weaseling that is so irritating. Just admit you folks made a mistake and you need to fix it.

As for the incident with Byrne (and others), it puts everything that Bora has done in terms of hiring and promoting people under a magnifying lens raises questions abut that and everything he’s worked at.

Scientific American may want to consider some kind of audit and ‘transparent’ communication about how they’re dealing with Lee’s situation and with the questions raised by Bora’s actions. Above all else, they shouldn’t indulge in any more weaseling.

Easy to say but as I look at the situation with Science Borealis getting ready to launch, I’m aware of just how easy it is to royally foul things up through an excess of speed, egotism (the certainty that one is a good person … no one is a good person all the time), and the sanctity of one’s own good intentions (I have good intentions so I don’t have to ask for permission; I don’t have time; etc.) or an unwillingness to be the odd person challenging and asking inconvenient questions.

One final thought, too often people think that good leadership means your team does what you want them to do. No,. Good leaders attract disparate and talented people who thoughtfully provide strong opinions based on insight, often painfully acquired. These are difficult teams to lead because those types of people aren’t just going to shut up and follow you. They want to be heard, they want their input to be taken into account, they’re likely to tell you things you don’t want to hear (helping the leader to achieve humility whether or not s/he wants it or not), and they’re going slow things down (helping the leader to achieve patience).

There aren’t too many easy ways to deal with issues of power (sexual harassment usually comes down to power). Self-awareness (both personal and institutional)  helps and that, sadly, is usually gained through bitter experience. Certainly, that’s how I’ve gained most of my self-awareness (such as it is).

I think most of the commentary has played itself out but on the off chance someone feels moved to comment here, I do take the weekends off and won’t be back until Monday, Oct. 21, 2013.

ETA Oct. 22, 2013: According to an Oct. 22, 2013 posting by Connie St. Louis on the Guardian Science blogs, Bora Zivkoovic resigned his position with Scientific American on Friday, Oct. 18, 2013.

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