Science, ‘whores’ and dissent


First published as an op-ed at Al-Jazeera English.

Privately owned publications and governments threaten to cut to the bone of intellectual freedom in science.

Last Friday, popular science magazine Scientific American (SciAm) removed a blog post by a black female scientist and blogger discussing a recent professional exchange and the issue of integrity.

The incident – which SciAm justified by claiming that her article was not “scientific enough” – highlights the insidious forms of censorship in the science and research worlds.

So what exactly happened? Danielle Lee, a scientist and blogger at SciAm-hosted blog Urban Scientist, had been approached by a staff member of – referred to as “Ofek” – to contribute an article. When Lee asked for compensation details and learned she’d be writing for free, she kindly turned down the offer. In response, Ofek called her a “whore”. Consequently, Lee wrote a post on her SciAm-hosted blog addressing integrity and misconduct in science. Shortly afterwards, the post was removed without any explanation or prior notice.

Following SciAm’s seemingly arbitrary decision, a few scientists and bloggers started drawing attention to this bizarre development. Some noticed that Biology Online is SciAm’s partner; others (including yours truly) re-blogged the original post so everyone could read it. SciAm started getting a lot of heat. Pressing questions and critical debate followed, but SciAm’s editor-in-chief Mariette di Christina responded with two magnanimous tweets. The first one explained that pulling the post down is due to insufficient scientific content; the second one claimed the partnership between SciAm and Biology Online has nothing to do with the removal.

So on the face of it, a woman is called a “whore” in a professional setting, and then denied a voice in this environment to discuss her (mis)treatment. Uh oh, SciAm. I saw the regular blame-the-victim rhetoric on Twitter, too.

But wait: This isn’t the first time SciAm has removed content on the basis of “not [being] ‘sciencey’ enough”. Back in August 2013, the MIND Guest Blog published a post on sexual harassment female scientists encountered at work. The post was removed. At that time, Karen Stollznow, a prominent linguist, wrote about years of harassment escalating in job-related retaliation and even physical assault. SciAm removed her guest post (that is, content published after editor’s approval) without prior notice. When she asked about the rationale, it emerged that Stollznow’s employer involved their legal department in the matter, and in doing so potentially intimidated SciAm into action.

Let’s say, SciAm got swamped under a sudden wave of timidity. But have a look at a Slate editor’s note on a piece entitled “Skepticism and Secularism Have a Serious Sexual Harassment Problem”, describing Stollznow’s experience. The piece, available thanks to the WebArchive, tells of traumatising stalking and aggression by a fellow male scientist that began in 2009. Apparently, such an account “did not meet [Slate‘s] standards for verification and fairness, and we have taken it down”, says the editor’s note. Really, Slate?

Let’s talk about science

It appears that discussing insults in the working environment and unwanted sexual attention in science is neither “scientific enough” nor meets editors’ “standards for verification and fairness”. Let’s also leave Slate aside for now, given that it is not a science magazine. Let’s talk about science.

Science is about qualitative and quantitative results. Science is about intellectual freedom. Science is about ethics. And science is about those who do it. Before someone suggests I either change my name to Captain Obvious or cut out the banalities, let me say it again: Science is about scientists. All obstacles and wrong-doing science practitioners encounter is about science.

In academia and in research more generally, we have a gender problem: There are still too few women scientists. Furthermore, women scientists are given undervalued tasks, and they get cited less in comparison to male colleagues in the same field. And there are sexual harassment incidents in science, like in every other profession. Along with the gender imbalance, academia also has a diversity problem. There are still too few – and fewer – non-white scientists. Let’s face it: Science is still a club for white men.

But beyond this, science is not about censorship. The SciAm incident intersects racism, sexism and censorship.

If SciAm believed that Daniel Lee did not address the topic accurately, is it that difficult to just bring it out for discussion? Why haven’t there been other posts by SciAm bloggers discussing privilege, sexism and misconduct being pulled down, too?

From the that’s-the-wrong-answer department

Let this sink in for a minute: SciAm silenced a scientist instead of standing by one of its own. Deliberately removing content is pure censorship. Remaining silent for days after such an act is pure insult. Coming up with a (long overdue) message that sums up as “sorry-but-not-sorry, it was a long weekend and [insert here a hint to] legal reasons” adds to the unacceptability of the incident.

I am guessing people can accept SciAm’s editor-in-chief backpedalling, even though an apology isn’t anywhere to be found. Neither do I seem to be the only one having read that “the regret people noticed [the] post was removed”. Yet,  SciAm’s is not alone in this variety of censorship.

Last September, Canadian scientists called for a country-wide protest to oppose governmental rules that prevent them from talking about their own research with journalists or fellow colleagues. This led to the formation of Scientists for the right to know, who believe that “Canadian federal government has been waging a systematic assault on science as the basis of relevant information for policy making”. The governmental guidelines indeed require scientists having received government funding and working on projects that may relate to industrial interests to go through a departmental manager review prior to communicating on the research, even after the study has been accepted by an academic journal.

And last June, David Nutt’s paper (under a paywall by Nature) wrote that drugs policy is being driven by “politics, not science, describing the outlawing of marijuana and LSD for use in research “the worst case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus and Galileo”, and claiming that such prohibitive rules have delayed the development of treatments for depression by 30 years.

And right before Christmas 2011, research on the A(H5N1) bird flu was deterred from publication because of terrorist paranoia – with the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a US government agency, asking high-profile scientific journals Science and Nature to withhold certain details, fearing that terrorists could replicate the study and end up spreading a deadly virus. Responding to the Board, one of the main researchers called for an end to censorship of live-saving science: “Although these experiments may seem dangerously foolhardy, they are actually the exact opposite. They gave us the opportunity to make the world safer, allowing us to learn what makes the virus dangerous and how it can be disabled.”

Today, privately owned high-profile science magazines take down content denouncing misconduct in research, and democratically elected governments refuse to appoint a science minister, supporting calls from their officials urging scientists to be “the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”. Such guidelines, rules and recommendations point to a not-that-insidious-anymore trend: clamping down on science and research for not saying what some want to hear. Crushing intellectual freedom in the name of pseudo-science and corporate power is what is upon us today. And it is up to us – scientists, physicians and citizens – to be reasonable enough to dissent from government and privately owned minders.