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Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

On the labor involved in being part of a community.

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On Thursday of this week, registration for ScienceOnline Together 2014, the "flagship annual conference" of ScienceOnline opened (and closed). ScienceOnline describes itself as a "global, ongoing, online community" made up of "a diverse and growing group of researchers, science writers, artists, programmers, and educators —those who conduct or communicate science online".

On Wednesday of this week, Isis the Scientist expressed her doubts that the science communication community for which ScienceOnline functions as a nexus is actually a "community" in any meaningful sense:

The major fundamental flaw of the SciComm “community” is that it is a professional community with inconsistent common values. En face, one of its values is the idea of promoting science. Another is promoting diversity and equality in a professional setting. But, at its core, its most fundamental value are these notions of friendship, support, and togetherness. People join the community in part to talk about science, but also for social interactions with other members of the “community”. While I’ve engaged in my fair share of drinking and shenanigans at scientific conferences, ScienceOnline is a different beast entirely. The years that I participated in person and virtually, there was no doubt in my mind that this was a primarily social enterprise. It had some real hilarious parts, but it wasn’t an experience that seriously upgraded me professionally.

People in SciComm feel confident talking about “the community” as a tangible thing with values and including people in it, even when those people don’t value the social structure in the same way. People write things that are “brave” and bloviate in ways that make each other feel good and have “deep and meaningful conversations about issues” that are at the end of the day nothing more than words. It's a “community” that gives out platters full of cookies to people who claim to be “allies” to causes without actually having to ever do anything meaningful. Without having to outreach in any tangible way, simply because they claim to be “allies.” Deeming yourself an “ally” and getting a stack of “Get Out of Jail, Free” cards is a hallmark of the “community”.

Isis notes that the value of "togetherness" in the (putative) SciComm community is often prioritized over the value of "diversity" -- and that this is a pretty efficient way to undermine the community. She suggests that focusing on friendship rather than professionalism entrenches this problem and writes "I have friends in academia, but being a part of academic science is not predicated on people being my friends."

I'm very sympathetic to Isis's concerns here. I don't know that I'd say there's no SciComm community, but that might come down to a disagreement about where the line is between a dysfunctional community and a lack of community altogether. But that's like the definitional dispute about how many hairs one needs on one's head to shift from the category of "bald" to the category of "not-bald" -- for the case we're trying to categorize there's still agreement that there's a whole lot of bare skin hanging out in the wind.

The crux of the matter, whether we have a community or are trying to have one, is whether we have a set of shared values and goals that is sufficient for us to make common cause with each other and to take each other seriously -- to take each other seriously even when we offer critiques of other members of the community. For if people in the community dismiss your critiques out of hand, if they have the backs of some members of the community and not others (and whose they have and whose they don't sorts out along lines of race, gender, class, and other dimensions that the community's shared values and goals purportedly transcend), it's pretty easy to wonder whether you are actually a valued member of the community, whether the community is for you in any meaningful way.

I do believe there's something like a SciComm community, albeit a dysfunctional one. I will be going to ScienceOnline Together 2014, as I went to the seven annual meetings preceding it. Personally, even though I am a full-time academic like Dr. Isis, I do find professional value from this conference. Probably this has to do with my weird interdisciplinary professional focus -- something that makes it harder for me to get all the support and inspiration and engagement I need from the official professional societies that are supposed to be aligned with my professional identity. And because of the focus of my work, I am well aware of dysfunction in my own professional community and in other academic and professional communities.

While there has been a pronounced social component to ScienceOnline as a focus of the SciComm community, ScienceOnline (and its ancestor conferences) have never felt purely social to me. I have always had a more professional agenda there -- learning what's going on in different realms of practice, getting my ideas before people who can give me useful feedback on them, trying to build myself a big-picture, nuanced understanding of science engagement and how it matters.

And in recent years, my experience of the meetings has been more like work. Last year, for example, I put a lot of effort into coordinating a kid-friendly room at the conference so that attendees with small children could have some child-free time in the sessions. It was a small step towards making the conference -- and the community -- more accessible and welcoming to all the people who we describe as being part of the community. There's still significant work to do on this front. If we opt out of doing that work, we are sending a pretty clear message about who we care about having in the community and who we view as peripheral, about whose voices and interests we value and whose we do not.

Paying attention to who is being left out, to whose voices are not being heard, to whose needs are not being met, takes effort. But this effort is part of the regular required maintenance for any community that is not completely homogeneous. Skipping it is a recipe for dysfunction.

And the maintenance, it seems, is required pretty much every damn day.

Friday, in the Twitter stream for the ScienceOnline hashtag #scio14, I saw this:

To find out what was making Bug Girl feel unsafe, I went back and watched Joe Hanson's Thanksgiving video, in which Albert Einstein was portrayed as making unwelcome advances on Marie Curie, cheered on by his host, culminating in a naked assault on Curie.

Given the recent upheaval in the SciComm community around sexual harassment -- with lots of discussion, because that's how we roll -- it is surprising and shocking that this video plays sexual harassment and assault for laughs, apparently with no thought to how many women are still targets of harassment, no consideration of how chilly the climate for women in science remains.

Here's a really clear discussion of what makes the video problematic, and here's Joe Hanson's response to the criticisms. I'll be honest: it looks to me like Joe still doesn't really understand what people (myself included) took to the social media to explain to him. I'm hopeful that he'll listen and think and eventually get it better. If not, I'm hopeful that people will keep piping up to explain the problem.

But not everyone was happy that members of our putative community responded to a publicly posted video (on a pretty visible platform -- PBS Digital Studio -- supported by taxpayers in the U.S.) was greeted with a public critique.

The objections raised on Twitter -- many of them raised with obvious care as far as being focused on the harm and communicated constructively -- were described variously as "drama," "infighting," a "witch hunt" and "burning [Joe] at the stake". (I'm not going to link the tweets because a number of the people who made those characterizations thought about it and walked them back.)

People insisted, as they do pretty much every time, that the proper thing to do was to address the problem privately -- as if that's the only ethical way to deal with a public wrong, or as if it's the most effective way to fix the harm. Despite what some will argue, I don't think we have good evidence for either of those claims.

So let's come back to regular maintenance of the community and think harder about this. I've written before that

if bad behavior is dealt with privately, out of view of members of the community who witnessed the bad behavior in question, those members may lose faith in the community’s commitment to calling it out.

This strikes me as good reason not to take all the communications to private channels. People watching and listening on the sidelines are gathering information on whether their so-called community shares their values, on whether it has their back.

Indeed, the people on the sidelines are also watching and listening to the folks dismissing critiques as drama. Operationally, "drama" seems to amount to "Stuff I'd rather you not discuss where I can see or hear it," which itself shades quickly into "Stuff that really seems to bother other people, for whom I seem to be unable to muster any empathy, because they are not me."

Let me pause to note what I am not claiming. I am not saying that every member of a community must be an active member of every conversation within that community. I am not saying that empathy requires you to personally step up and engage in every difficult dialogue every time it rolls around. Sometimes you have other stuff to do, or you know that the cost of being patient and calm is more than you can handle at the moment, or you know you need to listen and think for awhile before you get it well enough to get into it.

But going to the trouble to speak up to convey that the conversation is a troublesome one to have happening in your community -- that you wish people would stop making an issue of it, that they should just let it go for the sake of peace in the community -- that's something different. That's telling the people expressing their hurt and disappointment and higher expectations that they should swallow it, that they should keep it to themselves.

For the sake of the community.

For the sake of the community of which they are clearly not really valued members, if they are the ones, always, who need to shut up and let their issues go for the greater good.

Arguably, if one is really serious about the good of the community, one should pay attention to how this kind of dismissal impacts the community. Now is as good a moment as any to start.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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