More on Sexual Harassment. Also, Billions of Earth-like Planets

Sexual Harassment and Science Writing

The recent events involving sexual harassment and former SciAm uber-blogger Bora Zivkovic are no longer dominating science blogs. But they have not vanished from science blogging’s consciousness. The National Association of Science Writers met last week and devoted a session to thinking about what can be done to banish sexual harassment from our professional lives.  I’ve written about the recent controversy  a lot here  and also here. For follow-up, I asked the veteran science journalist Beryl Benderly, an NASW officer and a friend of long standing, to write an account of the NASW session, titled The XX Question,  to share here. Thank you, Beryl, for this illuminating contribution to getting the word out. UPDATE: I can’t imagine that any of you think On Science Blogs is something other than a personal take on things. But I have been asked officially to add this official disclaimer. I am delighted to do so. —TMP.   This post reflects the personal opinions and reporting of the individual authors. While both Tabitha Powledge and Beryl Benderly are board members of the National Association of Science Writers, the post was not written in that capacity and does not reflect an official position, interpretation or commentary of the NASW.

The XX Question

By Beryl Benderly

The National Association of Science Writers met as a community at its annual meeting on November 2 to confront what had come to be known as “recent events”—the revelations of prominent editor Bora Zivkovic’s serial sexual harassment of several women bloggers. About two hundred members of both genders attended a session originally intended to examine the issues facing women in the science writing business but now broadened in focus and moved to a larger room and a time slot with no other competing session.

The goal, said session moderator Deborah Blum, was to have a frank—and Twitter-free—in-person conversation that would move the discussion forward. As a starting point, she noted how men very disproportionately dominate the mastheads and tables of contents of the major publications and also the lists of winners of major prizes (except, as it happens, NASW’s own Science In Society awards.)  She also presented a manifesto that she and the session’s panelists had developed:

  • Equal pay for equal work
  • More gender equality in bylines and mastheads
  • Equal recognition of award-worthy work
  • A recognized code of conduct that includes freelances
  • A safe and clear process for reporting sexual harassment
  • Encouragement to speak frankly and directly.

She then introduced a panel of women science writers who each gave their impressions of women’s current situation.

Credit: Neurocritic

Credit: Neurocritic


 Hearing from Women

Among the panelists’ comments, Emily Willingham explained the concept of social privilege, which is advantage derived from a feature of a person that he or she did not create.  This reality, she said, imposes responsibilities on those who possess such features—responsibilities that the privileged often ignore.  Christie Aschwanden noted that the scandal had surprised men and not women and also described her feelings of marginalization in the world of science writing.  Maryn McKenna noted that science journalism will soon be a majority female occupation, but that won’t in itself end the marginalization of women. And Kathleen Raven, one of those who came forward to accuse Zivkovic, told of doing all she could, to no avail, to stop the harassment, including repeated warnings.  She will, she said, be much more clear about ground rules of interactions in the future.

When Blum opened the floor to comments from the audience, women came forward to tell their own experiences of harassment and marginalization.  The special vulnerability of freelances—who generally depend on personal relationships to get assignments and rarely know publications’ anti-harassment policies or reporting procedures—was a common theme.  In addition,  Ginger Campbell, a practicing physician as well as a podcaster, brought word from the world outside science writing.  Numbers alone will not end these problems; on that point she agreed with McKenna.  The medical profession is now also heavily female, she said, but there, too, invisibility is everywhere


Hearing from Men

But some of the most powerful and significant statements came from men.  Mike Lemonick described his astonishment at the different reactions of men and women to the revelations.  Men, he said, were amazed that harassment appeared to be common.  Women were not.  He, like many men, had simply been unaware, a situation that needs to end.  Unless men’s consciousness is raised, he said, men will continue to be unconscious.

Mitch Waldrop recalled that when he rose to a position of editorial power, he didn’t feel powerful or get any training on how to think about  or deal with power differentials that can cause innocently intended behavior to be misinterpreted.  Editors, he said, need such training.  Waldrop, an NASW board member, also mentioned that the board is taking the issue very seriously and is working on several approaches to help.

But Rob Irion, who directs the science writing program at University of California, Santa Cruz,  went to the crux of the matter.  In an emotional statement, he confessed that, having learned of the scandal and heard the testimony in the room, he deeply regrets that in the past, when he heard of incidents, he listened sympathetically but took no action to protect the victim.  That, he said, will not happen again because he now recognizes his personal responsibility to speak.  He will, he says, go to perpetrators and say the behavior must stop immediately, and if it does not, he will have no compunctions about going to the person’s boss.  He will also spread this message at his own institution and in his own interactions.

The conversation seemed to end with a consensus that the solution lies not only in official statements and codes of conduct but in a shift of cultural values that make harassment unacceptable, much as smoking indoors—which was once prevalent in all social occasions—is now considered beyond the pale.  For this to happen, individuals must take responsibility to spread the change. The conversation indeed appears to have moved forward.  Whether it results in improvement, however, remains to be seen.

Many thanks, Beryl. We Now Return You to Our Regularly Scheduled Program

Watching Other Worlds: WOW

The biggest science story of the week, the month, perhaps the decade is the Kepler spacecraft‘s estimation that there may be at least 4 billion, maybe tens of billions, Earth-like planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way.  Earth-like in this case means planets of a similar size and with similar temperatures as the Earth, and yes, that’s billion-with-a-b. And because there are billions of galaxies, there could be billion trillion Earth-like planets in the entire Universe. Wow indeed.

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait walks us through the data, the math, and the caveats.  Going by statistics alone, he says, the nearest Earth-like planet might be only 12 light years away.  That, I realized, makes it a near neighbor that could be visited easily in a human lifetime–just as soon as we invent turbo spacecraft that can travel close to 186,000 miles per second, the speed of light.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Faye Flam took off from Giordano Bruno’s intuition, in 1584, of “numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less than this globe of ours.” (For this and other heresies, Bruno was burned at the stake.) Flam’s point is that, while there is nothing new in the idea of numberless Earths circling around their suns, that’s no reason not to respond to the Kepler data with: Wow. She cites several news stories that do so.

Find another Wow by Seth Shostak, from the SETI Institute, blogging at HuffPo.  The Kepler data paper, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is open access. Get to the full-text PDF from the Abstract here.

This image of the Milky Way Galaxy from NASA has been overlaid with the "Star Trek" method of viewing the galaxy. Yellow notes the major (fictional) political forces in the Star Trek world. Additional information from the The Canadian Galactic Plane Survey and Derivative work by Codehydro based on a galaxy photo from NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

This image of the Milky Way Galaxy from NASA has been overlaid with the “Star Trek” method of viewing the galaxy. Yellow notes the major (fictional) political forces in the Star Trek world. Additional information from the The Canadian Galactic Plane Survey and Derivative work by Codehydro based on a galaxy photo from NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

Why Didn’t NASA say Wow too?

A Wow also from Keith Cowling at NASA Watch. It’s “stunning news,” he says, quoting Shostak (approvingly). Cowling illustrates his post with maps from the Star Wars and Star Trek Universes. The maps are, he says, now usable as illustrations of Kepler data, which make those fictional Universes, now embedded in the culture, seem plausible.

Cowling is baffled, though, by what he sees as NASA’s incomprehensibly low-key release of the data. “NASA itself seems to be sound asleep when it comes to the profound ramifications of this news. Indeed, it looks like NASA really doesn’t care.”

I am wondering if, rather, NASA does care, care deeply about the thrashings it has received over some notable recent PR bungles. The space agency may be overcompensating.

First there was the notorious arsenic bacteria case of 2010-2011. As pre-publication bait, NASA implied the discovery of an alien life form. The alien turned out to be a bacterium from California. Not alien, not even an illegal. Furthermore, the bug didn’t in the end possess the weird metabolism claimed for it.  And then a year ago there was the hoo-hah over whether the Curiosity rover had found evidence of life on Mars. In that case, NASA didn’t move fast enough to “clarify”–i.e., quash–an ambiguous comment from one of the researchers.

I suppose it’s possible that NASA is now erring in the opposite direction, failing to get journalists to properly appreciate a pretty spectacular finding: the Galaxy is teeming with Earth-like planets.


Billions and Billions of Earth-like worlds

A dip into the anti-evolution/Intelligent Design chatter on this topic has its amusements. Take, for example, Evolution News and Views (which is heavy on Views, not News.) There Denyse O’Leary argues that those who believe in billions of Earth-like planets are lacking evidence. Their beliefs are, she says, based entirely on faith. And she says this with no whiff of irony about the faith-based underpinnings of Intelligent Design.

But she’s wrong. I don’t deny that faith has been involved in the long-held belief in other worlds, from Giordano Bruno on. But now we do have evidence. Actual data.

The biggest caveat, I suppose, is that these numbers, while not guesses, are just estimates, extrapolations based on surveys of a small patch of sky. And even if the numbers approximate reality, these Earth-like planets are not all, or maybe even mostly, habitable planets. Habitable at least by carbon-based life forms like Earth’s.


The field of view of NASA's Kepler space telescope, which stared at a single region of stars--the cross-hatched area--in the constellation Cygnus, just above the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: Erik A. Petigura & NASA

The field of view of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which stared at a single region of stars–the cross-hatched area–in the constellation Cygnus, just above the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Credit: Erik A. Petigura & NASA


Is Anybody Out There?

And that, of course, is what we really want to know. Billions and billions of Earth-like planets is great, but the truly interesting question is this one: Is there anybody out there on any of those planets? Carbon-based or not? (Assuming we could even recognize life that was not.)

Which makes the intriguing blog post by Sean Carroll (the physics one) particularly relevant. He points out that we are prone to assume that if the number of Earth-like planets is really big, as it appears to be, then there must be a lot of intelligent civilizations. (He doesn’t cite it, but Shostak’s post is a lovely example of this faith: “Unless you’re convinced that our watery planet, one of hundreds of billions floating in a non-descript galaxy similar to a hundred billion other galaxies, is somehow more worthy than all the rest, you should expect not merely an occasional Chewbacca or Klingon hanging out in space. The universe is far more likely to be a teeming shore of life, and biology as much a part of nature as rocks and rain.”)

Not so fast, Carroll says. The fraction of Earth-like planets might be as small as 10-100, “in which case there could be billions of Earth-like planets for every particle in the observable universe and still it would be unlikely that any of the others contained intelligent life.”

I don’t know where Carroll gets that number, but who am I to doubt him? And he goes on to say something we can all agree on: “Our knowledge of how easy it is for life to start, and what happens once it does, is pretty pitifully bad right now.”

One reason for doubt is the Fermi paradox: if They are out there, why haven’t we heard? Carroll lists a couple of the standard answers. Intelligent life may be very rare even if life itself is common. Or the anthropomorphic explanation: Intelligent life may, oxymoronically, tend to blow itself up or come to another sort of bad end. Global warming, anyone?

Carroll proposes a third possibility, also disturbing: the Enlightenment/Boredom Hypothesis (EBH). What if a civilization, when sufficiently advanced, gives up all that striving to survive. “Maybe they perfect life, figure out everything worth figuring out, and simply stop. I’m not saying the EBH is likely, but I think it’s on the table as a respectable possibility.”

He notes that humans adopted modern behavior–spoken language, symbolic thought, special skills, culture–only tens of thousands of years ago, and came to science only in the past few hundred years. To which I would add that the ability to read and write–essential for accessing and storing humanity’s accumulated knowledge and making it useful over and over again–became common only recently and is still by no means universal. In short, the creatures we are today are pretty new at being the creatures we are today. There’s no way to tell where (or even if) our evolution will proceed.

The moral of this story, according to Carroll: “Maybe the swashbuckling, galaxy-conquering impulse is something that intelligent species rapidly outgrow or grow tired of. It’s an empirical question — we should keep looking, not be discouraged by speculative musings for which there’s little evidence. While we’re still in swashbuckling mode, there’s no reason we shouldn’t enjoy it a little.”

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10 Responses to More on Sexual Harassment. Also, Billions of Earth-like Planets

  1. Pingback: PLOS Blogs removes post criticizing writer over sexual harassment post | Retraction Watch

  2. Lukas Xavier says:

    Which post of Nov 15 are you referring to? It doesn’t appear under “On Science Blogs”, not on the PLOS blogs main page, nor if I click on your byline.

    A link would be helpful.

  3. Anne says:

    Your clarification both fails to address and dismisses the substantive criticisms. The problem isn’t in what capacity you chose to publish this. It is that for reasons that defy understanding, you chose to publish a write up of an event discussing the problems women in your profession face that is an exemplar of those problems. Your summary of the panelists’ remarks is one paragraph long and doesn’t include all the panelists. The panelist’s whose remarks you chose to describe get one sentence each. Then you choose to devote a single paragraph to summarizing the remarks made by female audience members, only one of whom is named. You then devote THREE PARAGRAPHS to describing the comments made by three male audience members, because “some of the most powerful and significant statements” were made by men. All men are named. All get more space than any one of the women. Your write up marginalized and renders women invisible while praising men for realizing that women are marginalized.


    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      Yup. Like Emily’s, your word counts are wrong–IF you believe volume is the correct criterion here. See the post of Nov 15 for why we did what we did and why we think your interpretation of what we did is a serious misreading of what actually got said.

  4. Jay says:

    What’s funny is how you are being taken apart, Tabitha, and Beryl, for devoting space to this issue, and worse, for giving space to the current editors and other heads responsible for hiring all writers including women writers. THEY ARE MEN, and your misogyny for giving them room to discuss how this panel changed their views IS APPARENT FOR US ALL TO SEE!

    But no, feminism isn’t all about manufactured, overwrought, poutrage.

  5. Linking Gnome says:

    Two relevant responses to this post: — from one of the “The XX Question” panelists — from PZ Myers

    Also, for reference, here is the list of people on the panel, with links to their online presences: Christie Aschwanden, Deborah Blum, Florence Williams, Kate Prengaman, Kathleen Raven, Maryn McKenna, and Emily Willingham.

  6. Lukas Xavier says:

    There has been some critique of the emphasis of this blog post, such as the following links:

    I would strongly encourage you to not get defensive when reading those, but accept that problematic attitudes regarding gender are everywhere and in everyone.

    I’m not bashing you for it. I point to this in order to highlight the problems, so you can be more aware of them in the future.

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      Oh, Mary. Really? Not a reasonable post, you know. Nor accurate. See our post of Nov 15.