Category Archives: Ethics

Professionalism in Science Writing

If you’re here, there is a good chance you know what I’m talking about. Bora Zivkovic, former editor at Scientific American and cofounder of the ScienceOnline conference, sexually harassed a number of women: of those who named Zivkovic and identified themselves, we know Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters, and Kathleen Raven. The circle of Twitter I occupy has veritably exploded with the news, and I suspect will—should—continue to discuss and work with these revelations for some time to come.

Kelly Hills, writing about biologist Dr. Danielle Lee being called a whore for refusing to write for Biology Online for free, mentioned a post of mine on science writing, authority, and responsibility. Considering the events of the last week, it seems an apt time to revisit issues of authority and power in the science writing community.

Talking with Thomas Levenson and Joanne Manaster, I claimed that I thought Zivkovic is, and given what we know, was bad at his job. This proved divisive, and I want to paint a clearer picture about what I mean in light of an idea building from authority and responsibility: professionalism.

Of Professionals and Professionalism

Science writing—journalism, blogging, communication—is an essential activity promoting a moral good. The scientific enterprise promotes value both as it generates knowledge, and allows that knowledge to be used to improve people’s lives. That knowledge, however, only realises a small part of its value when kept wrapped up in papers and conference proceedings. We need good ways of disseminating scientific knowledge, in order to promote science and its benefits, inform citizens of what happens to part of their taxes, and promote general education (which has a whole suite of follow-on benefits).  Science writing sits at the intersection between the lab coat and the person in the street; at its best it can make real differences to people’s lives.

When I look at science writers as a group, I see people pursuing the morally important activity of disseminating of scientific knowledge. They use a special set of skills: I challenge anyone who has tried to write to deny the significance of the skill of writing well. They teach each other the tools of their trade through collaboration, mentorship, conferences and social networks. And finally, they need to be autonomous to pursue their trade.

In my line of work, we call those people professionalsThe term is typically used to describe doctors, lawyers, and (historically) the clergy, but journalism is very much like a profession. Science writing fits even better into this paradigm, by virtue of its subject matter.

What Zivkovic did, however, was unprofessional in the extreme. Now, not every act of wrongdoing by a professional makes them a bad professional—a doctor cheating on their spouse doesn’t make them a bad doctor. Rather, as Hills has already noted, Zivkovic abused his power: the power he had as mentor and gatekeeper to the science communication world. By diminishing the self-worth of people vulnerable to him—by virtue of the role he occupied in their professional lives—he acted contrary to the institution in which he resided.

Zivkovic has also harmed the community at large—the “collateral damage” of which Janet Stemwedel writes. That, to me, is one of the lessons of the  #ripplesofdoubt hashtag. Even if Zivkovic’s abuses of power didn’t pervert his judgements about the quality of writers and their work (and there have been serious questions asked about the degree to which it has), the mere possibility is enough to cause havoc within the community. People who abuse their power change the communities they inhabit as much by their actions as by their omissions; Zivkovic’s transgressions were a corruption of the role he held. This is what made him bad at his job.

The Road Ahead

The revelations about Zivkovic’s actions have opened a wider conversation about the overall direction of the science writing community. Chad Orzel recently pointed out that science blogging has become “less a medium than an institution;” he’s also pointed out that ScienceOnline has become caught in between the image that “everyone is equal in the big happy Science Online family,” and the power structures that certainly exist within the community. Hills has also noted that the image of ScienceOnline as a group of friends hanging out actually make inclusiveness more difficult. The question of where ScienceOnline goes in the wake of Zivkovic’s actions has dovetailed into a larger discussion about what ScienceOnline should ultimately look like.

I believe that incorporating professionalism will improve the community’s ability to hold perpetrators accountable, and secure against further harassment. It will also help focus questions about what the community should strive to be. As ScienceOnline looks to continue its mission—and Scientific American, I sincerely hope, does a bit of soul-searching of its own—knowing what to fix can be aided by reference to what great practice must look like.

A vibrant professional culture in science writing, to me, means offering a diverse and inclusive set of perspectives. It also means having the processes to foster and encourage individuals with those perspectives to pursue both the deep knowledge required to write excellent pieces, and the tools to make that knowledge entertaining and accessible. It means—especially in the context of freelancers, who are incredibly vulnerable to abuses of power—protecting individuals from harassment by others within the community. It means establishing a stable and reliable platform for those harassed, assaulted, or otherwise harmed by others to raise their voices with the knowledge that they will be believed, and the matter fully and compassionately investigated; a platform that can, where necessary, criticise and sanction the leaders of the community. It means people in the community knowing—again, and with confidence—that success or failure in their field is judged on the quality of the work, not the unprofessional standards of the gatekeepers.

All of those things are necessary. Remove one, and you damage the edifice on which people’s livelihood’s rest.

It will take time, but individuals are already moving to offer suggestions on what comes next, such as Maryn McKenna’s thoughtful analysis of where ScienceOnline should go from here. Understanding the different elements of professionalism in science writing allows people looking for solutions to ask “does this allow us—the community—to better serve the needs of our members in fulfilling our professional mandate?” ScienceOnline, to their credit, already has a mission that loosely tracks this professional model. I think that an enduring legacy for ScienceOnline would be to build the safety of its members not simply as a separate policy, but as a central feature of this mission.

To finish, I want to acknowledge that Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters, and Kathleen Raven have done something truly heroic by sharing their stories, and bringing to light this unconscionable abuse of power. I’ve spent my words here on the institution that is science writing, but I want to make clear that any critique of institutions should begin with the recognition of personal stories. At great risk to themselves these remarkable people have exposed corruption within their community. That’s true professionalism.

Who is responsible for all those cranks?

So a running theme in my work is responsibility for communication—how we understand our obligations to communicate truthfully, accurately, and with the ends we seek. So it was with great interest that I watched Suzanne E. Franks (TSZuska), Kelly Hills (Rocza), and Janet D. Stemwedel (Docfreeride) hold a conversation in the wake of Virgina Heffernan’s “Why I’m a creationist.” I’m not going to spoil the amazing train-wreck that is Heffernan’s post; if you’d like to see some of the fireworks that ensued you should head across to watch the fallout as Thomas Levenson and Carl Zimmer got stuck in.

The conversation between Franks, Hills, and Stemwedel is interesting, I think, for the way they navigated Heffernan’s alleged status as a Foucauldian, and how this linked up with issues with postmodernism more generally. Postmodernism is an area I’ll leave to the experts above; what interests me is how we connect the bad apples, the cranks, and the downright malevolent with broader criticism of a field.

I’ll work with my own field, the analytic tradition of moral and political philosophy. It has all sorts of bad apples and problematic characters: we seem destined (the horror) to include people like Robert Nozick. Now I am about as anti-Nozick as it gets, but I can’t deny that he was an American political philosopher from the same cohort as John Rawls; someone whose theories are not so important to me as is one of his students, whom I count as a friend and mentor. I feel I have to kind of have to grind my teeth and allow Nozick as part of the “family,” albeit not a part I much like.

But do I have to own responsibility for every obnoxious kid that reads Nozick? And takes him seriously? Yikes. That sounds terrible. Yet perhaps in some cases I do—if there is a professor out there teaching that Anarchy, State and Utopia is God’s Divine Word, I’m probably stuck with their students as a product of my field’s “sins.” 

I will hang my head cop the criticism that analytic philosophy has produced a frightening amount of first-rate assholes in its time.

Will I, however, take responsibility for right-wing libertarians and their fascination with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand?” I’m hesitant—primarily because most libertarians just casually gloss over The Theory of Moral Sentiments and run straight for The Wealth of Nations, and that just seems like intellectual laziness and cherry-picking at its worst. I can be held for bad writing; bad theories improperly rebuffed; or teaching that is antiquated, bigoted, or just wrongheaded. But it is much harder, I think, to say that I am responsible because a whole group of people found it inconvenient to read the other half of a body of work.

These, I think demonstrate a (non-exhaustive) series of relations we might have with certain elements of our intellectual movements and traditions, who use common language to achieve results that don’t sit right with us.

We could, of course, just reject that someone is properly part of our practice. This is, I’ve no doubt, as much political as it is a question of whether someone’s practice possesses the necessary or sufficient conditions to be classed as part of one’s group—we want to be able to say that some practices that take our name are simply Doing It Wrong. Yet we don’t want to allow just anyone to get away with that at any time–it removes a powerful and often legitimate critique of being able to point at an element of some set of people and go “they are a problem, and they are indicative of some larger issue.”

Another way we could approach this is to say “well that’s an instance of Bad X, but Bad X is not the same as X being bad.” That’s an important part of managing a field’s boundaries. The problem, of course, comes in identifying at what point instances of Bad X become signs of X being bad. My co-supervisor, Seumas Miller, has done work on institutional corruption that I think would be interesting to apply here, but that’s a paper in itself.

Finally, we could acknowledge and go “that’s not just an instance of bad X, but a sign that there is something wrong with the way we practice or communicate X. We should fix that.” I’ve talked before about the need for responsibility in science writing, and that applies to my field as much as any other.

Which of these is Heffernan? Is she Just Doing It Wrong, a bad po-mo (but not evidence of po-mo being bad), or a sign of something more problematic? I don’t know. Franks, Hills, and Stemwedel, I think, cover all three possibilities. Maybe Heffernan is a combination, a hybrid, or something altogether than these three distinctions I’ve made.

I’ve thrown the original chat up in Storify for anyone who wants to see the source I’m working from. It has been edited inexpertly, but I hope not leaving anything important out (though I did leave out an entertaining discussion on Foucault and Emo-pop that you’ll have to track down on Twitter). You can find it here.

A World of Trouble: Untangling the Politics and Promise of Nuclear Power

This post was originally meant to appear over at The Curious Wavefunction as part of a debate between myself and Ash about the politics and perils of nuclear power. I was somewhat dismayed when I woke up this morning (timezones, remember) to find my response had been bracketed by editorial and response from Ash without my consent or knowledge. Ash agreed to take the post down, and my response without accompanying editorial is below. It is worth noting that, for me, this cuts to the heart of what I wrote on yesterday, in that when one has a platform—and here, editorial control over subject matter—one has to be exceedingly careful about how their input frames content.

In this specific matter, to take what I as an author consider quite a strong disagreement and begin my entry with a statement saying a) this is only a disagreement of degree rather than kind (as if that made the disagreement lesser), and b) that degree was not substantial, undermines the position I put forward here without giving me adequate room to respond. As such, I present my view here without editorial, and Ash’s response I trust will be in the usual place in due course.

On Tuesday, Ash over at Curious Wavefunction blogged about “Pandora’s Promise,” a new documentary about the intersection between nuclear power and the environmental movement.  I haven’t had a chance to see the documentary because despite the internet, Australia is still very, very far away in movie-miles. But Ash raises a number of interesting points about the state of nuclear power—and the institutions that surround nuclear power—that are worth talking about and investigating a little further.  In the interests of disclosure, I am pro-nuclear in principle, but I think that  a lot has to be done before nuclear becomes more credible as a solution to anything.

Ash is definitely onto something when he talks about how risk in nuclear science misunderstood, and what actually happens to people exposed to radiation beyond what we experience every day. He notes the complexity of assessing the impact of radiation: dosage, chemical variation, method of contact, decay products, and decay paths all create different results. Radiation physics is a menagerie of causes and effects, and it is too quick to make comparisons simply in terms of the quantity activity one is exposed to.

The problem is, this cuts both ways. The reason there is little—but not noevidence that low levels of radiation increase cancer risk is that safety standards have been kept high. But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that uncertainty, not to mention the costs of finding out, has to be factored into our assessment of nuclear power.  Moreover, to claim that radiation is all about context, and then give examples of contexts where radiation is safe, is somewhat problematic.

That lead us into the next problem—new reactor designs, even those that show promise are still a ways off, and have some serious hurdles to contend with.  Liquid salt plants and so-called “breeder” reactors have been plagued with problems from their inception; they are not new ideas at all, but rather old ideas long in wait of feasible and successful engineering. Liquid salts run at exceedingly high temperatures, and may utilise highly reactive metals like sodium as cooling systems. The corrosive and highly flammable sodium is difficult to contain and can wear away containment vessels at a surprising speed.  The Monju reactor in Japan, for example, has been plagued by controversy and safety concerns for almost 50 years. This isn’t simply technological lock-in; making breeders cost effective, safe, and efficient enough to go into widespread use is and continues to be an immense technical challenge.

Most Gen-IV reactors will rely heavily on plutonium, as it is a far more efficient method of causing fission, and arises from the byproducts of irradiating uranium. But this introduces a new, unstated element of risk—In addition to being radioactive plutonium is incredibly toxic. It binds in calcium sites around the body such as bone marrow, and has long decay chains comprising of varied intensities of radioactivity. Storage of plutonium for civilian fuel projects presents a proliferation risk, a health and safety risk, and an environmental risk.

Now, I use “risk” here because the obvious reply from Ash, or anyone else, is that compared to the costs of not  pursuing nuclear power, the above dangers are deemed more than acceptable. In “Pandora’s Promise,” and Ash’s post, the costs take the form of anthropogenic climate change, and the costs of that clearly outweigh any costs of nuclear power.

Again, I want to make it clear that I believe that climate change is happening, it is human-influenced, and the costs of not acting are likely to be severe. It is just that in using such an—admittedly very real and scary—extreme cost without qualification as the reason to pursue nuclear power skews our risk assessment somewhat.  It is the same type of cost that motivates arguments for geoengineering on a large scale or human enhancement so that our bodies are better adapted to survive the pernicious effects of climate change. With a big enough catastrophe, anything is fair game.

But nuclear power isn’t simply a scientific or engineering puzzle. Its main drivers, in the end, have not been public fear—plenty of nuclear weapons have been built despite opposition. Part of what stymies nuclear power is that the science and technology have been tightly controlled from the outset. This has led to a dearth of skills in the right areas: many scientists who might have otherwise contributed to the nuclear sciences in civilian matters were either snatched up by the weapons industry, or denied clearance to work with fissile materials.

Further, the strict nature of nuclear secrecy, among other regulatory levers, creates an environment in which—even once civilian nuclear energy became a plausible pursuit—vested interests had the ability to control the market in all sorts of problematic ways.  According to one source, today 10 utilities own 70% of the total nuclear capacity of the USA.

Changing these institutions, allowing innovation to happen securely, and introducing competition into the nuclear marketplace are as much social and political changes as they are technical.  These are some of the very real challenges to wider adoption of nuclear power, and these changes, I fear, are where we the industry may falter.

This shouldn’t be a deterrent, but it outlines the challenges associated with the nuclear power industry. The clicks heard by Szilard and Fermi on that fateful day in 1942 in Chicago had potential, and still do.  Everything after, I contend, has been as much hindrance as help. The truth about nuclear energy, if there is any, is that it is as much a complex political case as it is a scientific one. Ash does, to his credit, note this, but I think he downplays precisely the type of gap we are talking about. It would be a shame to let the promise of nuclear power pass untapped. Yet one only has to look at the state of the nuclear energy industry today to know that the current system needs a radical overhaul, and that will require a significant amount of capital and civic participation. When we consider the cost-benefit analysis of a project, political costs have to figure in somewhere.  And right now in the world of nuclear energy, those costs are exceedingly high.

Writing, Authority, and Responsibility

I watched, from the wings, as a rather heated discussion broke out between Kelly and Bora about the function of blogging and journalism, and in particular when a blogger acts under the banner of a purported  authority—in this case, the Scientific American blog site. The essence of the disagreement was about the authority and accountability of authors, and the consequences of imparting information to an audience from a position of power.

The whole thing, as I sat in my slightly woozy state (I’m suffering from some pretty chronic pain right now), reminded me of my first article—a piece on the responsibility of scientists to communicate information about science accurately. I’ve thrown a proof of the paper up on academia.edu for those interested.

The central argument of the paper—excusing my distinct lack of voice—is that scientists have a responsibility to ensure their work is interpreted correctly because:

  1. People are vulnerable to misrepresentation or misinformation (a general obligation toward communicative mindfulness, if you will);
  2. Scientists (or their proxies) have a special obligation because of the power they possess as specialists and professionals.
  3. Scientists (or their proxies)  have self-interested reasons to ensure their work is interpreted correctly.

The longer arguments are in the paper, and I’m really only interested in what follows from point two above. What about the journalists, bloggers, and science communicators that are an important part of the way that scientific knowledge—and importantly, the scientific enterprise—is communicated?

The answer, I think, is the same. If you communicate about science, and you do so with authority, you have a responsibility for what you produce. That authority might be through a PhD; a byline with a prestigious organisation; or just being known long enough, and by enough people, to count (i.e. possessing esteem).

In particular, science does things. It does lots of cool things, and just as many scary things. When you are in a position to influence how things get done, of course an attendant obligation follows. How could it not?

The piece that motivated the debate this morning was a piece that referred to the “truth” about nuclear power. Truth about a 75 year old (well, depending on which advance you take as “the beginning”), controversial, potentially dangerous set of technologies that have been mired in a number of very big explosions, an arms race, systemic corruption, and secrecy. And form part of a very expensive military-industrial project. Anyone who purports, under the name of an institution that has existed since 1845, to have truth about that sure as hell better know what they are doing. (I’m very skeptical that’s the case, but that’s for another post—tomorrow.)

The contention is, however (e.g. here and here), that bloggers need freedom to grow, expand their knowledge, strike out on their own, and make mistakes.

I didn’t see anyone doubt that.  It’s just that it is beside the point.

Need for growth doesn’t abrogate responsibility. Everyone needs an opportunity to make baby steps into new areas of expertise. But when your baby steps can be mistaken for firm, adult strides, you need to be careful. Writing under the byline of an institution like SciAm is a powerful force, and I believe that goes for the blog section as well by virtue of the reputation it leverages.

The reply, of course, is that in the age of interactivity, bloggers will be corrected in comments and growth can happen there: the writer’s equivalent of “many eyes make all bugs shallow.” But just like in software, or engineering, or physics, you need the right eyes, and then everyone else needs to see the fix. Bloggers don’t always post errata, and even if they do it can be too little too late. Readers don’t have time, energy, or (depending on the topic) the stomach to read through the comments and stitch controversy together. Follow up after follow up can cause fatigue (check out climate-change fatigue, kids!) And again, it misses the point that the bigger the authority, the larger the responsibility.

The responsibility that comes from possessing authority shouldn’t necessarily cap growth, but should be in the minds of writers as they strike out in new directions. Moving from a position of expertise to one with less isn’t problematic in itself, but if no one else gets the memo—or the writing doesn’t convey that change—then problems can and will occur. And as readers, knowledgable or otherwise, we should hold people accountable for what they write.