A Ripple Effect

I’ve been careful to (mostly) follow people on twitter that are scientists, science communicators or generally witty people with clever things to say. I do this so that twitter is a genuine networking tool and not an intravenous mainline of gossip, scandal and Justin Beiber. So when twitter knee-jerks itself into a schism, brand new outrage or trends its way up the “ladder of fury” hovering in the lower left-hand-side of my screen, I tend to be fairly immune. Immune to all the public outrage and responses being directed at and retorted from celebrity chiefs, popstars or any other tabloid victim, for that matter and I get on with my life. I use twitter (mostly) for talking about, and discovering, interesting science.

However, there have been a few notable exceptions; I was quietly intrigued when Jonah Lehrer was ousted as a fraud and a liar (and a bloody successful one at that), I “lost my absolute shit” when he tried to make his comeback at the Knight Foundation with what, I thought, was a contrived, self-indulgent, non-apology of a mea culpa. Most irksomely, it appeared as if it was a public re-launching of his career and an inevitable return to spreading misinformation.

More recently, I was drawn into gawking at another twitter-mediated scandal as Bora Zivkovic (AKA @BoraZ) was publicly accused of (more than once), and then publicly admitted to, sexual harassment. For those that don’t know, Bora was probably the most prolific tweeter in the science communication field. He earned the name “blogfather” for helping to develop people’s writing and communication skills, he was on a variety of sci comm boards and set up and helped run the Science Online conferences, which are so dear to so many (to name but a few things). He cast a wide (professional) net and one, in which, I find myself. We were/are connected via twitter (along with about twenty five thousand other people). The most visitors ever directed to my blog came from one retweet sent out, by him, to the masses. A connection that at the time I thought was potentially very useful, and later found out to be useless as he (rightfully) stepped away from the online world.

Yesterday, and rather out of the blue, I spotted that faintly familiar “retweeted by Bora Zivkovic” appear in my timeline. It’s no exaggeration when I say, I knew that my little corner of twitter was about to go into meltdown…again. Bora’s return to online life has brought with it a mix of emotions and decisions for many in the field. Some have remained his friend and stood by him. His wife called for the entire conversation to be handled offline (though I wonder how likely that is considering Bora had so much influence online).

More importantly, the victims of the harassment and those closely involved with the Science online community seem wholly unimpressed with Boras return to online life and potentially Sci Comm conferences (though Bora has now reiterated that he will not be attending SciOx events).

When it comes to the “what to do about Bora?” question, I feel like it’s important to stay out of this argument directly as I’m very much an outsider in this community. In fact the only connection I have to it, is a mutual following on twitter with Kathleen Raven (along with around four thousand others, I might add). So while I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to tell a community what they should do, I do think I’d like to make one point (hang on in there, we’re almost there). Something that popped into my head as a result of watching this shit-storm unfold. Something that might well be a tiny bit of positivity to come from this mass swathe of negativity and perhaps something to consider when all of this is over.

A void has been left in the absence of Bora from twitter. A void that, strangely, I hadn’t thought about until today – perhaps I was too caught up in the original downfall to fully appreciate this seemingly obvious fact. (Perhaps I have been too busy trying to get a job to care! Actually that’s almost certainly 90% of it right there.) Relatively-new and unrecognised communicators, like myself, who relied upon the retweet of a seemingly benevolent giant in the community, might feel like we need a replacement. There are others out there who have the impact and demonstrate the willingness to search for new and exciting talent (Kathleen Raven and Khalil Cassimally come to mind). But I suspect that having a replacement Bora is a silly idea. After all, he was always online and who needs but one tenuous link to a community anyway? This leads me to my point. No matter how big or small we are, or how closely affiliated we were to the Science Online community, we’re all a part of the bigger science communication collective that exists online (and off). We all have an impact and we can all be of use to others. As a result of that, I’m asking others to dive in and fill the void left by Bora, even if he has returned to online life.

Of course, if I’m asking others to take note of and promote the talents of new and interesting writers, I better be willing to do the same myself. You’ll be glad to know that I am. I lead by example. So it’s as a ripple effect of Bora’s return to twitter that I have decided to do my bit and publicise good science communication as and when I see it. I’d like to introduce/hijack the hashtag #RippleEffects. I would like to start this off by pointing you in the general direction of Kat Day who writes an excellent chemistry inspired blog, and in particular I’d like you to have a little read of her Christmas Chemist piece, at the tail end of this festive season, go check it out. I will, of course, tweet all good content as I see it but perhaps I’ll make more of an effort to blog about it too.

Twitter frequently goes into a meltdown, even when you think you’re surrounded by and follow only the smartest people out there, we are not immune. Occasionally (as with this example) the meltdown is justified. Regardless of this fact, and from a swarm of fury, confusion and lines in the sand, something useful can emerge; I hope this attitude (and perhaps the hashtag – though I’ll latch onto others just as easily) is one of those things.

Happy New Year and happy reading.

The Public Execution of Jonah Lehrer

Yesterday Twitter whipped itself into a frenzied-bloodbath of moral-outrage; nothing new there then. But for once I was quite willing to sit down and follow the twitter feed as witty put-down and vitriolic lampooning tumbled down my screen. Why? Well because the subject was Jonah Lehrer and what seemed to be his ‘Lance Armstrong-flavoured apology’. For those that don’t know who Jonah Lehrer is or what he’s apologising for I refer you to Michael Moynihan’s exposé in Tablet and Steve Myers’ piece in Poynter. If however you’re looking for the abridged version, I’d say this: Lehrer invented quotes, lied about doing it, ignored criticism and advice regarding his mistakes and profited from it, all under the guise of being a great science communicator. In doing so he betrayed the trust of many readers and fellow science communicators. With all that said, this is not what people were getting so worked up about yesterday. All that moral-outrage took place last year. This year’s angry tweets were concerned with his lunchtime presentation at a Knight Foundation conference. (FYI the video starts at about an hour into the feed. You will need to watch this video to know what I’m talking about.)

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer. Image credit: Kris Krüg (creative commons license)

Somewhat ironically, Knight Foundation invited Lehrer to give his presentation under the umbrella-theme of ‘decisions’ and how to avoid making poor ones but at the same time allowing Lehrer a platform to talk about what he’d done. So far so tenuous, but we’ll proceed.

Coming to this video straight from the twitter-storm I’ll say that I don’t think I was prepared to warm to his “apology”. Yet thanks to Twitter’s ubiquitous nature I suspect that even if I just happened to catch the presentation without the backlash fresh in my mind, I would have drawn the same conclusions in due course. That is to say, the presentation ended up feeling like a 30 minute long squirming, narcissistic non-apology. It was like watching a Scooby-doo styled bad guy intellectualising the phrase “I would’ve gotten away with it…”. Lehrer is a very intelligent fellow and on the surface of things his points seem reasonable, but with a moment of reflection the presentation leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. I worried for a second that if it wasn’t for the live-feed of twitter in the corner, people in the room might actually have bought it (it’s all too easy to just listen to the content and not question it). However, Knight Foundation let an uncensored stream of tweets quietly take down the “apology” before it had even reached the Q&A section. So while Lehrer was peddling his contrived non-apology, the audience had cause to question what he was saying.

Like a bad joke following a tragedy, I suspect that Lehrer’s apology was all a bit ‘too soon’. I couldn’t take it seriously. To me it seems apparent that he hasn’t had enough time to truly think about what he’s done and I got the feeling that he’d been thinking more about how to ‘come back’ as opposed to considering his mistakes properly. Reading between the lines a little, it seems that Lehrer was saying he’d do it all again if he thought he could get away with it:

…unless I hold myself accountable in public, then the lessons will not last.

He even said that if he didn’t stick to his new rules that he might “find a better way to fail”. Presumably Lehrer would rather expend his efforts inventing more and more plausible lies as opposed to just telling the truth. While Lehrer keeps a cool exterior, I think these statements are the most telling (there were quite a few other points that we could pick over too by the way, but let’s not flog a dead horse). What he implies throughout his presentation is that he doesn’t trust himself to never do this again. (Hopefully future editors take careful note of this.) It leads you to think that the only thing he’s truly sorry for, is getting caught. You might arrive at the same conclusion too by considering those quotes and also by thinking a little more deeply about his FBI story. He tried to link together his own short-comings and the thought that serious consequences can be avoided by sticking to tough new SOPs. Only, his new rules aren’t ‘tough’ SOPs but common practice in everyday journalism; basic common sense if you will. His mistakes weren’t simple oversight and accidental errors but wilful decisions taken to deceive, plagiarise and lie. All this (presumably) to sell books and further his career.

This takes us to the inescapable focus of the tweeting masses. Not only did Lehrer profit from his many lies and plagiarism but he’s profiting even now by talking about why he lied and plagiarised and how he’s (perhaps) never going to do it again. $20,000 (US dollars) for less than an hour’s presentation was, as it turns out, compensation for today’s charade. Knight Foundation wasted a lot of money today for a presentation that was, in my opinion, disingenuous and ultimately embarrassing for both parties. A costly price to pay. Though I’m left asking myself if $20K isn’t the only price the Knight Foundation will pay for today’s little chit-chat? Whilst money can be recouped from generous investors, credibility is a much rarer commodity and I think that they may well have just given up more than they bargained for.

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