Why I Spoke

Maryn McKenna has a very good piece up at Superbug about the online science communication community (most specifically the part of the community that focuses around (is focused by?) the ScienceOnline conferences. There’s one paragraph in the post that I think I have some responsibility to respond to.

Second, there have been blog and Twitter threads emerging over the past 36 hours in which additional accusations of harassment and inappropriate behavior, not by Zivkovic, have been made public by other science writers. Some of these have been launched not by the alleged harasser or victim, but by third parties trying… something: mistaken helpfulness, malice, who knows. And there are other such conversations happening in private channels, which I know because I’m enmeshed in several. These are troubling, and potentially toxic, too. Overall, I perceive in the science blogosphere (your networks may vary) a loss of security and safety; many expressions of mutual trust, but an at least equivalent number of expressions of uncertainty.

While I’m not the only person to have said something, I appreciate McKenna’s uncertainty about my motivations. Not everyone has shown that.

McKenna also isn’t the only person to use the word “toxic” with regard to my post yesterday. [Details of that post are now redacted at the request of parties involved.] Yes, I’m looking at the criticisms. Yes, I’m considering them. As of yet, I don’t agree. Why? Because from my position, the situation was already toxic.

This community, of which I find and feel myself only on the periphery even after running sessions at three ScienceOnline conferences, is currently reeling not only because one of its trusted and valued members was found to have harassed at least three people. It is also reeling because that person had been supportive of women in a way that is exceptionally hard to reconcile with his other behavior, including acting to foster discussion and action on harassment. Additionally, the community is undergoing intense and extraordinary self-examination over ways in which the community may have enabled the harassment.

In the middle of that, someone who has harassed other people (as confirmed, now, by eyewitness account in one set of circumstances) spoke up to suggest that the community was remiss in not recognizing harassment that her statements–harassment she located entirely outside her own behavior.

To at least some of the people who had been harassed, this was already a toxic situation. To at least some of us who witnessed or participated in “managing” the harassment (before ScienceOnline had procedures for doing so officially), this was already a toxic situation. Because this person didn’t have the power Bora did, she couldn’t have the same degree of influence Bora had over matters of dealing with harassment. However, this was still someone who wasn’t acknowledging her own role in harassment shaping the discussion about harassment.

That was toxic. It was toxic in the present term, as some people in the know were watching that dynamic. It would be toxic in the future if and when these revelations were made and people looked back to this time when the community tries to regain its equilibrium and move forward with clear eyes.

I could have put pressure on the people harassed to speak up, but I don’t think that’s a thought I should have to finish. I will say that some of the comments I’ve seen that appear to deny that harassment can happen between peers leave me feeling pretty comfortable about not suggesting to them that speaking is something I could make safe(r) for them. The same goes for other witnesses and “managers”.

I could have said something privately, but to whom? One of the best things about this community is its ability to take ideas and information from many sources, many people and build something from it. There are no one or two people who can quietly and efficiently handle problems. And if there were, what would they do? Nothing she said about harassment was wrong except her lack of disclosure.

I could have gone to her privately. However, I’ve spent the last two years talking–albeit intermittently–to harassers about harassment. The primary result has been to increase attacks on me personally. I am unwilling to do more of that right now. This may be a character flaw. I don’t think so, but I probably wouldn’t.

The final option I can think of is to sit silent in the face of a toxic situation. I’m not very good at that. That may be another character flaw. Plenty of people say so. Every once in a while, though, someone tells me that it’s integrity. I’m probably too close to the situation to judge.

So, since I think I do owe this particular community some accountability for my behavior yesterday, that’s why I chose the action I did. I am well aware I’ll be responsible for this set of ripples.

Why I Spoke
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24 thoughts on “Why I Spoke

  1. 1

    I’m actually not sure I think *harassment* can happen between equals (at least not without the general culture being toxic in other ways…. “hostile work environment” covers a lot). Sexual assault can. Stalking can. And actions that are morally wrongity wrong wrong in the same way (if not to the same degree) that those illegal acts can certainly happen between equals.
    But that’s the semantics. Even given the most charitable possible interpretation of [name redacted to protect the innocent]’s behavior, someone who has demonstrated egregiously bad judgment about what degree of sexual assertiveness causes discomfort in others is probably not the person who should shape our views on harassment.

  2. 2

    I’m seeing an undercurrent here in the conversation, which is as following:

    What do we want the consequences to be for harassment and abuse?

    I started seeing this with Michael Shermer’s defenders. A few people had expressed a desire to inflict brutal punishments on rapists, but then turn around and defend him because the only evidence is “hearsay”, and wonder why the victims aren’t going to the police.

    Bora abused his position to harrass women. [name redacted to protect the innocent] harrassed others, while not being in a position of power.

    So what do we want as a result? Is public naming and shaming appropriate punishment?

    To me, the fundamental desire for naming and shaming appears to be awareness and behaviour modification. We want people who associate with named harassers to be aware of their behaviour, both so people can attempt to avoid situations where they might be at risk, and be aware of past history to provide victims with the benefit of the doubt goign forward, encouraging reporting and discipline if the action continues. There’s also the hope that now that people are aware of the person’s reputation, they will be more likely to be on their best behaviour in the future.

    Unfortunately, that’s not the only result of public knowledge,and not everyone is willing to stop there. Some people feel the need to harass, abuse or threaten public targets which is a permanent risk of a public strategy. It could also result in economic damage when such public knowledge is easily available to media consumers and employers. We cannot control the actions of those who receive the information, which is why we’re always hesitant to make that information public.

  3. 3

    There is a blog post in the NYT about medical errors by the former CEO of a hospital.


    and the role of punishment to deter and prevent medical errors. If an error has occurred, it is already too late to stop it. Punishing those who made the error does nothing to rectify the error.

    Is punishment the most effective way to prevent future errors? I think we all know that it isn’t. Instead of ineffective punishment, why don’t we do what is most effective at preventing future errors? To do that we need to understand what caused the error and fix those things which can be fixed which contributed to the error happening.

    Error fixing isn’t something that can be sprinkled on a process at the end. Preventing errors in a process require dealing with the process at all stages, not just at the end or where errors happen. Playing whack-a-mole with medical errors only catches errors after they have happened; medical-error-whack-a-mole does nothing to prevent first time errors.

    The more complex the process, the more difficult it is to sprinkle error-correction on at the end. Nothing is more complex than human interactions. There probably isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to any human interaction problem.

    A problem with social power systems that attempt to fix errors by “balancing” errors with punishments is that those systems can be gamed and corrupted.

    The Criminal Justice System has safeguards to protect criminal defendants from the State, but those protections can be used by criminal defendants to harm victims and prevent testimony. This is the usual circumstance in rape cases where egregious slut-shaming is a deliberate legal tactic, as is a custody battle for any child of rape. The more pain a criminal defendant can inflict on the victim, the less likely it is that the victim will cooperate with the prosecution and the less likely that a defendant will be found guilty.

    The Anglo-Saxon adversarial system of “justice” ensures a lack of transparency and a lack of cooperation between the parties. It isn’t set up to find an equitable solution, it is set up to produce winners and losers. If the “cost” to keep fighting is too high, the fight will be abandoned and who ever is left “wins”.

    Do we want the science-blogosphere to be in the business of determining and imposing “punishments” via an adversarial system? I don’t think so.

    Do we want the science-blogosphere to be a safe place where harassment doesn’t happen very much, and when it does happen, effective measures are taken to protect the victims and ensure that such things don’t happen again. Yes, I think so. The question is how should we best do that?

    The problem with harsh punishments is that they don’t work very well to deter bad behavior, and they raise the cost of bad behavior so high that perpetrators hide their behavior, are willing to retaliate against victims for reporting bad behavior, and victims are reluctant to report bad behaviors because the harsh punishment may seem disproportionate and the risk of retaliation.

    When PZ had something he couldn’t hold onto, he posted it and there were retaliatory messages of an adversarial nature which I have not followed. Were those steps in a process that would improve the ability of the organizations involved to deal with the problems discussed? I don’t think so.

    I don’t know Bora very well. I have met him a couple of times. I haven’t read all the details in all of the posts and I don’t do twitter, so I have probably missed most of the story. I do know that Bora was instrumental in setting up blogging at various places, and that his bad behavior has been going on for some time and that many people have been shocked at what has happened. Bora has admitted his bad behavior (as far as I know).

    No one but Bora is responsible for his behavior, but it sounds like his home life is problematic for what ever reasons. It is of course Bora’s responsibility to deal with his home life in ways that don’t “leak out” and interfere with his professional relationships. This can be difficult because of the stigma (and cost) associated with seeking advice and counseling from professionals who better know how to deal with such things.

    Inflicting stigma on individuals for past behaviors is a type of punishment, as is banishing them from future activities. Banishing individuals can also serve to protect vulnerable individuals from perpetrators. But in groups, who is a potential perpetrator remains unknown. Clumsy perpetrators are less of a threat than non-clumsy perpetrators. Identified clumsy perpetrators are even less of a threat. Identified clumsy perpetrators with a chaperone and a curfew are even less of a threat.

    There are effective ways to deal with people who have exhibited bad behavior, are remorseful and willing to work at changing their behavior and willing to jump through hoops to ensure that the bad behavior does not occur again, short of complete banishment. Is banishment being used as a punishment, or as a way to keep the group safe?

  4. 4

    It’s been suggested you knew of [name redacted to protect the innocent]’s behavior before elevatorgate and yet through all the recent naming campaigns you’ve remained silent while participating in shaming men.

    Can you disclose when you learned of [redacted]’s behavior and why you remained silent about it for so long?

    It’s been suggested you remained silent because of her sex.

  5. 6

    I think it’s important to discuss the problem of women harassers. While the power dynamics and social responses are different, it rests on a very sexist concept. Quite often, women don’t understand their harassment to be wrong, because ‘boys will be boys, they must want this’. Most people would not accept a man kissing people without their consent. Most people would not accept a transgender person kissing people without their consent. Most people would not accept a gay man kissing men without their consent. Why should it be ok for a woman to do this? I honestly don’t get it.


    I may be misunderstanding your comment, but are you suggesting that repeated sexual harassment against different individuals can be excused by marital problems?

    On your general argument, we’re dealing with events that have happened, so I’m not sure how the rest your comment is relevant. Since you assert that past events should be kept hidden, there’s not much left to be done (we wouldn’t want to send a clear message to a clumsy serial sexual harasser!). The whole thing isn’t about ‘punishment’. It’s about getting people who do this to *stop*. Asking them to stop, then going to the authorities if deemed possible has not been working. The game of whackamole is what you are suggesting: just shut up about all those poor clumsy harassers, and keep a cast of secret vigilantes around hir at all time. Of course it makes everyone feel better if people shut up about being harassed, but that hardly addresses the problem. Marital problems or not. There are other avenues than sexual harassment, i.e. consensual relationship or consensual sex workers.

  6. 8

    Jean D’Espagnet @4:

    It’s been suggested you remained silent because of her sex.

    It’s also been suggested that Glenn Beck raped and killed a woman in the 90’s. Quit the rumour-mongering and leading questions: Who has suggested this? What evidence did they have for this?

    And why must someone immediately report all questionable behavior? Are you suggesting they are not allowed to have doubts, or worry about splashback damage to friends and colleagues?

  7. 9

    Stephanie writes of knowing about [name redacted to protect the innocent]’ harassment of others shortly after ScienceOnline 2011 which took place January 2011.

    Elevatorgate occurred in June 2011.

    Stephanie writes of running interference during ScienceOnline 2012. ScienceOnline 2012 took place January 2012.

    All of this occurred before the name and shame events of August 2013 of Krauss (male), Shermer (male), Radford (male), Grothe (male) during which Stephanie remained silent about [redacted] (female).

    I don’t know who this Glenn Beck character is, I hope if he is guilty he caught.

    I am primarily relying on my Richard Carrier Bayesian Statistics Tee Shirt which tells me that it seems odd that the one female that Stephanie definitely knew about long before the others is coincidentally a person she remained silent about.

  8. 10

    Relying on a t-shirt, particularly a t-shirt you don’t understand, may be your first problem. There is another characteristic that those four people share that [name redacted to protect the innocent] did not until yesterday. It’s referred to in this post.

  9. 11

    All of this occurred before the name and shame events of August 2013 of Krauss (male), Shermer (male), Radford (male), Grothe (male) during which Stephanie remained silent about [name redacted to protect the innocent] (female)

    Obviously Stephanie is an evil feminazi. That’s why she’d never ever write about a woman sexual harassing anybody. Except she just did. Well, but, she didn’t write about this lady most of us never heard of two years ago when she was writing about the harassment and worse behavior on the part of men who are widely known throughout the atheoskeptisphere! She totes should have mentioned this then. And also every single other case of misbehavior by any woman, anywhere, that she ever heard of. Because otherwise, misandry.

  10. 12

    Elevatorgate occurred in June 2011.

    Stephanie writes of running interference during ScienceOnline 2012. ScienceOnline 2012 took place January 2012.

    What was Elevatorgate, again? Months of over-the-top anti-feminist harassment and vitriol, continuing to this day, because a woman talked about being sexualized at conferences and finished with “Guys, don’t do that”.

    What happened in *May* 2012? Another woman mentioned sexual harassment happening behind the scenes at conferences, anti-harassment policies were proposed as a solution (thank you, Stephanie) and that received another wave of online hatred and demonizing of everything about harassment policies and those who support them, by multiple prominent voices, which *also* continues to this day.

    It’s taken all this time and effort, argument, and painful learning for the skeptic/atheist communities to even be ready to listen when someone comes forward with specifics; and Stephanie Zvan has been instrumental in getting the discussion to this point.

    Obviously, we’re still nowhere near as good at listening as we should be.

  11. 14

    The final option I can think of is to sit silent in the face of a toxic situation. I’m not very good at that. That may be another character flaw. Plenty of people say so. Every once in a while, though, someone tells me that it’s integrity.

    It is.

  12. 15

    The reason why you outing [name redacted to protect the innocent] in this way bothers me is this: I think the punishment should fit the crime.

    When Bora, who is in a position of power, harasses women who essentially work for him, he hurts them in a very fundamental, very bad, very impactful way.

    I don’t want to downplay what [redacted] has done. It’s sexual harassment, and it’s bad. Even so, I think it’s quite clear that there is a fundamental difference between a drunk girl kissing you on the lips at a party, and an older man using his position over power to harass a number of women repeatedly, over a long timespan. The latter needs to be removed from his position of power, and possibly prevented from ever being in such a position again, and people need to be warned about him.

    The former needs to be told that she’s out of line. And she needs to be told in a way that doesn’t destroy the rest of her life, because her name is now intrinsically associated with being a sexual predator, and every time she’s applying for a job, the person reviewing her application will google her name, and find out about it.

  13. 16

    >Most people would not accept a gay man kissing men without their consent.
    >Why should it be ok for a woman to do this? I honestly don’t get it.

    It’s not okay, but it’s also not the same, due to the very simple, very obvious power dynamic between men and women. A woman unwantedly kissing a man is stressful and disturbing. A man unwantedly kissing a woman is more than that. It’s a threat; it has much larger implications on the woman’s well-being than just being a temporary source of stress.

  14. 17


    Inflicting stigma on individuals for past behaviors is a type of punishment,

    Stigma is a side-effect of knowing who the person is who has a habit of bad behavior when the bad behavior needs to be called out and identified as the sort of thing we don’t accept. If you think the primary intent is retribution, and not education or (in the worse cases of behavior) alerting people to the fact that they may not be safe around particular individuals, I think you need to reexamine the situations on which you did not follow up.

    Any potential stigma here is earned, not inflicted. People aren’t banished (from where do you suppose they are banished anyway?). Those with egregious repeated bad behavior and a pattern of denial will tend to “lose sales”, as it were, with people who really are no longer comfortable with them. Those who fall more into the category of “they made mistakes, recognize them as such, and are remorseful” are treated as such. It’s practically the Invisible Hand of the Free Market *in action here, not some Dictatorial Government of the Science Blogosphere.

    And speaking of the justice system(s) – why speak of them? People keep dragging them in where no offended party or their supporters intend to have them. If the social actions of calling out bad behavior look like an organized legal justice system to you, look again.

    *Which only operates in free markets, of which there are none in the original economic sense, because many of the actors are too big for anyone else to be free with respect to them.

  15. 18

    Maudell, I am not attempting to excuse any behavior. I am attempting to understand bad behaviors (in their context and complexity) so that adverse effects of bad behaviors can be prevented. The best way to do that is to prevent the bad behaviors in the first place. Once bad behaviors have occurred, damage has already happened. It is too late to prevent primary adverse effects. It may not be too late to prevent follow-on adverse effects.

    In the article I linked to, it points out that when errors are punished, there is a great tendency to coverup errors. Fixing systems that generate errors is much more difficult when errors are covered up. When punishment is the primary response mechanism to errors, then the primary response of those who make errors will be to coverup prior errors, not change behaviors such that new errors do not occur.

    My analogy with “whack-a-mole” is that when the primary response to an error is to whack what ever caused the error, then the response depends on the threshold for identifying the error and will be ineffective at preventing new errors and will do nothing for errors that are below the detection threshold. The usual response is to then invoke a “zero-tolerance” policy. That ends up imposing draconian punishments on those who are caught in an infraction no matter how minor, and those who are not caught receive no punishment.

    There is no excuse for harassment, sexual or otherwise. Marital problems are not an excuse for sexual harassment. Marital problems can be a contributing factor to putting someone in a mental state where they initiate unwanted interactions with someone else. So can alcohol, so can stress, so can fatigue, so can illness, so can ignorance, so can inexperience, so can many things. None of them excuse harassment.

    It is apparent that many people have multiple standards about what constitutes “harassment” and these standards are mutable depending on the gender, orientation, status, professional relationships and other things. For example Facebook has “standards”.


    I have read comments to the effect that someone not in a position of authority over a victim can’t sexually harass someone because it is only “harassment” if they can threaten the victim with adverse consequences. That shows a profound lack of understanding of what constitutes harassment. If well-meaning people in the community don’t appreciate that “sexual harassment” does not require a boss-subordinate relationship, then many people in the community don’t have the tools to recognize what sexual harassment is and is not.

    The community cannot possibly be effective at dealing with sexual harassment if many people do not understand what it is.

  16. 19

    F, the blog post that was linked to did propose to banish Bora from ScienceOnline, as an organizer and as a participant.

    I am not taking a position on the wisdom or foolishness of that action. I don’t know anyone in ScienceOnline well enough to make that call. I would like to ask what is expected to be accomplished by such an action? What is the goal? Are there other actions that would achieve the same (or better) goals at a lower cost?

    It is easy to simply banish individuals and then pretend that all “bad actors” have been removed and so sexual harassment will never happen again. The reality is that there are many degrees of “bad actions”.

    With a low enough threshold, simply looking at someone for too long can be considered staring with a “male gaze”. Should ScienceOnline require women to wear burqas so that “male gaze” can’t happen? Should men be forced to wear goggles to block the “male gaze”? What about “female gaze”? Are women not wearing burqas “asking for it”?

    Was texting someone a room number “asking for it”? Was it “enticement”? Was it a misunderstanding? Was it an embarrassingly foolish mistake? Was it something that deserves banishment?

    I am reminded of elevator gate, where a simple tip for socially awkward guys on how to interact with women blew up into a shit storm of abuse directed at RW, which abuse continues to this day. Somehow I don’t think that a shit storm of abuse directed at BZ will accomplish anything positive.

    I could be wrong, but I think some of the problem is that the problems of sexual harassment in the online science blogging community are not changing much, and people want to do severe and dramatic things to produce severe and dramatic changes. Banishing BZ from the organizations and communities that he played a formative role in starting is a severe and dramatic thing. Will it accomplish severe and dramatic changes? Severe and dramatic changes that will make everything all better? I don’t think so.

  17. 20

    I agree with Lukas’ comment #15. Even by szvan’s account, the graduate student behaved with more restraint at this year’s conference, surmising this would be due to introduction of harassment policies. Why not assume it was because someone had had a word with the student about proper behaviour?

  18. 21

    Why not assume it was because someone had had a word with the student about proper behaviour?

    Because of the repeated crossing of boundaries. There is only so much behavior that a person can chalk up to being clueless.

  19. 22

    It’s not okay, but it’s also not the same, due to the very simple, very obvious power dynamic between men and women. A woman unwantedly kissing a man is stressful and disturbing. A man unwantedly kissing a woman is more than that. It’s a threat; it has much larger implications on the woman’s well-being than just being a temporary source of stress.

    Don’t do that. Don’t minimize the effects of harassment or assault on men. We’re at a point in the psychological literature where we’ve realized that our grasp on the effects of women assaulting and harassing men is lacking (largely because it’s been framed and measured in terms of women’s reactions), but even now, we do know that some men are affected beyond “temporary stress”. Don’t erase them.

    There are also good reasons to expect men to be affected, even just looking at standard gender roles and how they play out in society. Men are expected and pressured to be able to handle what women point at them sexually. If and when they can’t, their masculinity is called into question. That has further effects of threatening their place in society. (Men who are targeted for mistreatment by other men are often done so on the basis of not being “sufficiently” masculine.) Also, because of these expectations, men receive less support and more ridicule after being harassed or assaulted.

    We don’t need to downplay any of that to argue for a more measured response to people who are not in a position of direct authority.

  20. 23

    >Don’t do that. Don’t minimize the effects of harassment or assault on men.

    I did not mean to do that. Re-reading my post, I realize that what I wrote was stupidly worded. I should not have implied that women sexually harassing men is nothing more than a source of temporary stress. What I wrote is plainly wrong.

    However, I do stand by the basic idea that, everything else being the same, you can’t just swap genders and say “see, you wouldn’t say that if she was a man”. It’s true that you might not say the same thing if the genders were reversed, but that’s because the situation might actually truly be different if the genders were reversed.

  21. 24

    I agree that we can’t swap genders and expect everything to be the same. Frankly, we can’t swap two people of the same gender and expect everything to be the same. I find it best to generally just not make comparisons.

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