Archive for: January, 2014

Civility, respect, and the project of sharing a world.

In recent days, this corner of the blogosphere has come back to the question of what constitutes civil engagement online (and, perhaps, offline).

If you've not being keeping up with the events that spurred this iteration of the conversation, you might want to read this, this, this, this, and this as background. However, believe me when I say the discussion in this space -- in this post -- is about the broader issue, and that you are not invited to weigh in here on behalf of your "team" in the recent events.

I'm someone who "does" ethics for a living, and my sense is that at its most basic level, ethics is a matter of sharing a world with other people.

Sometimes that world is one where we're sharing physical space, close enough to look each other in the eye or punch each other on the arm. Other times, the world in question is a virtual space in which we interact primarily by way of words on a screen.

Either way, whether sounds or strings of characters, the words we use are connected to ideas, and the people sending out or taking up those words are humans with their own interests, histories, social environments, grasp of the language, powers of empathy. These humans have privileged access to their own thoughts, intentions, and emotions, but not to those of the others with whom they're sharing a world. The words passed back and forth are part of how a human might get some (necessarily incomplete) information about what's going on in other humans' heads.

Conversation, in other words, is a hugely important tool for us in the project of sharing a world. So, arguably, figuring out what's happening when our conversations derail could help us do a better job of sharing that world. Continue Reading »

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How we construct 'failure' and professional communities.

Bethany Brookshire (perhaps better known in the blogosphere as SciCurious) has posted moving personal musings on her experience "failing" as an academic scientist and of being failed by the system that trained her to be one. She notes that grant-writing was the canary in the career coal mine for her. While she loved doing research, and still loves writing (which has become her professional focus in the aftermath of her tenure track faculty aspirations), she found she couldn't generate new, important, and fundable ideas to drive a research agenda. Indeed, Brookshire's experience of scientific training was that mentors weren't teaching her how to generate such ideas, nor even giving her many opportunities to try doing so. It wasn't until her postdoctoral research that she discovered that what felt like an essential ingredient for success as an academic scientist was not a tool in her toolbox.

And yet, her scientific training seemed to have a singular focus on pointing trainees toward a career as an academic scientist, preferably at a research-focused university. She writes:

I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that "success" looked like a tenure track position. It doesn't help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I've been told that it's my fault that I didn't stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my "former life", I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.

I know now that 80% of PhDs won't get a TT position. I think I always knew, deep down, that I wasn't in the top 20%. And I like what I do now! I'm good at it! It's fun! It's interesting! I like the people I work with and the things we talk about and the atmosphere. I feel like I am learning and growing every day. I think I can be successful in this. I think I can still make a difference in the world, maybe a really, really powerful one. Possibly a bigger difference than I ever could have made in science. But it's not academia, and sometimes, it still feels like failure.

Maybe academia failed me in more than one way. Maybe it would have been better had I NOT had that koolaid to drink. If it had been openly acknowledged and "ok" for people to go after non-TT positions (everyone SAYS it's ok, of course, if asked, they will always SAY it's ok and encouraged. But what they say, and what they do, are very different things).

As someone who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and then promptly leaked out of the science pipeline myself, I can identify with the feelings Brookshire describes. I recognize the anxiety involved in plotting a career trajectory and then trying to discover or decide whether you're suited for the form of life of that career. I also remember seeking, but not always finding, the information I would need to make this discovery or decision. Getting that information earlier, rather than later, could make a difference, informing how you invest your time and effort -- and whether you cling to your original plans or explore other possible trajectories instead.

I'm using both "discover" and "decide" above because I recognize there are differences of opinion here, and though I have my own hunches, the jury's still out. "Discovery" suggests to me that there are objective facts about the skills and inclinations required to succeed as an academic scientist, as well as hard limits to what someone lacking them could do to get them. "Decision," on the other hand, frames things in terms of the ends one sets for oneself (given one's skills and inclinations, but a whole mess of other factors besides).

The setting of ends as a feat of human agency matters here, since "failure" is always relative to some particular goal. The hard question that those training new scientists (or new members of other disciplines more broadly) really should grapple with is who is setting the goal? Who is judging particular trajectories worth pursuing or not?

For those being trained in a discipline at the Ph.D. level, it is very hard not to internalize the voice of the advisor with respect to what "success" looks like. It is also very common for the definition of "success" against which you are judged -- against which you come to judge yourself -- to be very narrow indeed.

This is a problem for the people being trained who discover (sometimes quite late in the process) that the odds of "success" after all of their hard work are much lower than they imagined. It creates conditions where social ties forged in the crucible of one's training become fragile because of the Malthusian competition in conditions of increasing scarcity.

Academic science red in tooth and claw may not have much of an actual body count, but not succeeding in the one approved trajectory (and further, believing that success in that trajectory is a matter of pure merit rather than of non-deterministic factors) can render you someone discounted, dead to your chosen profession, forgotten by those you trained with and those who trained you.

This is a problem for people being trained in these disciplines, but it isn't just a problem for them. It's also a problem for their disciplines.

I imagine at this point someone might pipe up and assert that the point of Ph.D. training is precisely to produce additional academic researchers in the field -- in other words, that it is nothing more and nothing less than career training for the One True Path.

If that were so, of course, it might surely be humane to train fewer people, or ethical to admit that the cynics are right that Ph.D. programs in the sciences exist largely to recruit throngs of relatively cheap laborers to do research for the scientists advising them. As well, if the whole point of the Ph.D. program were to provide job training for the One True Path, then the training offered is often pretty deficient, missing vital components like serious attention to grant writing, working with the IACUC or the IRB, teaching, mentoring, or being an effective member of a collaborative team or a committee.

Maybe we should recognize that another reason for engaging in Ph.D.-level training is to learn how new knowledge is built in a discipline by actually participating in building some.

Further, we could acknowledge that, while the skills developed in learning how to build new knowledge in your field are essential in pursuing the One True Path (in which you would devote your career to building new knowledge in your field), these skills also have the potential to be applicable in a wide range of other situations and careers. We could notice that people might have an interest in seeing the knowledge-building from the inside without wanting to make a lifetime commitment to building more knowledge.

Recognizing broader value and utility of the lessons learned from being immersed in knowledge-building is the kind of thing that could change both the experience of being a Ph.D. trainee and of being part of a professional community.

If there is One True Path that defines success, that makes it harder to explore other trajectories or to seek the training, experiences, or information one might want to evaluate them. Doing so is viewed as defeatist thinking or a distraction from preparation for the One True Path (not to mention from generating results from your advisor's research projects).

If there is One True Path, advisors and graduate programs can convince themselves that they have no individual or collective responsibility for providing any of the training, experiences, or information relevant to other career trajectories. Why would you need any of that in a program focused on preparing you for the One True Path? Indeed, the people training you, those who have succeeded on the One True Path, may say, "What know I of other paths? Information about requirements of those paths I have not. Train you for them I cannot." (Like Yoda, advisors sometimes speak with syntax that is challenging for trainees to follow.)

If we embrace the One True Path as defining both what counts as professional success for trainees and who even counts as properly in our professional community, we doom large proportions of those trained to failure and professional death. In so doing, those charged with the task of training new members of the profession squander the potentially rich network they might be building of people trained in their discipline who have succeeded in other paths -- people who could, among other things, share training, experiences, or information with those in the process of learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline, with those still in the process of deciding their own trajectories.

Recognizing that some of the people engaged in learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline may end up choosing other trajectories for themselves doesn't lessen the value of your discipline. Recognizing that the skills developed during Ph.D. trainings have broader applicability doesn't lessen the value of Ph.D. training. Indeed, noticing the utility of those skills in a wide array of situations would argue for greater value. Sending the tentacles of your disciplinary community further into the world would speak to the relevance of your discipline.

Cedar Riener explains this quite nicely:

The gatekeeping scientists that have told Sci she is a failure, or not a real scientist, think the currency of science should be creating new knowledge (and new, expensive, fundable knowledge, at that). What they don’t realize is that by denying the multiplicity of ways of being a scientist, in seeking to carefully guard the prestige they have so carefully amassed, they are diminishing their own status. In chipping away at their own exclusive island, they are ignoring the public sea levels of discontent with science that continue to rise. The biologist might snicker, as political science gets its entire NSF funding cut, thinking “Well, it wasn’t a real science after all.” But the biologist ignores that just because he is standing on higher ground, doesn’t mean that the logic of people like Tom Coburn will spare basic biological science. Too many legislators are happy to call biology science, but really what they want is immediately applicable medical research. Which results in idiotic statements like Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research and real harm to basic science funding.

So here’s my challenge to Sci (and hearty defense of my own work): You ARE a scientist. Stand on that island and say “I am Science, hear me roar!” and do the things you love to do, promote science, explain science, call out shady science, etc. This too is science. If it is not we are all lost. Science will not regain public trust through careful exclusivity and identity policing.

Defining success for those training in a discipline in terms of One True Path -- even if we only do it implicitly (say, by describing everything else as an "alternate" career path and professing our helplessness to prepare trainees for those) -- means setting up most trainees for failure. It means recognizing a much smaller and less diverse professional community, one that is less well-positioned and less able to interact with the larger society than it might be if success were defined more broadly.

It means disrespecting trainees' abilities to set their own ends. It means undervaluing their happiness.

Why on earth would anyone want to join a professional community that did that?

(Crossposted at Academe Blog)

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A meditation on the expectation of trust.

Jan 05 2014 Published by under Blogospheric science, Personal

You should trust me.

Sure, when the first public word of my bad behavior came out, I claimed the account used theatrical language to make it sound worse than it was and flat-out lied to you that I had never ever engaged in any such bad behavior with anyone else.

But you should trust me.

Yes, I used the cover of friendship, your loyalty and my apparent track record of not-misbehaving with hundreds of women (including you!), of being a good guy except for one single lapse of judgment (which I swore was not as bad as it sounded, because that woman who you didn't know was trying to take me down), to ask you privately to convince a couple other people that I was still a good guy. I guess it was awkward when you discovered I'd split up the list of people who needed convincing and asked other people to do this too? And when you discovered that I described the task with one of the people I assigned to you as "getting her to put down the pitchfork". In retrospect, that probably seemed kind of manipulative of me.

But you should trust me, I totally get how what I did was wrong, and I won't do it again.

Sure, I haven't actually acknowledged that lying to you and trying to manipulate you to protect my reputation and relationships was a bad thing to do. I haven't acknowledged that it harmed you. I haven't said sorry.

But you should trust that I am sorry and that I won't do it again. I shouldn't need to say it.

Yes, it turns out I was also actively putting out disinformation about just how much of the diversity at meetings and workshops in these circles was a direct result of my intervention. OK, I guess I should have suspected that after some of my lies to you started unraveling you'd do the legwork to uncover these lies, too. But I really am a champion of diversity, and the community really would do worse with diversity without my active involvement in it.

You should trust me on that.

And sure, after an extremely brief hiatus from the spaces where I damaged relationships and burned trust, I never clearly and publicly acknowledged the harms I did beyond to those three named women. But trust me, even though I haven't pointed to these injuries, I accept that I caused them, I regret that harm, and I won't do it again.

You shouldn't need an explicit apology to trust me on that.

Trust that I am listening and learning, and that if any of my trusted friends had told me I was messing up and hurting people or community -- even if they had told me it was too soon to try to come back, or that I hadn't done enough to repair the harms I had done or to communicate that I really comprehend those harms -- even if what they told me didn't match what I wanted to hear, trust that I would take their advice very seriously rather than rushing forward, centering my own redemption narrative, and doing further harm.

You should trust me.

And really, how can you question that I understand the size and shape of the harm I've done? Sure, I've let commenters on my blog post characterize distrust of me as wrong, as cruelly refusing to let me move on, as a public flogging, a hanging, a witch-hunt. Sure, I haven't challenged those characterizations at all. But still, you should trust that I understand that I can't demand anyone's forgiveness -- that I'm not entitled to anyone's trust.

Because I really am listening. I really do get it. I really am a good guy.

You should trust me.

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Guest Post: Missteps on the road back.

This is a guest post from Martin Robbins, who writes about science and other interesting things for The Guardian, Vice and New Statesman.

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The first time I ever met Bora Zivkovic, we talked about sexual harassment. We were in Dublin to take part in a panel at ESOF 2012, and I found him beforehand catching some air outside. The issue of harassment policies at TAM and other conferences was high on the agenda, and he explained to me that he felt a similar policy was unnecessary at ScienceOnline, though they’d probably stick one in to ‘keep people happy’. Bora argued that maintaining a high proportion of women at events was more likely to lead to a safe environment than any policy. It seemed like reasonable logic at the time.

During the panel, I took this photograph. As you can see from the comments, the #IHuggedBora meme was in full swing. If I’m honest I found his fixation on hugging everybody – even showing us pictures of previous hugs on his phone - a little odd in person, but nobody seemed to mind. It was July 2012, the same month that Bora told Kathleen Raven that he wanted to have sex with her, a few weeks before he told Monica Byrne that he was a ‘very sexual person’, and two years after he began his pursuit of Hannah Waters.

In October, these stories and others came to light. Bora was forced to resign from his positions at Scientific American and ScienceOnline, and he removed himself from public discourse. On January 1st he returned to the blogosphere - supported by his friend and ScienceOnline cofounder Anton Zuiker – with the intention of rebuilding his reputation and career.

In the rest of this post I intend to explain why I’m deeply unhappy with the manner of Bora’s departure and return. Along the way I will fisk Zuiker and Bora’s posts, and Bora’s later addendum, and explain why Bora’s apology is not just insufficient, but concerning to me. Then I’m going to try to answer Bora’s question, about what he needs to do next.

I’m going to do all of this without any personal anecdotes about brewing with root vegetables, and in considerably less than 5,500 words. Continue Reading »

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