24 January 2014

This is too important to get wrong.

Earlier this week I wrote about the conflict between Dr. Henry Gee and "Isis the Scientist" and the resulting fallout.  My update noted that Dr. Gee removed his account on Twitter, and I speculated that apologies and statements were forthcoming.

Dr. Gee wrote a blog post in which he directly and publicly apologizes to Isis and provides more details and his perspective.  Nature Publishing Group also issued a statement.

These statements occur in a larger context.  The following is my meager attempt to address the individual, interpersonal, and institutional issues in play, and why getting this right is important.

Some caveats -  I'm neither a scientist nor a science writer. I am a communications strategist who tries to connect the dots between science communicators and other communities.  Of course, I benefit from my position as a straight white man, so I have no personal experience with the challenges so many people have faced.  (Seriously, for me, waiting on hold for technical support is a "hardship." Life is that good.) I try to see things from the perspective of others, but I'm aware I can't fully grasp what it's like to be someone else.

Further, I have no real "inside info" and like everyone else I'm commenting on what I see - there are no doubt many details that haven't been shared.  As a "PR guy," this is part of what I do - review the public details and assess their impact on the reputation of individuals, institutions, and systems.  Finally, I'm no better than Gee, than Isis, or anyone else when it comes to pretty much anything.

So here goes.


I think this is what most people think about and talk about when we talk about sexism.  (It's also what we tend to focus on when we talk about racism.) The conflict between Gee and Isis seems to live here, even though Isis at least is raising issues that go beyond a specific person.  While I don't know Gee and can't speak to anything beyond what he's written, there are things in this post that confuse and trouble me.

First, I want to recognize the good.  Gee apologized and expressed regret, and that's the right thing to do. Further, Gee mentions that he has struggled with depression.  This is not a trivial thing.  Depression still carries some stigma, and it's nice to let others with depression know they're not alone.

Aside from these things, It appears to me that Gee's blog post is more about justification than apology.

Gee accuses Isis of "a campaign of cyberbullying against me" since 2010.  That's obviously a loaded term. I have no doubt Gee felt uncomfortable, but the term implies that Isis held some kind of power over Gee, and leveraged that power to intimidate, threaten, or otherwise extract some kind of bounty.  Based on the publicly available information, I'm having trouble identifying what power Isis, who Gee described as an "inconsequential sports physiologist" in the United States, held over a senior editor at Nature. Isis was definitely critical, obviously pointed, and arguably rude. I haven't seen anything that looks like a credible threat.

Gee seems to be focusing on the idea that he's personally not a sexist - with a curious construct, "I am, philosophically at least, a feminist." I'm not sure what to make of this. I don't know how you subscribe to a theory if you're implying you don't follow it in practice.  He cites a charitable donation he makes to an organization that helps educate girls in developing countries.  In the context of an apology, such an assertion is gratuitous.

Ultimately Gee is suggesting that Isis is in large part responsible for his behavior. "The unjustified insults heaped on me by Dr Isis took their toll, and I snapped."  Candidly, that disingenuous statement isn't befitting a man of Gee's position. It's all too familiar to far too many women.  Isis herself took exception to it.
Ultimately, if Gee's intent was to protect or defend his reputation with this post, I think he missed the mark.

From a PR perspective, the goal of an apology is to re-establish credibility by demonstrating you know what you did wrong and signal how you aim to fix it. It represents the beginning, not the end, of a process.  When you add details and "explanation" that shift blame, you distract from the goal and you often find yourself worse off.  You may be protecting yourself from a financial or legal liability perspective, but not as far as your reputation is concerned.


Gee says he "outed" Isis partly because he thought Isis blamed him for an action taken at Nature.  Arguably, the history of their conflict concerns a single issue - which ideas and viewpoints deserve to be promoted on Nature's huge platform, and which ideas and viewpoints don't?

Nature Publishing Group has been around since 1869.  The company has grown into a huge network of journals and popular publications. They employ hundreds of people and publish the work of thousands more. NPG represents so much to those who work in or admire science.  The people who lead NPG today really are the stewards of a spirit of discovery and curiosity and rigor we just don't see very often. They represent the best of what we aim to do and what we aim to be. There are so many good people working there and so many more good people affiliated with them.

Those who lead NPG must feel very strongly about protecting the institution.  To them, I'm sure it's akin to protecting science itself.  So while the editors review and publish content, the rest of the organization focuses on remaining financially solvent and eliminating any distractions from its core purpose. The company has grown and thrived for over a century because its management style arguably resembles the scientific process it heralds - cautious, deliberate, methodical, and ultimately conservative.  Shielding what they do from outside influences or confounding factors. Establishing a consensus.

In a word, slow.

Put yourself in the shoes of NPG's corporate communications office last week.  It's been a rough few weeks in terms of the company's reputation on gender equality. Then out of nowhere, a senior editor makes a serious mistake on a social media platform that compounds the problem. You are undoubtedly furious - certainly because you know what the guy did was wrong, but especially because he distracted the institution away from its core purpose. What do you do?

At Nature, you probably do what you always do: you wait.  You wait for the relevant decision makers to free up their schedule to get on a call.  You get what facts you can.  You assess the risks and costs of litigation. You decide if an action is warranted.  You deliberate what type of action.  You draft a statement.  You "gang edit" the statement ad infinitum.  You run the statement by legal.  You edit again. You make sure people know that whatever happened here, you had no active role in it and you're not liable.  That said, you protect your asset - specifically, your senior editor - because that also protects the flagship institution and the tradition and the heritage and the mission of discovery and all that.  Sacking your editor leads to more questions, more distractions, and maybe even a lawsuit or two.  Standing by him means the core purpose of the institution remains completely intact.

So two days later you produce a statement that is consumed by passive voice and doused in platitudes. You don't even mention the name of the senior editor, even though you name the target. You probably tell the editor to apologize on his own blog (you know, the site that specifically says Nature isn't responsible). And then you announce you're done talking about it.

In short, you accept that you're coming off as a clueless, faceless institution that doesn't give a damn about what really happened, even though you may personally care a lot.  You decide to take some lumps and get back to the business of publishing the highest quality science you can.  And you tell Gee (and everyone else) to STFU.

Of course, this institutional system and culture is creating some serious problems.  It's the hyper-cautious system that removed a Scientific American blog post first because it wasn't about science, then it was too personal, then for legal reasons, but never for a good reason.  (It's also the system that has protected the identity of the person that first "flagged" that blog post.)  It's the system that didn't want distractions, so it dealt quietly with bad behavior from a key employee until that behavior became widely known.  It's the system that gives editors a lot of freedom, but protects their identity when they publish misogynist correspondence.  And now it's the system that would rather take public criticism than sacrifice a key asset like a senior editor.

That's four "crises" in a few months. Each situation had an opportunity for NPG to step up and take a stand against inappropriate, misogynist words and behavior - and even advance the cause NPG says it supports.  Each time NPG was slow on the uptake and failed to seize the opportunity.  In only one of those situations has someone stepped forward to both acknowledge a transgression AND accept very significant consequences. In all the others, no one has had to face any consequences from NPG. Two haven't even been identified.

This tells me NPG's systems make it harder for people there to do the right thing in these situations. NPG's culture and processes (methodical, deliberate, consensus-driven, etc) aren't overtly misogynist, but as they apply to individual behaviors and interactions, it's clear who benefits in this organization and who doesn't.


NPG is by no means unique.  Women are still under-represented and valued less in science because they are under-represented and valued less in virtually all the fields that have influence over our society.  The concerns of women in science are echoed by women in finance, law, politics, technology, health care, entertainment, communications, and pretty much everywhere else.

But to me, the stakes are higher with science.  As I've said before, science is hope.  Scientists are my heroes. They are the ones who will solve the world's greatest problems, not bankers or lawyers or PR flacks.

The single greatest threat to humanity isn't climate change or antibiotic resistance or even war or poverty. The biggest challenge we face is overcoming homophily - specifically, it's having a group of leaders who only understand a single perspective because it's the only one they ever see.  Right now the leaders of science are basically a bunch of white guys in their 50's and 60's. They look like each other, act like each other, and think like each other.  They spend a lot of time with each other, and that serves to reinforce their own perspective.  And frankly, as Dr. Gee shows us, they don't like it if someone challenges their position.

I'm not the first person to say this. Diversity improves decision making.  Bringing in more women (and people of color) to leadership positions in science will bring new perspectives and new questions, and will encourage more careful consideration of other ideas.  It can inspire more creativity and create more avenues to explore.  Diversity will lead to better science and more solutions.  It will be noisy and messy and feelings will get hurt and people will make mistakes, but we need it more than ever.

And frankly, we need proud institutions with enduring legacies like Nature to lead the way.


Woo Zee said...

So we're meant to believe that if Dr. Gee were being needled by an anonymous blogger who was a guy, he would have... what?... just ignored it, and made sure not to out the guy. Yeah right.

Your brain seems pickled in campus-liberal cliches to the point you don't seem to be saying anything with any content, dude.

Anonymous said...

You are Sally, aren't you?

Because real diversity is when people look different. Have you looked in the mirror recently? *eyeroll*

Anonymous said...

This was retarded.

Anonymous said...

stupid article !

Anonymous said...

Ultimately Gee is suggesting that Isis is in large part responsible for his behavior."

Of course she is, "Dr Isis" has more than one or two screw loose.
It really doesn't damage Nature because the overwhelming majority of practicing scientists haven't heard of Dr Isis and if they take the trouble to find out will probably agree with Gee that boycotts from such inconsequential figures are unintentionally humorous

DNLee said...

This was spot on.
Thank you very much for writing it. And it perfectly articulates feelings I've have about this and the related 'fiascos' with NPG.

Thank you.

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