October 14, 2013 | 20
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.