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On this Blogging Business, and Regarding Scolding

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


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Last weekend, the Scientific American blogger community blew up as only a blogger community can, over a somewhat complex issue. Many of us are blogging in response, and as much as I hate to I’m joining in the madness.

I’ll try not to dwell on what actually happened, because it’s barely what I want to talk about. Danielle Lee, Ph.D., has been blogging regularly for SciAm for a couple years as the Urban Scientist. She was contacted by another website that asked her to blog for free, which she politely declined to do. The site responded by calling her a dirty name: “whore.” She responded — again politely — by blogging about the issue, on Urban Scientist.

The post mysteriously came down. SciAm editor Mariette DiChristina tweeted an almost equally mysterious message explaining the post was somehow “not apropriate,” and then basically the world came to an end. Everybody knew what had happened, and everybody was yelling to each other about it at the same time — it was censorship! it was marginializing! how could Scientific American have shut up on of our free voices! it had to do with Lee being a woman! It was because she was black! It was because, oh, for pity’s sake, what wasn’t it because.

And here’s me, sitting quietly at home, thinking, “Lawyers.” I bided my time.

My own small contribution to the chorus came when, sometime on Oct. 12, along with all SciAm bloggers I got an email from DiChristina saying I was right. Lee had apparently named names and hither or yon crossed the kind of boundaries that get lawyers all worked up. They were currently about the business of figuring out what was what. So I tweeted, “I profoundly trust @sciam et al. to get this right and explain it once it is.”

Since then not much has slowed down. From what I can tell, SciAm is getting this right, and in the meantime has explained it quite to my satisfaction. A lawyer got his underpants up his butt, and so everything shut down. If I had a dollar for every time that happened to me as a writer, I’d have — well, I’d have a lot more than I’m getting for this blog post.

But like I said, the straightforward facts haven’t slowed anybody down. The current batch of blog-counterblog is already on the reactions to the reactions to the reactions, on things like whether various apologies were sufficiently abject. The volume hasn’t come down, so I’m hoping to get people to recognized this one thing: It’s not a bad thing to keep your mouth shut and wait for more information. I’m a little confused how scientists and science bloggers — a group of people who more than any other ought to know that the truth is usually complex and that data always helps in drawing conclusions — had so much to say on a topic about which they all knew they were missing at least some information, but hey, it’s the blogosphere. People post first and ask questions later, which is the nature of the thing.

And that’s the nature we ought to think about here. In any dead-tree publication, a piece like Lee’s would have raised editorial eyebrows — back when there were editors — who would have made darned sure they got to the person Lee named and made sure her accusations were accurate. The piece would have come out later, and that would have been it. These days aren’t those. Lee wrote her post, under the SciAm aegis, with no editorial guidance but her own. Lawyers, paid to get their underpants up their butts, got their underpants up their butts. Not a bad thing, mind you — if Lee was wrong? And the person who called her a whore was actually pretending to be from the website? Or she had misinterpreted? Or been tricked? Or any of a number of other things were happening that I can’t even say? Because more lawyers would get their underpants up their butts? Then it would be a pretty good thing that the post had come down.

See: bloggers appear not to understand. An editor’s job is hard. She has to balance the constituencies of writers, readers, lawyers, publishers, sources, subjects, advertisers, and others, who collectively make the Hobbesian “warre of every one against every one” look like a quilting bee. Sometimes she has to say no; sometimes she has to act defensively for the good of the publication. Sometimes in explaining what is happening in a way that will not cause further lawyerly hyperventilation she may be obtuse or even in error. But in the fullness of time, she’ll usually get things right. That’s how she — or he, or whomever — ended up as an editor. Trust me — it’s not because of the high pay and the groupies.

So let me speak as a long-term writer here. In the last decades we writers have had to learn to function in a completely new ecosystem, learning that speed often trumps quality, that getting your voice in the rumpus is sometimes more important than getting the right tone, that we’re all out here on our own doing what we can, without the editorial support we learned to depend on. In some ways that’s wonderful. The new everything everywhere all at once all the time story ecosystem is amazing and opens doors for great work and new voices.

But it utterly ignores something the old ecosystem actually used to do pretty well: accuracy. It often forgets to take a breath. Think about who else is involved. Consider the sources. Address accuracy. Measure tone. Mind you, I’m not criticizing Dr. Lee here. I’m criticizing the people who defended her from that noted long-term oppressor of women and minority voices: Scientific American. The site that for years had been happily sharing her work, and that in one moment of imperfectly managing a complex situation has found itself chased by towns’ worth of the self-righteous with torches and pitchforks.

I’m not putting a single link in this piece. You can find anything you want just by googling, plus I’m not looking to pick fights. But I will say this. Scientific American has worked for closing in on 200 years to earn its reputation, and people who drew conclusions and cast stones based on their imperfect understanding of incomplete sets of facts regarding a single decision may be wonderful scientists. But I fear they have some work to do as writers.

I’m proud to write for this site. I’m proud to have my work here. And if removing a possibly actionable post for a day or so while facts are corroborated is the worst mistake Scientific American ever makes it can count on my continued support. I hope that’s the worst thing that ever happens to Dr. Lee. Honestly? It sounds to me like SciAm had her back, but I can certainly understand if she didn’t feel that way at first. Though I won’t be able to understand it if she doesn’t feel that now. And I hope a lot of other bloggers put some time into thinking about whether their own posts might not occasionally profit from a day or two’s wait.

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

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





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  1. 1. Jim Macafee 7:23 pm 10/14/2013

    I feel calmer. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rkipling 7:41 pm 10/14/2013

    You bloggers can be a bit tightly wound.

    Bloggers saw an irresistible opportunity to fight for a cause. I’m convinced they joined the fight with absolute sincerity.

    I offered the observation that flawless organizations are rare on another blog. On balance I find a lot of interesting information here.

    It isn’t possible for me to put myself in Dr. Lee’s shoes, but I can only be personally offended by people I respect. I’m puzzled as to why she cared what that dunderhead called her. If I were of a cynical bent, I might speculate as to Dr. Lee’s motivation. But I’m not, so I won’t.

    (I rechecked the definition of dunderhead to make sure it wasn’t a slur of some kind. It’s just an insult.)

    Link to this
  3. 3. TWKArtist 7:59 pm 10/14/2013

    I understand the need for people to perhaps wait for a bit before commenting. But SciAm (and many others) need to understand the speed and volatility of that same blogosphere and move much more quickly to correct mistakes than was possible in the days of paper and telephone calls. Also, even while they were doing whatever legal stuff behind-the-scenes that their lawyers required, they could have posted a notice to just that effect, and especially notified Dr. Lee about it instantly. By waiting, they created an atmosphere within which rampant speculation was able to gestate.

    Link to this
  4. 4. mtobis 8:27 pm 10/14/2013

    This article is informative and believable, thanks.

    However in my opinion it doesn’t suffcie to let SciAm off the hook.

    There’s no reason that no attempt to contact Dr Lee in even the most perfunctory way was made, as was apparently the case. There’s no reason that the first tweet out of SciAm wasn’t to deplore the message, wherever it came from. If there was a reason that tweet was frankly disingenuous, many of us don’t see it. And there’s no reason there wasn’t a hole lot of deploring of childish racism in the supposedly exculpatory essay.

    That somebody panicked is obvious. Probably a lawyer. Lee’s complaint isn’t the sort of thing an ordinary magazine ordinarily publishes.

    That there is still a problem is not because SciAm pulled the article and it isn’t solved by them replacing it. The problem is that SciAm so obviously put its own interests so far ahead of those of the community that it neglected the actual human implications of the story altogether.

    It’s not what they did; it’s what they said while they were doing it. We are expecting recognition and repair, not mere hasty reversal. Hopefully those are coming as well.

    The short version of my suggestion is that SciAm needs to read the Cluetrain Manifesto.

    Link to this
  5. 5. bjnicholls 9:08 pm 10/14/2013

    I’d guess rkipling is a little too comfortable with Gunga Din imperialism and racism – and is therefore compelled to hint at some nefarious motivation behind Dr. Lee’s use of public shaming. And the mock-sensitivity about slurs reveals a smug, and amazingly dense mind.

    Perhaps I should have had someone edit this reply.

    Link to this
  6. 6. otherrobert 9:46 pm 10/14/2013

    I appreciate your approach to the subject. The part of this story that still doesn’t sit right with me is the editorial answers. First it was inappropriate. Then it was an inability to fact with possible legal issues. I could accept legal issues if this wasn’t covered with the excuse about the cellphone and the holiday weekend and no time to actually explain what the editor meant. Find a charger or hop on a computer at home.

    Speaking as a long time writer myself, I know my work does not end when I leave the office. If I have to go somewhere and questions need to be answered, I find a way to get the work done. It’s almost like the editor was trying to blame everything she could think of to placate the growing rage–not quite the Streisand Effect, more like a minor variant on The Oatmeal versus Funny Junk nonsense where everyone started chiming in, taking sides, and forcing the actual participants to respond–but didn’t realize how flippant blaming your cellphone for terse replies could be.

    At least the editor has shouldered some of the responsibility for the controversy at this point rather than blame DNLee entirely by calling the post not appropriate. This was a terrible choice of words considering the number of other posts that went up at the SciAm blogs before the official statement but after DNLee’s post was removed on that very subject. It’s also a very deceitful statement from the editor. Biology-Online issued an apology to DNLee and fired the worker who contacted her before the SciAm official statement went up. Yet the editor claims that she was unable to contact Biology-Online or DNLee to fact check the issue. They sure seemed to be in touch with each other and DNLee, especially, has been vocal about the issue. So why couldn’t the editor get in touch with anyone to find out what was happening before pulling the plug and celebrating a holiday weekend?

    The subject needed to be cut off the site entirely if it was a legal issue rather than only removing one mention to actually avoid this controversy. The constantly shifting excuses speak more about the removal than the actual removal of the post itself. PR 101: make a statement and stick to it. Don’t twist your own words until they’re a grotesque reflection in a funhouse mirror of your original intent.

    I’m glad DNLee spoke out on the abusive language but wish the focus would actually shift to the real issues dealing with working writers and women in STEM.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rkipling 9:48 pm 10/14/2013

    Sorry to disappoint you, but I think it is clear that people are people without regard to the distance their ancestors lived from the equator.

    I have no idea about Dr. Lee’s motivation. Her response seemed a little theatrical, but it may well have been genuine outrage. Why not both?

    Gunga Din isn’t a better man than I. He’s just the same.

    You people are always quick with the race card.

    Link to this
  8. 8. dlawlor 11:10 pm 10/14/2013

    Except your whole premise is based on your being a published writer in print, not a blogger. The legal excuse was so weak it only plays with people who are not real bloggers, or had to publish on their own websites. The DMCA in particular covers websites who do UGC like SciAm, otherwise every blogging platform in the world backed by big money (Blogspot, WordPress) would be hip deep in lawsuits over what bloggers put under their domains.

    This was a pure CYA moment from the editor, when she realized she stepped in it, and your article also ignores the partner status between the two sites in question, which I am also guessing involves a financial component.

    Link to this
  9. 9. max_fischetti 2:07 am 10/15/2013

    This article, well written, moderate, and informative, is even more depressing and misleading than the events of the past weekend. Not need to repeat what has been said so well by otherrobert regarding the poor credibility of Dr. DiChristina’s contradictory statements, her lame excuses, and the inappropriate behavior of the SciAm team (we are still waiting for them to focus on the real issue, how Dr. Lee’s has been treated, and we are still waiting for their apologies). More depressing is the fact that, basically, here we must we read a truth that has always remained unspoken: It is perfectly OK not do what we believe is right but to do, instead, what lawyers tell us is “safe”. So: SciAm has not been able to stand for women in science, they have not been able to take a firm position about what is right and this seems to be perfectly OK. Depressing.

    Link to this
  10. 10. soniage 4:32 am 10/15/2013

    just as Billy explained I’m shocked that people able to earn $9428 in one month on the computer. … ============>>>>>>>>>> http://xurl.es/5au6o

    Link to this
  11. 11. abolitionist 5:36 am 10/15/2013

    “I’d guess rkipling is a little too comfortable with Gunga Din imperialism and racism – and is therefore …”

    While some may not be, some people are of a cynical bent, and do speculate as to a poster’s motivation.

    Link to this
  12. 12. rkipling 11:49 am 10/15/2013

    abolitionist,

    Yeah, that was just silly. Everybody knows Gunga Din wasn’t an imperialist.

    Link to this
  13. 13. JPGumby 7:36 pm 10/15/2013

    soniage – best post in the group!

    Link to this
  14. 14. ogregrog 7:58 pm 10/15/2013

    Someone did a little edit to your blog entry, there.

    http://www.thejayfk.com/?p=3163

    Link to this
  15. 15. JimC 11:01 pm 10/15/2013

    “But it utterly ignores something the old ecosystem actually used to do pretty well: accuracy.”

    Generally things may have gotten worse, but they were never all that great anyway. You media have always had feet of clay. It’s only now with the Internet that you can be fact-checked by non-journalists. And you don’t live up to your stated standards.

    Link to this
  16. 16. standbackimgoingtousescience 11:35 pm 10/15/2013

    I can’t wait until SciAm takes down this blog post because it is of a personal nature/they haven’t verified the facts in it.

    Ditto to @ogregrog

    Link to this
  17. 17. Pinkdes 1:33 am 10/16/2013

    While I am more than willing to blame “legal considerations” for any situation like this, I must also note that one element in the initial outrage, as noted on other blog sites, was the believed/assumed/actual business relationship between SciAm and the website/marketing organization whose representative directly insulted Dr. Lee – leading to her post.

    Does SciAm have such a relationship with the website in question? If not, have they said so? If so, have they explained how this did NOT have any effect on the editor’s actions?

    I’ve noted this is becoming a more common business issue in the interconnected-internet era…a respected entity (SciAm) can become tainted because of third-order effects regarding their choice of business partners…

    Link to this
  18. 18. Doubting Rich 3:43 am 10/16/2013

    “But it utterly ignores something the old ecosystem actually used to do pretty well: accuracy.”

    Whatever made you think that print journalism was or is accurate? I have studied at or worked for some prominent organisations, and worked in a newsworthy business. Not one single story that I knew the inside track on has been correct; every story in my business is obviously wrong. All of these have major errors of fact that are pertinent to the story.

    Link to this
  19. 19. chasrmartin 5:16 pm 10/16/2013

    “Mysteriously”?

    Link to this
  20. 20. leahcaprice 4:06 pm 10/18/2013

    To be honest Lee is an embarrassment

    Link to this
  21. 21. aidel 4:05 pm 01/8/2014

    I respect you so much, Scott. First, you are an honest writer. Secondly, both personally and professionally speaking, you care about the truth.

    Link to this

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