Thursday, December 5, 2013

The SciAm Blog Drama

One may have heard about the recent drama at Scientific American.

It had very humble beginnings, but quickly ballooned into a complicated series of internet fights that ensnared dozens of people.

Here's a not-so quick rundown of selected episodes of the drama.

Episode 1: A blogger scorned!

  1. Danielle N. Lee has a blog at Scientific American called The Urban Scientist
    • The subtitle is: "A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences""
  2. Lee received an email from a named Ofek, who at the time represented another science writing website
  3. Ofek asked Lee if Lee would like to write for their website
  4. Lee asked politely what the compensation would be
  5. Ofek responded politely that payment would only really be in visibility - there would be no money
  6. Lee politely declined the offer
  7. Ofek, referring to Lee's reasonable request for money, asked:
    • "Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?"
  8. Lee, angry with Ofek's insult, wrote a blog post about the exchange at SciAm.
  9. SciAm took the post down, citing issues with verifying the story
  10. The Twitterverse and blogopshere erupted, accusing SciAm of protecting a partner, etc.
    • The #StandingWithDNLee hashtag was born
  11. SciAm eventually put the post back up, blamed the delay on a long weekend.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the debacle at this juncture is that "science" bloggers see blog networks as quite personal spaces.

While this is the norm for the unknown on Tumblr and Blogger, it would be a departure from the way corporate media is managed. Even on a relatively laissez-faire social media network like Twitter, sounding off while wearing a corporate brand is generally a career ending faux pas.

The science blogging game seems to be one of low pay and high volume. The primary writers make most of their dollars doing something else - it seems Danielle Lee's day job is being a postdoc at Oklahoma State University. A science blogger's relationship with SciAm and the product they ultimately produce for SciAm is altogether different from the environment one with a title like "community engagement manager" would exist in at a corporation concerned with consumer goods and services.

The business value from SciAm blogging comes from pageviews. SciAm wants pageviews. SciAm wants lots of content. SciAm also wants to keep quality up, drama down, and compensation low. The bloggers and SciAm obviously face numerous competing goals. It seems assured that the editors will be involved in many more disputes of this nature in the future.

But back to the story...

Episode 2: Bora! Bora! Bora!

SciAm put Lee's post back up October 14th.

On October 15th, Ofek (predictably) was fired by his supervisors. On this day, many may have thought this would be the end of drama for SciAm.

But it turns out that on this day a blogger named Monica B decided after reading about the incident involving Lee that enough is enough and named Bora Zikovic, the Blogs Editor for SciAm, as the person described in an account of sexual harassment she wrote a year earlier.

The account describes a meeting at a cafe that was borne out of a professional relationship. She was a writer, he was a gatekeeper to a blog network. A brief mention of an article about a strip club led Bora into self-driven tangents about his sex life. This is creepy conversation to say the least. The discussion ended with a hug, as Bora is apparently a "hugging person".

Monica later sent Bora an email explaining how inappropriate his statements and actions were. After some days passed, Bora replied with an apology and assurances that it was an isolated incident during a "personal crisis".

According to the initial anonymous recounting of the interaction, the purpose behind the article was to verify to some extent that the incident was not the doings of a serial offender. After Bora was named, further accounts arrived of Bora behaving extremely badly surfaced.

Bora confirmed the validity of some of the stories:

As can be expected, Bora is no longer working for SciAm and hasn't said much since. Hopefully the man is seeking some much needed help.

Episode 3: Return of the Zvan

At this point, the science blogging crowd on Twitter is sharing all kinds of stories, some entirely terrifying and others rather mundane. Of course, when things like this happen the mundane stories are somehow purported to be some of the most important because they are such "ordinary" "microaggressions" within a culture of "everyday sexism". Every human interaction that is at all off-putting forms the basis of a Twitter crusade for "social justice".

The aforementioned drama meant that pandora's box of awareness-raising was open, and Atheism Plus had quietly been waiting all this time to drop a deuce for justice.

Enter the Zvan.

On October 18th, the same day Bora "resigned" from SciAm, the intrepid "FreeThoughtBlogger" Stephanie Zvan wrote a post titled "One More Thing".

The title suggests the drama is not over yet.

Zvan begins:

While we’re talking about sexual harassment in science communication, there’s one more thing I have to say. It’s prompted by Christie [redacted]’s favorite on this tweet of mine...
The tweet was Zvan extending sympathy to a person harassed by Bora. Christie ( last name redacted  to prevent unwanted Google Bombing ) showed her approval of this sentiment with a favorite.

Zvan then drops the bomb on Christie, at this point an apparent ally to the cause:
In the post, Christie talks about hearing rumors about Bora–rumors I and many others never heard. She talks about being harassed, though not by Bora. Those aren’t why I’m writing this, though. I’m writing this because Christie, while talking about all that, and being told she’s brave for talking about all that, doesn’t talk about the fact that she has also harassed people at ScienceOnline and outside of it.
It's a one-two punch - Zvan comes out of the gate and states that Christie's testimony of rumors might be bullshit, (Is this what PZ would call hyper-skepticism?) and then follows it up with an accusation that Christie herself is a harasser!

Zvan continues:

I’m also writing about this because, as the current discussion of harassment is going, it’s being framed as a matter of power and a matter of how men treat women. It is both those things, often. The issues of power make this harder to deal with. They mess with people’s careers. They make predation easier. But all of this, with power or without, whatever the genders involved, needs to stop being swept under the rug.
How convenient that Zvan had an example of a woman harassing men already in the barrel when this SciAm drama unravelled...

Zvan begins to document the Christie Crimes.

Incident #1:
Christie was kind of moving around the table behind all the people sitting and singing. I was sitting and singing. She came up from behind me and kissed me on the mouth. I shoved her away. She said, “Jerk,” and leaned over and kissed the woman next to me on the mouth. I won’t speak for the woman involved, but she shoved her off pretty quick too. I didn’t know what to do, so I kept singing and tried to have a good time.
Incident #2:

Christie had flirted–consensually to start with–with our common friend. When Christie made it clear that she took the flirtation seriously, our friend informed her that he did not. Christie did not take “No” for an answer. She continued to send frequent and inappropriate text messages.

Incident #3:

Then came ScienceOnline 2012. By this point, I and a small number of other people knew enough about what was happening to run interference between Christie and my friend. That seemed to be mostly successful, until she showed up at his hotel room one night “to talk”. Then she got into his bed, and he ended up sleeping in the armchair in the room because he didn’t want to leave her alone with his things and didn’t have phone numbers for people he knew mostly online. He sat there, paralyzed and disbelieving, like so many targets of harassment who can’t believe that these events can really be happening to them.

Luckily harassment policies are now keeping this monster in check: (Nothing else could have possibly have changed!)

This friend continues to see Christie at various conferences because they’re in the same field. The trend toward having harassment policies in place has mitigated Christie’s behavior somewhat. ScienceOnline had a policy in place by their 2013 meeting. That Christie’s behavior changed after the policy was adopted tells me she knows it was out of line. 

So the policy changed, and the perpetrator's behavior has reformed, yet Zvan feels the need to out the perpetrator anyways. Alright...

The grenade is thrown, and it quickly blows up in Zvan's face.

First, the post annoys the hell out of Greg Laden.

Laden comments:
This post is inappropriate unless it is clearly, in a sense, co-authored by the other parties which does not seem to be the case. And even then it may not be appropriate. 
But beyond that, this situation is qualitatively and quantitatively different than the Bora situation. And, as John points out, even the Bora situation is not being properly framed. The idea that this is a female example of the previously hashed out male example is wrong. These are simply not the same thing. 
I hope we are not seeing the beginning of an unending game of Unwanted Sexual Attention Olympics. 
The first person that tells me that I’m trying to silence anyone will likely get told to shut up by me, because that is not what I’m suggesting. I am suggesting that some thought and perspective be applied to the situation. I know that is highly unlikely, that prospect seems to have gone out the window.
In fact, one of the men involved is quoted with nothing changed that changes the meaning. The other was asked to vet my description before it was posted. It is, in a sense, co-authored.
No comparison to Bora is requested or desired. These things deserve to be heard and considered in their own right.
Christie is a graduate student. Nobody works for her.
She’s probably got a half dozen things going on that are repressing her right now because that is what it is like to be a graduate student. You may have done her in with this blog post. You might have just taken away someone’s career because a bunch of people got drunk and you felt some need to be the person who talks about harassment. That is pretty much unforgivable. I can not for the life of me think of why you did this.
My point is that there IS a comparison to the Bora situation and the comparison shows that they are miles and miles apart, not even in the same ball park. Not the same league. Not the same game. You are not allowed to pretend that you have not linked Bora and that situation with Christie and her situation both by the nature and timing of this post.
It seems to me that Christie was utterly blind sided by this. This indicates that there was no consideration of a private conversation to establish a basis for the next step. You have single handedly decided that Christie needed to be punished, skipping right past all the other phases of inspection and consideration. There is no going back for her now because you decided what the end game will be for her and you unilaterally implemented it. There is nobody here “naming names” because the only name is you, who have nothing to do with this, and Christie, or what is left of her after you threw her under the bus.
Note: One doesn't have to be "the boss" to sexually harass someone and cause real harm, so the sob story about graduate studies is largely irrelevant. However Laden is on point when it comes to the toxicity of Zvan's public shaming.

You’re livid. The people involved other than Christie are thanking me for saying things they didn’t feel they could for a variety of reasons. There is still no good way to end up unwanted in someone’s bed or kissing people who don’t want that. There is no good way to opine on what the community should have known or done without accounting for the people you’ve injured.
Those people, and all the people who have known and have tried to “manage” the problem over the last two years, deserve a place in these considerations.
I’ll live with the disapprobation, yours and what comes from others. I’ve lived with plenty, frequently supported by you. Maybe this has warped my judgment. Maybe not. Right now, however, most of the people agreeing with you are either (1) ignoring that there is repeated behavior targeting multiple people or (2) people who think this world should be everyone looking out for themselves.
I’ll wait to be convinced.

Who is this Greg Laden that just tore Zvan to pieces?

Just a panelist of Zvan's Fight the Trolls panel at SkepchickCon in 2012!  Laden and Zvan go way back, firmly entrenched in the "social justice" scene. To see it hit the fan like this is quite the popcorn event.

But it gets better, for Zvan doesn't need to wait long to be "convinced".

It turns out that the man involved in the most serious "incident" continued sexting with his "harasser" after he slept in the hotel room armchair. He revealed this after Zvan's post went live, and added his choice of silence in an armchair was sourced from the meeting having the appearance of infidelity.

Zvan, either convinced by Laden's arguments or embarrassed by the facts coming out, did something FreeThoughtBloggers rarely do - apologize:

I made a mistake, and I owe Christie [redacted] and this community an apology. When I wrote this post, I mistook being part of a set of events as they unfolded as being the same thing as having a full enough view of those events to know that I could comment on them without getting her perspective. I should not have done that. As a result, I published an account of her actions that has not fully stood up in the face of further scrutiny. For that, I am truly sorry.

Zvan apologizes for not contacting Christie first. It would also be nice to apologize for the "unforgivable" (Laden's words) public shaming and reputation destruction, and the opportunism of the timing of these revelations. Outside of the bogus allegations of misconduct, Zvan first challenged Christie's credibility regarding the rumors about Bora - Zvan cannot even remember all the attempts at character assassination leveled at Christie.

Zvan very literally collects ad money from writing this drivel.

Atheism+, FreeThoughtBlogs, Skepchick and Zvan think they are the core of a progressive political movement within skepticism, atheism, and science.

It is true that these Atheism+ do-gooders are in the center of everything. For they are the ones in the middle of the room, standing proud, urinating in the punchbowl of progress. Drunk with power and aroused by gossip, only a little bit of second-hand information is necessary before turning on the excommunication machine.

Going further, there is an additional explanation.

What is a grumpy blogger from Minnesota doing when she seeks to destroy the reputation of a young, attractive, flirtatious, single, female grad student?


It's a brutal cold war fought by women.


  1. It is rich that Laden is the fuckwit that tried to get Abbie Smith fired from SciBlogs and spewed his fuckwitery to her department chair.


    Have you seen this? LOLZ "Dense....Immense......Takes Offence"
    LMAOROLF The things Elevatorgate links to are often priceless!

    Thanks for blogging, Uber! I always enjoy you're posts.

    1. You're welcome! Keep the comments coming :) That YouTube video is incredible!

  3. Me again!
    That NY Times article you linked was interesting. It's amazingly "spot on" as they say in the UK. I'm married and our kids are teenagers, so I had to really think back to when I was college-aged. Yes, it's all true. I suspect the female scientists interested in studying this already knew, too. Confirmation bias perhaps?
    Wearing that type of clothing to class in college is out of place. So I don't know how they could do a properly blinded study. Of course the woman who dressed just like everyone else wouldn't grab attention like the scantily clad woman.

    1. Yes, and it's probably difficult to make a lot of conclusions based on dress alone. Perhaps students would be also aggressive to people dressing outside the boundaries of the norm, but not generally interpreted as having sexual intentions. Brightly colored hair, mismatched contacts, things like that...

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