A few weeks ago, senior Nature Editor Henry Gee “outed” “Isis the Scientist,” an anonymous pseudonymous blogger. I say “anonymous pseudonymous” because “Isis” is a pseudonym but she was also anonymous in that her true identity was not known. Apparently, Isis’s identity has been known to the Internet since 2012. But whatever.
Gee took a lot of heat for doing this. It appears that many people believe that there is a specific rule against “outing” a person on the internet. In truth, there is no such rule. There isn’t a place, a thing, an entity, an authority, that creates or maintains such rules. Rather, there is a general consideration that one does not out anonymous individuals out of respect for the need for anonymity and with the assumption that individuals who choose to be anonymous do so for good reasons. Having said that, outing happens and not just of anonymous bloggers. Journalists identify anonymous individuals, and whistle-blowers and others release previously secret information that includes identities now and then, for better or for worse.
Also, sometimes it is appropriate to out someone.
Let’s look at a particular outing that happened a few years ago. On December 9th, 2011, blogger and scientist PZ Myers of Pharyngula, Freethought Blogs, outed Victor Ivanoff known on the Internet as Franc Hoggle and Felch Grogan. Ivanoff had been behaving in an appalling manner, the term “bully” being a mild description of his approach. His identity had been ascertained and was known to only a few. There was a very long and extended discussion on Stephanie Zvan’s blog as to whether or not he should be outed. Finally, PZ Myers simply stepped in and did the deed. If I recall correctly, the deciding factor was a threat Hoggle/Grogan/Ivanoff made against PZ, a threat that I interpreted as Ivanoff stating his intention to secretly deposit an object … I imagined it to be a lump of feces or some such thing … into PZ Myers’ pocket when he attended an upcoming conference in Australia, where Ivanoff lived.
I think a lot of people, myself included, felt there was more than sufficient reason to out Ivanoff even before the dog-poo threat, both as punishment for being a jerk and as a means of deflating his effectiveness at being a jerk. Everyone I was in contact with at the time was in favor of outing him but we were also attempting to adhere to the unwritten rule (because there are no rules, really) to give consideration to the anonymous where possible. PZ has clout, and widespread respect, so it was good that he was the one to do it. Had anyone else outed Ivanoff, they may have suffered a lot of grief for their sins. I assume that harassment of PZ Myers from Ivanoff’s kin and clan ensued and worsened, but since he was already getting plenty harassed, it must not have made much of a difference.
Here’s the key point: A person acted as a bully on the Internet, did so from behind a rampart of anonymity, and eventually paid the price. That was not considered particularly wrong. PZ has not been vilified for this and in fact he was regarded as something of a hero for carrying out the deed others were reluctant to do, perhaps even afraid to do.
Regardless of the wisdom of Henry Gee’s outing of of Isis with respect to his own well being, one could make a parallel argument. There really isn’t much doubt that Isis is a bully. She has certainly bullied yours truly. Long before the Slime Pit (if you don’t know what the Slime Pit is, count your lucky stars) started to post awful often sub-pornographic and always insulting depictions of me and others (but mostly of women such as Rebecca Watson) on the Internet, Isis did this to me. I discovered this when my young daughter was googling her dad, just for fun, and discovered these pictures, which Isis had apparently used her internet powers to bring fairly high up on the Google Image Search engine. This happened because a while earlier, I had said something somewhere that Isis misunderstood, and with which she incorrectly disagreed. That disagreement together, I think, with her dislike of members of the atheist community for not being like her, led her to bother with harassing me in various quarters. Subsequent to that I mostly ignored her and she mostly forgot to keep harassing me, and the whole problem more or less went away. But at the time, I thought she was abusing her position and also, importantly, abusing her anonymity.
Isis and a few others decided to go after Henry Gee because he, as editor, published a piece of science fiction that was seen as sexist. I’ll talk more about that below. Subsequently, Isis and others have raised objections to Nature Publishing Group, which owns Nature as well as Scientific American, for being sexist or biased or otherwise unfair. These objections may in some cases be valid, but for the most part are overblown and incorrect. For example, there was a great outcry when a post written by science blogger DN Lee was removed from Scientific American’s blog network. The objection for DN Lee’s post being removed were valid. It should not have been removed, and it was eventually restored. But the incorrect and overblown part was about a detail. The post was removed late in the week, and this was followed by an outcry to have the post restored. By Saturday night, people were declaring their general boycott of all things Nature Publishing Group, including the flagship journal Nature, the science communication and outreach magazine Scientific American, and of course the Scientific American Blog network. The reason for this boycott and the general outcry had shifted away from the removal of DN Lee’s post (though that was still obviously part of the mix) and now included the fact that Nature Publishing Group had not followed the instructions of the mob, and had not in fact yet responded at all to said outcry. In other words, the fact that a major international corporation spread across multiple timezones and including as part of its structure lawyers and administrators and stuff had not responded to a twitter outcry in twitter time had become a key justification for vilifying the company and its networks. That was nothing more than a total misunderstanding of how the world works. People should have been able to wait until Monday, even Tuesday (it was, by the way, a holiday weekend), for a proper response. And, in fact, the response did happen in business-day time, and it was the appropriate response in the end. The post was restored.
Yes, folks, the Internet can be rather stupid at times.
In a recent post, Isis the scientist essentially told her colleagues, which I assume includes those who work under her, as post docs or students, that it would not be in their best interest to go to a third party if they have a problem with her in a professional setting.
Don’t turn rat (AKA snitches get stitches)*
If you are dissatisfied with me, or feel I have wronged you in some way, I don’t want to hear that you aired your grievances to someone else. If we have beef, it’s between us. No one else is privy to my motivations or has an understanding of my psyche other than me. No one else can fix our beef. I’m not trying to hear that you were afraid to come to me or that you didn’t know how I’d react. If I find out about things from an uninvolved third party, I can guarantee you’ll be afraid of how I’ll react. If you are the third party, your only response should be, ‘I don’t get involved in her shit. Take it up with her.” That is, if you care to live another day.
That, dear reader, is bully talk, and it is typical of what Isis does. The difference between something like this during the Isis as Anonymous Pseudonymn days and now is that now an HR department can look at this and send her a note suggesting they sit down and talk. The difference between then and now is that Isis can’t as easily make a threat like this without taking responsibility for it. (Clearly she needs to make some adjustments to her approach!) Henry Gee has done a favor for the students and post docs that live under that particular regime.
When the DN Lee post maneno transformed into the Bora Zivkovic take down, the web entity Ladybits, to which Isis is a regular contributor, was the venue for the key posts attacking Bora. During the ensuing twitter storm, Isis added a lie to the mix by posting a tweet that undoubtedly made an accusation of great significance that was patently false. Clearly Isis had it in for Bora, or Nature Publishing Group, or something. Or perhaps she was just grandstanding. In any event, she acted irresponsibly, and perhaps that level of irresponsibility was allowed or even enhanced by her anonymity. In other words, Isis was acting as a bully and using the rampart of anonymity as protection to do so.
Was the outing of Franc Hoggle OK but the outing of Isis the Scientist not? One way to answer that question would be to look up in the rule book the specific criteria for crossing the line one crosses to deserve being outed. But there is no rule book. There is only this: If you are anonymous and use your anonymity to harass people and they know who you are and feel like outing you, than you have not been wronged. You have been outed. One of the ways we know that someone is being a bully is that bullies make up the rules, or distort existing rules, in their own favor. Isis may or may not feel that she did not cross the line. But she does not actually get to determine that, nor does anyone else. Only the person who feels harassed enough to take this step gets to determine that.
Henry Gee noted:
Since 2010, Dr Isis has, in my opinion, waged a campaign of cyberbullying against me. I do not feel it appropriate to rake over the history of this situation, but throughout it I have been subject to unfair personal criticism including the repeated unjust assertion that I am sexist. This is untrue and is an allegation I find deeply distressing. I do not think that anyone deserves to be personally and publicly attacked in this way. As an editor and member of the online community I am absolutely up for a robust debate, but this went far beyond what I feel is acceptable.
In my own case, Dr Isis’ attacks contributed to a deepening of my long-running depression to the extent that I required time off and medical intervention. Through all this, however, I have maintained a degree of silence over this, even though Dr Isis’ true identity has long been known to me.
Last week Nature published an item of correspondence which in my view was at best what John Maddox, the late Editor of Nature, would have described as ‘content-free’, and at worst sexist. Had I been the editor that day, I wouldn’t have published it. I understand that Nature has now recognised that it shouldn’t have been published.
On Sunday, I saw a tweet from Dr Isis in which she suggested that I might have been the editor responsible for that particular item of correspondence (in fact, I only saw it after I’d read that tweet.) Now, I should simply have tweeted a clarification – just to say that no, I was not the editor of that particular piece, that I had had nothing to do with it, and move on.
Which brings us to Henry Gee and the accusation that he is a sexist deserving of harassment for his sins.
In case you don’t know, Henry Gee has been a journalist or editor with Nature since 1987. He’s written several books in his field of palaeontology, including “The Accidental Species” on human evolution, just out. He’s also penned a number of other pieces in Nature and elsewhere (including The Guardian). He has produced two editions of his Tolkienist study “The Science of Middle Earth.” He’s also written science fiction, notably his trilogy “The Sigil” and is the editor of the journal of the Tolkein Society. Until recently he was the editor of Nature’s science fiction column Futures.
Futures is a showcase for science fiction authors, and as editor, Gee has ensured a much higher diversity of these authors than one sees generally in the science fiction community. This includes authors with strong feminist credentials such as Susan Lanigan, who has published two stories in Futures. Lanigan has responded to the blowback against Gee for outing Isis, and to Isis’s characterization of Henry Gee as the “Feminist Antichrist.”
…I sent him those two relentlessly feminist short stories he published in 2010 and 2011, and which – gasp! surprise! – he was happy to publish. Apart from being uncomfortable with referring to a Jewish man as “the antichrist”, such a term was not my personal experience of him at all and she might imagine that she speaks for quite a few people – but she does not speak for me.
[I] found Henry Gee a pleasure to work with and prompt and charming in his responses. I had submitted many stories to far more right-on, “acceptable”, leftish fantasy and sci-fi magazines, and had had them all rejected while some friends of the editors appeared there on a depressingly regular basis. … In short, I trusted him … And I would not hesitate to recommend Nature Futures subbing to my writer friends.
… he has not been, in my experience, a “feminist antichrist”. Quite the opposite. He opened the door for me to publish and write feminist fiction and I think that needs to be said too.
Other strongly feminist authors are represented in Futures including Vonda McIntyre and Ursula Le Guin and the anthology ‘Futures from Nature’ (Tor, 2007) includes female feminist writers Brenda Cooper, Kathryn Cramer, Hiromi Goto, Nicola Griffith, Gwyneth Jones, Nancy Kress, Nalo Hopkinson, Donna McMahon, Justina Robson, Scarlett Thomas and others
This attention to diversity applies along other axes as well, with Futures including a number of under-represented groups such as authors from China, Japan, Singapore, and Iran. There is even age-related diversity; one author is Shelly Li, a Chinese-American who was 15 years old and still in high school at the time of publication.
Clearly, Henry Gee is not acting as editor in a manner that is non-inclusive or sexist. The accusation that he is is absurd and incorrect. In fact, I feel compelled to use a new Britishism I just learned (when someone tossed it at me over a difference in opinion about technology). Such accusations are nothing more than pish and tosh.
Isis and others criticized Gee for publishing a piece in Futures called “Womanspace.” This Science Fiction story by a South African (male) scientist imagined a place (Womanspace) where women go, and generally only they are allowed, when shopping, mainly at the mall. In this space, a parallel universe, women successfully negotiate the process of effective shopping and finding things that elude capture … in a shopping as hunting and gathering sense … by men.
It is fairly easy to characterize Womanspace as a sexist story because it reifies male-female differences at a deep level (different universes may be seen as at least as deterministic as different genes). And when I read that story I saw that. But I also saw something else. I’ve spent a lot of time in South Africa. Most of that time was spent in the field doing research and assisted by my very good friend and field logical organizer Lynn. Womanspace inspired me to write a piece of my own called “Manspace” which is a tribute to Lynn. Go read it. But while the majority of my time spent there was in the field, the rest of it involved spending disproportionate amounts of time shopping. Anyone who has done a lot of fieldwork will understand this. You need to bring to the field all supplies for several weeks at a time, so the periods one spends “back home” (for me, Kimberly, Pretoria, or Johannesburg) one is shopping for stuff. Much of that time was spent in one or another mall, in part because that is where the stuff is (in South Africa even the grocery stores are in malls), and in part because that is where Lynn ran a dive shop. For those of you who are, say, middle class Americans living in a city or suburb, you would find that experience interesting. Malls are taken to a much higher level in South Africa than they are in America. I’m pretty sure that at least one South African mall is bigger than the famous Mall of America. Most importantly, though, they are designed to confuse you. They are multi-dimensional houses of mirrors where instead of mirrors there are multiple incarnations of shops that look alike but are not the same, which always seem to move their locations. Lynn, as resident and also as super-competent was never lost and I always was lost. Womanspace made me chuckle. It represents a South African middle-class trope with which I was familiar and makes fun of it. Unfortunately this was not noticed, and I suppose there is no way it could have been noticed, by the critics of that piece who were ignorant of the cultural reference.
In any event, Isis and a few others have been on what looks a lot like a crusade against both Henry Gee and Nature Publishing group with this piece of fiction … Womanspace … being proffered as primary evidence that the publishing edifice is the Dark Tower of sexism and Henry Gee is the Feminist Antichrist.
It is perfectly reasonable to be uncomfortable with Womanspace. That happens with fiction. But it is a little embarrassing to critique it without understanding context. More importantly, it is absurd … a bunch of pish and tosh even … to develop an activist campaign on the basis of disliking one of something like 400 short fiction stories that actually represent an admirable effort on the part of the editor, Henry Gee, to be inclusive and to reach out to a diverse set of authors.
Isis, for her part, has suggested that she is not especially affected by her outing. But she has also taken the opportunity of accusing Henry Gee, who has been with Nature in good standing for 27 years, of being likely to reveal the names of anonymous reviewers and authors. I regard that accusation as nothing more than another helping of pish and tosh. Nothing more than the talk of a bully. Again, from Henry:
It should not be a surprise, however, to learn that I take pseudonymity and anonymity very seriously. This is part of my responsibility as an editor of Nature. Some people write to Nature anonymously and trust us to respect that anonymity. As you may know, if you have submitted material to Nature and had it reviewed, the referees of papers submit their reports under condition of anonymity unless they specifically ask for their identities to be revealed. The reasons for this are similar to those that prompt writers to adopt pseudonyms: if we want referees to speak frankly about competitors or colleagues, these referees should be accorded the privilege of anonymity. …
As part of my job I am bound to take identities of referees of papers I’ve handled to the grave, and I adhere to this rule as strongly now as I always have during my 26 years of service.
I don’t think it is fair, appropriate, or correct to assume that Henry will not act professionally in his position as editor at Nature or in any other capacity.
Isis and some of her crew have been bullies on the Internet for a long time. She and her comrade, “Physioprof,” and maybe some others, are credited with making the community of bloggers at Scienceblogs.com, in the pre-Pepsigate days, so toxic that many bloggers left. If that had been a traditional workplace, and they had acted in a similar manner, they would have been fired. (I saw this happen but I’ve also been told this by a number of those bloggers) … and Physiprof continued to carry out his obnoxious antics subsequent to this, elsewhere and in general. I almost didn’t join Freethought Blogs back in the day because he was there, and between the time I did join FTB.com and eventually resigned from that gig, he did what he could to make it less than comfortable. But I digress.
It is reasonable to be disappointed that Henry outed Isis. Simply put, he should not have done that. We live, on the internet, in a place with few or even no rules that are agreed on or “official” but with certain expectations, and the expectation of preservation of anonymity is generally reasonable. But it is also true that harassment or bullying happens, and if an anonymous person spends enough time sniping from behind that anonymous rampart than it is not reasonable for such individuals to expect everyone else to facilitate their behavior, especially their victims. Prior to Henry Gee’s decision he was subject to undue and unreasonable bullying by Isis, and was clearly a victim.
One final point, which despite being obvious rarely seems to factor into people’s behavior. The perfect storm of upset that arose from the DN Lee post take-down, the Bora take-down, the declaration of Henry Gee as the Feminist Anti-Christ, and the cries for boycott of Nature Publishing Group are examples of the tendency to accuse, try, convict, sentence, and severely punish perceived (real or not) transgressions to the Nth degree. I’m not sure if this eSociological phenomenon is more akin to a Monty Python-esque Medieval witch hunt or immature middle-school antics. Henry Gee was subject to ruination of his career and depression-inducing depression because some people did not like one of four hundred pieces of short fiction he was editor for. That would be a rather steep penalty even if Womanspace was the most sexist piece of literature ever written (though it was not).
This is pure pish and tosh when we consider the fact that promoting women and diversity, and promoting science generally, are shared goals of every single individual explicitly mentioned or implied as involved in this large scale conversation. We can be better than this.
(This post was updated Feb 11 AM, mainly by adding the last couple of paragraphs and some links.)