This is a post about decades of science. This science doesn’t fit the normal template of “science,” of experiments and testable hypotheses and the like. Then again, a lot of research on humans rarely does. We’re humans, after all.
Still, this post draws on many, many years of peer-reviewed empirical work. This body of work has focused on how people classify and judge each other, and how power is inevitably part of how humans interact.
The case I will examine is what happened with Danielle N. Lee, a young African-American biologist. Dr. Lee has her own blog, Urban Scientist, part of Scientific American blogs. Last Friday, Dr. Lee posted on being called an “urban whore” in an email from an editor at Biology Online. They asked her to write something for them, and Dr. Lee refused once she learned that she would not be compensated for her work. The Biology Online emailed her back, “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”
Dr. Lee addressed what this email meant to her in the context of being a professional scientist who is also an African-American woman. You can see her video response here, and find her overall post here at Dr. Isis’ website. The reason for that is Scientific American took her post down. They didn’t consult her. They just removed it.
The first indication of why came in a tweet from Mariette DiChristina, the editor-in-chief of Scientific American. She wrote, “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area and was therefore removed.”
In other words, the Scientific American reaction was one of determining boundaries and what counted as appropriate or not.
An important question becomes, Why?
DiChristina penned a response today, highlighting her position as Editor-in-Chief in the title of the post.
We recently removed a blog post by Dr. Danielle Lee that alleged a personal experience of this nature [prejudice and inappropriate treatment]. Dr. Lee’s post pertained to personal correspondence between her and an editor at Biology-Online about a possible assignment for that network. Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post. Although we regret that this was necessary, a publisher must be able to protect its interests…
There are many ways to interrogate the response from Scientific American’s editor-in-chief. The comments on DiChristina’s post are an excellent place to start. But I’m not so concerned here about the mop-up after negative press. I’m interested in what happened and why on Friday. Here are some insights garnered from anthropology.
These insights come in two linked sets. First, in a confrontation like this, race, gender, and class inevitably come into play. All three are on vivid display, though the one I think might be quite important – class – is given the least attention. Second, power was exercised. Scientific American invoked their legal right, something the bloggers signed onto as part of the fine print, and summarily dismissed Dr. Lee’s post from their site. Obviously they felt justified in doing so. Part of the reason why has to do with race, gender, and class, but it’s not a full explanation. Scientific American surely thought they were in the right in more than a legal sense, and here ideology and money come into play.
Let me say here that, yes, this is my interpretation. That’s how a good part of human science works. It draws on decades of scholarship and applies it to a novel situation. It’s not an exact science, but it’s quite empirical – these sorts of things come up over and over again.
Let me also say that I am being quite specific here in my register – in the tone and quality of language, aiming for “scienciness” (think “truthiness”), a reasonable tone that evokes science and being measured and the importance of evidence and all that. In other words, I am speaking exactly like the white scientist who lives in a nice house that I am.
Gender, Race, and Class
Dr. Lee’s case just slaps one across the face with cultural anthropology’s triumvirate of gender, race, and class. She gets called an urban whore by a guy? In explicit contrast to her being an “urban scientist”? Gender is easiest of the three to evoke. She wants money to do what she does? – she must be a whore, making this guy’s life difficult.
Urban whore becomes the marked category, the gendered one. This is not rocket science. In fact, it’s a lot clearer than rocket science. Online writing has made this point again and again, so I won’t belabor it here.
For me, it’s the combination of race and class that is more interesting and more telling. One thing I admired quite a lot about how Danielle Lee wrote her original post was her use of language.
My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately: “Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”
And then Dr. Lee code-shifted, moving to a voice that likely felt more comfortable to most readers of Scientific American.
It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand. What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation?
As David Kroll writes, “@SciAmBlogs permits “fuck” but not southern US, inner city vernacular. My hypothesis…”
Dr. Lee, it seems, made the mistake of sounding too ghetto. She let that part of her get out, and oh no, we can’t have that. Or as Editor-in-Chief DiChristina put it, “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.”
I wish I could sound so ghetto as Dr. Lee, but I’m the white guy, so I get to write like this. But I won’t get judged for letting my inner white guy out. I can have fun using words like “ghetto.” Not everyone gets that same easy permission.
Power: Ideology and Money
Gender, Race, and Class are pretty boring on their own. Well, for me at least, since they don’t really affect me all that much. (Ask the people they do affect, and you’ll get a much more visceral response.) But it’s also an interesting question of how gender, race, and class acquire so much social force. In anthropology, that question is often answered by drawing on the concept of “power.” Power inevitably affects social interactions between people, shaping what is acceptable and what is not, and often hiding what’s really going on in obfuscations that people generally find believable.
Ideologies do that sort of work. And science, along with being a way of generating an empirically-validated body of knowledge, also works as an ideology. Certain types of things get to count as “science” and other types of things do not. Dr. Lee’s post was not appropriately about “discovering science.” It was “too personal” and facts “weren’t verified.” And, quite simply, it was “therefore removed.”
But why was this post so threatening as to merit removal? It’s not about the red herring of Biology Online being an online affiliate of Scientific American (i.e., it pays for ads). Might it be because the post stands in such stark contrast to much of Scientific American’s audience?
Scientific American is quite specific about its audience. “Science Consumers Are High Wealth Consumers,” the press kit quite specifically states. And given the lack of any mention of minorities amidst its demographics, it’s easy to assume that not a lot of minorities are reading Scientific American. And, finally on the gender sider, for the magazine, it’s 71.9% male. Online, it’s a bit more balanced, only 58% male.
This sort of analysis shouldn’t be so easy. I shouldn’t be able to write this post on a Sunday night. But it’s just so obvious – gender, race, and class shape what has happened to Dr. Lee in profound ways. The ideology of science – of what counts and what doesn’t – becomes central to justifying what is done. And the publisher is very explicit about “protecting its interests,” which rely on the type of high wealth consumers who read the material that Scientific American publishes.
Why does this matter? It matters because what science is depends vitally on who creates and consumes science. Dr. Lee makes this point much better than I can. Last January she wrote the post, A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good.
For kids like my students – inner-city kids from poor families (whether working-class or on welfare), average or below-average academic performance, some with behavior problems – interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) dies by 10th grade and one of three things kill the promise of opportunity.
-Lack of resources
-Benign discouragement by well-meaning adults
-Active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers
The last part was prescient, wasn’t it?