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Oct 19 2013

Elsewhere, another community handles similar events differently.

It’s no surprise the science blogging community, even the “mainstream media” parts of it like Scientific American, intersects heavily with the community of atheists and freethinkers that make up the skeptical and atheist communities. Not all the members of the science blogging community, though, have any inclination toward being part of the atheist/skeptical communities. In fact, a surprising number of people who are out as atheists couldn’t give half a damn about these secular online communities, what with our acrimony, our pockets of outright hatred and our various unevidenced delusions. A large number of them have given up on our communities over the very same fights that FtB features heavily in — fights in which vocal minorities claim that we, the people who try to hold others’ feet to fires for believing in and for saying and for doing objectively harmful and antisocial things to one another, are the ones who are truly evil, with their cries of “witch hunts” and “political correctness” and “fascism” and their cries that they’re defending “free speech”, as though they even knew what the term meant.

The result of this divergence in community makeup is palpable this past week.

A much-lauded, beloved fixture of the online science community — responsible for building much of the community and fostering an environment empowering its members to speak up for themselves, responsible for creating much infrastructure that has enabled minority voices, women, and citizen scientists to participate in the community — has been revealed to have serially harassed several women under the auspices of furthering their writing careers. This event was a particularly damaging one to a number of us at Freethought Blogs, to be quite frank, because the man in question is a man to whom I and numerous others owe a great deal. He’s been a mentor and a father figure for a number of us, facilitating a number of voices being heard for the first time, as well as an unwavering voice in support of scientific pursuits. Without his efforts, the science blogosphere would be a much different place. So the fallout from these revelations is vast.

Of all people, Bora Zivkovic did things that demonstrably harmed the science blogging community in general, and a number of women in specific.

Bora flirted inappropriately with women trying to break into the community. Repeatedly, he told women about his love life, explaining to them that he and his wife were no longer having sex, veering unrelated and professional-contexed conversations into sex without any prompting. In at least in one case, he outright stated that he brought this up because he’d liked to have sex with the woman in question. With the man’s connections, with his gatekeeper status, women who otherwise wouldn’t humour his inappropriate behaviour found themselves keeping mum over it, until very recently.

The timeline for this series of events is surprisingly compact, given other timelines I’ve had to work with.

October 9th, 2012

Monica Byrne writes about her experience with Bora, declining to name him explicitly. After intentionally veering a professional conversation toward sex uninvited by Monica, Bora follows up by email and she rebuffs him. At some time shortly thereafter, evidently Monica talks to Scientific American, and Bora apologizes contritely for his unprofessionalism which is characterised as an isolated incident.

October 11th, 2013

A year later, related only tangentially to the Bora case as the catalyst for it all, a post at Scientific American is taken down within an hour of being published and a small outrage is sparked as a result. Danielle Lee, the Urban Scientist, was offered a guest blogging position by an editor named Ofek at Biology-online.org, an organization that evidently has some business arrangement with Scientific American. When she turned down the offer because it was an unpaid position, Ofek replied with a curt email asking if she was “an urban scientist, or an urban whore?”

October 14th, 2013

SciAm initially Danielle Lee’s post down citing reasons like that “it had nothing to do with ‘discovering science’”, then reinstated it on Oct 14th with an editor’s note saying that they took it down because they could not immediately verify the truth of the events. They reinstated the post when Ofek was fired by biology-online.org. This isn’t the first time Scientific American has taken down posts by women authors about sexual harassment.

On the same day, Monica Byrne updates her post to name Bora.

October 15th, 2013

Andrew Maynard reveals that he’d written an email to Monica Byrne asking her to take Bora’s name down, suggesting that she might ruin his career and hurt his family.

Bora admits this happened as Monica said on his blog, and explains that SciAm had spoken with him about his behaviour. At this point, the science blogging community is willing to dismiss his inappropriate behaviour as a failure of judgment, and accept his contrite apologies.

One of the people who corroborated Byrne’s original story last year surfaces in a blog thread to again state that she doesn’t know that Bora necessarily deserves to “go down” for his predatory behaviour, but that it definitely happened.

October 16th, 2013

Bora resigns from Science Online’s board, the science conference he co-founded with Anton Zuiker.

Andrew Maynard updates his post apologizing for any distress caused by having emailed Monica Byrne.

Hannah Waters writes of her own experience with Bora, and it follows the already-established pattern described in the other post. She says she does not think that Bora knew he was making his targets feel as though they were worthless except as sexual objects, but regardless, that was one of the consequences.

Bora asks people to stop defending him with regard to Waters and Byrnes’ accusations, commending them for speaking up.

The scientific community begins to experience ripples of doubt. People start to question whether the community Bora helped to build, which served as a significant incubator for women entering STEM, was done cynically for his personal sexual exploits, or contritely. Either way, the community he built had one defining feature: women willing to speak up.

October 17th, 2013

Sheril Kirschenbaum laments that some people she knows as harassers have piled on, doing demonstrable damage to the science-blogging community in the process of damning Bora, suggesting these people are like the “pot calling the kettle black”. She doesn’t name whom she’s talking about, though.

October 18th, 2013

Kathleen Raven relates her experiences with Bora, and not only do they follow the previous pattern, but they escalate that pattern significantly by his directly asking for sex.

Bora resigns from Scientific American, from his position of Blog Editor. SciAm cites their harassment policy in the public resignation notice.


Ultimately, the science blogging community took a huge hit with these revelations. But, the way the community shook out all the problems is laudable, and Bora — who has demonstrably not done as much damage as some other known serial harassers — actually took the outcome of his actions on the chin, taking the consequences without complaint. The fact that we are not engaged in a months-long protracted he-said-she-said with so much wagon-circling and skepticism (because bitchez be lyin’, naturally — all these women claiming harassment couldn’t POSSIBLY be telling the truth, you see, because bitches!), speaks to the community that Bora helped to build where women actually do have a voice and are able to use it. Even if his nature as a predatory creeper over the past several years was significantly milder than other harassment we’ve seen — not to say that it’s not insidious and damaging to women’s self-esteem as writers and scientists, naturally! — that community did not take any of that bullshit even from their glorious leader, and I’m fairly confident in saying that the vast majority of this story is now known. Now it’s just a matter of assessing the damage, and learning how many people were likewise taken advantage of emotionally and intellectually.

There may be repercussions from this series of events that lasts far into the future, but the community Bora helped build will survive his disgrace, because it recognized and excised the cancerous behaviour. For whatever betrayal we might feel from Bora’s actions, at least the community is strong enough to fight for its own self-direction, and for that I’m grateful.

This stands in very stark contrast to how the atheist-skeptic communities have divided into pro- and anti-harassment camps, and how these fights have dragged on for years. Just look at these timelines for comparison.

This series of events, by the by, does not belong on the secular/skeptical communities’ harassment timeline. Bora, while an out atheist, has never identified with our communities, and the communities he’s helped build are separate and distinct. There may be significant overlap between our communities’ members, but not enough to merit mashing it into that other timeline, specifically because of Bora’s primary identity.

I wish our atheist/skeptical/secular communities could deal with our issues half so quickly and forthrightly as the science blogging community has. I see it as them having ripped the band-aid off, whereas we’re still seeing community members repeatedly digging at our wounds with rusty forks.

2 comments

1 ping

  1. 1
    Chris Clarke

    Interesting point.

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    The Zivkovic situation got resolved so quickly because (though it didn’t start that way) all the strings converged on levers operated in the office of Scientific American, an organization dominated by highly educated people sensitive to liberal cultural dynamics.

    The atheoskeptic movement has no such centralized hierarchy (and considering recent behavior at JREF, the Dawkins Foundation, etc, we have little reason to expect any comparable awareness if it did).

    tl;dr abstract: apples and oranges.

  1. 3
    Sunday Morning Science: What I’m Reading | On the Border of Biology and Bioinformatics

    […] impossible to ignore the sexual harrassment revelations that have occurred this week, and I like  this post by Jason Thibault as an overview and timeline, with links to many of the original posts. It’s […]

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