Scary subject matter.

This being Hallowe’en, I felt like I should serve you something scary.

But what?

Verily, we’ve talked about some scary things here:

More scary subjects have come up on my other blog, including:

Making this list, I’m very glad it’s still light out! Otherwise I might be quaking uncontrollably.

Truth be told, as someone who works with ethics for a living, I’m less afraid of monsters than I am of ordinary humans who lose sight of their duties to their fellow humans.

And frankly, when it comes to things that go bump in the night, I’m less terrified than curious …

especially since the things that go “bump” in my kitchen usually involve the intriguing trio of temperature-, pressure-, and phase-changes — which is to say, it’s nothing a little science couldn’t demystify.

Have a happy, safe, and ethical Hallowe’en!

A Hallowe’en science book recommendation for kids.

Sure, younger kids may think the real point of Hallowe’en in the candy or the costumes. But they’re likely to notice some of the scarier motifs that pop up in the decorations, and this presents as unexpected opportunity for some learning.

A Drop of Blood by Paul Showers, illustrated by Edward Miller.

The text of this book is straight-ahead science for the grade school set, explaining the key components of blood (red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets) and what they do. There are nice diagrams of how the circulatory system gets involved in transporting nutrients as well as oxygen, pictures of a white blood cell eating a germ, and a step-by-step explanation of how a scab forms.

But this unassuming text is illustrated in classic horror movie style.

All the “people” in the drawings are either vampires or … uh, whatever those greenish hunchbacked creatures who become henchmen are. And this illustration choice is brilliant! Kids who might be squicked out by blood in real life cannot resist the scary/funny/cool cartoonish vamps accompanying the text in this book. The drawing of the Count offering Igor a Band-aid for his boo-boo is heart-warming. So is the multigenerational picture that accompanies this text:

Little people do not need much blood. Cathy is one year old. She weighs twenty-four pounds. She has about one and a half pints of blood in her body. That is less than one quart.

Big people need more blood. Russell is eleven years old. He weighs eighty-eight pounds. He has about five and a half pints of blood in his body. That is a little less than three quarts.

Russell is a young vampire, while Cathy is a cute green toddler with purple circles under her eyes.

This is a really engaging book. And, the science looks pretty good.

The ethics of admitting you messed up.

Part of any human endeavor, including building scientific knowledge or running a magazine with a website, is the potential for messing up.

Humans make mistakes.

Some of them are the result of deliberate choices to violate a norm. Some of them are the result of honest misunderstandings, or of misjudgments about how much control we have over conditions or events. Some of them come about in instances where we didn’t really want the bad thing that happened to happen, but we didn’t take the steps we reasonably could have taken to avoid that outcome, either. Sometimes we don’t recognize that what we did (or neglected to do) was a mistake until we appreciate the negative impact it has.

Human fallibility seems like the kind of thing we’re not going to be able to engineer out of the organism, but we probably can do better at recognizing situations where we’re likely to make mistakes, at exercising more care in those conditions, and at addressing our mistakes once we’ve made them.

Ethically speaking, mistakes are a problem because they cause harm, or because they result from a lapse in an obligation we ought to be honoring, or both. Thus, an ethical response to messing up ought to involving addressing that harm and/or getting back on track with the obligation we fell down on. What does this look like?

1. Acknowledge the harm. This needs to be the very first thing you do. To admit you messed up, you have to recognize the mess, with no qualifications. There it is.

2. Acknowledge the experiential report of the people you have harmed. If you’re serious about sharing a world (which is what ethics is all about), you need to take seriously what the people with whom your sharing that world tell you about how they feel. They have privileged access to their own lived experiences; you need to rely on their testimony of those lived experiences.

Swallow your impulse to say, “I wouldn’t feel that way,” or “I wouldn’t have made such a big deal of that if it happened to me.” Swallow as well any impulse to mount an argument from first principles about how the people telling you they were harmed should feel (especially if it’s an argument that they shouldn’t feel hurt at all). These arguments don’t change how people actually feel — except, perhaps, to make them feel worse because you don’t seem to take the actual harm to them seriously! (See “secondary trauma”.)

3. Acknowledge how what you did contributed to the harm. Spell it out without excuses. Note how your action, or your failure to act, helped bring about the bad outcome. Identify the way your action, or your failure to act, fell short of you living up to your obligations (and be clear about what you understand those obligations to be).

Undoubtedly, there will be other causal factors you can point to that also contributed to bringing about the bad outcome. Pointing them out right now will give the impression that you are dodging your responsibility. Don’t do that.

4. Say you are sorry for causing the harm/falling down on the duty. Actually, you can do this earlier in the process, but doing it again won’t hurt.

What will hurt is “I’m sorry if you were offended/if you were hurt” and similar locutions, since these suggest that you don’t take seriously the experiential reports of the people to whom you’re apologizing. (See #2 above.) If it looks like you’re denying that there really was harm (or that the harm was significant), it may also look like you’re not actually apologizing.

5. Identify steps you will take to avoid repeating this kind of mistake. This is closely connected to your post-mortem of what you did wrong this time (see #3 above). How are you going to change the circumstances, be more attentive to your duties, be more aware of the potential bad consequences that you didn’t foresee this time? Spell out the plan.

6. Identify steps you will take to address the harm of your mistake. Sometimes a sincere apology and a clear plan for not messing up in that way again is enough. Sometimes offsetting the harm and rebuilding trust will take more.

This is another good juncture at which to listen to the people telling you they were harmed. What do they want to help mitigate that harm? What are they telling you might help them trust you again?

7. Don’t demand forgiveness. Some harms hurt for a long time. Trust takes longer to establish than to destroy, and rebuilding it can take longer than it took to build the initial trust. This is a good reason to be on guard against mistakes!

8. If you get off to a bad start, admit it and stop digging. People make mistakes trying to address their mistakes. People give excuses when they should instead acknowledge their culpability. People minimize the feelings of the people to whom they’re trying to apologize. It happens, but it adds an additional layer of mistakes that you ought to address.

Catch yourself. Say, “OK, I was giving an excuse, but I should just tell you that what I did was wrong, and I’m sorry it hurt you.” Or, “That reason I gave you was me being defensive, and right now it’s your feelings I need to prioritize.” Or, “I didn’t notice before that the way I was treating you was unfair. I see now that it was, and I’m going to work hard not to treat you that way again.”

Addressing a mistake is not like winning an argument. In fact, it’s the opposite of that: It’s identifying a way that what you did wasn’t successful, or defensible, or good. But this is something we have to get good at, whether we’re trying to build reliable scientific knowledge or just to share a world with others.

I think this very general discussion has all sorts of specific applications, for instance to Mariette DiChristina’s message in response to the outcry over the removal of a post by DNLee.

I’m happy to entertain discussion of this particular case in the comments provided it keeps pretty close to the question of our ethical duties in explaining and apologizing. Claims about people’s intent when no clear statement of that intent has been made are out-of-bounds here (although there are plenty of online spaces where you can discuss such things if you like). So are claims about legalities (since what’s legal is not strictly congruent with what’s ethical).

Also, if you haven’t already, you should read Kate Clancy’s detailed analysis of what SciAm did well and what SciAm did poorly in responding to the situation about which DNLee was blogging and in responding to the online outcry when SciAm removed her post.

Also relevant: Melanie Tannenbaum’s excellent post on why we focus on intent when we should focus on impact.

Standing with DNLee and “discovering science”.

This post is about standing with DNLee and discovering science.

In the event that you haven’t been following the situation as it exploded on Twitter, here is the short version:

DNLee was invited to guest-blog at another site. She inquired as to the terms, then politely declined. The editor then soliciting those guest-posts called her a whore.

DNLee posted on this exchange, which provides some insight into the dynamics of writing about science (and about being a woman of color writing about science) in the changing media landscape on her blog.

And then someone here at Scientific American Blogs took her post down without letting her know they were doing it or telling her why.

Today, by way of explanation, Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina tweeted:

Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.

Let the record reflect that this is the very first time I have heard about this editorial filter, or that any of my posts that do not fall in the category of “discovering science” could be pulled down by editors.

As well, it’s hard to see how what DNLee posted counts as NOT “discovering science” unless “discovering science” is given such a narrow interpretation that this entire blog runs afoul of the standard.

Of course, I’d argue that “discovering science” in any meaningful way requires discovering that scientific knowledge is the result of human labor.

Scientific knowledge doesn’t wash up on a beach, fully formed. Embodied, quirky human beings build it. The experiences of those human beings as they interact with the world and with each other are a tremendously important part of where scientific knowledge comes from. The experiences of human beings interacting with each other as they try to communicate scientific knowledge are a crucial part of where scientific understanding comes from — and of who feels like understanding science is important, who feels like it’s inviting and fun, who feels like it’s just not for them.

Women’s experiences around building scientific knowledge, communicating scientific knowledge, participating in communities and networks that can support scientific engagements, are not separable from “discovering science”. Neither are the experiences of people of color, nor of other people not yet well represented in the communities of scientists or scientific communicators.

Unless Scientific American is really just concerned with helping the people who already feel like science is for them to “discover science”. And if that’s the situation, they really should have told us bloggers that before they signed us up.

“Discovering science” means discovering all sorts of complexities — including unpleasant ones — about the social contexts in which science is done, in which scientists are trained, in which real live human beings labor to explain bits of what we know about the world and how we came to know those bits and why they matter.

If Scientific American doesn’t want its bloggers delving into those complexities, then they don’t want me.

See also:

Dr. Isis
Kate Clancy
Dana Hunter
Anne Jefferson
Sean Carroll
Stephanie Zvan
David Wescott
Kelly Hills