A response to censorship by Scientific American [updated]


This post is mostly inside baseball among blog people, but it’s an important topic that I don’t want to ignore. It’s an incident that I kind-of observed unfold from the sidelines, and now it’s emerging in the mainstream media, or whatever Buzzfeed is, and will continue to grow. I’ve always thought of this blog as a blog-for-people-who-don’t-read blogs, and there is a lot of sound and fury among blogs that amounts to little that I try to not address. But, as has been pointed out, this one matters.

A recent cascade of events exemplifies the recurring discrimination against scientists from underrepresented groups, and the disempowerment of these scientists by those in authority.

In short: Here’s what happened. Some obscure schmuck named Ofek at an obscure aggregator website called biology-online solicited the science blogger DN Lee for a free guest post. She said no. In response, she was called a “whore,” in a manner that was both sexist and racist. Lee responded, quite appropriately in my view, by making a blog post about this incident, with a professional response and additional context. You can view this response, archived elsewhere, on the site of a colleague of hers. Why can’t you view her response on her own blog? Because her blog is a part of the Scientific American blog network, and the editor of Scientific American made the decision to pull her post from the site.

Overtly sexist and racist actions are, obviously, problematic. Compounding these ills by removing the victim’s ability to respond to in a productive and socially responsible fashion is an even greater evil. And, it’s an even bigger problem when it comes directly from Mariette DiChristina, the Editor-in-Chief and Senior Vice President of Scientific American. It’s been understood that the SciAm blog network operates with editorial independence. That was true, or at least appeared to be so, until yesterday.

This incident is important to share, and reflect on, because it directly reflects the challenges faced by the students in my lab and university, and the progress that remains to be made in our community. I was worried I couldn’t be eloquent enough, but fortunately the job has been done superbly, by Josh Drew:

This means that on both a personal, and on a professional level, it is my business to make sure that women in science have their voices heard and respected. When Scientific American says that it is does not stand by one of its own, that when a black woman says that the way she is being treated is unfair, that when a woman in science is silenced by the very institutions which are there to support her, when these things happen my students are directly and negatively impacted.

What can you do? Give Scientific American and Mariette DiChristina a piece of your mind. Let Scientific American know how you feel on their facebook page. And let other people know you you feel. (If you’re a twitter person, the hashtag that people are using is #IStandwithDNLee.)

Outrageously racist and sexist stuff like this happens all of the time, and this one seems to have exploded because the victim had the courage to speak out and had a platform from which she could do so. Let’s build the size of that platform.

Update, afternoon of 14 Oct 2013:

After a couple days of substantial brouhaha, Scientific American decided to publish the post by Dr. Lee. At this point, however, that post had already been seen by more than half a million people, where it was republished on the wordpress page of “Dr. Isis.” Clearly, if Scientific American hadn’t censored Dr. Lee in the first place, then this post wouldn’t have attracted as much attention.

The decision to quash Dr. Lee’s speech on her blog was, in my view and a bunch of others, transparently racist and sexist. It put Scientific American on the side that has institutionally exploited and limited the inclusion of women scientists and scientists from underrepresented groups. I think this was a great take, in particular.

Now, all we’re hearing from Scientific American is an excuse that they thought the post might not have been legal. That is pretty much bullshit. Right now, they’re saying:

“We’re sorry, but…”

Now they need to say:

“We were wrong. We are sorry. We will make amends.”

Full stop.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath over it.

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