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.

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

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

Near the beginning of the month, I asked my readers — those who are scientists and those who are non-scientists alike — to share their impressions about whether scientists have any special duties or obligations to society that non-scientists don’t have. I also asked whether non-scientists have any special duties or obligations to scientists.

If you click through to those linked posts and read the comments (and check out the thoughtful responses at MetaCookBook and Antijenic Drift), you’ll see a wide range of opinions on both of these questions, each with persuasive reasons offered to back them up.

In this post and a few more that will follow (I’m estimating three more, but we’ll see how it goes), I want to take a closer look at some of these responses. I’m also going to develop some of the standard arguments that have been put forward by professional philosophers and others of that ilk that scientists do, in fact, have special duties. Working through these arguments will include getting into specifics about what precisely scientists owe the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world, and about the sources of these putative obligations. If we’re going to take these arguments seriously, though, I think we need to think carefully about the corresponding questions: what do individual non-scientists and society as a whole owe to scientists, and what are the sources of these obligations?

First, let’s lay some groundwork for the discussion.

Right off the bat, I must acknowledge the problem of drawing clear lines around who counts as a scientist and who counts as a non-scientist. For the purposes of getting answers to my questions, I used a fairly arbitrary definition:

Who counts as a scientist here? I’m including anyone who has been trained (past the B.A. or B.S. level) in a science, including people who may be currently involved in that training and anyone working in a scientific field (even in the absences of schooling past the B.A. or B.S. level).

There are plenty of people who would count as “scientist” under this definition who would not describe themselves as scientists — or at least as professional scientists. (I am one of those people.) On the other hand, there are some professional scientists who would say lots of the people who meet my criteria, even those who would describe themselves as professional scientists, don’t really count as members of the tribe of science.

There’s not one obvious way to draw the lines here. The world is frequently messy that way.

That said, at least some of the arguments that claim scientists have special duties make particular assumptions about scientific training. These assumptions point to a source of the putative special duties.

But maybe that just means we should be examining claims about people-whose-training-puts-them-into-a-particular-relationship-with-society having special duties, whether or not those people are all scientists, and whether or not all scientists have had training that falls into that category.

Another issue here is getting to the bottom of what it means to have an obligation.

Some obligations we have may be spelled out in writing, explicitly agreed to, with the force of law behind them, but many of our obligations are not. Many flow not from written contracts but from relationships — whether our relationships with individuals, or with professional communities, or with other sorts of communities of various sizes.

Because they flow from relationships, it’s not unreasonable to expect that when we have obligations, the persons, communities, or other entities to whom we have obligations will have some corresponding obligations to us. However, this doesn’t guarantee that the obligations on each side will be perfectly symmetrical in strength or in kind. When my kids were little, my obligations to them were significantly larger than their obligations to me. Further, as our relationships change, so will our obligations. I owe my kids different things now than I did when they were toddlers. I owe my parents different things now than I did when I was a minor living under their roof.

It’s also important to notice that obligations are not like physical laws: having an obligation is no guarantee that one will live up to it and accordingly display a certain kind of behavior. Among other things, this means that how people act is not a perfectly reliable guide to how they ought to act. It also means that someone else’s failure to live up to her obligations to me does not automatically switch off my obligations to her. In some cases it might, but there are other cases where the nature of the relationship means my obligations are still in force. (For example, if my teenage kid falls down on her obligation to treat me with minimal respect, I still have a duty to feed and shelter her.)

That obligations are not like physical laws means there’s likely to be more disagreement around what we’re actually obliged to do. Indeed, some are likely to reject putative obligations out of hand because they are socially constructed. Here, I don’t think we need to appeal to a moral realist to locate objective moral facts that could ground our obligations. I’m happy to bite the bullet. Socially constructed obligations aren’t a problem because they emerge from the social processes that are an inescapable part of sharing a world — including with people who are not exactly like ourselves. These obligations flow from our understandings of the relationships we bear to one another, and they are no less “real” for being socially constructed than are bridges.

One more bit of background to ponder: The questions I posed asked whether scientists and non-scientists have any special duties or obligations to each other. A number of respondents (mostly on the scientist side of the line, as I defined it) suggested that scientists’ duties are not special, but simply duties of the same sort everyone in society has (with perhaps some differences in the fine details).

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. But whether the scientist has special powers may be the kind of thing that looks very different on opposite sides of the scientist-non-scientist divide; the scientists responding to my questions don’t seem to see themselves as very different from other members of society. Moreover, nearly every superhero canon provides ample evidence that power, and the responsibility that accompanies it, can feel like a burden. (One need look no further than seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to wonder if taking a break from her duty to slay vamps would have made Buffy a more pleasant person with whom to share a world.)

Arguably, scientists can do some things the rest of us can’t. How does that affect the relationship between scientists and non-scientists? What kind of duties could flow from that relationship? These powers, and the corresponding responsibilities, will be the focus of the next post.

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)

“Forcing” my kids to be vegetarian.

I’m a vegetarian, which is probably not a total surprise.

I study and teach ethics. I’m uneasy with the idea of animals being killed to fulfill a need of mine I know can be fulfilled other ways. In the interests of sharing a world with more than 7 billion other people, and doing so without being a jerk, I’d rather reduce my toll on our shared resources. And, I never liked the taste of meat.

My kids are also vegetarians, and have been since birth — so they didn’t choose it. I have imposed it on them in a stunning act of maternalism.

OK, it’s actually not that stunning.

Why am I imposing a vegetarian diet on my children? For the curious, here are my reasons for this particular parenting choice:

  1. The family dinner table isn’t a restaurant. The choices are to eat what I’m serving or not eat it. This was the deal, at least when I was growing up, in omnivores’ homes (including the one in which I grew up). I may encourage my offspring to try dishes of which they are skeptical, but I don’t view feeding them as an activity that ought to push my powers of persuasion to their limits, nor do I view it as an opportunity with which they should build the capacity of their free will. I’m cooking, and what I’m serving has no meat. That’s what’s for dinner.
  2. I’m in no position to do good quality control on a meat meal. I haven’t cooked meat in about 27 years, so I’ve pretty much forgotten how. I’m not going to taste a meat dish to adjust the seasoning. My paranoia about food-born pathogens is such that I’d probably cook the heck out of any piece of meat I had to cook … and my concerns about carcinogens are such that I wouldn’t even be doing it in a potentially appealing way like blackening it. Plus, aesthetically, I find meat icky enough to handle (and see, and smell) that actually preparing a meat dinner would cost me my appetite, and possibly my lunch.
  3. Meat is expensive.
  4. Meat production uses a lot of resources … as does raising a child in the U.S. Having opted for the latter, I prefer to opt out of the former. This is not to suggest that I look at other people and do a mental audit of their impact — I swear, I don’t — but I do look at myself that way. Bathing and hydrating my offspring and washing their clothes uses water, getting them places frequently uses gas, and the computer and TV/DVD/computer axis of entertainment (and homework) uses electricity. Their homework uses paper (and we sometimes lean on them to use more paper to show their damn work). Call the vegetarian diet a do-it-yourself partial offset of our other impacts.
  5. Meat consumption is not a requirement for human health. I checked this very early in the game with our pediatrician. My kids’ diet is providing them more than adequate amounts of all the nutrients they need for their physical and cognitive development.
  6. A parent-imposed vegetarian diet enables a satisfying range of (non-lethal) options for teen rebellion. Think of how convenient it would be if, as a teenager, you could defy a parent’s values by simply buying a can of chicken soup, as opposed to having to wrap a car around a tree or to figure out how you can get someone to buy you beer. Yes, this is meant mostly in jest, but consider how many young people do make a transgressive act of challenging their parents’ values as embodied in their diet — whether embracing vegetarianism, choosing to stop keeping Kosher, or what have you.

Have I hemmed in my kids’ ability to exercise their autonomy by raising them vegetarian? Absolutely.

Even at the relatively advanced ages of 14 and 12, they still need us to hem in their autonomy to keep them alive and in reasonably good mental and emotional shape to exercise their autonomy more fully as adults. This is just part of parenting. My “forcing” a vegetarian diet on the kids is of a piece with my “forcing” them to eat meals that aren’t composed entirely of candy, “forcing” them to go to school, to do their homework, to bathe, to wear sunscreen, and to sleep at least a few hours a night. I don’t believe it is an outrageous imposition (as indeed, they seem to LIKE most of what I feed them).

We live in a community where there are many different dietary customs in play, whether for religious, cultural, or ethical reasons, so they have plenty of friends who also don’t eat particular things. (Of course, there are kids with allergies, too.) They have learned how to enquire politely about the available options, to decline graciously, and to graze effectively at potlucks.

My kids haven’t ever begged me for meat (although they occasionally express sadness that restaurants have so many fewer options for vegetarian diners than for meat eaters). They also know that when they are adults, they will be able to make their own decisions about their diets. (Same as with tattoos.) They understand that there are some rules they have in virtue of their being members of a household, but that those are subject to change when they establish their own household.

Occasionally someone brings up the possibility that, having been fed a vegetarian diet from birth, my children won’t have adequate enzymes for the digesting of meat should they try to become meat-eaters later. I have no idea if this concern has good empirical grounding. Anecdotally, I know enough long-term vegetarians who have fallen off the (meat) wagon without developing any inability to scarf down a burger and digest it like a champ that this possibility doesn’t keep me up at night.

I haven’t indoctrinated my kids to believe that meat-eaters are evil, or that they’ll go to hell if animal flesh ever crosses their lips, in large part because I don’t hold those views either. They are simply part of a household that doesn’t eat meat. Given that, what beef could anyone have with it?

An ancestor version of this post was published on my other blog.

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Today in my “Ethics in Science” class, we took up a question that reliably gets my students (a mix of science majors and non-science major) going: Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don’t have?

Naturally, there are some follow-up questions if you lean towards an affirmative answer to that first question. For example:

  • What specifically are those special obligations?
  • Why do scientists have these particular obligations when non-scientists in their society don’t?
  • How strong are those obligations? (In other words, under what conditions would it be ethically permissible for scientists to fall short of doing what the obligations say they should do?)

I think these are important — and complex — questions, some of which go to the heart of what’s involved in scientists and non-scientists successfully sharing a world. But, it always helps me to hear the voices (and intuitions) of some of the folks besides me who are involved in this sharing-a-world project.

So, for the non-scientists in the audience, I have some questions I hope you will answer in the comments on this post.*

1. Are there special duties or obligations you think scientists have to the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

2. If you think scientists have special duties or obligations to the rest of society, why do they have them? Where did they come from? (If you don’t think scientists have special duties or obligations to the rest of society, why not?

3. What special duties or obligations (if any) do you think non-scientists have to the scientists with whom they’re sharing a world?

Who counts as a non-scientist here? I’m including anyone who has not received scientific training past the B.A. or B.S. level and who is not currently working in a scientific field (even in the absences of schooling past the B.A. or B.S. level).

That means I count as a scientist here (even though I’m not currently employed as a scientist or otherwise involved in scientific knowledge-building).

If you want to say something about these questions but you’re a scientist according to this definition, never fear! You are cordially invited to answer a corresponding set of questions, posed to the scientists with whom non-scientists are sharing a world, on my other blog.
* If you prefer to answer the questions on your own blog, or in some other online space, please drop a link in the comments here, or point me to it via Twitter (@docfreeride) or email (dr.freeride@gmail.com).

Teaching chemistry while female: when my very existence was a problem.

Not quite 20 years ago, I was between graduate programs.

I had earned my Ph.D in chemistry and filed my applications to seven Ph.D. programs in philosophy. (There were some surreal moments on the way to this, including retaking the GRE two weekends after defending my chemistry dissertation — because, apparently, the GRE is a better predictor of success in graduate school than is success in graduate school.) In the interval between the graduate stipend from the chemistry program from which I was now a proud graduate and the (hypothetical) graduate stipend from the philosophy graduate program on the horizon, I needed to earn some money so I could continue to pay my rent.

I pieced together something approximating enough earnings. I spent a few hours a week as a research assistant to a visiting scholar studying scientific creativity. I spent many hours a week as an out-call SAT-prep tutor (which involved almost as many hours on San Francisco Bay Area freeways as it did working one-on-one with my pupils). I even landed a teaching gig at the local community college, although that wouldn’t start until the summer session. And, I taught the general chemistry segment of a Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prep course.

Teaching the MCAT prep course involved four meetings (each four hours long, with three ten-minute breaks interspersed so people could stretch their legs, use the bathroom, find a vending machine, or what have you) with a large number of students planning to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. The time was divided between providing a refresher on general chemistry concepts and laying out problem-solving strategies for the “passage problems” to which the MCAT had recently shifted. I was working with old-school overhead transparencies (since this was 1994), with key points and the problems themselves in permanent ink and the working-out of the problems in transparency markers that erased with a damp cloth. The screen onto which the transparencies projected was very large, so I’d have to make use of the long rubber-tipped wooden pointer that was resting on the ledge of the chalkboard behind the screen.

During hour two of the very first meeting of the very first session I taught this MCAT prep course, as I retrieved the pointer from the chalk-ledge, I noticed that a single word had been written on the chalkboard:


I was pretty sure it hadn’t been on the board at the beginning of the session. But I still had three hours worth of concepts to explain and problems to work before we could call it a day. So I ignored it and got down to business.

The second meeting with this group, I made a point of checking the chalkboard before I pulled down the projections screen, fired up the overhead projector, and commencing the preparation of the students for the MCAT.

Before the four hour session began, the chalkboard was blank. By the end of the four hours, again, there was a single word written on it:


The same thing happened in our third session. By then it had started to really bug me, so, at the beginning of our fourth and final meeting together, I resolved at least to flush out whoever was doing the writing on the chalkboard. I collected all the chalk from the ledges and put it in the sink of the lab counter at the front of the room (for I was lecturing in a proper laboratory lecture hall, with sink, gas jets, and such). And, I brought a water bottle with me so I wouldn’t have to leave the lecture hall during the ten minute breaks to find a water fountain.

At the very first break, one of the young men in the prep course followed a path between the projection screen and the chalkboard, paused as if lost (or in search of chalk?), and then exited the room looking only a tiny bit sheepish.

On the board, appearing like a film negative against the light residue of chalk dust, he had written (I presume with a moistened finger):


I still have no idea at all what provoked this hostility. The structure of the MCAT prep course was such that all I was doing was giving the students help in preparing for the MCAT. I was not grading them or otherwise evaluating them. Heck, I wasn’t even taking attendance!

What on earth about 25-year-old me, at the front of a lecture hall trying to make the essentials of general chemistry easy to remember and easy to apply to problem-solving — something these students presumably wanted, since they paid a significant amount of money to take the course — what made me a “bitch” to this young man? Why was it so important to him that not a single meeting we had passed without my knowing that someone in attendance (even if I didn’t know exactly who) thought I was a bitch?

When it happened, this incident was so minor, against the more overt hostility toward me as a woman in a male-dominated scientific field (soon to be followed, though I didn’t anticipate it at the time, by overt hostility toward me as a woman in male-dominated academic philosophy), that I almost didn’t remember it.

But then, upon reading this account of teaching while female, I did.

I remembered it so vividly that my cheeks were burning as they did the first time I saw that chalk-scrawled “bitch” and then had to immediately shake it off so that we could cover what needed to be covered in the time we had left for that meeting.

And I ask myself again, what was I doing, except a job that I was good at, a job that I did well, a job that I needed — what was I doing to that particular young man, paying for the service I was providing — that made me a bitch?