Derailing Techniques and My Final Thoughts on Scientific American’s Public Statement

I’ve been very thoughtful tonight about whether to post again about the events that happened over the weekend, beginning with the insult of my friend DNLee, the removal of her blog post by Scientific American, and their subsequent scramble to make sense of their actions in the face of public scrutiny.  At the end of the day, there are only two things that are important to me: 1) Making sure my friend had a place to tell her story if she was so inclined. You all have helped her do that phenomenally. Here alone, DNLee’s post has been viewed ~500K times and I know that many of you answered the call to mirror her words elsewhere. A woman who makes the choice to speak out about injustice should never be silenced. 2) I wanted to see things work out in a way that satisfied my friend. I might feel indignation about something, but at the end of the day, it’s all what I now term “privilege-level analysis.” I can have whatever thoughts and opinions I have because this stuff isn’t happening to me. It’s not threatening where I eat or how I choose to advance my career.

And, truly, some of the smartest things written about this far have come from other dear friend of the blog Dr. Rubidium at JAYFK. If you’re not following Rubidium in any and all venues, you’re missing one of the smartest people on the Internet. We’re all going to work for her someday.

Still, there’s one aspect of how this is all going down that continues to chap my ass. Mainly, it’s that I can see the editor of Scientific American continue to successfully use a classic derailing technique – the insistence that DNLee’s experience was personal and, thus, not appropriate content. In her original tweet Mariette DiChristina wrote:

Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.

In her reply to Buzzfeed, DiChristina elaborated:

“I’d like to elaborate on the original brief statement on Twitter that this blog fell outside Scientific American’s mission to communicate science. While we interpret that mission with a lot of latitude, Dr. Lee’s post went beyond and verged into the personal, and that’s why it was taken down. Dr. Lee’s post is out extensively in the blogosphere, which is appropriate. Dr. Lee is a valued member of the Scientific American blog network. In a related matter, Biology Online has an ad network relationship, and not an editorial one. Obviously, Scientific American does not want to be associated with activities that are detrimental to the productive communication of science. We are pursuing next steps.”

It doesn’t take much to see that bullshit for what it is. Part of communicating science is communicating what it’s like to be a scientist, and many folks on the network post about topics tangentially related to science. In her latest of public statements, DiChristina claims that the post was, in fact, removed for legal reasons and that:

Juggling holiday-weekend commitments with family, lack of signal and a dying phone, alongside the challenges of reaching colleagues over a holiday weekend, I attempted to at least address initial social-media queries about the matter with a tweet yesterday: “Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” I acknowledge that microblogs are not the ideal medium for such an important explanation to our audiences and regret the delay in providing a fuller response. My brief attempt to clarify, posted with the belief that “saying something is better than saying nothing,” clearly had the opposite effect. With 20/20 hindsight, I wish I had simply promised a fuller reply when I was able to be better connected and more thorough.

Making me wonder just how stupid she thinks her readership is.  Her dying phone and desire to celebrate the Festival of White Oppression with her family kept her from communicating to DNLee the reason for the post removal at the time of its removal?  It kept her from clarifying her original tweet vis-a-vis Scientific American’s legal concerns in a timely manner? Yet, she had plenty of battery and 4G signal and time to stop crafting commemorative smallpox blankets with her children to release a statement to Buzzfeed about how DNLee’s post didn’t communicate science and fell outside of Scientific American’s mission?

I am not a trifling woman.

Speaking only as a consumer of Scientific American’s product who is concerned about the integrity and honesty of the publications I read, DiChristina’s statements strike me as lie covering lie and make me think that she really believes her readers are that dumb. I’ll acknowledge that finding the source of my continued discomfort took some time because I was initially soothed by the shiny objects at the end of her latest statement:

With the help of Dr. Lee as an author, Scientific American plans to provide a thoroughly reported feature article about the current issues facing women in science and the related research in the coming weeks. I am personally grateful to Dr. Lee for her support in these endeavors and am looking forward to working with her on these issues.

But these shiny objects come under the guise of a faux sisterhood of unified feminism that DiChristina creates, thereby minimizing the unique experiences that women of color might be having. Because, after all, DiChristina has been dealing with these problems for 20 years…

We take very seriously the issues that are faced by women in science and women of color in science. As a woman who has worked in science publishing for more than 20 years, I can add that we intend to discuss how we can better investigate and publicize such problems in general and search for solutions with Dr. Lee and with the wider scientific community.

Here’s the root of the motherfucking problem. DiChristina’s experiences, had over the more than 20 years of her career, are professional. Yet, out of the opposite side of her mouth, DiChristina continues to frame what happened to DNLee as personal (emphasis mine):

We recently removed a blog post by Dr. Danielle Lee that alleged a personal experience of this nature.

Thereby allowing her the option to continue the narrative that the original post was too personal and fell outside of the scope of Scientific American’s mission.

Long time readers may remember that this humble little blog was once hosted at a little joint called ScienceBlogs. I can’t deny that my time there substantially increased my visibility but, damn it, those years came at a cost.  I remember that I was brought into the network specifically because I wrote about my life as a scientist.  I remember thinking it was a great opportunity to share my experiences as the barrio-raised product of Spanish-speaking grandparents and maybe encourage some other little barrio kids to see themselves going to graduate school some day.

When I wrote about my family, I was alright. The readership found me quirky, but generally harmless. When I wrote in general about my lab or professional issues, I was alright. That’s the fortunate thing about being pseudonymous. People can read you in any voice they choose.  When I wrote about broader issues related to women in science, I ruffled more feathers but I still usually had the strong backing of the feminist scientists. The things that made people the most uncomfortable were the posts I wrote that contained experiences where the intersections of race and ethnicity could not be denied. And the times when I chose to write in Spanish? That’s when the cries were the loudest from some of the readers…

Why is she on this network?
She doesn’t write science
There’s no place here for a blog about someone’s personal life
She’s not a serious scientist

One of the most effective derailing techniques used against non-majority scientists on the internet is the insistence that they are not contributing serious science. That they are not serious scientists. That their contributions don’t belong with those of the serious scientists. That they don’t belong in the club. That, if they were serious scientists, they would conform their vernacular to the cultural norm and stick to posts “about science.”

But, science is a human endeavor and if one of the primary goals of Scientific American is to serve as a “powerful tool for forward-thinking readers“, then surely they must be committed to increasing the ability of everyone to participate in the endeavor.

DNLee once taught me, as only she can, that the most important outreach a minority scientist can do is to get her degree and keep her job.  She lives her outreach everyday, teaching us about her work and about the process of her career.  She’s genius at it. DNLee’s gift is her talent for personal, thoughtful communication.

I hope that if Scientific American is truly committed to highlighting issues faced by women of color in science, they’ll begin to recognize why continuing to let this be framed as an issue of personal versus professional for one of the most visible women scientists of color is problematic.

36 responses to “Derailing Techniques and My Final Thoughts on Scientific American’s Public Statement

  1. I’m squirreling this post away so I can bust it out every time someone tries to tell me how a “Real Scientist(tm)” is supposed to behave/talk/act/dress/etc. Actual science isn’t movie science. There isn’t a casting call.

  2. Not to mention that they are just flat out fucken lying about what they publish. Other SciAm bloggers routinely post about their personal experiences as scientists.

  3. Brilliant and clear post that really explains intersectionality. It becomes “professional” only when readers not in that intersection can identify with it. Only our individual problems seem to be universal to our profession, and other people’s clearly must be individual glitches.

    Also what CPP said.

  4. Linking to this thoughtful impassioned (an intersection I live near) piece for AWIS, FB, RTs et al. and saving for my students. Important and long overdue conversations may ripple outward Thank you. Beautifully done.

  5. Best analysis I’ve read, so I’m glad you’ve taken the time to blog “again” on this. Thank you for saying what needed to be said and for being such a leader on this, as Dr. Lee has also been.

  6. From a PR perspective, DiChristina took an unfortunate decision and made it worse. Her CYA public response about having no time to contact Dr. Lee directly to let her know why they were spiking her post was quite simply preposterous. How long does it take to send a one-line email?

    And for those who also wonder how stupid SciAm thinks their readership is? Pretty stupid . . . .

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

    That right there is all the legal cover Sci Am needed, and this statement is found at the foot of every single post made by a blogger on that site.

    So, are they putting the post back up? Seems like there’s no reason not to.

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  10. Thanks for calling BS on the SciAm “clarification”. Besides the derailing techniques that you so clearly point out, what bothered me most about SciAm’s statement was the promise of a “a thoroughly reported feature article about the current issues facing women in science”. It really offends me when editors assume that angry readers are going to be pacified by something as superficial as this. It would be more effective for SciAm to admit upfront that their own actions are just another example of how these “current issues” are perpetuated, and to apologize for what they did. Instead, the article is not going to be taken seriously, since SciAm has already positioned it as something they were only prompted to do because of how they handled DN Lee’s situation. Not because, you know, these are actual issues that the scientific community should be concerned about.

  11. Pingback: A response to censorship by Scientific American [updated] | Small Pond Science

  12. seems to me that the person claiming that a personal anecdote is not a legitimate posting, in her defence, used a personal anecdote (and not even one that was related to science). I thought this was called hypocrisy.

  13. Pingback: Quick Updates re: Scientific American Kerfuffle | We Love The Stars Too Fondly

  14. Reblogged this on Reckless Acts of Punctuation and commented:
    I was hoping for a chance to reblog this. I was more than a little hot after learning about DNLee’s experience. Not only is the idea reprehensible that people should be “grateful” for foregoing financial compensation for work; but it is also layered with racist and sexist implications that a professional would slur a black female professional because she exercises her right to not work for free. Because I’m sure, in some aspect of that editor’s life, someone pays him/her to work. Disgusting. Read on, offer her your support.

  15. DiChristina’s statements strike me as someone who had a cadre of powerful men gather around her desk and tell her that she was going to be the Girl Face of their insulting, hideous sexism so that they looked better.

    Not defending her buy any means, but let’s face it, that’s what this is. A bunch of powerful men fucked up, and they wanted to stick a female face on the fuckup to cover their own asses. Sort of like how the Republicans have always made sure to have a black intern standing next to any conservative who signs welfare-related legislation in the photo ops.

  16. Great read!
    Congrats on gettin’ pressed!!

  17. Isis the Scientist


  18. Who’s the Whore?
    I’m greatful for this occurrence because it throws a light on the true nature of that outlet for scientific information, which is actually just a whore for its advertisers.
    Their big problem is they have to appease their advertisers at the same time with the same twits, tweets, or whatever they use to explain their actions to the angry readers. The telling statement is contained in DiChristina’s reply to Buzzfeed:
    “Dr. Lee is a valued member of the Scientific American blog network. In a related matter, Biology Online has an ad network relationship, and not an editorial one. Obviously, Scientific American does not want to be associated with activities that are detrimental to the productive communication of science.”
    Note the reference to ‘productive’ communication of science. What detrimental activity does she mean? She means the whole thing, not just the nasty email, but Dr. Lee’s blog post about it that turned it into a public thing with boat-rocking potential that might seasicken the advertisers.
    That’s their bottom line. Those advertisers want a mellow ride, and they are in control of that outlet of scientific information.

  19. Fantastic article. It all comes back to the cliques, old school tie, who knows who, color bar and class distinction thing. The “we-are-in-the-circle-and-you-are-not-but-you-should-spend-your-time-trying-to-be-in-the-circle-or-at-least-doing-things-for-the-circle-so-you-can-somewhat-associate-yourself-with-us people.

    While I feel that, based off of the people I know, the majority of people as much as they’re able to do not practice color bar or class distinction or at least do not do so knowingly and if they were told they did would feel bad about it, there is still something else there, something older. It’s called the clique.

    A group of people who have elected themselves as the authorities, most knowledgeable, most able, most cool, most whatever, etc.

    They elect themselves, and then through the power of exclusion – which is a very real thing – the group you can’t be part of has a slight draw – they rise up and proclaim that they, being the duly elected ones, are the sole authority, are to be listened to, are to be followed in all matters preached. Kindergarten through twelfth grade they push this and continue to do so for mist of their lives. It seems some people are just very good at convincing others that they are the coolest, best, most knowledgeable, etc – whether they are or not.

    But, remember, they were their own electors.

    And what do they do with anyone inside or outside the circle who doesn’t go along with the group idea, or who dares to speak their own mind on something?

    After little, fake smiles of condescension and slight eyebrow raises of “you don’t really think that, right? (because we’ll like so totally kick you out of the circle of cool people and talk so badly about you that your life will be ruined professionally and personally)” – after those don’t work what do they do?

    They exclude the person by degrees until they are finally gone from the circle. If they receive a backlash for doing this then they back peddle quickly – but now you’ve really made an enemy out of them. Because you made them look bad and that’s the one thing they can’t stand.

    So they keep working at you until your a ghost.

    However, If there’s no immediate backlash or it is decided it can be contained or put down, then they proclaim the person insane or delusional. As no one wants to associate themselves with an insane it delusional person they lose most of their friends. The remaining few are targeted with their own smear campaign and soon destroyed leaving the clique in power.

    Welcome to school, business life, social life, government life and anywhere else where people congregate.

    Every great scientist, religious person, leader, etc of whatever background, color, class or faith has been attacked by the status quo of their day.

    One classic example was where a man name Galen was busy agreeing with the medical people of his day about “the tides of blood” (they didn’t know about heart action). They didn’t look themselves but simply followed what was written by Authority.

    Then Harvey comes along, looks for himself, and finds out about circulation. But when he brings it up he is at first laughed at (no one dares look to see if its actually true) and then his life is made so miserable, such a commotion is created, that one man in the circle, finally uttered the historic words: “I would rather err with Galen than be right with Harvey” – or something to that effect.

    Strangely enough the fact of circulation had already be note early the quickly laughed away as it was an artist who noticed it in his examinations of life. The clique of his time said he was crazy, because he was an artist and that all artists are. His name was Leonardo Da Vinci.

    So what have we learned? Don’t think for yourself, very definitely don’t say what you think, only follow what the in-crowd says and only echo it in your attempts at conversation. And do not ever look beyond. Just keep walking with the flow of sheeple. Everything is fine.

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  27. You and Dr Lee and Scientific American all have valid points here.
    S.A.’s point, that it’s personal and not science, was a polite way of saying, “we have the demographic numbers to demonstrate that this is not true, but we’re not going to get into that fight with you, so this is the best way to deal with it”
    It IS a personal issue, because there are actually a lot more female than male MSc and PhD grads today than males.
    And what you perceive as an imbalance is only because going back 50 years, men have dominated the science positions in the corporate and academic world. But as the old guard dies, retires and are phased out, they will be replaced over time, and demographic proportions will balance out.
    But I bet you that the hiring rates today are pretty close to even, in terms of male and female grads and male and female hires of post graduates into science jobs in Academia and commercial industries.

  28. Reblogged this on 06cedmuho.

  29. Thanks for this post, Isis. Great analysis. I am disappointed in SciAm, but happy to have discovered DNLee. Loved her response to Ofek, loved that she responded and didn’t let the whole thing slide, and I will be following her going forward.

  30. to HealingShite

    You and Dr Lee and Scientific American all have valid points here.

    No, Sci Am doesn’t.

  31. funny you should say that, and have to make a name to insult my name – which i’ve actually had since 2001 when I started writing – to have anything at all to actually add to the discussion. oh… wait a minute… you STILL don’t actually have anything to add, lol. thank you for taking the other side of the argument. it makes my point for me =)

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