An Open Letter to the Fine #SciComm Community, Explaining Why it Can Fuck Itself

Dear science communication (aka SciComm) “community”,

Fuck you. No, seriously. Fuck you. Really, really, really and truly…

Fuck you.

I’ve spent these last few weeks thinking about all the ways that that the “community” can go fuck itself and, while I cannot decide on a single one, I can at least feel confident in my belief that the entire “community” should, indeed, go fuck itself.

Why the hostility?

While I once dabbled in membership in the SciComm “community”, I now hang my hat firmly in the academia clubhouse. Academia takes a lot of flack from the science communicators, many of whom believe that science would be better served by independent scientist or an army of “citizen scientists.”

As an aside, I find the entire notion of “citizen science” to be largely nonsensical shenanigans. Let me see one of you give yourself a “citizen vasectomy” and then we’ll talk about why science is no less of a skilled trade. But, I digress…

Citizen ScienceFigure 1: Citizen scientist Joe Mullarky examines the piece of preserved vas deferens  removed during his first citizen vasectomy. (source)

I like academia for the same reason I like America’s Next Top Model. For the most part, it’s not shrouded in bullshit. It’s not difficult to figure out how you should expect to be treated. We all know funding is bullshit, the trainee period has some real scam-like qualities, and there’s a list of men in our clubhouse that are proven ass grabbers.  I have friends in academia, but being a part of academic science is not predicated on people being my friends.

This doesn’t mean that academia is necessarily happy or utopic in any way.  Just that it’s not full of wolves in allies’ clothing. SciComm, on the other hand, basically sets itself up to fail every time.  Interactions are predicated on this idea of “community”, which by definition is (from fucking Wikipedia. Damn it.)…

communityFigure 2: The definition of community from here.

The major fundamental flaw of the SciComm “community” is that it is a professional community with inconsistent common values. En face, one of it’s values is the idea of promoting science. Another is promoting diversity and equality in a professional setting. But, at it’s core, it’s most fundamental value are these notions of friendship, support, and togetherness. People join the community in part to talk about science, but also for social interactions with other members of the “community”.  While I’ve engaged in my fair share of drinking and shenanigans  at scientific conferences, ScienceOnline is a different beast entirely.  The years that I participated in person and virtually, there was no doubt in my mind that this was a primarily social enterprise.  It had some real hilarious parts, but it wasn’t an experience that seriously upgraded me professionally.

People in SciComm feel confident talking about “the community” as a tangible thing with values and including people in it, even when those people don’t value the social structure in the same way. People write things that are “brave” and bloviate in ways that make each other feel good and have “deep and meaningful conversations about issues” that are at the end of the day nothing more than words. Its a “community” that gives out platters full of cookies to people who claim to be “allies” to causes without actually having to ever do anything meaningful. Without having to outreach in any tangible way, simply because they claim to be “allies.” Deeming yourself an “ally” and getting a stack of “Get Out of Jail, Free” cards is a hallmark of the “community”.

Get_out_of_Jail_Free_for_the_Win_Wallpaper_JxHyFigure 3: Ally community cards.

The problem is that people are then so busy giving each other reach arounds and jizzing good feelings and rainbows that when someone in the “community” acts in a severely damaging way, it gives everyone the damned vapors because it puts the value of “diversity” at odds with the value of “togetherness.” Then we bloviate about community and hope and doubt until the community feels good again.

At least, the people that are willing to stay in the community and that are willing to put up with the repeated bullshit and not speak too loudly about how they know that one man is a symptom and not the entire disease.

More importantly, it sabotages the ability to deal with gender and racial bias in a meaningful way because SciComm is a “community” of “friends” and “allies” instead of first being a group of professionals.  That’s why, although I feel for so many of my female science writer colleagues who are really fighting the good fight, I’m not hopeful for this “community”  and I don’t believe that, for all the lip service we pay it, diversity and equality are really fundamental values of this group. I think it’s the thing that makes us all feel good when we pull it out, but that our ability to do anything more than stroke ourselves with it is severely limited by the more pressing desire to not make our friends feel bad.

I don’t have a lot of hope for this community. Only faith in its ability to keep baking cookies while simultaneously being shocked over why it continues to get its hand bitten.

The-Stepford-Wives-(2004)-thumb-560xauto-26296Figure 4: Be sure to offer milk.  (source)

16 responses to “An Open Letter to the Fine #SciComm Community, Explaining Why it Can Fuck Itself

  1. Science communication is important, of course, but I have the feeling it has been empowered a bit too much without much success in achieving any of the real big goals out there. In this age of misinformation they can be very helpful in fighting misinformation with information, yet some other issues seem to be more important for some people.
    Best regards

  2. Labeling the traditional “old boys club” mentality as a community really doesn’t do anything to innovate or move science, as an actual community, forward.

  3. Comradde PhysioProffe

    Very wise post. From the day I became aware of science bloggeing, I was convinced that “Science Communication” is nothing more than amateur science journalism. And the amateurs that happened to be good at it have become professional science journalists.

    Science bloggeing’s utility is basically in letting people with some common interests shoot the shitte about the non-scientific aspects of those interests. But blogge posts explaining for the fucketillionth time in unreadable prose what an action potential is are a fucken waste of time, and glorifying thatte gibberish provides cover for fuckwittitude.

    Science communication in the sense you mean it advances neither science itself nor its communication to anyone who isn’t already a scientist (and they don’t need it).

  4. Hey, remember when you were on and you kept getting chided by some non-scientist about being a liberal who didn’t understand that “science is” (whatever that means) and is therefore not for the promotion of feminism or diversity or whatever? Also, that was why it was bad to talk about that shit on, ahem,

    Maybe this kind of thing ended up making me feel less passionate about identity forums based on scientific /skeptical causes. I don’t even care what people blog about, either.

  5. Isis the Scientist

    That was always the criticism when I said something a bunch of dudes didn’t agree with – that I wasn’t a serious scientist and didn’t belong there.

  6. Guess I’m fucked coming *and* going on this one! Thank goodness I have academia to turn to for solace…

  7. Isis the Scientist

    No, Andrew. I really appreciate where you’re coming from, but you can’t deny that this was a case study in the central problem. Our allegiances to each other are greater than to the endpoints.

  8. Andrew Maynard

    I agree. One of the challenges – I think – is that there’s a blurring of distinctions between professional and social communities here that’s messing things up. Professional communities tend to have codified common values and an “ethic” – which may be outmoded, but do add to professional coherence in support of specific endpoints. Social communities are more likely to have a less well-defined shared set of values that – while they may be well-meaning – are not that resilient and can become counter-productive. And as you point out, may be more focused on allegiances (tribe identity?) than endpoints. What happens then when you get a merging of the two – as is happening increasingly through social media? There, I guess, you get your case study. Especially when some people are playing by one set of community “rules” and others are playing by another set.

  9. Hmm… interesting points, and I see the problem. However, I’m not convinced that the more “professional” / “institutional” academic communities are any better. Many of our universities and other academic institutions have swept a lot of sexual/racial harassment and misconduct under the rug for too long, and continue to do so. In fact, many of the professional institutions have also institutionalized the ‘old boys clubs’ and other privileged allegiances in ways that also value those much more than the endpoints of equality and justice. Many of these more “professional” settings also need some discussion and sunlight to address a lot of the problems, if we are to make any progress towards that endpoint.

    At least from that perspective, I think the whole brouhaha in the scicomm community over the past month has been valuable, in highlighting some of the problems. Even this post of yours, Isis, is part of that conversation. As Andrew says, the newer more amorphous social networks may select for self-reinforcing behaviors, but they are also blurring the lines separating the more professional tribes, which I think is a good thing. If case studies like these help us highlight some of the contradictions in these “communities”, then it is worthwhile analyzing them.

    As a faculty member at an institution where I’ve recently been made aware of a number of cases of sexual harassment and misconduct, but have also been told we cannot really discuss any of them for legal reasons, I am acutely aware of the institutional mechanisms of privileged self-preservation right now. I see how faculty members (esp. tenured), as one example of privilege, get far more protection than students in cases of harassment/misconduct. Yet I am institutionally forced to act in allegiance with colleagues among the faculty ranks even when I know they’ve done wrong, and that some students continue to pay the price. Therefore, I find the conversation and reactions among the scicomm community useful (and unlike the atheist/skeptic community) because they are at least willing to talk about the problems, and take some corrective measures, even if they remain far from the endpoints. So I guess I’m not willing to give up on this “community” just yet, even as I enjoy the benefits of being in academia.

  10. Dr. Isis, I so hear you, and I am really disappointed in the fact that we still haven’t had much of a community response to what has happened… and I don’t just mean with Dr. Lee or Bora. But as someone who does research on sexual violence among academic scientists, I have to say, like the commenter above, this shit happens and is just as bad in academia. Rather than feel like the scicomm “community” is no longer mine, I kind of feel like I don’t have *any* community right now. The things I thought I knew about my scicomm posse have turned out to be a sham, and it turns out scientists are just as horrible as the rest of the world and rape and harass and bully plenty.

    I’ve been reading the literature on community responses to harassment and rape, and keep wanting to write a blog post on this, but have been hamstrung by my own unpublished results (we are writing the paper right now) and a bunch of other commitments. But this issue has continued to fester in my mind.

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  13. As a young scientist beginning my entrance into a professional scientific career, I am interested in the idea of an online community. But then I read blog posts from various people and see little more than emotional venting and curse words interspersed with otherwise mature sounding language. Tumblr would suit your purposes just as well.

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