Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.


Holier-than-thou storms brew on Twitter, and the science communicators have been out with their pitchforks.

by Amanda Alvarez

Hippo fight. Caption. (Image credit: Nilsrinaldi via Wikimedia Commons)

Hippo fight.  (Image credit: Nilsrinaldi via Wikimedia Commons)


The past few months have seen a succession of upheavals in the science communication community. Even as a casual Twitter observer, I haven’t been able to miss the Scientific American debacle that followed Danielle Lee’s blog post, the subsequent revelations of sexual harassment by SciAm blogs editor Bora Zivkovic, last week’s uproar over harassment-by-bobbleheads in what was likely intended as a lighthearted video and, as I write this, the most recent spat between bloggers with differing views on a panel at the recent NASW meeting. In this list I’m not even sure what to link to, as the online commentary has been prolific, comprehensive… and also vicious and unproductive.

I’m sorry that it took so many delayed revelations for the behavior of Bora Zivkovic, for example, to come to light, and for this to launch a wider discussion (e.g. via the aforementioned NASW panel, or the recent Nature editorial) on harassment and discrimination in science and science writing. Civility and judicious data collection and inspection, however, have largely been absent from the online proceedings; these are traits ostensibly otherwise characteristic of both scientists and journalists. When detractors and supporters start piling on, the discussion tends to descend to the level of YouTube comments (and this is not the place to bemoan the internet for its role in the devolution of dialogue to brainfarts, though I hope we can agree that the collective discussion has proven many times over that a scicomm version of Godwin’s law holds).

In no way do I condone or apologize for the harassment, misogyny, or discrimination in any of the events I mentioned above. I have noticed, however, that male voices tend to be the loudest denouncers in, for example, BobbleheadGate. Silence, apparently, implies tacit agreement with misogyny, real or perceived. A rush to be the first off the condemnation block is coupled with ever shriller demands that the offender capitulate to mob justice; blog apologies are blasted as lame, half-hearted, or insincere, and dignified silence, complete retractions, or even legal justifications seem to lose all merit.

With my recent relocation to Europe, I’ve acquired some distance and perspective on what I perceive to be the very insular (mostly English-speaking, US-based) scicomm community. I’m glad that this community is so verbose and self-aware and appears to be going through a period of transition and self-examination. I want there to be room for differing viewpoints, colors, and languages, especially for those (like myself) who are outside the vocal elite. But the pitchfork gang appears to be comprised of some members of this very elite. Their verbal talents have, to my mind, been put to waste when they engage in the sorts of witchhunts we’ve seen lately.

As a junior science writer, I feel a bit like a kid whose parents are fighting. People I’m told to look up to and learn from are hurtling insults at each other, or launching multi-tweet admonishments at up-and-comers like Joe Hanson of bobblehead video infamy. At any given moment, my Twitter stream seems to be polluted by scicomm reactionaries. A friend and fellow science communicator tells me he originally embraced Twitter because of the community but has now withdrawn from the platform, because the discussions are dominated by meta-scicomm issues, tantrums, and hysteria. This creates an atmosphere where some are too apathetic or afraid to speak up, while others who do are muffled with disclaimers or blog post retractions, or career-crushing Twitter takedowns. The thinking has become so hyper-PC that it’s gone full circle, an ourobouros reflexively demanding apologies for slights against groupthink.

I don’t have a horse in this race one way or the other, but I like science; egos and drama, not so much. What does the science communication community (ghetto?) look like to the wider world with this in-fighting, and who is busy doing our jobs while this is happening? Self-reflection, policies, panels, and discussions have their place (especially when it comes to diverse participation in science, a topic central to the blogging and outreach of many non-professional science communicators), and some people really do thrive on ruffling feathers. But if you’re busier fomenting beefs and playing thought police, you are using your intellect and influence to push your own subjective agenda. Unless the game has changed, I hope our collective agenda will continue to be the skilful, thoughtful dissemination of science.

Naturally, I disclaim that the thoughts expressed here are only my own.


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This entry was posted on November 26, 2013 by in Science Journalism and tagged , , , , .
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