Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Crisis of Trust in SciComm

Trust is earned. Trust is given. Trust is fragile.  Trust is broken.  Trust is earned.

My thoughts on recent events in the Science Online community and Joe Hanson's video.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve experienced emotions ranging from rage to disbelief to disappointment.  Today, I experienced a new emotion: fear. 

This emotional roller coaster seems to be the new norm for members of one particularly small community of human beings, to which I happen to be a longstanding member. 

This group consists of people all who profess a desire to improve the world, largely by sharing the splendor and wonder of science.  I refer to this group as the “Science Online” community, and I’d say that we are currently in a state of crisis.

A crisis of trust. 

You see, in recent weeks, we have witnessed one of our own verbally assaulted by an anonymous blog editor, who used a most vile word to attack our beloved Danielle Lee.  This incident drove me into a state of rage.  Who was this person? Why did they think they could be so cruel to a member of my community?

I spent more than an hour Googling the trace information we had to identify this person.  I wanted to identify him or her and demand that they be fired, immediately.  Fortunately, within a short period, we were informed that he was, indeed, relieved of his job. 

Editors at Scientific American, where Lee authors a blog, however, compounded the pain of the episode by pulling Lee’s blog post response to the offender from their website.  They eventually provided a reasonable sounding justification involving some legal mumbo jumbo, but the issue had already caught fire. 

Many within the community were not only angered by the misogynistic statement against Lee.  Now, they were angry that Lee’s voice, as a woman, was being censored.  It felt as though the offender’s point of view was being protected while Lee’s right to respond was being denied.  It echoed too many cases in which violated women had been silenced by the “system.”  I, too, was angered.   I felt Lee deserved the right to speak out and she deserved the protection of her sponsoring agencies. 

This issue continues to have ripple effects in the community, but it was just one of the first to recently ignite a movement to speak out on women’s issues in science.  Issues that deserve attention and demand action.

Sadly, Lee’s experience was somewhat drowned out by a similarly disturbing series of revelations that hit much closer to home.  Bora Zivkovic, a pioneer of the Science Online community and founder of the ScienceOnline organization, was implicated in numerous cases of sexual harassment against women within the community. His positions of authority magnified the impact of these cases, such that he lost both his posts. 

Zivkovic was considered a trusted leader within the community.  He was known for going to great strides to promote the work of women science communicators by offering them roles at conferences and providing writing opportunities.  How could he?!

On hearing of the accusations, I first found myself in a state of disbelief.  But as the stories accumulated and became more graphic, I soon reached a state of disappointment, nearing on despair.  I worried about the women in the community.  I worried about the sustainability of the community under such severe degradation of trust.  How could women in our community ever trust anyone?  How could acts of generosity ever be perceived as genuine?  How would we gain back the trust?

This violation of trust compounded the need for women to be more vocal about abuse in the science community.  Thankfully, Karen James started a Twitter hashtag for community members, women and men, to share their stories of abuse and maltreatment.  This became part of the healing process.  The community engaged in one of the most brutally honest and healthy discussions of sexual harassment I’ve ever seen.  It was a high point and the media described the dialogue as healthy and constructive, an example to others. 

Since then things have taken a disturbing turn for the worse.

Questionable accusations of sexual harassment have emerged.  A sense of indignation took root and the concept of reasonable engagement on women’s issues appeared to drift away. 

An expectation of immediate correction was instituted.  Change must happen, but change only comes with sustained effort, as evidenced by pretty much every social justice movement in history. 

Accusations of discrimination were even pointed in my direction, based on a single ill-advised Tweet.  One tweet (that I now regret and apologize for) triggered a tsunami of anger, attacks, taunts, and accusations against me. 

Despite many years of speaking out on women’s issues in science, despite being an ardent supporter of women science communicators, despite being a father to two young girls for whom it is one of my supreme goals to create a more gender balanced science community, despite these things and many other examples of my attempts to be an ally to the community of women science communicators, I was now facing down the barrel of a gun determined to make an example out of me. 

The anger I felt against Danielle Lee’s attacker was now targeted directly at me.  I panicked.  Others panicked for me.  I received back channel messages of support. Women and men from the community were telling me that what was being said wasn’t fair and they wished me well. 

“How could this be happening to me?  I’m an ally!” I thought.  

It didn’t matter.  It was happening and there was nothing I could do about it.  I had to rely on those who knew me.  I had to hope that my reputation in the community would protect me. 

I was saved by Carl Sagan.

It just so happened that an article by Erin Podolak about Carl Sagan and the lack of influence he had on her as a science communicator took over the conversation.  Suddenly, Twitter erupted in a discussion about whether Sagan should be treated as a “hero” of science communication.  

The disintegration of trust had bled into nearly every online conversation.  The criticisms of Sagan maintained the undertones of discrimination against women, despite the fact that he was known for advancing women and minorities in science and science communication, as evidenced by Carolyn Porco and Neil Degrasse-Tyson.

Simultaneously, Joe Hanson’s Thanksgiving Special video was released.  Hanson’s attempt at humor proved to be an extreme example of poor timing and poor judgment.  Even the most measured and levelheaded members of the community harshly criticized Hanson’s portrayal of Albert Einstein as a sexual harasser against Marie Curie. 

Clearly, the content of the video offended a significant number of people.  At this point, it has officially reached the level of epic science communication fails.  Hanson has acknowledged this and offered his apology, although some have chosen not to accept it.  Again, the trust remains broken.

What is currently happening in the Science Online community, in my opinion, goes beyond the pale.  The actions of the community in response to Hanson’s video scare me.  It’s as though we’ve lost our decency.  I won’t repeat here the words that are being used in the discussions. 

Initial statements of shock at the insensitivity of Hanson’s video have escalated into personal attacks, calls for his firing and even threats of violence against him.  I’m here to ask people to reassess their response to this huge screw up.

Here’s why I’d like to encourage folks to rethink this situation.

First, it cannot be stated enough.  We must fight to eliminate sexual discrimination. We must demand an end to sexual harassment.  We must hold anyone who commits these acts fully accountable. Hanson exercised poor judgment, but he is neither guilty of discrimination nor harassment.  If anyone can claim perfect judgment, let he or she be the one to judge Hanson. Otherwise, we must put this error into perspective and move forward with solutions, not destruction. 

Second, I’d like to say that it’s always been my understanding that we are a community of experimenters.  Not only do many of us experiment in science, but we also experiment with communications.  We see the entire spectrum of writing quality, video production quality, animation quality and, yes, varying degrees of humor.  Much of it needs a great deal of help.  We should be able to say that.  Some folks provide constructive criticism via social media, some as editors, some through emails and direct messages. 

Many times the comments are less accommodating than others.  It’s all part of this huge undertaking of building capacity to deliver science to the broader public.  Indeed, in this case, some have followed the traditional route of expressing disbelief and disapproval of the absurdity of Hanson’s video.  Others have gone beyond.

We have always encouraged and appreciated entrepreneurship in science communication.  As is true for business entrepreneurs, we should know that this means we cultivate a culture of failure.  It is only through failure that we can learn what works.  Sometimes those failures are more painful than others.  In this case, it’s incredibly painful.  And yet, there are mixed responses.  Some actually saw the humor in the video and publicly said so.  Despite this, Hanson’s attempt at humor was a disaster in the eyes of a too many.  He shouldn’t be crucified for it, though.  We should acknowledge the error and work to correct it.  It's time we try to rebuild the trust that has so badly eroded in recent weeks. 

Third, regarding calls for Hanson’s firing from PBS Digital Studios, I think we have yet to see the follow-through on this.  There is room for learning.  Hanson has worked incredibly hard for several years to create an identity that has proven to inspire young people.  He has thousands of loyal readers who share his work thousands of times daily on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter.  He has championed women’s causes.  Just the week prior to the release of the infamous video, he railed against discriminatory practices among the Nobel Prize selection committees.  He is a force for good in a sea of apathy and ignorance.  Without a doubt, he is an asset to science and science communication.  In my opinion, any mention of removing him from his contract with PBS is shortsighted and reflects misdirected anger.  He deserves the opportunity to recalibrate and power on in the name of science.

Finally, I want to personally speak to the man who is Joe Hanson.  I’ve known Joe for nearly eight years now.  Joe and I worked together in the same lab at the University of Texas at Austin.  When Joe arrived in the lab, he immediately contributed intellectually.  Joe was placed on a project very similar to mine.  Even as I was a senior graduate student at the time, he challenged me to up my game.  He was one of the most professional graduate students I’ve ever known.  He made me a better scientist. 

Throughout grad school, Joe and I served on several student committees together.  We launched two organizations on campus to promote science.  He shared my expectation that fairness and diversity be reflected in all our ventures.  As we discovered the world of science communication, it was immediately clear to me that he intended to continue to promote not just gender equality but equality on all fronts. 

I set out on the science policy path confronting bad science policy and pseudoscience.  Joe took a more even keeled approach.  He decided he wanted to inspire young people to love science.  He did his research and determined that Tumblr was the best medium to reach his chosen demographic. 

The title of his Tumblr blog (It’s Okay to be Smart) is telling.  He knew there were young people out there with doubts about whether it’s cool to be nerdy and care about being smart.  He created a safe place for them to explore science and ask those sometimes-embarrassing questions, like “My grades aren’t that great.  Should I become a scientist?”

One of the earliest projects Joe undertook was to inspire his niece to maintain her interest in science.  He called it “Project Niece” and he invited women scientists to submit their stories to provide examples for her to follow.  Liz Neeley provided an amazing story.  And, Joe sent an article on dolphins his niece had written to Jason Goldman to publish on his blog.  This is the example, not the exception, for Joe. 

You know, Joe is just someone you want to know.  Among his wild college friends, he was the cool and collected leader.  Joe married his college sweetheart and they are a disgustingly lovely couple.  They are pillars of the community and represent the values we’d all like to see in our friends and family. Obviously, these things cannot be known through our online personalities.  In this case, it's a real shame.

Recently, Joe came to Washington, DC.  I brought him home to meet my young family including my two daughters.  He’s fantastic with kids.  He dropped a little science on them and before he left for the evening, he spent time with my oldest daughter discussing the virtues of the various “My Little Ponies.” For me, that moment will always remain.

I’ll finish with this.  During Joe’s trip to DC, in an informal setting with friends, someone asked each of us to share the most annoying habit of others.  Of those in attendance, I knew Joe the best.  Of all the years we spent together in the lab, of all the hours outside the lab promoting science together, I couldn’t think of one bad thing to say. 


  1. We've done this before, and we'll probably do it again - in trying to be better than the rest we go too far in our outrage about someone else's human error.

    We need to get over ourselves. Any of us could make the kind of mistake Joe did. We need to keep the ability to make jokes about the things we care about

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