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Despair and hope on Scientific American Blogs

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


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The last one week has been traumatic for the world of science blogging, journalism and writing. It has certainly been very painful for me, as I am sure it has been for many others, to watch someone who we all regarded as the glue that holds the science communication community together, someone who was the lifeblood of online science, crumble in the face of allegations of harassment. It is a fall from grace that was so rapid and unexpected that it has left many of us dazed and searching for answers. Personally I am still trying to wrap my head around it, especially since I was away on vacation and only heard about the events in the form of intermittent, unpleasant emails. It was like watching a nightmare unfold in bits and pieces. Like many others I spent sleepless nights wondering how a man who we all so admired and adored could possibly display this kind of behavior. It is the very definition of a cautionary tale for our times.

Let me say this at the very beginning. What Bora did was inappropriate, period. In no way do I support any of his actions. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. Scientific American’s response to it was entirely appropriate and measured. I deeply sympathize with the plight of the three women who had to face his actions. The exchanges he had with them were especially unacceptable to a community which has always prided itself on its diversity and vigorous individualism. The episodes documented in painful detail by the victims showcased a side of Bora that left us all in disbelief and shock.

The events leading up to this post have been denounced by many people in the harshest terms and there’s little more that I can add except to say that I wholeheartedly agree with them. But I also firmly believe that we should not kill the message along with the messenger. Mark Antony’s admonition to not keep the evil in men’s hearts alive while permanently burying the good that they have done is especially relevant here. The beauty – or unfair irony, if you will – of ideas is that they persevere even after their creators have disappeared or have been tarnished by history’s judgement. Men live, die and fade away but their work lives on, if for no other reason than because it has already become a part of the fabric of human affairs.

Bora’s body of work has been immense by any standards and it will continue to stand on its own merits for a long time, thoroughly infused into the world of online science writing and communication. This is a fact, not opinion. Indeed, it might well be impossible to write a history of the online emergence of science without making  frequent references to Bora Zivkovic. Almost every important topic of discussion and debate in the field has his fingerprints over it. His posts on commenting and on the science ecosystem in general are ponderous book-length ruminations that will long remain signposts for a variety of issues of continuing interest to the online science community. He worked tirelessly and day and night; organizing, encouraging, writing, traveling, reading, consolidating and connecting people with each other. He promoted countless new bloggers and introduced their writing to the world. He has done more for this community than anyone else I know, and I weep for the loss of his contributions and guidance as much as I weep for the deep distress that his behavior caused. Personally I do hope that it will be possible for him to keep on contributing ideas to our community in some capacity. It is a strange, incomprehensible but very real juxtaposition of history that even while someone’s reputation takes a fall that leaves most of us reeling, his legacy continues to silently shape and guide the everyday business of a field. We can applaud the substance of Bora’s foundational contributions to the rise of science blogging even as we continue to denounce his actions. This episode is a reminder that human beings are flawed and that the same person can reach both the heights of achievement and the depths of failure. Part of the reason why so many of us feel devastated is that we put Bora on a pedestal. We expected so much from him that we are now chagrined to find that he is flawed after all.

I have known Bora for several years now, have met him at many conferences including the wonderful Science Online conference that he co-founded and have had innumerable exchanges over email with him about almost every topic related to blogging, commenting and science in general. I know others have had an even longer and closer association with him. Just like he did for them, he has stood up for me during difficult times with the tenacity of a pit bull. He has done this repeatedly and generously without me even asking for it. As traumatic as his behavior must have been to the three women who were brave enough to speak up, I believe that there are also dozens of women to whom he has been nothing more or less than a friend, supporter and confidant. Whatever the judgement of history upon him, personally I will always be grateful for all he has done for me and the science blogging community.

While the cases of sexual harassment are deeply disturbing and unacceptable, one thing we should note is that in none of the three cases did Bora’s behavior descend into overt sexual or physical harassment. This distinction does not make the behavior any better, but I think it’s important to point it out since there are many other perpetrators who have gone down the latter road and are still hiding behind an innocent cloak of anonymity while their victims suffer in silence. I see in Bora’s behavior the failings of someone battling his inner demons, someone whose private troubles clearly spilled over into his public life, someone who could not help but glimpse into dark corners against his best judgement. This does not excuse his actions and ultimately the reasons for harassment don’t really matter but it makes a powerful case for seeking help in the face of personal issues. In fact if there was a failing on our part as a community, it was in not recognizing Bora’s problems and providing him with that help. We have not done what he did, but we would be naive to think of ourselves as perpetually immune to such demons and dark corners, and that is perhaps the most valuable lesson each of us can take away from this tragedy, the lesson that we need to be eternally vigilant. Ultimately everybody has to make what they want of this behavior. They can decide whether to sever all contact with Bora for the rest of their lives or to treat him as a deeply flawed individual whose professional contributions they praise even as they spare no effort in denouncing his transgressions. Personally I find myself in the latter camp. For me human beings will always be the sum of many imperfect parts.

Finally, there’s the question that has been at the back of our minds. What will this do to SA blogs? Bora played such an outsized role in keeping this community together that at least a few of us are now confused and groping for answers. Who will now hold it all together?

The answer is very simple. It’s us. We must be the guardians, protectors and facilitators of this online ecosystem. We have always watched each other’s backs but we will now do so with a vengeance. We must go out of our way to promote new bloggers, introduce them to old friends and make sure they feel at home, at Science Online and everywhere else. We must carry on the tradition of keeping anti-science proselytizers at bay in comments sections. Let us collectively fill Bora’s shoes with our expertise, concerns and sense of camaraderie and ensure that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. More than anything else, let us ensure that Scientific American remains a forum for freedom of expression, a stomping ground for the varieties of scientific experience.

Finally, let’s make sure this does not happen again. We must be even more vigilant than what we were and, with fresh memories from this painful incident scarred into our minds, be ever more sensitive and respectful in our interactions with each other. In despair there is hope, not just blind, idealistic hope but hope wrought from the hard lessons of shock and tempered by an acute understanding of human frailty. It is this hope that will propel us forward.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

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





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 2:04 pm 10/21/2013

    Ash,
    Thank you so much for your discussion of this unfortunate incidence. I was not aware of the events you discussed, but a quick search produced http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/10/science_blogging_scandal_bora_zivkovic_and_sexual_harassment.html – which at least sheds a little more light on some unfortunate personal foibles that became far too public.

    I won’t be pursuing this matter, but I will note a formal complaint made to the Editor regarding what I considered to be highly inappropriate, gender biased comments made in an SA blog posting by a female author back in Feb. of this year. I also complained that Bora had supported the blogger’s remarks in his own casual blog comments. I don’t think this incident could have in any way been used to predict subsequent events. The two situations are not likely related in any way (that I can tell). I certainly hope that Scientific American will fully recover from these very unfortunate events.

    I’m certainly not aware of _any_ other inappropriate content in Scientific American articles or blogs, and hope that others can help to overcome the loss of one significant contributor.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Amy Charles 6:55 pm 10/21/2013

    “While the cases of sexual harassment are deeply disturbing and unacceptable, one thing we should note is that in none of the three cases did Bora’s behavior descend into overt sexual or physical harassment. This distinction does not make the behavior any better,”

    So many things are wrong here I hardly know where to start.

    1. Sexual harassment is not limited to rape and shoving people around in elevators. I don’t know what you mean by “overt”, but what was described in the blogs was plenty overt. Perhaps you should go learn about sexual harassment. You can start here: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/pdf/whatissh.pdf‎

    2. Even if your distinction made any sense, and it does not, it would not in fact make things any better. So that is an excellent place to stop that sentence, reconsider what you’re about to say, and start over.

    I wonder if you’ve managed to miss most of the points of the week’s agonising.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Amy Charles 7:25 pm 10/21/2013

    Also, why do you think those three women were the only ones who’ve had to face these things? Did you not read the #ripplesofdoubt thread? What do you think is in the minds of all the sci-comm women who are now wondering whether our standing in the sci-comm world is primarily a function of a guy’s wanting to build himself a harem? And who put up with these things on a regular basis, year in and year out, wherever we are, young and old, regardless of what we look like?

    Yes, there are tremendous things Bora brought that will be missed; some will probably not be replaceable, because they’re Bora. Bora is not replaceable. I could go on for a year about this and am heartsick about the whole thing. But you really seem not to have much understanding of why the sexual harassment was big deal. And that in itself is a serious problem, because you’re far from being alone in the lack of comprehension.

    Link to this
  4. 4. sunspot 8:01 pm 10/21/2013

    Ash,
    You are correct that this is a traumatic event for some; but SciAm bloggers like yourself, who benefited from Zivkovic’s position of power, may be blind to the fact that Zivkovic abused power openly in many ways.
    1. He retaliated against those who opposed his views by flagrantly deleting valid comments/complaints, effectively ‘cleansing’ the web site of opposing views.
    2. He openly bragged that he would simply ban from the site anyone who disagreed with him. His words: “Here, I set the rules. Deal with it.” That is too much power in one person’s hands.

    Those of us who were the victims by Zivkovic’s inclination to abuse his power over the SciAm blogs can easily believe the other kind of “Not-Quite-Harassment” described by Kathleen Raven, Monica Byrne, and many others who are bravely coming forward to reveal his insidious nature. Raven is most convincing.
    https://medium.com/the-power-of-harassment/3e809dfadd77

    Everyone now agrees that Zivkovic should never have been put in a position of such power, especially over young writers; but SciAm editors should thoroughly re-examine the criteria used to select bloggers; it should never be the whim of one person. And most importantly, editors should adopt a well-defined and fair policy for reviewing and deleting comments. For example, see the explicit NYTimes policy at:
    http://www.nytimes.com/content/help/site/usercontent/rrpolicy/rrpolicy.html
    I sincerely hope that we can trust you to pass along this suggestion to the editors. Thank you.

    Link to this
  5. 5. DrKrishnaKumariChalla 12:27 am 10/22/2013

    Only a woman can understand what she went through. A man sympathizing with another one – ignoring this aspect – and trying to down play it is not appropriate.

    Link to this
  6. 6. curiouswavefunction 2:17 pm 10/22/2013

    Amy Charles: Thanks for your comment. I am sorry that you feel this way. Downplaying the incident was not my intention at all; I simply wanted to point out the distinction and wanted to separate the man from his work. I fully sympathize with everyone in that #ripplesofdoubt thread, but I think that the answer to the question of how many of us Bora picked for our writing skills and how many he picked for other reasons is really an unknown. I would love to have an answer to that question, I really would, but unless we have evidence we are still trying to guess intentions here. All I can say is that Bora may have picked the bloggers on this network, but they thrived because of their readers.

    Sunspot: Thanks for your comment. However that’s a very different topic of discussion. Bora mostly deleted comments from anti-vaxers, creationists and global warming denialists and – yes, ironic – sexist trolls who frequent this site. So did most of us bloggers. In addition we have complete freedom to moderate our comments section so did not have editorial control over our comments. And if you are talking about the criteria for selecting bloggers, whatever else you think of Bora, it’s hard to deny (if I may say so myself) that the bloggers on this network are generally pretty good.

    Note: I have just deleted a pointless racist, ad hominem comment by commenter syzygyygyzys who is also a sockpuppet going by the name rkipling. Other bloggers should take note.

    Link to this
  7. 7. padma101 11:47 pm 10/22/2013

    I follow this blog. I have read most of comments today I think. rkipling was wrong to suggest you have a bias toward women. Segments of Indian society do have far to go in women’s rights. India ranks eighty-fourth out of 113 countries on the Economist’s rankings of women’s economic opportunity.

    Also see this link:

    http://www.cfr.org/india/governance-india-womens-rights/p30041

    Link to this
  8. 8. sunspot 3:09 pm 10/23/2013

    @curiouswavefunction -comment 6.
    Thank you for your reply, but the issue of abuse of power is THE topic of discussion here. For example, when I quoted Bora’s post “Here, I set the rules. Deal with it.”, it was proof of his perception that he had absolute power over blogs and bloggers. The stories of sexual harassment clearly show that the projection of this perception of absolute power intimidated many female writers into tolerating normally unacceptable behavior. His perception was even promoted by his favored bloggers; he could do no wrong! If he suppressed comments, then those comments must have been from (in your words) “anti-vaxers, creationists and global warming denialists”. The blogs at SciAm had a fatal flaw: only Bora “set the rules”. The lack of limits, policy and oversight by SciAm editors encouraged Bora’s power perception, so their decisions are directly related to this topic.

    I must politely remind you that you do not have “complete freedom to moderate our comments section”. Isn’t that what started this whole mess? Editor’s words: “Scientific American bloggers are informed that we may remove their blog posts at any time…”) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/at-scientific-american/2013/10/13/a-message-from-mariette-dichristina-editor-in-chief/

    Your perception of complete freedom came from Bora’s perception of his absolute power. Naturally you admired his choice of bloggers; if they disagreed with Bora, they were not allowed on the SciAm blogs. You see these things through Bora-colored glasses. There are many SciAm bloggers who are quite objectionable, steeped in politics, and even unscientific.

    But thank you for continuing to read views that disagree with you. All SciAm bloggers should be as tolerant.

    Link to this
  9. 9. padma101 3:52 pm 10/23/2013

    sunspot,

    You describe a patriarchal and authoritarian organization. I know this life. Please see the link in my before comment.

    Sometimes curiouswavefunction deletes comments. I read yesterday comments before they were removed. I agree with cwf that the comment was personal. To me the primary attack was on treatment of women in India. I do not agree the comments were racist. The comments were poorly written. They contained some truth. Women in India are not yet fully equal.

    Link to this
  10. 10. curiouswavefunction 5:59 pm 10/23/2013

    sunspot: “I must politely remind you that you do not have “complete freedom to moderate our comments section””

    I don’t remember a single occasion on which I heard from Bora or anyone else to delete or keep or modify any single comment, so I am not sure what you’re getting at. And I am not seeing this through “Bora-colored glasses”, these policies are also generously supported by the rest of the Scientific American editorial team. It’s really paradoxical to argue that a rule that gives bloggers freedom to moderate their comments section is itself authoritarian. It’s like saying that a country’s leader is a dictator because he has only one rule for his people: they can do whatever they want. As for “here are the rules, deal with them”, this is exactly the policy many of us have. People need to realize that blogs are private conversation forums where the blogger sets the tone and the comment policy. This has nothing to do with Bora.

    padma101: Thanks for your comments. Yes, I typically delete comments that are personal and racist because they only detract from the conversation. Even if they contain some truth (which I don’t think rkipling’s comment did) they need to be moderately, logically and cogently expressed.

    Link to this
  11. 11. abolitionist 7:35 pm 10/23/2013

    Ash,

    I cannot agree with you on this one. My experience here has been that sunspot’s observations are correct. Some of Bora’s posts seemed to me to border on the capricious and self-indulgent. I too think he has deleted what appeared to me to be valid comments, neither personal nor racist, just different POVs from his.

    Link to this
  12. 12. padma101 7:47 pm 10/23/2013

    I must agree with abolitionist. As I remember the comment you deleted spoke of Indian men lacking respect for women. How is criticizing behavior a racist action? Are only the views within our own community to be heard?

    Link to this
  13. 13. curiouswavefunction 9:42 pm 10/23/2013

    abolitionist: If you are talking about deleting what appear to others as valid comments, then most bloggers including myself do this. I am sure the comments which I delete as inappropriate appear perfectly appropriate to the people who write them, as they probably also do to a few others. You will always find a spectrum of people having a variety of opinions regarding the appropriateness of a specific comment. Ultimately no blogger is going to take a survey before he or she decides whether to delete certain comments. It’s entirely up to the individual blogger’s discretion.

    padma101: Painting any large group with a broad brush and saying that you are part of that group is both prejudiced and personal. In addition there is an attribution error here which assumes that a certain behavior on your part arises *because* of your identity as a member of the group (we saw this a lot during the George Zimmerman case); this is another bit of flawed logic asserted without evidence. It’s the kind of generalization that makes it hard to build bridges, especially when you are dealing with individuals. The moment you start talking in one breath about an entire category such as “American women” or “Indian men” you are using broad brush strokes.

    Link to this
  14. 14. abolitionist 10:21 pm 10/23/2013

    Ash,

    I’ve seen some of what the various bloggers delete (and worse, edit) and Bora’s behavior was extreme in comparison. While you might admire what he showed you, that’s not what he showed many others.

    Link to this
  15. 15. sunspot 2:04 pm 10/24/2013

    Ash,
    Your openness of these alternate views of Bora and blog rules is admirable, and I wish that other SciAm bloggers were as open-minded as you are. Do SciAm bloggers believe that they set the rules for their SciAm blogs, just like they do in their personal blog space? I would have expected that SciAm blog posts are subject to SciAm official policy, not personal blogger rules. So if SciAm, like other professional organizations (NTTimes, etc), has a policy that posts (and comments) are not arbitrarily deleted by SciAm, I would think that this policy applies to bloggers as well. All that I am asking for is some clarification on this point from SciAm editors. Perhaps they did allow Bora to “set the rules” here. If so, perhaps they should consider creating an appeal process for bloggers and commenters. It seems that many readers are currently unhappy with Bora’s rules.

    Thanks again for listening. I don’t know of anyone else at SciAm blogs who has been as receptive to complaints. I sincerely hope that they take this opportunity to improve the situation.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Penniless 5:31 pm 02/18/2014

    Power tends to corrupt

    Link to this

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