Eating Our Own

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Last week, an article was published in STAT magazine about how scientists need to do more outreach. A few exasperated tweets complaining about the article’s tone and content soon morphed into a full-on hate-fest, with buckets of vitriol raining down on an innocent graduate student who had dared to try and expand on the article’s premise. The attacks, led by a parade of well-known science communication personalities, went way beyond the bounds of civil debate. As someone who uses Twitter to engage in these types of academic discussions all the time, I was angry with the entire situation but I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Now that I’ve had some time to think about things, I’m still angry. I’m angry with the “venerable” online science community. MY supposed community. My community of peers who are actively involved in doing and promoting science outreach and communication. Is this the way to draw more people into doing outreach and communication? By shutting them down when they try to engage? By using their naiveté and inexperience as weapons against them?

I find this entire course of action by those who chose to denigrate and shame a person who was genuinely looking for information and guidance disgusting. Even worse, it is entirely antithetical to the goals of this movement around public engagement with science that we are all, collectively, trying to engender and support and promote.

We in the science outreach community already have a hard enough time getting scientists to spend some of their scant free time out of the lab doing outreach and communicating about their research. Not when their adviser is demanding to see experimental results. Not when their department chair is expecting them to be securing a steady stream of research funding. Not when their dean is holding a tenure decision precipitously over their head. Now we have to overcome the barrier of having those who are already “in the know” telling them they are doing it wrong? Telling them that they need to get a Ph.D. in outreach before they even start? When did this become a situation of us versus them, where some communicators and outreachers are more equal than others?

Full disclosure- I happen to know this graduate student. She’s taken our online training course, “The Art of Science Communication.” She now volunteers her precious time (as a junior graduate student) to help teach the course. She does outreach and wants to do more. She’s walking the walk, and I want to help her do it. Because that’s my job — getting scientists involved with outreach.

I want every scientist to communicate. To engage. To throw off the stigma and tradition and stereotype of the loner scientist locked away in the lab. To put themselves out there in public. I’ve heard over and over that not every scientist should be a communicator. I could not disagree more. Every scientist should be a communicator. Communication and outreach should be compulsory for a scientific career. I’ve dedicated myself to help every scientist to communicate. I work every day to help pave that way. I want the entire world to see who scientists are and what they do.

In two months, we are all going to march for science. Are we going to start deciding who can attend that event, who is allowed to speak for science? Or are we going to use this opportunity, this incredible platform, to engage with everyone we can, gain support and show what science is and how it’s used?

Let’s stop the pointless bickering and online yelling and start facing the same direction. Because if we don’t all stand together, we’ll fall apart.

14 thoughts on “Eating Our Own

  1. It’s not pointless if it correct false framing and incorrect narratives.
    It’s not eating our own, if or when those individuals demonstrate intentional racists behavior and words.
    I’m really disappointed in your caping up for this poor display of scientific behavior – no background review, no knowledge of previous work, hard work of others and just co-signing her bad behavior in general.
    This is not ok.

    • Scicurious

      These are important points. The person involved deleted some of her tweets, tweets where the language used was offensive and obviously intended toward people of color.

      Further, many people did politely tell her that now was the time to stop and listen, when she first began her series of problematic statements. She did not stop. She did not listen. Several communicators did engage with her and gave her resources.

      I agree that new members of the science communication community should be welcomed, and we all start out not knowing what we don’t know. But I will not welcome anyone who lashes out using racist language, no matter what their reasoning. If we choose to ignore such behavior and “unify”, we will end up excluding some of the most important voices, who reach out to some of the most critical communities.

  2. EF Tracey

    Having read the student’s Twitter thread(s) and responses, this was not a case of “eating our own.” The student was definitely in the throes of what I experienced myself as a grad student — that feeling that you can change the world if only everyone knew what you did about science. And yes, science literacy is essential to a functioning democracy facing climate change, antibiotic resistance and other global challenges — but their unwillingness to consider a world larger than their own (cf. all the references to their rural upbringing vs. responses regarding urban outreach and the inequalities of who gets to learn/teach/speak about science) made their continued responses seem tone-deaf and blindered, and resistant to new information that it seems they didn’t have previously. Many experienced science communicators reached out to them, only to be met with “but my experience…” and condescending, racially insensitive replies : it was a learning opportunity that went unheeded.

  3. Please provide examples of what constituted a “hate-fest, with buckets of vitriol”. Because you only link to tweets by Sarah Ahlbrand. And in those threads, I am seeing disagreement, yes, – but nothing that qualifies as “hate” or “vitriol.”

  4. Vicky @drvictoriosa

    The responses to the original article (and the ones I predict you’ll get to this post) aren’t about being mean, or ‘eating our own’. It’s commendable that the author of the original article wants to do outreach. But ignoring the efforts of everyone else who’s already doing it, and then writing about it from an angle that specifically highlights activism and grass roots efforts, which have historically been lead by women of colour, as if the author has suddenly had a breakthrough that no one else has, is not ok.

    If the original article was ‘regular science’ she’d be called out in the same way. No one was name calling, no one was bullying. They were suggestions that the author do her research on what others were already doing. Doubling down with a poorly thought out blog post was a bad idea.

    • Susan

      Hi Vicky,

      I also reviewed the threads, and I wholeheartedly disagree. The grad student in question admitted multiple times that she did not fully agree with the article and knows that there are many scientists out there who do outreach, but reached out to the author of the STAT article to offer her constructive criticism. She (and others), made the point that it’s important to let these authors know of their pitfalls and (politely) offer criticism. This was, in turn, met with several experienced science communicators either coming at this graduate student saying that “it’s not their responsibility to reach out to everybody”, “Look at this person trying to tell science communication veterans what to do”, retweeting the graduate students’ tweets with the intent to have other people mock her for helping offer this author advice, or overall being defensive at the fact that this graduate student suggested we offer constructive criticism to authors who are misguided to help them learn.

      Furthermore, when the graduate student requested resources to send to the author to help her learn from her pitfalls, she was again criticized, mocked, and told that she needed to go “find them herself”. Is this how these science communicators talk to their audiences? When they’re misguided, do these communicators tell their less-experienced audience members that “The resources are all over Google for free–find them yourself?”

      I’m not sure if people in this comment chain only referred to one thread or simply read tweets that were selectively retweeted by one or more of these experienced communicators, but if look at the broader picture you can see the experts acted exactly how you would want a science communicator NOT to interact with an audience. Just because someone is less experienced doesn’t mean they can’t see something the “experts” can’t see.

  5. Bug

    This is a really problematic reading of this interaction. And some of it is FALSE; this never happened:
    “Telling them that they need to get a Ph.D. in outreach before they even start”

    Telling people to stop “bickering” ignores the implicit violence of bias in science. The history of science codifies past racism in it’s structure. This is especially important re. the current political environment. If you fear for your life, if you are constantly subjected to micro (and macro) aggressions — a request to get along and play nice is seen as “your issues don’t matter until we solve this other big issue of science literacy.”

    And that’s BS, because just how long are we going to wait until the intersections of race, gender, and social justice are part of science? How often do those factors keep people out, or push people out, of science? We can’t have full participation in science, until science practitioners take a good hard look at what it means to ask folks to wait, and tell them the issues they deal with everyday, all day, aren’t important.

  6. Elizabeth R. Apgar Triano

    Rants like this do not contribute to the image of scientist as respectable professional in the eyes of the lay person who may have little everyday contact with people in the STEM fields.

    I would venture to say, in fact, that the very intensity of feeling on display here should be a hint that the criticism hit home, perhaps in an unexpected way. Instead of using this blog as a vehicle for expressing whatever this is supposed to be expressing, write such things in your personal diary or journal, mull them over for a while, and respond like a professional.

    Now especially the public needs to see the “smart people” modeling how adults take on challenging learning curves and move forward. Otherwise we’re all no better than … well…

  7. I’m not sure how the tweets that you linked to indicated a “hate-fest” or “buckets of vitriol.”

    I’m sure that the grad student who you describe is indeed enthusiastic and may be a gifted science communicator. I didn’t see anyone on Twitter telling her how to communicate with the public. What I did see was criticism of her views on science communication as a whole.

    In the tweets and replies that you link to, she suggested that we engage in science outreach in topics that we are unfamiliar with and in communities that are underserved. She then defined underserved communities as rural communities like the “backwoods” one where she grew up. She said that rural communities should be prioritized.

    These statements were met with valid criticism. I’ll add three of my own pieces of criticism, which I present in the spirit of civil debate:

    1. Advocating for prioritization in “rural communities” is well-intentioned, but the term can be a dog-whistle for white communities. Well-intentioned efforts can cause harm when they are misguided or misinformed.

    2. One of this student’s tweets made the analogy that saying that both urban and rural scicomm matter is the equivalent to saying “all scicomm matters”, and that saying “rural scicomm matters” is like saying “black lives matter.” If this analogy were taken to its logical conclusion, a third equivalent (which wasn’t written) would be that saying “urban scicomm matters” is the equivalent to saying “white lives matter.” This seems to show a lack of understanding of both #blacklivesmatter and the breadth of science communication goals.

    For many science communicators, their primary goal is to engage students who are part of underrepresented groups in STEM, which requires outreach where those students live. Since underrepresented racial and ethnic groups have higher concentrations in urban areas than in “backwoods” areas, prioritizing rural areas over urban areas would be a mistake. Individuals who are part of those underrepresented groups who would be left out by this rural prioritization would continue to be marginalized in STEM. It’s naïve to triage prioritization without at least understanding the breadth of science communication goals.

    3. If another goal of science communication is to change public perceptions of scientific elitism, then let’s not use the word “backwoods” to describe target communities. While it’s true that one dictionary definition of the word describes geographical features, it also has the negative connotation of being uneducated and unsophisticated. Coming from a rural town myself, I know that people from my hometown wouldn’t appreciate scientists’ (who are often seen as “ivory tower elites”) characterization of them living in a “backwoods” town.

    All of this being said, I can still appreciate that someone is interested in explaining science to the public. But I would like to emphasize that there’s a lot of knowledge necessary to really understand the larger picture of science communication. In the field of education, one isn’t an expert because they attended school, even if they’re a teacher. In the subfield of education known as science communication, one isn’t an expert because they conduct scientific research, even if they do engage in science communication. This isn’t a gate-keeping sentiment that aims to prevent scientists from being communicators. Instead, I’m pointing out that participating in science communication does not inherently grant someone credibility to prescribe science communication strategy.

    • Susan

      While I agree that the analogy of science communication to the BLM movement might not be the best, after reading the entirely of this interaction I see where she is coming from.

      She mentions that students in rural communities often lack access to science resources, modern & updated lab spaces, and points of outreach, thus they are already at a disadvantage compared to individuals in urban communities. These communities are then largely (and unfairly) stereotyped as “redneck”, further alienating those in these communities who want to do science.

      The science communicator debating with her then pulls the race card and comments that by saying rural communication should be a bigger priority right now based on the results of the election, the student is being racist. There is no indication in any of the student’s arguments that she thinks people of color don’t deserve science communication–just another example of her words being twisted to suit a false narrative that this student is racist. The student even comments that she didn’t say science communication in urban areas wasn’t important. The point she is trying to make is that students in urban areas often have access to better resources and outreach efforts that rural students.

      Finally, to comment back to the “black lives matter” comment with all this in mind, I believe what the author was trying to convey is that there is a group of individuals who are unfairly being stereotyped and ignored that need attention. People of color have unfairly been profiled, underrepresented, and targeted due to their race. They are called names such as the “N” word among others. We know that there are many people of color who, if given the opportunity, resources, and attention, would excel. By saying “All Lives Matter”, you’re ignoring the fact that this community at this time requires priority.

      Switch that around–people in rural communities have also been unfairly profiled, underrepresented, and targeted due to their “lack of education”. They are called named such as “Rednecks” or “Backwoods”. We know that they are many people within rural communities who, if given the opportunity, resources, and attention, would excel. By saying “All Scicomm Matters”, you’re ignoring the fact that this community at this time requires priority.

      Rather than belittling rural communities based on the results of the election, I think it’s wise and take a step back and realize that this is largely due to the fact many rural communities have misconceptions about science largely due to the fact that they don’t have adequate resources and access to science outreach.

      • It’s worth noting that describing the interaction that happened as “pulling the race card” imputes motives to the science communicators involved (e.g., winning an argument rather than explaining a nuance) without evidence for those motives.

        It’s also worth noting that Ms. Ahlbrand deleted a number of her tweets to science communicators who happen to be black women, tweets where her mode of communication was rather less measured.

        These things matter. That it’s only viewed as outrageous that folks critiqued a graduate student’s public statements on a public platform, while the content of her communications *and* the way she made them differently to black women than to white women is treated as not worthy of comment, is worth our examination. Indeed, it rather illustrates one of the problems that the science community needs to be grappling with now. If science communication can’t help with that, we’re all in trouble.

    • Katherine Lontok

      I am going to preface this on the fact that I’m late to the game and apparently the whole dialogue is not currently available. However…

      I really don’t understand #2b – why does it have to be binary? As you said, “For many science communicators, their primary goal is to engage students who are part of underrepresented groups in STEM…” But, that’s not EVERY science communicators’ goal. Why can’t someone say that they feel that a different goal should be prioritized? That is a legitimate opinion and I’m not sure why people are taking it personally. Disagree, sure. You do you, and let her do her. I do agree that the BLM analogy was inappropriate and ill-advised.

  8. I add my voice to the valid and cogent points raised by the other commenters.

    I also add that the entire approach to science communication highlighted in the tweets you linked to is deeply rooted in the deficit model approach to science communication, which has been thoroughly and substantively debunked by many of the skilled and experienced science communication professionals responding above and on twitter, as well as in the peer-reviewed literature. If this is indicative of your Art of Science Communication class, than you are doing an incredible disservice to SciComm.

  9. gchunt

    Thank you all for providing this feedback. My response is overdue. I have been traveling extensively for the past several weeks, and I did not want to respond hastily. I’m still not certain I’ve gotten the full picture of what went down but I want to clarify what happened.

    At the time I wrote the post above, my take on the situation was motivated primarily by this Facebook conversation: https://www.facebook.com/janet.stemwedel/posts/10154037872866710?pnref=story. I didn’t think the comments there were warranted. I was not aware of several racially insensitive tweets that evidently had been part of the initial Twitter conversation that precipitated the comments and that had been deleted by the original poster.

    After I wrote my post, I was made aware of the deleted tweets. I attempted to contact the original poster to find out what had been said, but I was unsuccessful.

    To be clear, in my post, I was not attempting to minimize anyone’s experience or reaction to those deleted tweets. In no way do I condone or defend what was said and then deleted. I regret that I made an unfortunate situation worse.

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