UPDATED: Gossip & Scandal & Shutdown Shutdown & Obamacare


Gossip & scandal galore in science blogging

What a week. I hardly know where to begin. Let’s try one conventional structure: reverse chronological order.

Bora Zivkovic, who has built and run the big booming blog network at SciAm and is a founder of the stupendously popular annual ScienceOnline blogfest, who has been beloved as the godfather–blogfather–of science blogging and friend/mentor to scores of bloggers (me among them), has been outed as a sexual harasser.

On his own Blog Around the Clock (not at SciAm), he admitted that the story Monica Byrne told on her blog was true, how she met him for coffee to talk about a possible writing assignment and found herself listening to talk about sex. Plus unwanted follow-up on Facebook.

He said it was a one-time thing, he was under a lot of pressure at the time, he was very very sorry. You know, the usual.

There were many comments on Byrne’s blog, and two of them alleged that Bora had done that kind of thing to them, too. These posts have the ring of truth but are anonymous, and we’re in science, we need evidence, we need sourcing. Should those two accounts count? Or not?

Then came Hannah Waters, a well-known science writer, author of the Culturing Science blog at the SciAm network. She writes that she endured unpleasant sub rosa sex talk from Bora, too. More than once.

So, not a one-off due to exceptional circumstances. No. A pattern. Which makes it a different sort of tale entirely.

Bora did not blog a response this time, but on Thursday he tweeted, “Kudos to @monicabyrne13 and @hannahjwaters for having the courage to speak up. I was wrong. I am sorry. I am learning.”

I daresay.

And then. And then. Kathleen Raven’s post just this morning, Friday Oct 18. A post long on details of Bora’s repeated attempts at lubricious talk. A string of emails. A direct proposition. A hotel room invasion while, bizarrely, her husband was looking on.

Will other shoes drop? Unknown as I write, but these were plenty. Bora has resigned from the board of ScienceOnline, a somewhat startling move that suggested more revelations to come. (As indeed they did.) He has also taken a leave, voluntary it is said, from his blog editor job at SciAm, Tracker Paul Raeburn reports.

UPDATE: The voluntary leave turned into a resignation on Friday afternoon.


What counts as sexual harassment?

These are not, to date, tales of outright infidelity (Bora is married), or outright coercion of any kind, or San Diego mayor-type serial, sometimes violent, compulsion, or Anthony Weiner-type weirdness. They are women’s accounts of mere conversations.

Mere conversations. Boys will be boys, right?  Didn’t mean anything. Just kidding around. No harm done.

As Waters says, “What makes this so hard to talk about—my experience and Monica’s—is that it may not look like sexual harassment.” This is an exceptional post, btw, that recounts her Bora experiences without being in the least mean or unfair to him. Astonishingly understanding , in fact. But it also delves deeply into the consequences for her state of mind and bad feelings about her writerly talents. Not revenge, not for a moment. Just reporting. Remarkable. Here’s the URL again.

Is there a woman within the sound of my voice, and probably some men as well, who hasn’t been subject to this creepy sort of unwanted conversation-steering into sexual waters? Who hasn’t asked herself “How did I get into this? What did I do or say that invited a come-on?”

And when the man has power and the woman does not? When the man could advance the woman’s career? Or maybe make or break it? What on earth should she say or do?


Some links for all the details

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn summarizes this turn of events.

Priya Shetty also recaps and comments at HuffPo. The defensive comments thrown up by many in Bora’s defense when Monica’s post first went public have abated, presumably because now it is clear this was a behavior pattern, not an isolated incident. But before that, Shetty said, “And this is what is so horrifying about the events of the past couple of days. They perfectly encapsulate why victims of sexual harassment – in any field – stay silent. Because even when they speak up, which takes enormous courage, and even when the man admits what he has done, his friends and colleagues either stay silent or defend him. Hell, even other women around him defend him.”

Consult Roger Pielke Jr.’s eponymous blog for manifestations of this kind of solidarity in the Old Boy Network, the defense and defensiveness that horrified Shetty. Not from Pielke; he thoroughly disapproves. But he writes about one such case, and there are more defenses in the comments. Which do indeed include a couple of Old Boy-type girls.

Laura Helmuth, science editor at Slate (and my colleague on the NASW Board), also recaps the week’s dizzying events, but then goes on to cogitate on the roles of mentees and mentors. “Before this week, the word I often heard people use to describe Zivkovic was mentor. And the mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most fraught of adulthood. We glibly advise people starting out in business to find a mentor, to identify a successful, established, generous person in your field and somehow get her to help you become her. This is terrible advice. It perpetuates old-boy networks, wastes time that early career people could spend actually doing their work, and tells them they are only as good as their contacts and charm. Young people, don’t look for a mentor. Listen to and learn from people who have more experience, but don’t hitch your wagon to their star. Just do your job well.”

I respectfully, but strongly, disagree. I believe this is terrible advice, at least in part. Of course a n00b shouldn’t suck up relentlessly and/or slavishly ape a superior. But there is no question, no question at all, that while talent is essential, who you know and who opens doors and who finds you assignments and jobs can make all the difference in your career.

There’s loads of talent out there, but the pie is finite (and in the case of science-writing work, getting finiter every day.)  Yes, of course you must do your job well. Work your butt off. But the other talents are doing their jobs well too, and also working their butts off. You need all the help you can get, and if you don’t seek it out and seize it when offered, you’re nuts. I wish Laura’s was the real world, where only merit counts. But it’s not. Your network counts too. Sometimes a lot. Don’t fawn and grovel, but don’t neglect it either.


Some links on defending Bora, and on the ubiquity of harassment

They are by no means Old Boys, but some of Bora’s (male) friends and colleagues have struggled with these revelations.  See two posts by Seth Mnookin at Panic Virus; here’s the first one. The second one is here.

Greg Laden wrote his post before Hannah Waters had come forth. He says, “Let this be a lesson to us all. I’m not yet positive what the lesson is. If you know, please tell me.”

I don’t know if this is a lesson, but it’s a fact that these events (see more in the next section) have unearthed angry testimony.  Incidents like this–and much, much worse–are a daily reality for women.  See in particular Kathleen Raven’s long list of directives to harassers that (I assume) grow out of nearly two dozen bad experiences, she’s had.  This was posted before her revelations about Bora detailed in the first part of my post, above.  In this earlier one she says, “Women, how will we support each other if not now? If not now, when?  Men, next time, I’m dropping names.”

And, by golly, she did.  Many more accounts of harassment (and worse) at the Twitter stream #ripplesofdoubt.

Ah, yes, Twitter. Gossip and tweets, the perfect marriage. The tweet stream I’ve found most useful for learning the latest, especially on the Bora business, is @David_Dobbs. There’s also  @BoraZ.   Bora, normally a compulsive tweeter, has been uncharacteristically uncommunicative of late. But he has used tweets to apologize.


This terrible week, Part II (or, actually, Part I)

The Bora thing might not have come to light if it hadn’t been for this week’s other scandal. That one is now nearly lost in the mist, having happened a long time ago: Last weekend.

Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D, who blogs for SciAm as the Urban Scientist, was approached by Biology.org to blog for them, too.

She asked what the pay was.

The response was the usual one for blogging: no pay, because you will get glory instead.

She said no thanks. Let me stress that the correspondence had to this point been cordial and polite. Lee had not been, by any definition, snarky.

And the editor, apparently named Ofek, responded:

Because we don’t pay for blog entries?
Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?

(emphasis mine)
Oho, but that’s not the best part.

Lee posted this astonishing story at her SciAm site, Urban Scientist.  Within the hour the post disappeared. SciAm had taken it down. The Lee post I linked to above is actually a repost, accomplished after rational people were back in charge at SciAm. It is prefaced by their explanation of events.

My post is already far too long, so for the rest of this sorry story I will leave you in the ultra-capable hands of two of my favorite bloggers, Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn and Superbug Maryn McKenna. Maryn’s first post, written before SciAm restored Lee’s post to her page, is here.   She followed up after the post was restored, describing in detail the serial explanations SciAm provided to account for its de-posting actions. She also offers suggestions for how to avoid these messes in the future.  Paul’s post is shorter, and, like Maryn’s, notes that SciAm has said the post was deleted for unspecified “legal reasons.”

And there, of course, is the source of the big SciAm mistake. It is quite clear, reading the various explanatory communiques, that they were handed down from on high and devised by lawyers. That also accounts for the leisurely pace of SciAm’s follow-up investigation. It was, after all, the weekend. Listen up, people, people had other plans. Crises should happen only M-F 9-5. On second thought, make that 10-5.

David Wescott, a science PR guy who blogs at It’s Not a Lecture, uses the Lee blog example as part of a fine analysis of what bad things can happen when the legalistic mindset common in large organizations runs amok. (SciAm is now just one part of a very big publishing multinational, and, I would guess, a relatively small part at that.) Wescott speculates that Bora’s blogged apology (cited above) is also the product of lawyerly hands.

Neuroanthropologist Daniel Lende has a couple of insightful posts about what was really going on here. He points out that race and gender and status dictate who gets the benefit of the doubt. Danielle Lee is not only female, she’s black. And Bora, male and white, has–or had–position and power that gave him clout and a certain amount of protection, at least initially. Lee, Lende notes, did not get the benefit of the doubt from SciAm; her post was deleted because SciAm wanted confirmation from other sources that what she wrote was true. Bora did get it initially from many of his friends and colleagues; they didn’t want to believe Byrne’s story. Until Hannah Waters shut them up.
Is there a connection between the whore thing and the Bora thing?

It has come to my attention that the temporal confluence of these two events, and maybe the fact that SciAm is involved with them both, has led some people to think they are connected.

They aren’t. Except maybe in the sense that I’ve already explained: The discussions growing out of Lee’s post, discussions about harassment and treatment of women, prompted Byrne to repost the experience she wrote about a year ago and to reveal that the man in the case was Bora. Yes, Lee’s blog is part of the SciAm network, and until Thursday Bora managed that network. But so far as I know, he had no involvement whatever in what happened to Lee’s post or the string of lame explanations for it that SciAm offered.

Whatever Bora’s sins, it appears that at least he is not to blame for that fiasco.


The shutdown is shut down

All over. David Malakoff describes the deal at ScienceInsider.

All over, except for the hundreds of thousands of people who were hurt and will suffer from lingering effects, says Jim Tankersley at Wonkblog.

All over, except for coming up with the extra $24 billion that Standard and Poor’s says the shutdown will cost.

All over, except we have to do it all over again in January.  Arrrrrrrgh!


The shutdown’s effect on science and medicine, cont’d

Make of this what you will, but it’s hard to come up with a reassuring interpretation. The House Science Committee consists of 22 Republicans and 18 Democrats. In the final voting to reopen the government on Wednesday, 21 of the Republicans voted against. And the one who voted for it did so half-heartedly, Jeff Mervis tells us at ScienceInsider.

Cheer up, the government shutdown didn’t mess up US science completely. Wonkblog’s Brad Plumer says the US is still #1 in science. And it will be#1 until at least 2020. At which point China will be spending as large a part of its economy on science as the US does.


OTOH, at PoliticoPro, Darren Samuelsohn says the shutdown’s aftereffects on science could last for years.

Thomas R. Frieden, who directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says “We’re used to juggling things at CDC, but this is like juggling chain saws.”  This from an interview before the shutdown shutdown from Maryn McKenna at Superbug.

At JAMA, Bridget Kuehn tells us that the shutdown has hampered not only this year’s flu season, but next year’s as well. That’s because the CDC hasn’t been able to collect data that will inform preparation of flu vaccine for use in the 2014-2015 flu season.

Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, who now directs the National Cancer Institute, fills us in on the many ways the shutdown has impeded work at NCI. James Fallows reprinted his memo to staff and grantees at the Atlantic.


Too bad for Obamacare that the shutdown is shut down

Let us hope that Obamacare is not a casualty of of the shutdown shutdown. That the Republicans have no energy for pointing out–gleefully, repeatedly and, alas, accurately–how badly things have gone so far, and how massive improvement very soon appears unlikely.  Or something, anything, to give the Obamacare insurance marketplace web sites a chance to start functioning.

The sites are, it is widely agreed, a disaster. Even friendlies are  appalled. “Glitchy,” a favorite with hed writers, doesn’t begin to describe it. Read Ezra Klein at Wonkblog and despair.  See also Klein’s interview with health care policy analyst Robert Laszewski for other details on what’s wrong with the sites.

At Slate, engineer David Auerbach says the problem is cronyism and too many cooks.  At ProPublica, Charles Ornstein suggests that the solution is to model the sites on those for Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit program.

Klein describes what it will take for Obamacare to succeed.  Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff describes her own not-too-bad experience exploring an insurance purchase at a site. But, as she points out, she was not seeking a premium subsidy, a much more complex process than an outright purchase.

And see Laszewski’s own post at Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review, which describes the confusing (and absent) data on how many people have signed up.  Garance Franke-Ruta also tries to nail down some enrollment numbers.  At the Atlantic, Franke-Ruta notes that lots of the state-run exchanges are having severe problems too.

Some state marketplaces seem to have handled customers pretty well. Charles Ornstein provides data. Unfortunately, more than half the states are participating in the federal insurance exchanges, the seat of most of the ghastliness. because their state governments have abandoned responsibility for their own.

Leading Klein and Soltas to muse: “Over time, that could lead to a country with two health-care systems: One, a near-universal system based around Obamacare and centered in blue states; the other, a policy mess based around the rejection of Obamacare in the red states.”

Oy. Is a nightmare like this one really in our future?


There does appear to be some good news. She said cautiously.

At Wonkblog, Sarah Kliff tells us that young people have begun to sign up. The young are the key to spreading insurance company risk. That’s what will keep premium prices true to Obamacare’s official name, the Affordable Care Act.

“What you may not know is that the Affordable Care Act is also beginning, with little fanfare, to accomplish its second great goal: to promote reforms to our overpriced, underperforming health care system,” says New York Times columnist Bill Keller. And he cites chapter and verse.

Glad to be able to close this atrocious week with some optimism. However tiny.


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11 Responses to UPDATED: Gossip & Scandal & Shutdown Shutdown & Obamacare

  1. Pingback: Conditionally Accepted | This Is Not A Pity Party

  2. thewhollynone says:

    Extremely clear and objective narrative of this developing story. I had not heard anything about it until tonight, but PZ sent me here, and I just want you to know that I have great admiration for your talent. It makes this old lady feel like the struggle that we fought in the 50’s and the 60’s was not a sacrifice for nothing if young women like you can now have your voices heard and respected.

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      Are you calling me a young woman? It is to laugh. But thanx for the compliment.

  3. Pingback: Being female and heartbreak | cackleofradness

  4. Pingback: Another Sexual Harassment Scandal in Science | So much science, so little time

  5. John Bartram says:

    People in power/authority: maybe the ability to abuse (throw one’s weight around, lord it over others, take advantage of the vulnerable, sort of thing) is one of the attractions of “success”.

  6. Greg Laden says:

    Thanks, my link for the mentoring thing is:


    In the old days (whenever that was) your “advisor/mentor” was the nexus for your network, which allowed the senior person to both help effectively and control the future development of … well, of the patriarchy and stuff.

    In truth, for many people, the best mentor acts as an excellent professional assistant to the student. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Helping build the network is part of that.

    The update for the other post is at the same URL.

  7. Ann Finkbeiner says:

    Intelligently thought-out, Tabitha, and beautifully written clarification of this mess.

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      Oh, wow. Given the quality of the work you do, I can’t think of a compliment that has given me more pleasure.

  8. Greg Laden says:

    Thank you for your herculean effort to summarize and put perspective on an out of control train going down in flames and wrecking into a roller coaster. I’ve actually revised my initial post (to which you link) a lot and I am writing a letter to WordPress to ask them to put the “del” tag back on the menu bar.

    I liked Laura’s Slate piece and I agree with the essence of what she’s saying (I responded with my own post about mentorship which makes a somewhat different argument that Larua seems to like). The key point here is that this is about mentorship, in a very important way.

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      I’m glad somebody recognized it was herculean! All this, and the shutdown too. I am indeed feeling a bit saintly. If you want to send me a new link, I can change the one in the post.

      I was afraid–still am–that Laura’s piece could be misread, particularly by a youngster, as saying that networking doesn’t matter. When we all know that it does matter, matter terribly.