Ethical and practical issues for uBiome to keep working on.

Earlier this week, the Scientific American Guest Blog hosted a post by Jessica Richman and Zachary Apte, two members of the team at uBiome, a crowdfunded citizen science start-up. Back in February, as uBiome was in the middle of its crowdfunding drive, a number of bloggers (including me) voiced worries that some of the ethical issues of the uBiome project might require more serious attention. Partly in response to those critiques, Richman’s and Apte’s post talks about their perspectives on Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and how in their present configuration they seem suboptimal for commercial citizen science initiatives.

Their post provides food for thought, but there are some broader issues about which I think the uBiome team should think a little harder.

Ethics takes more than simply meeting legal requirements.

Consulting with lawyers to ensure that your project isn’t breaking any laws is a good idea, but it’s not enough. Meeting legal requirements is not sufficient to meet your ethical obligations (which are well and truly obligations even when they lack the force of law).

Now, it’s the case that there is often something like the force of law deployed to encourage researchers (among others) not to ignore their ethical obligations. If you accept federal research funds, for example, you are entering into a contract one of whose conditions is forking within federal guidelines for ethical use of animal or human subjects. If you don’t want the government to enforce this agreement, you can certainly opt out of taking the federal funds.

However, opting out of federal funding does not remove your ethical duties to animals or human subjects. It may remove the government’s involvement in making you live up to your ethical obligations, but the ethical obligations are still there.

This is a tremendously important point — especially in light of a long history of human subjects research in which researchers have often not even recognized their ethical obligations to human subjects, let alone had a good plan for living up to them.

Here, it is important to seek good ethical advice (as distinct from legal advice), from an array of ethicists, including some who see potential problems with your plans. If none of the ethicists you consult see anything to worry about, you probably need to ask a few more! Take the potential problems they identify seriously. Think through ways to manage the project to avoid those problems. Figure out a way to make things right if a worst case scenario should play out.

In a lot of ways, problems that uBiome encountered with the reception of its plan seemed to flow from a lack of good — and challenging — ethical advice. There are plenty of other people and organizations doing citizen science projects that are similar enough to uBiome (from the point of view of interactions with potential subjects/participants), and many of these have experience working with IRBs. Finding them and asking for their guidance could have helped the uBiome team foresee some of the issues with which they’re dealing now, somewhat late in the game.

There are more detailed discussions of the chasm between what satisfies the law and what’s ethical at The Broken Spoke and Drugmonkey. You should, as they say, click through and read the whole thing.

Some frustrations with IRBs may be based on a misunderstanding of how they work.

An Institutional Review Board, or IRB, is a body that examines scientific protocols to determine whether they meet ethical requirements in their engagement of human subjects (including humans who provide tissue or other material to a study). The requirement for independent ethical evaluation of experimental protocols was first articulated in the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki, which states:

The research protocol must be submitted for consideration, comment, guidance and approval to a research ethics committee before the study begins. This committee must be independent of the researcher, the sponsor and any other undue influence. It must take into consideration the laws and regulations of the country or countries in which the research is to be performed as well as applicable international norms and standards but these must not be allowed to reduce or eliminate any of the protections for research subjects set forth in this Declaration. The committee must have the right to monitor ongoing studies. The researcher must provide monitoring information to the committee, especially information about any serious adverse events. No change to the protocol may be made without consideration and approval by the committee.

(Bold emphasis added.)

In their guest post, Richman and Apte assert, “IRBs are usually associated with an academic institution, and are provided free of charge to members of that institution.”

It may appear that the services of an IRB are “free” to those affiliated with the institution, but they aren’t really. Surely it costs the institution money to run the IRB — to hire a coordinator, to provide ethics training resources for IRB members and to faculty, staff, and students involved in human subjects research, to (ideally) give release time to faculty and staff on the IRB so they can actually devote the time required to consider protocols, comment upon them, provide guidance to PIs, and so forth.

Administrative costs are part of institutional overhead, and there’s a reasonable expectation that researchers whose protocols come before the IRB will take a turn serving on the IRB at some point. So IRBs most certainly aren’t free.

Now, given that the uBiome team was told they couldn’t seek approval from the IRBs at any institutions where they plausibly could claim an affiliation, and given the expense of seeking approval from a private-sector IRB, I can understand why they might have been hesitant to put money down for IRB approval up front. They started with no money for their proposed project. If the project itself ended up being a no-go due to insufficient funding, spending money on IRB approval would seem pointless.

However, it’s worth making it clear that expense is not in itself a sufficient reason to do without ethical oversight. IRB oversight costs money (even in an academic institution where those costs are invisible to PIs because they’re bundled into institutional overhead). Research in general costs money. If you can’t swing the costs (including those of proper ethical oversight), you can’t do the research. That’s how it goes.

Richman and Apte go on:

[W]e wanted to go even further, and get IRB approval once we were funded — in case we wanted to publish, and to ensure that our customers were well-informed of the risks and benefits of participation. It seemed the right thing to do.

So, we decided to wait until after crowdfunding and, if the project was successful, submit for IRB approval at that point.

Getting IRB approval at some point in the process is better than getting none at all. However, some of the worries people (including me) were expressing while uBiome was at the crowdfunding stage of the process (before IRB approval) were focused on how the lines between citizen scientist, human subject, and customer were getting blurred.

Did donors to the drive believe that, by virtue of their donations, they were guaranteed to be enrolled in the study (as sample providers)? Did they have a reasonable picture of the potential benefits of their participation? Did they have a reasonable picture of the potential risks of their participation?

These are not questions we leave to PIs. To assess them objectively, we put these questions before a neutral third-party … the IRB.

If the expense of formal IRB consideration of the uBiome protocol was prohibitive during the crowdfunding stage, it surely would have gone some way to meeting ethical duties if the uBiome team had vetted the language in their crowdfunding drive with independent folks attentive to human subjects protection issues. That the ethical questions raised by their fundraising drive were so glaringly obvious to so many of us suggests that skipping this step was not a good call.

We next arrive at the issue of the for-profit IRB. Richman and Apte write:

Some might criticize the fact that we are using a private firm, one not connected with a prestigious academic institution. We beg to differ. This is the same institution that works with academic IRBs that need to coordinate multi-site studies, as well as private firms such as 23andme and pharmaceutical companies doing clinical trials. We agree that it’s kind of weird to pay for ethical review, but that is the current system, and the only option available to us.

I don’t think paying for IRB review is the ethical issue. If one were paying for IRB approval, that would be an ethical issue, and there are some well known rubber-stamp-y private IRBs out there.

Carl Elliott details some of the pitfalls of the for-profit IRB in his book White Coat, Black Hat. The most obvious of these is that, in a competition for clients, a for-profit IRB might well feel a pressure to forego asking the hard questions, to be less ethically rigorous (and more rubber-stamp-y) — else clients seeking approval would take their business to a competing IRB they saw as more likely to grant that approval with less hassle.

Market forces may provide good solutions to some problems, but it’s not clear that the problem of how to make research more ethical is one of them. Also, it’s worth noting that being a citizen science project does not in and of itself preclude review by an academic IRB – plenty of citizen science projects run by academic scientists do just that. It’s uBiome’s status as a private-sector citizen science project that led to the need to find another IRB.

That said, if folks with concerns knew which private IRB the uBiome team used (something they don’t disclose in their guest post), those folks could inspect the IRB’s track record for rigor and make a judgment from that.

Richman and Apte cite as further problems with IRBs, at least as currently constituted, lack of uniformity across committees and lack of transparency. The lack of uniformity is by design, the thought being that local control of committees should make them more responsive to local concerns (including those of potential subjects). Indeed, when research is conducted by collaborators from multiple institutions, one of the marks of good ethical design is when different local IRBs are comfortable approving the protocol. As well, at least part of the lack of transparency is aimed at human subjects protection — for example, ensuring that the privacy of human subjects is not compromised in the release of approved research protocols.

This is not to say that there is no reasonable discussion to have about striving for more IRB transparency, and more consistency between IRBs. However, such a discussion should center ethical considerations, not convenience or expediency.

Focusing on tone rather than substance makes it look like you don’t appreciate the substance of the critique.

Richman and Apte write the following of the worries bloggers raised with uBiome:

Some of the posts threw us off quite a bit as they seemed to be personal attacks rather than reasoned criticisms of our approach. …

We thought it was a bit… much, shall we say, to compare us to the Nazis (yes, that happened, read the posts) or to the Tuskegee Experiment because we funded our project without first paying thousands of dollars for IRB approval for a project that had not (and might never have) happened.

I have read all of the linked posts (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) that Richman and Apte point to in leveling this complaint about tone. I don’t read them as comparing the uBiome team to Nazis or the researchers who oversaw the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

I’m willing to stipulate that the tone of some of these posts was not at all cuddly. It may have made members of the uBiome team feel defensive.

However, addressing the actual ethical worries raised in these posts would have done a lot more for uBiome’s efforts to earn the public’s trust than adopting a defensive posture did.

Make no mistake, harsh language or not, the posts critical of uBiome were written by a bunch of people who know an awful lot about the ins and outs of ethical interactions with human subjects. These are also people who recognize from their professional lives that, while hard questions can feel like personal attacks, they still need to be answered. They are raising ethical concerns not to be pains, but because they think protecting human subjects matters — as does protecting the collective reputation of those who do human subjects research and/or citizen science.

Trust is easier to break than to build, which means one project’s ethical problems could be enough to sour the public on even the carefully designed projects of researchers who have taken much more care thinking through the ethical dimensions of their work. Addressing potential problems in advance seems like a better policy than hoping they’ll be no big deal.

And losing focus on the potential problems because you don’t like the way in which they were pointed out seems downright foolish.

Much of uBiome’s response to the hard questions raised about the ethics of their project has focused on tone, or on meeting examples that provide historical context for our ethical guidelines for human subject research with the protestation, “We’re not like that!” If nothing else, this suggests that the uBiome team hasn’t understood the point the examples are meant to convey, nor the patterns that they illuminate in terms of ethical pitfalls into which even non-evil scientists can fall if they’re not careful.

And it is not at all clear that the uBiome team’s tone in blog comments and on social media like Twitter has done much to help its case.

What is still lacking, amidst all their complaints about the tone of the critiques, is a clear account of how basic ethical questions (such as how uBiome will ensure that the joint roles of customer, citizen science participant, and human subject don’t lead to a compromise of autonomy or privacy) are being answered in uBiome’s research protocol.

A conversation on the substance of the critiques would be more productive here than one about who said something mean to whom.

Which brings me to my last issue:

New models of scientific funding, subject recruitment, and outreach that involve the internet are better served by teams that understand how the internet works.

Let’s say you’re trying to fund a project, recruit participants, build general understanding, enthusiasm, support, and trust. Let’s say that your efforts involve websites where you put out information and social media use where you amplify some of that information or push links to your websites or favorable media coverage.

People looking at the information you’ve put out there are going to draw conclusions based on the information you’ve made public. They may also draw speculative conclusions from the gaps — the information you haven’t made public.

You cannot, however, count on them to base their conclusions on information to which they’re not privy, including what’s in you’re heart.

There may be all sorts of good efforts happening behind the scenes to get rigorous ethical oversight off the ground. If it’s invisible to the public, there’s no reason the public should assume it’s happening.

If you want people to draw more accurate conclusions about what you’re doing, and about what potential problems might arise (and how you’re preparing to face them if they do), a good way to go is to make more information public.

Also, recognize that you’re involved in a conversation that is being conducted publicly. Among other things, this means it’s unreasonable to expect people with concern to take it to private email in order to get further information from you. You’re the one with a project that relies on cultivating public support and trust; you need to put the relevant information out there!

(What relevant information? Certainly the information relevant to responding to concerns and critiques articulated in the above-linked blog posts would be a good place to start — which is yet another reason why it’s good to be able to get past tone and understand substance.)

In a world where people email privately to get the information that might dispel their worries, those people are the only ones whose worries are addressed. The rest of the public that’s watching (but not necessarily tweeting, blogging, or commenting) doesn’t get that information (especially if you ask the people you email not to share the content of that email publicly). You may have fully lost their trust with nary a sign in your inboxes.

Maybe you wish the dynamics of the internet were different. Some days I do, too. But unless you’re going to fix the internet prior to embarking on your brave new world of crowdfunded citizen science, paying some attention to the dynamics as they are now will help you use it productively, rather than to create misunderstandings and distrust that then require remediation.

That could clear the way to a much more interesting and productive conversation between uBiome, other researchers, and the larger public.

When we target chemophobia, are we punching down?

Over at Pharyngula, Chris Clarke challenges those in the chemical know on their use of “dihydrogen monoxide” jokes. He writes:

Doing what I do for a living, I often find myself reading things on Facebook, Twitter, or those increasingly archaic sites called “blogs” in which the writer expresses concern about industrial effluent in our air, water, consumer products or food. Sometimes the concerns are well-founded, as in the example of pipeline breaks releasing volatile organic chemicals into your backyard. Sometimes, as in the case of concern over chemtrails or toxic vaccines, the concerns are ill-informed and spurious.

And often enough, the educational system in the United States being the way it’s been since the Reagan administration, those concerns are couched in terms that would not be used by a person with a solid grounding in science. People sometimes miss the point of dose-dependency, of acute versus chronic exposure, of the difference between parts per million and parts per trillion. Sometimes their unfamiliarity with the basic facts of chemistry causes them to make patently ridiculous alarmist statements and then double down on them when corrected.

And more times than I can count, if said statements are in a public venue like a comment thread, someone will pipe up by repeating a particular increasingly stale joke. Say it’s a discussion of contaminants in tap water allegedly stemming from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction. Said wit will respond with something like:

“You know what else might be coming out of your tap? DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE!”

Two hydrogens, one oxygen … what’s coming out of your tap here is water. Hilarious! Or perhaps not.

Clarke argues that those in the chemical know whip out the dihydrogen monoxide joke to have a laugh at the expense of someone who doesn’t have enough chemical knowledge to understand whether conditions they find alarming really ought to alarm them. However, how it usually goes down is that other chemically literate people in earshot laugh while the target of the joke ends up with no better chemical understanding of things.

Really, all the target of the joke learns is that the teller of the joke has knowledge and is willing to use it to make someone else look dumb.

Clarke explains:

Ignorance of science is an evil that for the most part is foisted upon the ignorant. The dihydrogen monoxide joke depends for its humor on ridiculing the victims of that state of affairs, while offering no solution (pun sort of intended) to the ignorance it mocks. It’s like the phrase “chemophobia.” It’s a clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.

The dihydrogen monoxide joke punches down, in other words. It mocks people for not having had access to a good education. And the fact that many of its practitioners use it in order to belittle utterly valid environmental concerns, in the style of (for instance) Penn Jillette, makes it all the worse — even if those concerns aren’t always expressed in phraseology a chemist would find beyond reproach, or with math that necessarily works out on close examination.

There’s a weird way in which punching down with the dihydrogen monoxide joke is the evil twin of the “deficit model” in science communication.

The deficit model assumes that the focus in science communication to audiences of non-scientists should be squarely on filling in gaps in their scientific knowledge, teaching people facts and theories that they didn’t already know, as if that is the main thing they must want from science. (It’s worth noting that the deficit model seems to assume a pretty unidirectional flow of information, from the science communicator to the non-scientist.)

The dihydrogen monoxide joke, used the way Clarke describes, identifies a gap in understanding and then, instead of trying to fill it, points and laughs. If the deficit model naïvely assumes that filling gaps in knowledge will make the public cool with science, this kind of deployment of the dihydrogen monoxide joke seems unlikely to provoke any warm feelings towards science or scientists from the person with a gappy understanding.

What’s more, this kind of joking misses an opportunity to engage with what they’re really worried about and why. Are they scared of chemicals per se? Of being at the mercy of others who have information about which chemicals can hurt us (and in which amounts) and/or who have more knowledge about or control of where those chemicals are in our environment? Do they not trust scientists at all, or are they primarily concerned about whether they can trust scientists in the employ of multinational corporations?

Do their concerns have more to do with the information and understanding our policymakers have with regard to chemicals in our world — particularly about whether these policymakers have enough to keep us relatively safe, or about whether they have the political will to do so?

Actually having a conversation and listening to what people are worried about could help. It might turn out that people with the relevant scientific knowledge to laugh at the dihydrogen monoxide joke and those without share a lot of the same concerns.

Andrew Bissette notes that there are instances where the dihydrogen monoxide joke isn’t punching down but punching up, where educated people who should know better use large platforms to take advantage of the ignorant. So perhaps it’s not the case that we need a permanent moratorium on the joke so much as more careful thought about what we hope to accomplish with it.

Let’s return to Chris Clarke’s claim that the term “chemophobia” is “a clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.”

Lots of chemists in the blogosphere regularly blog and tweet about chemophobia. If they took to relentlessly tagging as “chemophobe!” people who are lacking access to the body of knowledge and patterns of reasoning that define chemistry, I’d agree that it was the same kind of punching down as the use of the dihydrogen monoxide joke Clarke describes. To the extent that chemists are actually doing this to assert membership in the Smarter Than You tribe, I think it’s counterproductive and mean to boot, and we should cut it out.

But, knowing the folks I do who blog and tweet about chemophobia, I’m pretty sure their goal is not to maintain clear boundaries between The Smart and The Dumb. When they fire off a #chemophobia tweet, it’s almost like they’re sending up the Batsignal, rallying their chemical community to fight some kind of crime.

So what is it these chemists — the people who have access to the body of knowledge and patterns of reasoning that define chemistry — find problematic about the “chemophobia” of others? What do they hope to accomplish by pointing it out?

Part of where they’re coming from is probably grounded in good old fashioned deficit-model reasoning, but with more emphasis on helping others learn a bit of chemistry because it’s cool. There’s usually a conviction that the basics of the chemistry that expose the coolness are not beyond the grasp of adults of normal intelligence — if only we explain in accessibly enough. Ash Jogalekar suggests more concerted efforts in this direction, proposing a lobby for chemistry (not the chemical industry) that takes account of how people feel about chemistry and what they want to know. However it’s done, the impulse to expose the cool workings of a bit of the world to those who want to understand them should be offered as a kindness. Otherwise, we’re doing it wrong.

Another part of what moves the chemists I know who are concerned with chemophobia is that they don’t want people who are not at home with chemistry to get played. They don’t want them to be vulnerable to quack doctors, nor to merchants of doubt trying to undermine sound science to advance a particular economic or political end, nor to people trying to make a buck with misleading claims, nor to legitimately confused people who think they know much more than they really do.

People with chemical know-how could help address this kind of vulnerability, being partners to help sort out the reliable information from the bogus, the overblown risks from risks that ought to be taken seriously or investigated further.

But short of teaching the folks without access to the body of knowledge and patterns of reasoning that define chemistry everything they know to be their own experts (which is the deficit model again), providing this kind of help requires cultivating trust. It requires taking the people to whom your offering the help seriously, recognizing that gaps in their chemical understanding don’t make them unintelligent or of less value as human beings.

And laughing at the expense of the people who could use your help — using your superior chemical knowledge to punch down — seems unlikely to foster that trust.

Want good reasons to be a Creationist? You won’t find them here.

I don’t know why it surprises me when technology reporters turn out to be not only anti-science, but also deeply confused about what’s actually going on in scientific knowledge-building. Today’s reminder comes in Virginia Heffernan’s column, “Why I’m a creationist”.

There seems not to be much in the way of a coherent argument in support of Creationism in the column. As near as I can tell, Heffernan is down on science because:

  1. Science sometimes uses chains of inference that are long and complicated.
  2. Science has a hard time coming up with decisive answers to complicated questions (at least at a satisfyingly prompt rate).
  3. Science maybe provides some good reasons to worry about the environment, and she’d prefer not to worry about the environment.
  4. A scientist was mean to a religious person at some point. Some scientists just don’t seem like nice people.
  5. Science trades in hypotheses, and hypotheses aren’t facts — they could be false!
  6. Darwin based his whole theory on a tautology, “whatever survives survives”! [Nope!]
  7. Evolutionary psychology first claimed X, then claimed Y (which seems to directly contradict X), and neither of those claims seems to have especially rigorous empirical backing … so all of evolutionary theory must be wrong!
  8. Evolutionary theory just isn’t as compelling (at least to Heffernan) as a theory of human origins should be.

On item #5 there, if this is an issue for one’s acceptance of evolutionary theory, it’s also an issue for one’s acceptance knowledge claims from other areas of science.

This is something we can lay at the feet of the problem of induction. But, we can also notice that scientists deal quite sensibly with the problem of induction lurking in the background. Philosopher of science Heather Douglas explains this nicely in her book Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal, where she describes what it means for scientists to accept a hypothesis.

To say P has been accepted is to say P belongs to the stock of established scientific knowledge, which means it satisfies criteria for standards of appraisal from within science (including what kind of empirical evidence there is for P, whether there is empirical evidence that supports not-P, etc.). Accepting P is saying that there is no reason to expect that P will be rejected after more research, and that only general inductive doubts render P uncertain.

That’s as certain as knowledge can get, at least without a divine guarantee. Needless to say, such a “guarantee” would present epistemic problems of its own.

As for Heffernan’s other reasons for preferring Creationism to science, I’m not sure I have much to say that I haven’t already said elsewhere about why they’re silly, but I invite you to mount your own critiques in the comments.

Professional communities, barriers to inclusion, and the value of a posse.

Last week, I wrote a post about an incident connected to a professional conference. A male conference-goer wrote a column attempting to offer praise for a panel featuring four female conference-goers but managed to package this praise in a way that reinforced sexist assumptions about the value women colleagues add to a professional community.

The women panelists communicated directly with the male commentator about his problematic framing. The male commentator seemed receptive to this feedback. I blogged about it as an example of why it’s important to respond to disrespect within professional communities, even if it’s not intended as disrespect, and despite the natural inclination to let it go. And my post was praised for offering a discussion of the issue that was calm, sensitive, and measured.

But honestly? I’m unconvinced that my calm, sensitive, measured discussion will do one whit of good to reduce the incidence of such casual sexism in the future, in the community of science journalist or in any other professional community. Perhaps there were some readers who, owing to the gentle tone, were willing to examine the impact of describing colleagues who are women primarily in terms of their looks, but if a less gentle tone would have put them off from considering the potential for harm to members of their professional communities, it’s hard to believe these readers would devote much energy to combatting these harms — whether or not they were being asked nicely to do so.

Sometimes someone has to really get your attention — in a way that shakes you up and makes you deeply uncomfortable — in order for you to pay attention going forward. Maybe feeling bad about the harm to someone else is a necessary first step to developing empathy.

And certainly, laying out the problem while protecting you from what it feels like to be one of the people struggling under the effects of that problem takes some effort. If going to all that trouble doesn’t actually leave enough of an impression to keep the problem from happening some more, what’s the point?

* * * * *

What does it take to create a diverse professional community? It requires more than an absence of explicit rules or standing practices that bar certain kinds of people from membership, more even that admitting lots of different kinds of people into the “pipeline” for that profession. If you’re in the community by virtue of your educational or employment status but you’re not actually part of the discussions that define your professional community, it may help the appearance of diversity, but not the reality of it.

The chilly climate women have been talking about in a variety of male-dominated professional communities is a real thing.

Being a real member of a professional community includes being able to participate fully in venues for getting your work and insights into the community’s discussions. These venues include journals and professional meetings, as well as panels or study sections that evaluate grant proposals. Early in one’s membership in a professional community, venues like graduate seminars and department symposia are also really important.

One problem here is that usually individuals without meaningful access to participation are also without the power in the community required to effectively address particular barriers to their access. Such individuals can point out the barriers, but they are less likely to be listened to than someone else in the community without those barriers.

Everyday sexism is just one such barrier.

This barrier can take a number of particular forms.

For the students on their way into a professional community, it’s a barrier to find out that senior members of the community who you expected would help train you and eventually take you seriously as a colleague are more inclined to sexualize you or full-on sexually harass you. It’s a barrier when you see people in your community minimize that behavior, whether offhandedly or with rather more deliberation.

It’s a barrier when members of your community focus on your looks rather than your intellectual contributions, or act like it’s cute or somehow surprising that someone like you could actually make an intellectual contribution. It’s a further barrier when other members of your community advise you to ignore tangible disrespect because surely it wasn’t intentional — especially when those other members of the community make no visible effort to help address the disrespect.

It’s a barrier when students don’t see people like themselves represented among the recognized knowledge-builders in the professional community as they are being taught the core knowledge expected of members of that community. It’s also a barrier when the more senior members of the professional community are subject to implicit biases in their expert evaluations of who’s cut out to be a full contributing member of the community.

Plenty of well-meaning folks in professional communities that have a hard time fully integrating women (among others) may be puzzled as to why this is so. If they don’t personally experience the barriers, they may not even realize that they’re there. Listening to lived experiences of their female colleagues might reveal some of the barriers — but listening also assumes that the community really takes its female members seriously as part of the community, when this is precisely the problem with which the women in the community are struggling.

* * * * *

Professional meetings can be challenging terrain for women in predominantly male professional communities. Such meetings are essential venues in which to present one’s work and get career credit for doing so. They are also crucially important for networking and building relationships with people who might become collaborators, who will be called on to evaluate one’s work, and who are the peers with whom one hopes to be engaged in productive discussions over the course of one’s career.

There is also a strong social component to these meetings, an imperative to have fun with one’s people — which is to say, in this context, the people with whom one shares a professional community. Part of this, I think, is related to how strongly people identify with their professional community: the connection is not just about what people in that community do but about who they are. They have taken on the values and goals of the professional community as their own. It’s not just a job, it’s a social identity.

For some people, the social component of professional meetings has a decidedly carnal flavor. Unfortunately, rejecting a pass from someone in your professional community, especially someone with more power in that community than you, can screw with your professional relationships within the community — even assuming that the person who made the pass accepts your “no” and moves on. In other cases, folks within the professional community may be perfectly aware of power gradients and willing to use them to get what they want, applying persistent unwanted attention that can essentially deprive the target of full participation in the conference. Given the importance professional conferences have, this is a significant professional harm.

Lest you imagine that this is a merely hypothetical worry, I assure you that it is not. If you ask around you may discover that some of the members of your professional community choose which conference sessions to attend in order to avoid their harassers. That is surely a constraint on how much one can get out of a professional meeting.

Recently a number of conferences and conventions have adopted policies against harassment, policies that are getting some use. Many of these are fan-oriented conventions or tech conferences, rather than the kind of research oriented, academically inclined professional meetings most of us university types attend. I know of at least one scientific professional society (the American Astronomical Society) that has adopted a harassment policy for its meetings and that seems generally to be moving in a good direction from the point of view of building an inclusive community. However, when I checked the websites of three professional societies to which I belong (American Chemical Society, American Philosophical Association, and Philosophy of Science Association), I could find no sign of anti-harassment policies for their conferences. This is disappointing, but not surprising to me.

The absence of anti-harassment policies doesn’t mean that there’s no harassment happening at the meetings of these professional societies, either.

And even if a professional community has anti-harassment policies in place for its meetings, this doesn’t remove the costs — especially on a relatively junior member of the community — associated with asking that the policies be enforced. Will a professional society be willing to caution a member of the program committee for the conference? To eject the most favored grad student of a luminary in the field — or, for that matter, a luminary — who violates the policy? Shining light on over-the-line behavior at conferences is a species of whistleblowing, and is likely to be received about as warmly as other forms.

* * * * *

Despite the challenges, I don’t think the prospects for building diverse and productive professional communities are dim. Progress is being made, even if most weeks the pace of progress is agonizingly slow.

But I think things could get better faster if people who take their professional communities for granted step up and become more active in maintaining them.

In much the same way that it is not science that is self-correcting but rather individual scientists who bother to engage critically with particular contributions to the ongoing scientific conversation and keep the community honest, a healthy professional community doesn’t take care of itself — at least, not without effort on the part of individual members of the community.

Professional communities require everyday maintenance. They require tending to keep their collective actions aligned with the values members of the community say they share.

People who work very hard to be part of a professional community despite systemic barriers are people committed enough to the values of the professional community to fight their way through a lot of crap. These are people who really care about the values you purport to care about as a member of the professional community, else why would they waste their time and effort fighting through the crap?

These are the kind of people you should want as colleagues, at least if you value what you say you value. Their contributions could be huge in accomplishing your community’s shared goals and ensuring your community a vibrant future.

Even more than policies that aim to address systemic barriers to their entry to the professional community, these people need a posse. They need others in the community who are unwilling to sacrifice their values — or the well-being of less powerful people who share those values — to take consistent stands against behaviors that create barriers and that undermine the shared work of the community.

These stands needn’t be huge heroic gestures. It could be as simple as reliably being that guy who asks for better gender balance in planning seminars, or who reacts to casual sexist banter with, “Dude, not cool!” It could take the form of asking about policies that might lessen barriers, and taking on some of the work involved in creating or implementing them.

It could be listening to your women colleagues when they describe what it has been like for them within your professional community and assuming the default position of believing them, rather than looking for possible ways they must have misunderstood their own experiences.

If you care about your professional community, in other words, the barriers to entry in the way of people who want badly to be part of that community because they believe fiercely in its values are your problem, too. Acting like it, and doing your part to address these barriers, is sharing the regular maintenance of the professional community you count on.

While this post is focused on barriers to full participation in professional communities that flow from gender bias, there are plenty of other types of bias that throw up similar barriers, and that could benefit from similar types of response from members of the professional communities not directly targeted by these biases.

Addressing (unintended) disrespect in your professional community.

I am a believer in the power of the professional conference. Getting people in the same room to share ideas, experiences, and challenges is one of the best ways to build a sense of community, to break down geographical and generational barriers, to energize people and remind them what they love about what they’re doing.

Sometimes, though, interactions flowing from a professional conference have a way of reinforcing barriers. Sometimes a member of the community makes an attempt to express appreciation of colleagues that actually has the effect of treating those colleagues like they’re not really part of the community after all.

Last week, the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists met in Helsinki, Finland. Upon his return from the conference, journalist Nicolás Luco posted a column reflecting on his experience there. (Here’s an English translation of the column by Wladimir Labeikovsky.) Luco’s piece suggests some of the excitement of finding connections with science journalists from other countries, as well as finding common ground with journalists entering the profession in a very different decade with a panoply of different technological tools:

If I hadn’t come, I wouldn’t have had that experience. I have submerged into an atmosphere where what I had seen as the future is already taken for granted. And yet, the fundamentals [e.g., that the story is what matters] remain.

It is, without a doubt, a description of a very positive personal experience.

However, Luco’s column is also a description of his experience of female colleagues at this conference framed primarily in terms of their physical attributes: shining blonde hair, limpid blue eyes, translucent complexions, apparent youth. His description of the panel of journalists using the tools of new media to practice the fundamentals of good journalism describes them as

four Americans: Rose, Lena, Kathleen and Erin (blonde), none older than 25

All of the other conference-goers who are identified by name are identified with surnames as well as given names. We do learn of the two women identified by their full names in the column that they are not blonde. It is left to the reader to imagine the hair color of Philip J. Hilts, the only male attendee mentioned by name.

I understand that Nicolás Luco was aiming to give a vivid visual description to draw his readers into his experience of being in Helsinki for this conference, and that this description was meant to convey a positive, optimistic mood about the future of science journalism.

But I also understand that these stylistic choices carry baggage that make it harder for Rose Eveleth, and Lena Groeger, and Kathleen Raven, and Erin Podolak, the journalists on the panel, to be taken seriously within this international community of science journalists.

Their surnames matter. In a field where they want their work to be recognized, disconnecting their bylines from the valuable insights they shared as part of a conference panel is not helpful.

Moreover, I am told that the journalistic convention is to identify adults by full name, and to identify people by first name alone only when those people are children.

Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak are not children. They may seem relatively young to a journalist who came into the profession in the age of linotype (indeed, to the extent that he underestimated their ages, which range from 25 to 30), but they are professionals. Their ages should not be a barrier to treating them as if they are full members of the professional community of science journalists, but focusing unduly on their ages could well present such a barrier.

And, needless to say, their hair color should have no relevance at all in assessing whether they are skilled journalists with valuable insights to share.

As it happens, only days before the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists, Podolak wrote a blog post describing why she needs feminism. In that post, she wrote:

I’m a feminist for myself because yes, I want a fair shake, I want to be recognized for the value of my work and not whether or not my hair looks shiny that day. But, adding my voice to the other feminist voices out there is about more than just me. I’ve got it pretty good. I’m not trying to argue that I don’t. But I can support the women out there who are dealing with overt sexism, who are being attacked. I can try to be an ally. That to me is the real value of feminism, of standing together.

It is profoundly disheartening to take yourself to be accepted by your professional community, valued for the skills and ideas you bring to the table, only to discover that this is not how your presumptive colleagues actually see you. You would think that other journalists should be the ones most likely to appreciate the value of using new technologies to tell compelling stories. What a disappointment to find that their focus gets stuck on the surface. Who can tell whether the work has value if the hair of the journalist is shiny?

You will likely not be surprised that Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak were frustrated at Nicolás Luco’s description of their panel, despite understanding that Luco was trying to be flattering. In an email to Luco the four sent in response to the column, they wrote:

Leading your story with a note about your attraction to blondes and then noting Erin’s hair color, is both inappropriate and, frankly, sexist. We were not there for anyone to ogle, and our physical appearance is completely irrelevant to the point of our panel. It is important for you to understand why were are upset about your tone in this piece. Women are constantly appraised for their looks, rather than their thoughts and skills, and in writing your story the way you did you are contributing to that sexism.

And, in a postscript to that email, Kathleen Raven noted:

I was under the impression that you wrote your article using hair color as a narrative tool to tie together your meetings with journalists. I appreciate this creativity, but I am worried that American women can perceive — as we have — the article as not fully respecting us as journalists in our own right.

What Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak are up against is a larger society that values women more for their aesthetic appeal than their professional skills. That their own professional community repeats this pattern — presenting them as first young and pretty and only secondarily as good journalists — is a source of frustration. As Eveleth wrote to me:

Last I checked, being pretty has nothing to do with your skills at any kind of journalism. Having long blonde hair is not going to get Erin the story. Erin is going to get the story because she’s good at her job, because she’s got experience and passion, because she’s talented and tough and hard working. The same goes for Kathleen and Lena. 

The idea that it is not just okay, but actually complimentary to focus on a young woman’s (or really any aged woman’s) looks as leading part of her professional identity is wrong. The idea that it’s flattering to call out Erin’s hair and age before her skills is wrong. The idea that a woman’s professional skill set is made better if she is blonde and pretty is wrong. And the idea that someone who writes something like this should just be able to pass it off as “tongue in cheek” or “a cultural difference” is also wrong.

I should pause here to take note of another dimension of professional communities in this story. There is a strong pressure to get along with one’s professional colleagues, to get along rather than raising a fuss. Arguably this pressure is stronger on newer members of a professional community, and on members of that community with characteristics (e.g., of gender, race, disability, etc.) that are not well represented in the more established members of that professional community.

Practically, this pressure manifests itself as an inclination to let things go, to refrain from pointing out the little instances which devalue one’s professional identity or status as a valued member of the community. Most of the time it seems easier to sigh and say to oneself, “Well, he meant well,” or, “What can you expect from someone of that generation/cultural background?” than to point out the ways that the comments hurt. It feels like a tradeoff where you should swallow some individual hurt for the good of the community.

But accepting this tradeoff is accepting that your full membership in the community (and that of others like you) is less important. To the extent that you believe that you make a real contribution to the community, swallowing your individual hurt is dancing on the edge of accepting what is arguably a harm to the professional community as a whole by letting the hurtful behaviors pass unexamined.

Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak had more respect than that for their professional community, and for Nicolás Luco as a professional colleague. They did not just sigh and roll their eyes. Rather, they emailed Luco to explain what the problem was.

In his reply to them (which I quote with his permission), Luco makes it clear that he did not intend to do harm to anyone, especially not to Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak, with his column. Still, he also makes it clear that he may not fully grasp just what the problem is:

I write as a known voice who can write tongue in cheek and get away with it because I am willing to laugh at myself. 

I strive to make what I write entertaining. And maybe sneak in the more serious arguments.

Sorry about my misjudgment on your ages.  But the point is: you are generations apart.

I did not include your last names because they would interrupt the flow of reading and clog the line with surnames, an obstacle.

Finally, it is so much in U.S. culture to discard the looks vis a vis the brains when the looks, as President Clinton knows so well, can be a good hook into the brains.  And since this is a personal column, in the first person singular, I can tell how I personally react at good looks.  For example, Ms. Anne Glover, was extraordinarily beautiful and charming besides being bright and political, which helps, in front of the probable mean thoughts of envious uglier looking colleagues.

Thank you, I still prize the panel as the best and most important in the Conference.

Is there a way Nicolás Luco could have described his personal experience of the conference, and of this panel within the conference that he found particular valuable, in a way that was entertaining, even tongue-in-cheek, while avoiding the pitfalls of describing his female colleagues in terms that undercut their status in the professional community? I think so.

He might, for example, have talked about his own expectations that journalists who are generations apart would agree upon what makes good journalism good journalism. The way that these expectations were thwarted would surely be a good opportunity to laugh at oneself.

He might even have written about his own surprise that a young women he finds attractive contributed a valuable insight — using this as an opportunity to examine this expectation and whether it’s one he ought to be carrying around with him in his professional interactions. There’s even a line in his column that seems like it might provide a hook for this bit of self-examination:

Erin, the youngest and a cancer specialist, insists that decorations don’t matter: good journalism is good journalism, period. Makes me happy.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Extending the lesson about the content of the story mattering more than the packaging to a further lesson about the professional capabilities of the storyteller mattering more than one’s reaction to her superficial appearance — that could drive home some of the value of a conference like this.

Nicolás Luco wrote the column he wrote. Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak took him seriously as a professional colleague who is presumptively concerned to strengthen their shared community. They asked him to consider the effect of his description on members of the professional community who stand where they do, to take responsibility as a writer for even the effects of his words that he had not intended or foreseen.

Engaging with colleagues when they hurt us without meaning to is not easy work, but it’s absolutely essential to the health of a professional community. I am hopeful that this engagement will continue productively.