by Judith Curry
Online bullying is an issue of growing concern. The flip side is shining an online ‘light’ on hidden bullying.
There is much discussion in the twitosphere and blogosphere over the temporary removal of a blog post on Scientific American by Danielle Lee that described a highly distasteful email exchange, where an editor at Biology-Online.com called Lee an “urban whore” because she declined to write a free monthly blog for the website. Scientific American caught a lot of flack for this. Huffington Post summarizes the incident. Sci Am responded:
Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of [Lee's] blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post. Although we regret that this was necessary, a publisher must be able to protect its interests and Scientific American bloggers are informed that we may remove their blog posts at any time when they agree to blog for us.
The issues raised by this incident continue to multiply. Motivated by the role of Bora Zivkovic in the Sci Am incident, Monica Byrne relates a sexual harassment incident involving Bora Zivkovic.
While the harassment of Danielle and Monica is reprehensible, the story really gets interesting when Andrew Maynard inserted himself into this situation by sending Monica an email. Andrew Maynard is Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, and blogs at 2020 Science. He has written a blog post When to name and shame on Social Media, and when to show compassion that describes the fallout of this email. In summary, he questioned Monica’s decision to actually name Zivkovic by name. Monica didn’t reply by email, but instead tweeted about Maynard’s email message, which motivated Maynard’s post. In his post, Maynard ponders the following ethical issues:
I teach and lecture on science communication and social media, and know Bora professionally but not personally. And so this piece had a connection with my professional community and activities. As a result, I felt it placed in a position of having to make a decision:
- Do I ignore it and walk way?
- Do I endorse Monica’s “outing” of an individual?
- Do I publicly question her judgement? or
- Do I see if some degree of process can be agreed on privately?
#3 was clearly inappropriate. #1 would have been the easiest, but something of an abdication of responsibility I felt. #2 made me really uneasy as it implies a value judgement on my part with little thought of consequences and evidence. Which left #4.
I did not do this lightly. I was aware that my email could be construed as undermining the significance of Monica’s experience – which I did not want to do. I was concerned that it might be considered as an inappropriate use of a perceived power-differential – fo this reason I didn’t include my usual email signature. I was highly sensitive to my lack of right to request a specific course of action. Yet I felt a responsibility to respond in some way. And so I advocated for consideration and compassion.
Was it a smart or a foolish email? I don’t know. I do know that sometimes staying silent or following the crowd aren’t great choices in hindsight. And I do know that it’s very easy to cause a great deal of harm through poorly considered actions that may not be meant to cause the harm they do. I also have what is probably a naive belief that there are ways of addressing important issues that are effective at reaching resolution without significant collateral damage.
But to finish this piece off by bringing the subject back to something more aligned with science communication – which is part of what this blog is about. The incident has got me thinking afresh about the responsibility that comes with being part of an online community without walls. And specifically, I’m left with the following questions:
- When is it OK to name and shame online – on any issue?
- When is it appropriate to support someone else’s outrage because it appears to fit your worldview? And
- For science communicators, when is it OK to draw strong conclusions in the face of scant evidence?
Roger Pielke Jr also has an interesting post on this incident. Excerpts:
There are of course all sorts of social factors at play in science, as in any field of endeavor, which shape behavior. Some of them — like groupthink and disciplinary cliques — are annoying and can even be pathological. Other behaviors are just wrong and unacceptable. Among these are sexual harassment and excusing sexual harassment because an accomplished scientist (male in this case) is “highly respected within the community.” Ack.
I’d guess that this case has still a denouement to play out, but however it ends it is one worth discussing with students in the classroom. The issues are uncomfortable and can be difficult to discuss, but they are obviously part of the social context of contemporary science and thus worth our attention. Kudos to Byrne for speaking out in a responsible manner.
Scientific American has a good post today entitled Characterizing Power, Privilege and Everyday Life in the Sciences. The following questions are posed:
We can begin to ask some questions here. What is inside and outside the scope of discussion in the scientific community? What kind of discussion is considered irrelevant, threatening or inappropriate, and what does this reveal about the sciences? Why is the impact of personal experience being valued less than other types of empirical information? Who in the scientific community is treated more professionally than others? Who is more at risk of marginalization in the sciences, one who raises objections to bigotry or one whose social power enabled them to express their bigotry? In general, why is science perceived to be divorced from social politics? What are the politics of science research funding, and how do they influence findings? Why does research conducted by women attract 0.7 citations for each citation received by research by men? What are the implicit limitations imposed on the professional advancement of female scientists, and how are they fueled by gendered conceptions of work and intellectual contribution? What drives income gaps between scientists with similar qualifications?
This post also points to a very interesting web site http://www.microaggressions.com
Hockey Sticks and Stones
Apart from the serious issue of sexual harassment, this incident raises some interesting meta issues that have relevance for the climate debate, particularly in context of the saga of the hockey stick, climategate, and the continuing fallout. And some of these I can relate to personally, having faced these kinds of decisions in my public communication on these issues.
When Climategate broke, I had to decide whether to ignore the incident or to address it. I decided to address the issue publicly, since I felt that it was a good thing to shine a light on the behaviors revealed in the Climategate emails and I wanted the incident to provoke the climate community into doing a better job in the future. In my writings related to Climategate, I avoided discussing specific incidents or naming individuals by name.
I dealt with the question of when is it appropriate to ‘name and shame’ by not naming names explicitly. I apparently crossed this line in my 2011 post Hiding the Decline. My statements of relevance to the current topic were:
Sir John Beddington’s statement: ”It is time the scientific community became proactive in challenging misuse of scientific evidence.”
The question I am asking myself is what is my role as a scientist in challenging misuses of science (as per Beddington’s challenge)? Why or why not should I personally get involved in this? Is hiding the decline dishonest and/or bad science? [as per Richard Muller's statements]
There is no question that the diagrams and accompanying text in the IPCC TAR, AR4 and WMO 1999 are misleading. I was misled. Upon considering the material presented in these reports, it did not occur to me that recent paleo data was not consistent with the historical record.
It is obvious that there has been deletion of adverse data in figures shown IPCC AR3 and AR4, and the 1999 WMO document. Not only is this misleading, but it is dishonest (I agree with Muller on this one).
I would like to know what the heck Mann, Briffa, Jones et al. were thinking when they did this and why they did this, and how they can defend this, although the emails provide pretty strong clues. Does the IPCC regard this as acceptable? I sure don’t.
Can anyone defend “hide the decline”? I would much prefer to be wrong in my interpretation, but I fear that I am not.
Well, clearly I was not ‘outing’ anyone here; anyone paying attention to this knew who was responsible for ‘hiding the decline.’ However clearly I had crossed some sort of ‘line’ by actually naming names, which Gavin Schmidt made clear in the comments. The fact that my Hiding the Decline post remains Climate Etc.’s all time greatest ‘hit’ provides further evidence for my crossing some line. What exactly is this line? Looks like somebody in the ‘good old boys club’ (euphemism for ‘the establishment’) forgot to invite me to the meeting where all this was explained.
My crossing this ‘line’ upped the attacks, particularly from Joe Romm (who refers to me as ‘the most debunked climate scientist on the planet’) and Michael Mann, who regularly refers to me as a ‘denier’ on twitter.
The issue of Michael Mann making such statements in the midst of his lawsuit against Mark Steyn is discussed today in an article by Mark Steyn entitled Sticks and Stones. Of particular relevance:
Dr. Mann, whatever his other gifts, is an inveterate name-caller. Consider his recent Guardian column defending his “hockey stick” from the bad case of brewer’s droop it’s acquired over the last 15 years of non-warming: Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish professor named (unlike Mann) by Foreign Policy as one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers,” is dismissed as “career fossil fuel industry apologist Bjorn Lomborg”; Judith Curry, a member of the National Research Council’s climate research committee, winner of awards from the American Meteorological Society, and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences, is billed by Dr. Mann as “serial climate disinformer Judith Curry”; and anyone else who has the impertinence to disagree with him is lumped under the catch-all category of “climate change deniers.”
Well, it doesn’t bother me personally when somebody in the blogosphere or even the MSM says something bad about me. But I am starting to think that this could be having adverse professional impacts for me. Each day, Georgia Tech provides a summary of the mentions of GT folks in the media; on Sept 28, the Buzz Report included this:
*The IPCC, Climate Change and Bad Faith Attacks on Science *
*/Huffington Post -/ September 27, 2013 *
It happens every six years or so: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) publishes its assessment of the current state of
scientific understanding regarding human-caused climate change. That
assessment is based on contributions from thousands of experts around
the world through an exhaustive review of the peer-reviewed scientific
literature and a rigorous, several-years-long review process… This
time, however, climate-change deniers seem divided in their preferred
contrarian narrative. Some would have us believe that the IPCC has
downgraded the strength of the evidence and the degree of threat. Career
fossil-fuel-industry apologist Bjorn Lomborg, in Rupert Murdoch’s “The
Australian,” wrote on Sept. 16: “UN’s mild climate change message will
be lost in alarmist translation.” On the other hand, serial climate
disinformer Judith Curry (*Georgia Tech*), in a commentary for the same outlet five days later, announced, “Consensus distorts the climate
For all my faculty members, employees and students to see, not to mention my bosses. And not to mention the wider public and the broader base of my professional colleagues. Imagine that I am under consideration for a new position (employment, member of a board, etc.) What kind of impact will such a statement have on my consideration? Further, do a Google search of Judith Curry, and some of the top hits include these gems:
- Romm’s post Judith Curry Abandons Science
- Tamino’s post Judith Curry Opens Mouth, Inserts Foot (based upon a MSM misquote, which is acknowledged in an update at the end of the lengthy post)
If this isn’t cyber bullying, I don’t know what is. Even though I’m not a Nobel laureate or anything :), what Mann has said about me is at least as bad as what Steyn said about Mann, particularly since Mann (an academic) is passing judgement on my science and my behavior as a scientist (which is my profession and source of income). Well, it will be certainly interesting to see how the Mann vs Steyn case plays out. I also note that Anthony Watts is a current target of Mann’s attentions, Watts makes this statement in a recent post: I’m dealing with Dr. Mann’s libel separately.
Commenters on blogs (anonymous or not) also get into spats with each other, there have been several notable instances on Climate Etc. The most notable one involves the Skydragon threads, where Pete Ridley made hundreds of comments pointing to online documentation so support his arguments that O’Sullivan was misrepresenting his credentials, had lied about many things, and had engaged in questionable personal behavior. John O’Sullivan threatened me with litigation if I didn’t remove all of Ridley’s comments. While as far as I can tell none of Ridley’s statements were actually false, I opted to take down all of the Skydragon threads. The very large number of comments by Ridley could be conceived as bullying, but I was clearly bullied by O’Sullivan with his threat of litigation.
What to make of all this? Some very complex issues are being raised, of social as well as legal relevance. I come down strongly on the side of shining a light on any bullying behavior, be it sexual harassment, or the kind of professional bullying evident in the Climategate emails, or whatever. The backlash against anyone shining a such a light can be seriously negative, and I most sincerely hope that this is not the case for Danielle or Monica.
The confluence in my mind of this incident with my own involvement in the hockey sticks and stones raises the issue of the role of gender in bullying, where females are regarded as ‘easier’ targets who wouldn’t dare strike back.
Bullies of all stripes BEWARE. Take extra care with your facts before you accuse anyone of anything online. Be careful with name calling especially if this reflects adversely in someway on the individual’s profession. And don’t expect your target to roll over because they are a female, or a minority, or someone otherwise perceived by the bully to be lower on some totem pole. The internet is empowering people (and increasingly females) to shine a light on bullying. This can only be a good thing.