Tag Archives: authority

A Quick Note on Andrew Bolt

I wrote a dissertation on censorship, and I’ve devoted thousands of hours to studying the right to freedom of speech, professional obligations of journalists, and the harms that are caused when people open their mouths and say things that are hateful, spurious, or just plain wrong. This is, for better or worse, my job. So I feel compelled to write about Bolt’s “I am, you are, we are Australian.” (I’m not going to link to it. I feel bad enough having read the screed; if you want to give him those clicks, do it yourself.)

There are so many things wrong with Bolt’s article, but I’m going to limit what I want to say to a couple of glaring errors he makes about Australian constitutional history. Perhaps if Bolt had done his homework , he’d note that the statement

[The writers of the Australian Constitution] were inspired by the creed that all citizens — those, at least, we admitted — are as one before the law.

is 100% false. In point of fact, Edmund Barton—first Prime Minister of Australia, and one of the drafters of the Australian Constitution—had the opinion that

the moment the Commonwealth obtains any legislative power at all it should have the power to regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races who are in the Commonwealth.

This led to section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution, the so-called “race power.” The race power granted the Commonwealth the power to make special laws for anyone on the basis of their race.

Surprisingly, the race power did not extend to Indigenous Australians, until that exception was removed in 1967. Not that it made a difference, as section 122 of the Constitution, which allows for the Commonwealth to set law in the territories, provided for plenty of opportunity to act in paternalistic, degrading, and generally awful ways to the detriment of Indigenous Australians.

Then there is Bolt’s claim that

although, contrary to popular myth, they granted Aborigines the vote in all states where they had the franchise

which is a red herring of sorts. The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 excluded

aboriginal native[s] of Australia Africa Asia or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand’ unless covered under Section 41 [of the Constitution, which grants the right to vote for both houses of the parliament].

But section 41 left voting matters to the states. So speaking of the Constitution’s power to grant voting rights is more or less meaningless—state action and Indigenous Australian involvement did the work. The Australian Electoral Commission itself notes that the Constitution was interpreted to deny Indigenous Australians the vote  That’s why Queensland didn’t give Indigenous Australians the vote until 1965. That’s why compulsory voting wasn’t applied to Indigenous Australians until 1984. Which in itself is a form of civic disenfranchisement that, in a country where mandatory voting applies to everyone else, is a travesty.

(I haven’t even got to the unspeakably racist language Bolt uses. If anyone can explain Bolt’s term “race industry professionals” to me in a way that doesn’t make me swear loudly, I’ll give you a prize. That he uses “scare quotes” around “race” is equally terrible.)

Whatever his intentions, Bolt paints a false picture. He’s again abused his platform to spread misinformation, and on a subject about which he’s already contravened the Racial Discrimination Act once. The Herald Sun should pull this article.

When someone misuses their power to convey ideas to millions, and does so in a racist and harmful manner, they should be taken to task.  Bolt should have the book thrown at him—and that book should probably be on the constitutional history of Australia. The other editors at the Herald Sun have an obligation not to let their colleague spread falsehoods.

Disclaimer: If I’ve made any mistakes that are indicative of my privilege as a white Australian (or any other privilege I’m carrying—and I carry a lot), let me know, and I’ll do my best to rectify it immediately.

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.

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.