A bumpy week

Laura Helmuth wrote about it in Slate yesterday.

I take back every bad thing I have ever said about Twitter. It’s fast, responsive, and efficient, and it’s the medium of record when gossip breaks. Like pretty much every other science journalist in the world, I’ve been glued to Twitter for the past several days. It all started when a biologist named Danielle Lee, who writes a blog called the Urban Scientist, tweeted that some minor-league editor had called her an “urban whore.”* Really, that is what he called her. To show support for her, people started renaming their own blogs with the word whore using a #WhoreItUp hashtag. The insult was infuriating and the response heartening, but things got more serious whenScientific American removed Lee’s blog post about the exchange. The magazine issued a misleading explanation, then an apology, then it finally reposted her story with a not entirely satisfying update.

Then it got better. I mean, sorry, it got worse—what follows is all terrible and sad. But it’s also fascinating and useful to examine. A writer named Monica Byrne wrote on her blog about being harassed by one of the most influential people in the science blogging world, Bora Zivkovic. He founded an extremely popular conference for science bloggers, established science blog networks at various publications, and now (at least as I write) runs the well-respected collection of blogs at Scientific American. His nickname is the Blogfather. One common route into a science writing career in the past several years has been through Zivkovic: He routinely publishes young writers and promotes their stories with his large social media audience. Zivkovic has always been extremely solicitous of young journalists, generous with his time, charming, enthusiastic, gregarious. A Twitter meme popped up at science blogging conferences: #IHuggedBora.

And now all that is looking somewhat different, as Ibis said in a comment at Stephanie’s.

And with all the good Bora’s done mentoring women in their science comm careers… he could have done SO MUCH BETTER by leaving all of them at peace to do their work

Maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe the only reason he mentored women at all was so as to give himself ready access to a pool of women to sexually harass (& exploit?). Not unlike the way predators of children volunteer to be scout leaders or big brothers or church youth group leaders or community centre mentors of disadvantaged young people.

I hope that’s not the case, but I sure as hell can’t tell it’s not.

Zivkovic has a lot of friends, and after Byrne’s story went public, many of them expressed support for him, and others questioned Byrne’s decision to name him.

Zivkovic admitted to the incident, apologized, and said it was not “behavior that I have engaged in before or since.”

Only apparently it was. Another science writer, Hannah Waters, then described similar experiences:

I saw him at various events and he began flirting a little. It didn’t ring any alarm bells; he is flirtatious by nature. But sometimes talk would veer into more uncomfortable territory, but only vaguely uncomfortable, which made it hard to call out.

And then today there was yet another, and it became all too clear that it wasn’t a one-off but a settled script, a pick-up line.

Helmuth went on:

Waters and Byrne were careful to be precise and not exaggerate what happened to them, which is that they felt very uncomfortable when their conversations with one of the most powerful people in their profession turned sexual. They weren’t raped or groped, and they suffered no obvious career setbacks by failing to take Zivkovic up on what they perceived as the implicit request for sex. But they felt lousy and confused. Here’s what I found most distressing in Waters’ post: “At my most insecure moments, I still come back to this: Have I made it this far, not based on my work and worth, but on my value as a sexual object? When am I going to be found out?”

Exactly – that’s the part I singled out too – he blew a big hole in their confidence, for the sake of his own sex-jollies. That is crap.

I told Waters directly and repeat here that she and Byrne are talented writers who are not faking it. But of course they wonder about how their career trajectories will be perceived, and I’m sure many other people who have gotten a break or a boost from Zivkovic have the same nagging worries.

Here’s how the score stands after several days of turmoil. The racist and sexist blog editor who called Lee an urban whore has been fired. Lee is blogging away and working on a feature story related to the ordeal. Zivkovic has apologized on Twitter to Byrne and Waters and resigned from the board of the conference he helped found. Byrne and Waters are getting a deluge of positive responses. Scores of science bloggers are writing powerful stories (many of them published by Scientific American about harassmentmicroaggressionsexism, and racism. The whole extended episode has made the community more aware of the problems of harassment and more welcoming to people who call out inappropriate behavior. It’s been an amazing consciousness-raising session, and the science writing world is stronger for it.

Yes, but at a stiff price. There are a lot of very sad scientists around today.


  1. ChasCPeterson says

    here are a lot of very sad scientists around today.

    A shitty, weird, and depressing week to be sure.
    But the foks who are sad are science bloggers (some, but by no means all of whom are also scientists or scientists in training)..
    The vast majority of working scientists are entirely unaware and uninterested the blogosphere. Bora was well-known in the ‘sphere but pretty much completely unknown as a scientist.
    Just for perspective.

  2. quixote says

    Indeed. The working scientists could use the equivalent wake-up call. And then some. A lot more careers and contributions getting ground up there.

  3. says

    Chas – well yes, that’s what I meant – “scientists” wasn’t meant to be a complete descriptor, and it certainly wasn’t meant to imply all scientists.

    But Science Online isn’t just for bloggers, is it? I don’t know, because I’m not up on it myself, but I assume it is what it says on the tin – and online is not limited to bloggers.

  4. rnilsson says

    All I can say is, I wouldn’t know B’orac from a flashing plexiglass box. And, I can’t even remember what made me unfollow Orac last winter. Was it the vaxxination? Or maybe the occult influences from the subcog’s Id? No, something nags me it might have been something he stated that kind of jarred my jeer box from cheering to charing. Like a bad shift in a heavy terrain truck. Or instinct, even. Eerie concept, that.

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