Careers (not just jobs) for Ph.D.s outside the academy.

A week ago I was in Boston for the 2013 annual meeting of the History of Science Society. Immediately after the session in which I was a speaker, I attended a session (Sa31 in this program) called “Happiness beyond the Professoriate — Advising and Embracing Careers Outside the Academy.” The discussion there was specifically pitched at people working in the history of science (whether earning their Ph.D.s or advising those who are), but much of it struck me as broadly applicable to people in other fields — not just fields like philosophy, but also science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The discourse in the session was framed in terms of recognizing, and communicating, that getting a job just like your advisor’s (i.e., as a faculty member at a research university with a Ph.D. program in your field — or, loosening it slightly, as permanent faculty at a college or university, even one not primarily focused on research or on training new members of the profession at the Ph.D. level) shouldn’t be a necessary condition for maintaining your professional identity and place in the professional community. Make no mistake, people in one’s discipline (including those training new members of the profession at the Ph.D. level) frequently do discount people as no longer really members of the profession for failing to succeed in the One True Career Path, but the panel asserted that they shouldn’t.

And, they provided plenty of compelling reasons why the “One True Career Path” approach is problematic. Chief among these, at least in fields like history, is that this approach feeds the creation and growth of armies of adjunct faculty, hoping that someday they will become regular faculty, and in the meantime working for very low wages relative to the amount of work they do (and relative to their training and expertise), experiencing serious job insecurity (sometimes not finding out whether they’ll have classes to teach until the academic term is actually underway), and enduring all manner of employer shenanigans (like having their teaching loads reduced to 50% of full time so the universities employing them are not required by law to provide health care coverage). Worse, insistence on One True Career Path fails to acknowledge that happiness is important.

Panelist Jim Grossman noted that the very language of “alternative careers” reinforces this problematic view by building in the assumption that there is a default career path. Speaking of “alternatives” instead might challenge the assumption that all options other than the default are lesser options.

Grossman identified other bits of vocabulary that ought to be excised from these discussions. He argued against speaking of “the job market” when one really means “the academic job market”. Otherwise, the suggestion is that you can’t really consider those other jobs without exiting the profession. Talking about “job placement,” he said, might have made sense back in the day when the chair of a hiring department called the chair of another department to say, “Send us your best man!” rather than conducting an actual job search. Those days are long gone.

And Grossman had lots to say about why we should stop talking about “overproduction of Ph.D.s.”

Ph.D.s, he noted, are earned by people, not produced like widgets on a factory line. Describing the number of new Ph.D.-holders each year as overproduction is claiming that there are too many — but again, this is too many relative to a specific kind of career trajectory assumed implicitly to be the only one worth pursuing. There are many sectors in the career landscape that could benefit from the talents of these Ph.D.-holders, so why are we not describing the current situation as one of “underconsumption of Ph.D.s”? Finally, the “overproduction of Ph.D.s.” locution doesn’t seem helpful in a context where these seems to be no good way to stop departments from “producing” as many Ph.D.s as they want to. If market forces were enough to address this imbalance, we wouldn’t have armies of adjuncts.

Someone in the discussion pointed out that STEM fields have for some time had similar issues of Ph.D. supply and demand, suggesting that they might be ahead of the curve in developing useful responses which other disciplines could borrow. However, the situation in STEM fields differs in that industrial career paths have been treated as legitimate (and as not removing you from the profession). And, more generally, society seems to take the skills and qualities of mind developed during a STEM Ph.D. as useful and broadly applicable, while those developed during a history or philosophy Ph.D. are assumed to be hopelessly esoteric. However, it was noted that while STEM fields don’t generate the same armies of adjuncts as humanities field, they do have what might be described as the “endless postdoc” problem.

Given that structural stagnation of the academic job market is real (and has been reality for something like 40 years in the history of science), panelist Lynn Nyhart observed that it would be foolish for Ph.D. students not to consider — and prepare for — other kinds of jobs. As well, Nyhart argues that as long as faculty take on graduate students, they have a responsibility to help them find jobs.

Despite profession that they are essentially clueless about career paths other than academia, advisors do have resources they can draw upon in helping their graduate students. Among these is the network of Ph.D. alumni from their graduate program, as well as the network of classmates from their own Ph.D. training. Chances are that a number of people in these networks are doing a wide range of different things with their Ph.D.s — and that they could provide valuable information and contacts. (Also, keeping in contact with these folks recognizes that they are still valued members of your professional community, rather than treating them as dead to you if they did not pursue the One True Career Path.)

Nyhart also recommended, especially the PhD Career Finder tab, as a valuable resource for exploring the different kinds of work for which Ph.D.s in various fields can serve as preparation. Some of the good stuff on the site is premium content, but if your university subscribes to the site your access to that premium content may already be paid for.

Nyhart noted that preparing Ph.D. students for a wide range of careers doesn’t require lowering discipline-specific standards, nor changing the curriculum — although, as Grossman pointed out, it might mean thinking more creatively about what skills, qualities of mind, and experiences existing courses impart. After all, skills that are good training for a career in academia — being a good teacher, an effective committee member, an excellent researcher, a persuasive writer, a productive collaborator — are skills that are portable to other kinds of careers.

David Attis, who has a Ph.D. in history of science and has been working in the private sector for about a decade, mentioned some practical skills worth cultivating for Ph.D.s pursuing private sector careers. These include having a tight two-minute explanation of your thesis geared to a non-specialist audience, being able to demonstrate your facility in approaching and solving non-academic problems, and being able to work on the timescale of business, not thesis writing (i.e., five hours to write a two-page memo is far too slow). Attis said that private sector employers are looking for people who can work well on teams and who can be flexible in contexts beyond teaching and research.

I found the discussion in this session incredibly useful, and I hope some of the important issues raised there will find their way to the graduate advisors and Ph.D. students who weren’t in the room for it, no matter what their academic discipline.

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

In this post, we’re returning to a discussion we started back in September about whether scientists have special duties or obligations to society (or, if the notion of “society” seems too fuzzy and ill-defined to you, to the other people who are not scientists with whom they share a world) in virtue of being scientists.

You may recall that, in the post where we set out some groundwork for the discussion, I offered one reason you might think that scientists have duties that are importantly different from the duties of non-scientists:

The main arguments for scientists having special duties tend to turn on scientists being in possession of special powers. This is the scientist as Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility.

What kind of special powers are we talking about? The power to build reliable knowledge about the world – and in particular, about phenomena and mechanisms in the world that are not so transparent to our everyday powers of observation and the everyday tools non-scientists have at their disposal for probing features of their world. On account of their training and experience, scientists are more likely to be able to set up experiments or conditions for observation that will help them figure out the cause of an outbreak of illness, or the robust patterns in global surface temperatures and the strength of their correlation with CO2 outputs from factories and farms, or whether a particular plan for energy generation is thermodynamically plausible. In addition, working scientists are more likely to have access to chemical reagents and modern lab equipment, to beamtimes at particle accelerators, to purpose-bred experimental animals, to populations of human subjects and institutional review boards for well-regulated clinical trials.

Scientists can build specialist knowledge that the rest of us (including scientists in other fields) cannot, and many of them have access to materials, tools, and social arrangements for use in their knowledge-building that the rest of us do not. That may fall short of a superpower, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this doesn’t represent significant power in our world.

In her book Ethics of Scientific Research, Kristin Shrader-Frechette argues that these special abilities give rise to obligations for scientists. We can separate these into positive duties and negative duties. A positive duty is an obligation to actually do something (e.g., a duty to care for the hungry, a duty to tell the truth), while a negative duty is an obligation to refrain from doing something (e.g., a duty not to lie, a duty not to steal, a duty not to kill). There may well be context sensitivity in some of these duties (e.g, if it’s a matter of self-defense, your duty not to kill may be weakened), but you get the basic difference between the two flavors of duties.

Let’s start with ways scientists ought not to use their scientific powers. Since scientists have to share a world with everyone else, Shrader-Frechette argues that this puts some limits on the research they can do. She says that scientists shouldn’t do research that causes unjustified risks to people. Nor should they do research that violates informed consent of the human subjects who participate in the research. They should not do research that unjustly converts public resources to private profits. Nor should they do research that seriously jeopardizes environmental welfare. Finally, scientists should not do biased research.

One common theme in these prohibitions is the idea that knowledge in itself is not more important than the welfare of people. Given how focused scientific activity is on knowledge-building, this may be something about which scientists need to be reminded. For the people with whom scientists share a world, knowledge is valuable instrumentally – because people in society can benefit from it. What this means is that scientific knowledge-building that harms people more than it helps them, or that harms shared resources like the environment, is on balance a bad thing, not a good thing. This is not to say that the knowledge scientists are seeking should not be built at all. Rather, scientists need to find a way to build it without inflicting those harms – because it is their duty to avoid inflicting those harms.

Shrader-Frechette makes the observation that for research to be valuable at all to the broader public, it must be research that produces reliable knowledge. This is a big reason scientists should avoid conducting biased research. And, she notes that not doing certain research can also pose a risk to the public.

There’s another way scientists might use their powers against non-scientists that’s suggested by the Mertonian norm of disinterestedness, an “ought” scientists are supposed to feel pulling at them because of how they’ve been socialized as members of their scientific tribe. Because the scientific expert has knowledge and knowledge-building powers that the non-scientist does not, she could exploit the non-scientist’s ignorance or his tendency to trust the judgment of the expert. The scientist, in other words, could put one over on the layperson for her own benefit. This is how snake oil gets sold — and arguably, this is the kind of thing that scientists ought to refrain from doing in their interactions with non-scientists.

The overall duties of the scientist, as Shrader-Frechette describes them, also include positive duties to do research and to use research findings in ways that serve the public good, as well as to ensure that the knowledge and technologies created by the research do not harm anyone. We’ll take up these positive duties in the next post in the series.
Shrader-Frechette, K. S. (1994). Ethics of scientific research. Rowman & Littlefield.
Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

On allies.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
–George Santayana

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
–a guy who turned out to be a Cylon

Let me start by putting my cards on the table: Jamie Vernon is not someone I count as an ally.

At least, he’s not someone I’d consider a reliable ally. I don’t have any reason to believe that he really understands my interests, and I don’t trust him not to sacrifice them for his own comfort. He travels in some of the same online spaces that I do and considers himself a longstanding member of the SciComm community of which I take myself to be a member, but that doesn’t mean I think he has my back. Undoubtedly, there are some issues for which we would find ourselves on the same side of things, but that’s not terribly informative; there are some issues (not many, but some) for which Dick Cheney and I are on the same side.

Here, I’m in agreement with Isis that we needn’t be friends to be able to work together in pursuit of shared goals. I’ve made similar observations about the scientific community:

We’re not all on the same page about everything. Pretending that we are misrepresents the nature of the tribe of science and of scientific activity. But given that there are some shared commitments that guide scientific methodology, some conditions without which scientific activity in the U.S. cannot flourish, these provide some common ground on which scientists ought to be more or less united … [which] opens the possibility of building coalitions, of finding ways to work together toward the goals we share even if we may not agree about what other goals are worth pursuing.

We probably can’t form workable coalitions, though, by showing open contempt for each other’s other commitments or interests. We cannot be allies by behaving like enemies. Human nature sucks like that sometimes.

But without coalitions, we have to be ready to go it alone, to work to achieve our goals with much less help. Without coalitions, we may find ourselves working against the effects of those who have chosen to pursue other goals instead. If you can’t work with me toward goal A, I may not be inclined to help you work toward goal B. If we made common cause with each other, we might be able to tailor strategies that would get us closer to both goals rather than sacrificing one for the other. But if we decide we’re not working on the same team, why on earth should we care about each other’s recommendations with respect to strategies?

Ironically, we humans seem sometimes to show more respect to people who are strangers than to people we call our friends. Perhaps it’s related to the uncertainty of our interactions going forward — the possibility that we may need to band together, or to accommodate the other’s interests to protect our own — or to the lack of much shared history to draw upon in guiding our interactions. We begin our interactions with strangers with the slate as blank as it can be. Strangers can’t be implored (at least not credibly) to consider our past good acts to excuse our current rotten behavior toward them.

We may recognize strangers as potential allies, but we don’t automatically assume that they’re allies already. Neither do we assume that they’ll view us as their allies.

Thinking about allies is important in the aftermath of Joe Hanson’s video that he says was meant to “lampoon” the personalities of famous scientists of yore and to make “a joke to call attention to the sexual harassment that many women still today experience.” It’s fair to say the joke was not entirely successful given that the scenes of Albert Einstein sexually harassing and assaulting Marie Curie arguably did harm to women in science:

Hanson’s video isn’t funny. It’s painful. It’s painful because 1) it’s such an accurate portrayal of exactly what so many of us have faced, and 2) the fact that Hanson thinks it’s “outrageous” demonstrates how many of our male colleagues don’t realize the fullness of the hostility that women scientists are still facing in the workplace. Furthermore, Hanson’s continued clinging to “can’t you take a joke” and the fact that he was “trying to be comedic” reflects the deeper issue. Not only does he not get it, his statement implies that he has no intention of trying to get it.

Hanson’s posted explanation after the negative reactions urges the people who reacted negatively to see him as an ally:

To anyone curious if I am not aware of, or not committed to preventing this kind of treatment (in whatever way my privileged perspective allows me to do so) I would urge you to check out my past writing and videos … This doesn’t excuse us, but I ask that you form your opinion of me, It’s Okay To Be Smart, and PBS Digital Studios from my body of work, and not a piece of it.

Indeed, Jamie Vernon not only vouches for Hanson’s ally bona fides but asserts his own while simultaneously suggesting that the negative reactions to Hanson’s video are themselves a problem for the SciComm community:

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. …

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

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.

Vernon assures us that he and Hanson are allies to women in science and in the SciComm community. At minimum, I believe that Vernon must have a very different understanding than I of what is involved in being an ally.

Allies are people with whom we make common cause to pursue particular goals or to secure particular interests. Their interests and goals are not identical to ours — that’s what makes them allies.

I do not expect allies to be perfect. They, like me, are human, and I certainly mess up with some regularity. Indeed, I understand full well the difficulty of being a good ally. As Josh Witten observed to me, as a white woman I am “in one of the more privileged classes of the oppressed, arguably the least f@#$ed over of the totally f@#$ed over groups in modern western society.” This means when I try to be an ally to people of color, or disabled people, or poor people, for example, there’s a good chance I’ll step in it. I may not be playing life on the lowest difficulty setting, but I’m pretty damn close.

Happily, many people to whom I try to be an ally are willing to tell me when I step in it and to detail just how I’ve stepped in it. This gives me valuable feedback to try to do better.

Allies I trust are people who pay attention to the people to whom they’re trying to give support because they’re imperfect and because their interests and goals are not identical. The point of paying attention is to get some firsthand reports on whether you’re helping or hurting from the people you’re trying to help.

When good allies mess up, they do their best to respond ethically and do better going forward. Because they want to do better, they want to know when they have messed up — even though it can be profoundly painful to find out your best efforts to help have not succeeded.

Let’s pause for a moment here so I can assure you that I understand it hurts when someone tells you that you messed up. I understand it because I have experienced it. I know all about the feeling of defensiveness that pops right up, as well as the feeling that your character as a human being is being unfairly judged on the basis of limited data — indeed, in your defensiveness, you might immediately start looking for ways the person suggesting you are not acting like a good ally has messed up (including failing to communicate your mistake in language that is as gentle as possible). These feelings are natural, but being a good ally means not letting these feelings overcome your commitment to actually be helpful to the people you set out to help.

On account of these feelings, you might feel great empathy for someone else who has just stepped in it but who you think it trying to be an ally. You might feel so much empathy that you don’t want to make them feel bad by calling out their mistake — or that you chide others for pointing out that mistake. (You might even start reaching for quotations about people without sin and stones.) Following this impulse undercuts the goal of being a good ally.

As I wrote elsewhere,

If identifying problematic behavior in a community is something that can only be done by perfect people — people who have never sinned themselves, who have never pissed anyone off, who emerged from the womb incapable of engaging in bad behavior themselves — then we are screwed.

People mess up. The hope is that by calling attention to the bad behavior, and to the harm it does, we can help each other do better. Focusing on problematic behavior (especially if that behavior is ongoing and needs to be addressed to stop the harm) needn’t brand the bad actor as irredeemable, and it shouldn’t require that there’s a saint on duty to file the complaint.

An ally worth the name recognizes that while good intentions can be helpful in steering his conduct, in the end it’s the actions that matter the most. Other people don’t have privileged access to our intentions, after all. What they have to go on is how we behave, what we do — and that outward behavior can have positive or negative effects regardless of whether we intended those effects. It hurts when you step on my toe whether or not you are a good person inside. Telling me it shouldn’t hurt because you didn’t intend the harm is effectively telling me that my own experience isn’t valid, and that your feelings (that you are a good person) trump mine (that my foot hurts).

The allies I trust recognize that the trust they bank from their past good acts is finite. Those past good acts don’t make it impossible for their current acts to cause real harm — in fact, they can make a current act more harmful by shattering the trust built up with the past good acts. As well, they try to understand that harm done by other can make all the banked trust easier to deplete. It may not seem fair, but it is a rational move on the part of the people they are trying to help to protect themselves from harm.

This is, by the way, a good reason for people who want to be effective allies to address the harms done by others rather than maintaining a non-intervention policy.

Being a good ally means trying very hard to understand the positions and experiences of the people with whom you’re trying to make common cause by listening carefully, by asking questions, and by refraining from launching into arguments from first principles that those experiences are imaginary or mistaken. While they ask questions, those committed to being allies don’t demand to be educated. They make an effort to do their own homework.

I expect allies worth the name not to demand forgiveness, not to insist that the people with whom they say they stand will swallow their feelings or let go of hurt on the so-called ally’s schedule. Things hurt as much and as long as they’re going to hurt. Ignoring that just adds more hurt to the pile.

The allies I trust are the ones who are focused on doing the right thing, and on helping counter the wrongs, whether or not anyone is watching, not for the street cred as an ally, but because they know they should.

The allies I believe in recognize that every day they are faced with choices about how to act — about who to be — and that how they choose can make them better or worse allies regardless of what came before.

I am not ruling out the possibility that Joe Hanson or Jamie Vernon could be reliable allies for women in science and in the SciComm community. But their professions of ally status will not be what makes them allies, nor will such professions be enough to make me trust them as allies. The proof of an ally is in how he acts — including how he acts in response to criticism that hurts. Being an ally will mean acting like one.

On the labor involved in being part of a community.

On Thursday of this week, registration for ScienceOnline Together 2014, the “flagship annual conference” of ScienceOnline opened (and closed). ScienceOnline describes itself as a “global, ongoing, online community” made up of “a diverse and growing group of researchers, science writers, artists, programmers, and educators —those who conduct or communicate science online”.

On Wednesday of this week, Isis the Scientist expressed her doubts that the science communication community for which ScienceOnline functions as a nexus is actually a “community” in any meaningful sense:

The major fundamental flaw of the SciComm “community” is that it is a professional community with inconsistent common values. En face, one of its values is the idea of promoting science. Another is promoting diversity and equality in a professional setting. But, at its core, its most fundamental value are these notions of friendship, support, and togetherness. People join the community in part to talk about science, but also for social interactions with other members of the “community”.  While I’ve engaged in my fair share of drinking and shenanigans  at scientific conferences, ScienceOnline is a different beast entirely.  The years that I participated in person and virtually, there was no doubt in my mind that this was a primarily social enterprise.  It had some real hilarious parts, but it wasn’t an experience that seriously upgraded me professionally.

People in SciComm feel confident talking about “the community” as a tangible thing with values and including people in it, even when those people don’t value the social structure in the same way. People write things that are “brave” and bloviate in ways that make each other feel good and have “deep and meaningful conversations about issues” that are at the end of the day nothing more than words. It’s a “community” that gives out platters full of cookies to people who claim to be “allies” to causes without actually having to ever do anything meaningful. Without having to outreach in any tangible way, simply because they claim to be “allies.” Deeming yourself an “ally” and getting a stack of “Get Out of Jail, Free” cards is a hallmark of the “community”.

Isis notes that the value of “togetherness” in the (putative) SciComm community is often prioritized over the value of “diversity” — and that this is a pretty efficient way to undermine the community. She suggests that focusing on friendship rather than professionalism entrenches this problem and writes “I have friends in academia, but being a part of academic science is not predicated on people being my friends.”

I’m very sympathetic to Isis’s concerns here. I don’t know that I’d say there’s no SciComm community, but that might come down to a disagreement about where the line is between a dysfunctional community and a lack of community altogether. But that’s like the definitional dispute about how many hairs one needs on one’s head to shift from the category of “bald” to the category of “not-bald” — for the case we’re trying to categorize there’s still agreement that there’s a whole lot of bare skin hanging out in the wind.

The crux of the matter, whether we have a community or are trying to have one, is whether we have a set of shared values and goals that is sufficient for us to make common cause with each other and to take each other seriously — to take each other seriously even when we offer critiques of other members of the community. For if people in the community dismiss your critiques out of hand, if they have the backs of some members of the community and not others (and whose they have and whose they don’t sorts out along lines of race, gender, class, and other dimensions that the community’s shared values and goals purportedly transcend), it’s pretty easy to wonder whether you are actually a valued member of the community, whether the community is for you in any meaningful way.

I do believe there’s something like a SciComm community, albeit a dysfunctional one. I will be going to ScienceOnline Together 2014, as I went to the seven annual meetings preceding it. Personally, even though I am a full-time academic like Dr. Isis, I do find professional value from this conference. Probably this has to do with my weird interdisciplinary professional focus — something that makes it harder for me to get all the support and inspiration and engagement I need from the official professional societies that are supposed to be aligned with my professional identity. And because of the focus of my work, I am well aware of dysfunction in my own professional community and in other academic and professional communities.

While there has been a pronounced social component to ScienceOnline as a focus of the SciComm community, ScienceOnline (and its ancestor conferences) have never felt purely social to me. I have always had a more professional agenda there — learning what’s going on in different realms of practice, getting my ideas before people who can give me useful feedback on them, trying to build myself a big-picture, nuanced understanding of science engagement and how it matters.

And in recent years, my experience of the meetings has been more like work. Last year, for example, I put a lot of effort into coordinating a kid-friendly room at the conference so that attendees with small children could have some child-free time in the sessions. It was a small step towards making the conference — and the community — more accessible and welcoming to all the people who we describe as being part of the community. There’s still significant work to do on this front. If we opt out of doing that work, we are sending a pretty clear message about who we care about having in the community and who we view as peripheral, about whose voices and interests we value and whose we do not.

Paying attention to who is being left out, to whose voices are not being heard, to whose needs are not being met, takes effort. But this effort is part of the regular required maintenance for any community that is not completely homogeneous. Skipping it is a recipe for dysfunction.

And the maintenance, it seems, is required pretty much every damn day.

Friday, in the Twitter stream for the ScienceOnline hashtag #scio14, I saw this:

To find out what was making Bug Girl feel unsafe, I went back and watched Joe Hanson’s Thanksgiving video, in which Albert Einstein was portrayed as making unwelcome advances on Marie Curie, cheered on by his host, culminating in a naked assault on Curie.

Given the recent upheaval in the SciComm community around sexual harassment — with lots of discussion, because that’s how we roll — it is surprising and shocking that this video plays sexual harassment and assault for laughs, apparently with no thought to how many women are still targets of harassment, no consideration of how chilly the climate for women in science remains.

Here’s a really clear discussion of what makes the video problematic, and here’s Joe Hanson’s response to the criticisms. I’ll be honest: it looks to me like Joe still doesn’t really understand what people (myself included) took to the social media to explain to him. I’m hopeful that he’ll listen and think and eventually get it better. If not, I’m hopeful that people will keep piping up to explain the problem.

But not everyone was happy that members of our putative community responded to a publicly posted video (on a pretty visible platform — PBS Digital Studio — supported by taxpayers in the U.S.) was greeted with a public critique.

The objections raised on Twitter — many of them raised with obvious care as far as being focused on the harm and communicated constructively — were described variously as “drama,” “infighting,” a “witch hunt” and “burning [Joe] at the stake”. (I’m not going to link the tweets because a number of the people who made those characterizations thought about it and walked them back.)

People insisted, as they do pretty much every time, that the proper thing to do was to address the problem privately — as if that’s the only ethical way to deal with a public wrong, or as if it’s the most effective way to fix the harm. Despite what some will argue, I don’t think we have good evidence for either of those claims.

So let’s come back to regular maintenance of the community and think harder about this. I’ve written before that

if bad behavior is dealt with privately, out of view of members of the community who witnessed the bad behavior in question, those members may lose faith in the community’s commitment to calling it out.

This strikes me as good reason not to take all the communications to private channels. People watching and listening on the sidelines are gathering information on whether their so-called community shares their values, on whether it has their back.

Indeed, the people on the sidelines are also watching and listening to the folks dismissing critiques as drama. Operationally, “drama” seems to amount to “Stuff I’d rather you not discuss where I can see or hear it,” which itself shades quickly into “Stuff that really seems to bother other people, for whom I seem to be unable to muster any empathy, because they are not me.”

Let me pause to note what I am not claiming. I am not saying that every member of a community must be an active member of every conversation within that community. I am not saying that empathy requires you to personally step up and engage in every difficult dialogue every time it rolls around. Sometimes you have other stuff to do, or you know that the cost of being patient and calm is more than you can handle at the moment, or you know you need to listen and think for awhile before you get it well enough to get into it.

But going to the trouble to speak up to convey that the conversation is a troublesome one to have happening in your community — that you wish people would stop making an issue of it, that they should just let it go for the sake of peace in the community — that’s something different. That’s telling the people expressing their hurt and disappointment and higher expectations that they should swallow it, that they should keep it to themselves.

For the sake of the community.

For the sake of the community of which they are clearly not really valued members, if they are the ones, always, who need to shut up and let their issues go for the greater good.

Arguably, if one is really serious about the good of the community, one should pay attention to how this kind of dismissal impacts the community. Now is as good a moment as any to start.