Let’s look at the list of people who knew about Bora Zivkovic’s behaviour.
Two others who commented on Monica Byrne’s post with their own stories about Bora claim to have known.
Multiple staff at Scientific American knew, after Byrne complained to them in Autumn 2012. According to Bora’s statement on the incident, “staff … spoke to me and Ms. Byrne about our interaction at that time.” Bora apparently issued a private apology via his employers.
A curious interview published in January suggests very strongly that a number of Bora’s friends in the community knew. “2012 was a year when I had to come to terms with my new prominence in the community,” Bora told Anton Zuiker – the incident with Monica Byrne and subsequent complaint to Sci-Am occurred in late 2012. He speaks of “long conversations with some of my closest friends,” and describes entering 2013 with “a better awareness of what kind of image I project.” The key result of that sudden bout of introspection? “I am asking people to try to refrain from using the hashtag #IhuggedBora.” I’ll come back to that meme in a moment.
And of course Bora himself knew.
Add these snippets together, and it seems probable that the number of people within the online science community who knew about Bora’s behaviour was into double digits… a year ago.
Many others didn’t know, but perhaps should have seen something amiss. Science Online introduced the #IhuggedBora phenomenon on an industrial scale, a hashtag started by Bora’s many fans in the community. At the start of the 2011 conference, Bora – an organizer – tweeted: “I set up my #scio11 office in the lobby of Marriott, getting hugs… Target: 300 hugs over three days!” The trend continued through 2012, and what’s remarkable in hindsight is how nobody saw it as a problem. “How many conferences actually have a hash tag for hugging one of the organizers?” one person commented, while others joked about husbands wondering who Bora was: “Yeah, #scio12 is touchy-feely.”
I’m not remotely criticising the people who wrote those tweets – this was a community phenomenon, and it needs to be remembered that Bora didn’t created the hashtag, the community did. Hugging Bora became almost a rite of passage, a signal of community identity. Don’t take my word for it – Bora himself would later recognize the problem: “I don’t want the act of hugging me to be some kind of a ticket into the community, or a badge of approval.”
Still, was it ever okay that a conference organizer was using their position in this way? As my friend Tracy King pointed out on Twitter: “if someone has a hugging policy in a professional space, his superiors need to notice and say ‘dude, creepy’.” Yet not only did nobody bat an eyelid at the time, many people in the community actively encouraged it. It was fine, because it was Bora. The one and only time I met Bora was at ESOF 2012, a few weeks before the Monica Byrne incident. #IhuggedBora was in full swing, and as a relative outsider I found his fixation on hugging people quite disconcerting. What could I have said though, and to whom? “Excuse me, but this much-loved blogger is hugging people!”
Sexual harassment in the online science community will continue. The problem is endemic in society, and we are nothing special in that regard. Unfortunately it tends to remain hidden, and in Bora’s case we can see exactly why.
Staff at Scientific American were aware of a problem back in 2012, but kept it close to their chests. Private apologies were issued, wrists were quietly slapped, and a toxic status quo was preserved for another year. Its editor is now investigating behaviour that she was aware of more than year ago, but wrote off as a one-time incident. Only now are they doing what could have been done 13 months ago – asking other women about their experiences.
Then there are those unnamed friends of Bora, whose conversations apparently led to him disowning the #IhuggedBora hashtag. On the one hand, it seems they encouraged a change of behaviour; on the other, their silence helped to preserve their friend’s reputation and keep him in positions for which we now know he was chronically unsuited.
The women involved eventually came forward, but faced almost insurmountable odds in doing so. They had no authority in the community to turn to, and every reason to believe that their own places in it would be under threat. They risked their careers to break down the in-group culture of secrecy and silence that protected and enabled Bora since at least 2010. Even then, Monica Byrne’s story was treated with a shameful degree of disbelief and hand waving until confirmed by Zivkovic himself, and she faced criticism from her own peers for naming the man in question.
Should Bora have been named? The answer is obvious. Had Byrne not done so, then it’s likely that Waters and other women would not have been given the confidence to speak out too, Bora would not have made his public admission, and SciAm would not have been forced to issue a statement acknowledging their failed 2012 ‘investigation’. Bora would remain a key figure at Science Online and Scientific American, and an unknown number of women would have continued to suffer in silence. We know this would have happened, because it DID happen for the last year.
There are fair points to be made about the dangers of ‘Trial by Twitter’ or the public nature of accusations like these, but what they rarely address is why these actions become necessary in the first place. They are a symptom of a community in which other channels of communication are blocked or ignored, where the only way the ‘little people’ can be heard is to stand on top of the highest mountain and scream until their lungs burst, knowing even as they do it that they’re staking their word against the reputation of a popular oppressor. There are no reasonable options when the entire situation is unreasonable to begin with.
And often even those of us in stronger positions are neutered. I’ve been aware of similar situations in the past, but been unable to speak out about them thanks to England’s infamous libel laws – I would have faced huge personal and professional consequences, and the chances are I’d have been firmly out on my own limb.
Harassment, like other forms of abuse of power, is rarely a one-off. Every shred of evidence we have on this problem in society shows that offenders tend to be predatory recidivists, acting out the same pattern again and again over years or even decades. They rely on the silence of others, and it’s only when multiple accounts are combined that the pattern finally emerges. In the absence of other mechanisms within the community to allow that to happen, the only recourse is public.
It is still happening, somewhere in our community. The names will be whispered in DMs and private chats, but not openly, and those living with it will continue to go quietly about their business having weighed the pros and cons of speaking out, and realised that the odds are stacked against them. The number one question for the online science community now should be: how do we make sure those people can be heard?
Earlier today (Wednesday), a meeting took place between the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and a number of bloggers. The meeting/consultation was invitation only, nothing about it was advertised on the department’s website as far as I could tell, the bloggers were selected by DCMS, and according to Sunny Hundal the meeting took place under condition of secrecy – it seems those attending aren’t supposed to discuss who else was there or what was said (Edit 11/4 – apparently Sunny can talk about it, and will be blogging later. Others seem to have remained quiet though). On Twitter, Hundal described the bloggers involved as “mostly bloggers who run top blogs. But one or two lone bloggers.”
With that in mind, I asked the DCMS for more information:
From: Martin Robbins
Sent: 10 April 2013 16:42
To: Press Office
Subject: Enquiry re: Bloggers Consultation today
I understand a meeting took place this morning, between DCMS representatives and a selection of invited bloggers, concerning the Royal Charter and web regulation. Can you disclose who was invited to take part in this meeting, and what the agenda was?
And here’s their illuminating reply:
A DCMS spokesperson said:
“We have made it clear that we would be looking further at the definition of small bloggers which would be excluded from press regulation. As part of that process DCMS policy officials are meeting with a number of stakeholders to discuss the issues.”
So the Department of Culture decided to hold a meeting to look at the definition of ‘small bloggers’. They invited a secret list they won’t disclose of mostly ‘bloggers who run top blogs’, all chosen by themselves, and the contents of the meeting are to remain confidential. Apparently ‘top bloggers’ are the key stake-holders when it comes to determining the definition of a small blog, and what regulation to apply to such media.
To say that the lack of openness around this stinks to high heaven is an understatement. Aside from the DCMS, the bloggers involved aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory here (Edit 11/4 – though since I wrote that at least a couple are coming forward to blog about it) – hell, even newspaper editors were willing to allow people to report the broad outline of their post-Leveson meeting, and we knew at least who attended.
I’m very curious to see if, Sunny Hundal aside, any other ‘top bloggers’ present are willing to tell us anything more about what took place…
Update, April 11th:
Apparently a second meeting with the DCMS took place today, according to Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch, who attended. “Off to DCMS to discuss bloggers, small groups and Leveson. I would tweet a link but it appears to be an invite-only consultation.” Only one blogger was there though, according to Pickles.
Both Pickles and Sunny Hundal have now said that they’ll be blogging about these meetings later.
This was originally written as a comment on the blog post “Why the Geek Movement is bad for science.” It got too long though, so I posted it here for clarity.I wouldn’t have bothered with this piece, except that much of it is representative of a lot of incredibly poor sci-comm stuff I’ve seen, and I’m really running out of patience with a vocal group of sci-comm academic types online. The tl;dr version is this:
Certain vocal sections of science communication academics would be more bearable if they: a) engaged with and listened to communicators, and accepted that practitioners may have the kind of experience you can’t get from an MSc; b) gave useful, practical, evidence-based advice on good-practice without trying to patronize or dictate style; and c) disowned the tedious pricks in their ranks. I don’t mean to aim that at everyone in the field – there are some amazing sci-comm academics out there – just the shouty, ignorant and unhelpful ones who make me want to shoot myself in the face so I don’t have to listen to them anymore.
Anyway, the entire original piece is quoted in order, with my responses after each paragraph.
In recent years, the label ‘Geek’ has shaken off its previous negative connotations and many have adopted it as a badge of honour. The movement has been spearheaded by the likes of Mark Henderson, author of ‘The Geek Manifesto’, along with a whole host of scientists, authors and comedians. Science comedy duo Brian Cox and Robin Ince recently co-wrote an editorial in the New Statesman arguing that ‘politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science’.
That’s fair enough, although I’m not sure that Mark Henderson can be described as spear-heading a movement: first it’s unclear what exactly the ‘movement’ is that he’s referring to, second I’d argue that Henderson (since leaving The Times) is less of a figurehead and more of an influential theorist, someone documenting a series of popular trends, and offering suggestions on how they might improve our politics. But Mark may disagree with me on that. As for ‘mere opinion’ over science, yes of course – they clearly mean that someone’s opinion about reality shouldn’t override the evidence of what that reality is, and I agree entirely with that.
With a physics degree and a love of data, I could easily be described as a ‘Geek’ myself. Yet I find the Geek movement to be highly troubling, and would like to distance myself from it. Many Geeks also self-identify as ‘rationalists’ or ‘skeptics’, and Mark Henderson has spoken at countless Skeptics in the Pub events to preach to the choir.
So we have this ‘Geek movement’ that’s being criticised, but it’s still not really clear what this is supposed to be, or what exactly he’s trying to distance himself from – there is no single ‘geek movement’ in the UK, any more than there is a single humanist or atheist movement, or a single conservative movement; just various groups of people who identify with the word ‘geek’ to a greater or lesser extent. Skeptics in the Pub gets thrown into the mix, and we have this really loaded and silly language about ‘preaching to the choir’. I said on Twitter that anyone who uses the phrase “preaching to the choir” is a moron, and while it’s a bit harsh I’m sticking by that. It’ a phrase I can’t stand because it tends to just ignore the aims of the person being criticized. In this case, Mark Henderson was speaking about a book specifically aimed in part at inspiring those who identified with his writing to get more involved in politics, so ‘preaching to the choir’ – or as grown-ups might call it, ‘talking to the base’ – is perfectly sensible outreach strategy.
I have a number of problems with the Geek movement, not least of all the implicit arrogance of the thing. In the New Statesman article written by Ince and Cox, they compare science to ‘mere opinion’ in the headline, and continue to assert that science provides the only valid form of evidence, and is ‘the only way we have of exploring nature’. This fundamentally closed-minded attitude appeals to badge-wearing Geeks, but will only alienate the audiences who don’t already agree.
Now Ince and Cox are identified as spokesmen for this ‘Geek movement’, which still isn’t defined but is rapidly becoming a convenient ‘bucket’ in which the author can dump a fuzzy, geeky set of ‘stuff I don’t like’. Brian Cox already responded to this paragraph in the comments, and the author appears to have rowed back from his misrepresentation of the New Statesman piece, so I won’t bother addressing it further here.
The Geek movement also seems to have subsumed the atheist movement, with some rather unhealthy outcomes. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a well-known darling of the Geek movement, found himself ‘constantly claimed by atheists’ and had to publicly distance himself from the atheist movement. The commonly-claimed link between science and atheism is harmful to the image of science, and to scientists such as DeGrasse Tyson.
So this ill-defined ‘geek movement’, that started out as a bunch of UK folk spear-headed by Mark Henderson, has expanded into a trans-Atlantic phenomenon including the entire US atheist movement and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then we have the bald assertion that apparently ‘the commonly-claimed link’ between science and atheism is harmful to the image of science and to scientists.” Well, my response to that would be a polite “evidence or stfu.” I put the question to the author on Twitter, and he seems to have opted for the latter response so far.
It is worth noting that many proponents of the Geek movement such as Mark Henderson and Robin Ince are not themselves scientifically trained. This is not to say that they are not qualified to comment on or campaign for science, but there is a tendency for Geeks to worship an idealised notion of ‘science’. As a result, science and scientists are elevated to a privileged position of assumed authority, and Geeks will happily promote anything with a whiff of ‘science’ or ‘rationalism’.
Like the previous paragraph, this carries a potent whiff of bullshit about it. What point are you trying to make when you say that they’re not scientifically trained? The author of the piece apparently has an undergraduate science degree and an MSc in Sci-Comm, so isn’t particularly ‘scientifically trained’ in a research sense either. Mark Henderson has been one of the top science writers in Britain for a number of years, and probably has a better grasp of areas of science than many who are scientifically-trained. Why does it matter? Then we have two more wild assertions: if you’re going to claim that they “worship an ‘idealised notion of ‘science’” then again, evidence or stfu. Similarly, on what basis are you making the claim that Geeks happily promote anything with a whiff of science? And again, who are these ‘geeks’ you keep talking about? Oh that’s right, it’s a convenient phrase for people you don’t like.
And then we hit probably the nadir of this:
At a Science Communication conference in September, sociologist Steve Fuller described the Geek movement as the ‘new petite bourgeois’. Although the session drew to a close before the concept was discussed in depth, I would be tempted to agree with Fuller’s assessment. The term petite bourgeoisie refers to a social class who seek to emulate the traditions and values of the higher (upper-middle class) ‘bourgeoisie’. We might therefore label a Geek as a ‘petit scientiste’, since many Geeks lay claim to some idealised version of the scientific method. As Fuller pointed out at the conference, many Geeks are ‘computer jocks’ with no real experience of science in practice.
So here the author is quoting the mild hissy-fit of an advocate of intelligent design – which he may just be unaware of, I don’t know. What I do know is that things are getting incredibly confused in all this intellectual masturbation: the Geek movement has now apparently become an entire social class, who are apparently taking part in a sort of cargo cult science. What the evidence is for this… again I have no real clue, and it’s particularly ironic that this is being leveled in response to an article by a prominent physicist, by someone who (as far as I can tell) is not actually a practicing research scientist themselves.
So what’s the problem? If we have this movement of Geeks, rationalists, skeptics, atheists – whatever they choose to call themselves – are they really harming anyone? It is my view that the movement is inherently damaging to science as it becomes characterised by the more sneering, self-righteous elements. The tone of superiority adopted by many Geeks, including Ince and Cox, does little to persuade those who are not already ‘converted’. Instead, it fosters a thoroughly masturbatory environment in which Geeks congratulate Geeks for promoting Geek philosophies. I do not find such circle-jerks particularly constructive, but they are all too common in the science communication world.
The irony of this paragraph is that it’s everything it despises. The politeness at the start of the article has collapsed and it’s now an attack on ‘sneering, self-righteousness’ in a ‘masturbatory circle-jerk’. If his aim is to reach out to geeks, then this is a pretty off-putting piece of communication. This is something I’ve seen far too often – people who have a habit of saying “don’t be a dick” in the most dickish ways possible. It’s not that I have anything against people being dicks – I love being a dick from time to time – what I can’t stand is the false claim to the moral high-ground. Then we have the claim that apparently geeks are ‘inherently damaging to science”, which, well,  please.
Following that rant, you could be forgiven for thinking that I am in some way against evidence-based policy, good scientific advice or anything else championed by the Geek movement. I am not. I am strongly in favour of improving the handling of science in Westminster, but would like to see more reasoned discussion around the issues. Scientific evidence is not the only type of evidence that politicians should consider, and to dismiss anything else as ‘mere opinion’ prevents any meaningful dialogue. No ‘anti-science’ politician is going to be won over by derision; insulting their intelligence is more likely to cement their position. I would like to see a more measured response, where Geeks present evidence in a more measured and tolerant way.
Well the Geek Manifesto seems like a good starting point for that reasoned discussion, and Brian Cox has been involved behind the scenes in science policy work for years, something the author is apparently unaware of because – like many sci-comm types I’ve dealt with – he appears to have little interest in actually asking real-world communicators about what they do. I question the premise to begin with though. I will continue to deride people like David Tredinnick and Nadine Dorries because there is absolutely no point in engaging with them, or attempting to change their position. The idea that having a nice little chat with Dorries would persuade her to change her views is a piece of hokey fantasy straight out of a Disney film. The best way to deal with terminally bad politicians is to vote them out of office.
But we’re essentially back to the infamous ‘don’t be a dick’ argument, and it runs straight into the same three problems that this argument always hits: 1) it patronisingly assumes that people aren’t fully aware what they’re doing (and trying to achieve) by being a dick; 2) it fails to provide any real evidence that being a dick is always a problem, and not sometimes useful; 3) its proponents are almost universally dicks themselves.
In November, I organised an event with the Society of Biology to question the notion that Parliament would be improved if we stuffed it full of scientists. In an online poll before the event, 96% of people wanted to see more scientists in Parliament. Following a measured discussion between the panellists, the final percentage was closer to 60%. Jack Stilgoe and Evan Harris argued against the motion, and Stilgoe subsequently posted an excellent summary of the arguments on his blog. This is the sort of discussion that I would like to see more of in the mainstream media. Give me Stilgoe and Harris over Ince and Cox any day. To me, those who make reasoned arguments to doubtful (or even hostile) audiences are far more valuable than those who bask in the approval of a homogenous Geek community.
This gets to the heart of the problem, and it’s the one thing that a vocal group of academic science communication types just don’t seem to want to get – hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life listen to Ince and Cox, while – and I don’t mean to be rude here because I love both of them – far fewer among the general public really give a crap what Stilgoe or Harris have to say about science. That’s because Ince and Cox are better communicators than Stilgoe or Harris (or me, or the author). They are better at public speaking, more engaging, more accessible to a wider, non-geek audience, more people want to watch them, and they achieve greater impact as a result. Yes, it helps that they’re celebrities; but why did they become celebrities in the first place? Through the strength of their ability to communicate with people.
That’s partly what I find so unhelpful about this article, and many like it. It provides no evidence to back up the overblown claims of harm, it ignores the phenomenal experience and success of those it attacks, and above all it fails to provide any useful take-home message for people communicating science to the public. I’m always keen to improve my writing, and I would love to see someone from the academic community engaged in sci-comm research offer a piece of tangible, useable, evidence-based advice on how to improve what I do, and to do it in a way that isn’t incredibly confrontational and patronizing.
End of bloody comment.
(Talk recorded at The Pod Delusion’s 3rd birthday in September.)
In the Guardian today, in an article to promote a Psychic Challenge set up by the generally brilliant Merseyside Skeptics, Chris French sticks his neck out with the following assessment of Psychic Sally’s finances:
“The bottom line is that if [Psychic] Sally tours for, say, 10 months of the year, she is almost certainly making at least £5m per annum, just from her stage shows.”
This follows on from a similar claim made last year by Simon Singh:
“My best estimate is that Sally sells over 100,000 tickets each year, which generate at least £2m.”
I’m no defender of Psychic Sally, but if either figure were true, I’d be amazed – many top TV comedians would struggle to earn that from tickets and DVD sales combined.
To arrive at the figure French cites, we are asked to believe that 18 dates in February can generate a profit of £450,000 from gross revenue of £500,000. “Of course, Sally will have costs to cover,” French concedes, “including promotion, insurance, hiring venues, paying her crew, and covering expenses such as travel and accommodation,” but these apparently account for barely a tenth of the takings. If that’s true, then Sally is a business genius making a 90% profit margin on her tours, and the venue-owners she deals with are schmucks.
We then have to accept that February’s 18 dates represent a typical month. A quick visit to her website shows that she has 19 dates booked in November – so far so good – but then only 4 in December, none in January, and for the following months 1, 6, 8 and 10 – add that up and we have 48 dates in the next 7 months, which is less than 7 dates per month, not 18.
Of course one way to clear this up might be to look at her details on Companies House (where, yes, Morgan lists her occupation as ‘psychic’). A new company, Sally Morgan Entertainment Ltd, was only incorporated on August 26th 2011, and hasn’t filed accounts yet. Another firm, Sally Morgan Enterprises Ltd, has been running for several years, and is named on her website as being the primary contact for her tour. Accounts are available, and as of March 2011 they show that the company had around £50k in the bank, and that Sally and her husband personally owed it approximately £269k, up from £99k in 2010.
Morgan has been touring for several years, and it’s unlikely her earnings have changed drastically since 2011. Nothing in these accounts suggests earnings of £5million or even £1million. Perhaps the money lies elsewhere (there are rumours of a £3.5m house, but she could of course have a mortgage), but the fact that her and her husband’s debt to the company a) was unpaid and b) had more than doubled since 2010 doesn’t suggest fabulous, liquid wealth either.
The truth is probably quite banal – that touring a mid-level stage show is not a path to fabulous wealth. Morgan advertises chat lines, but these are run by a service provider and use other psychics, any cut she makes is likely to be on the small side. There’s a bit of merchandising and the odd TV appearance; but running and staffing a psychic business ‘empire’ involves costs and overheads. While I’m sure she earns a tidy salary it’s probably not millions, and I certainly wouldn’t be willing to claim anything concrete about it in a national newspaper.
We don’t really know, and I don’t think it particularly matters either – how much she earns is less important than what she does to earn it. With so little evidence to go on, this kind of speculation feels uncomfortably like making stuff up; and of course the issue of whether people ‘making stuff up’ is what this is all about in the first place.
Anyway, I have some other thoughts about this whole Psychic Sally situation, but I’ll save them for another time.
On either side are various things. You can find out about me, my writing, and the talks and events I do.
In this middle bit I’ll be reposting interesting links and snippets from elsewhere (as soon as I figure out how), and the occasional longer article that doesn’t really fit in the other places I write.