Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Never do this as a representative of #sciencetwitter

I'm in a different space than the neurosciences, and definitely a different space than those who have been vying to represent the #metoo movement in the sciences. I try to be an ally as best as possible. That's all. I do expect a level of honesty, but I don't think that's too much to ask. A lot of people, especially early career researchers and others who are in tenuous situations use platforms such as Twitter to express concerns of theirs pseudonymously. In and of itself, that doesn't matter much. People share their experiences, they seem to add up, and we figure out how to best support them. That's swell.

Sometimes, we experience something else.

I'll start with something fairly basic: It's hard to be alive in the US right now without directly knowing at least one person who has tested positive for COVID-19. I am personal friends with someone who was eventually diagnosed as COVID-19 positive, and who, after roughly two months, made a complete recovery. Keep in mind that I live in a more remote part of the US, and your mileage may vary.

So imagine that I catch wind that someone I had some vague recollection of is reported to have died from COVID-19, after her institution allegedly kept her in classrooms for several weeks after it was very obvious that the proverbial truth had hit the fan (to borrow from proto-rapper Gylan Kain). Keep in mind that although I had no direct interaction with this particular cyberfiction, as far as I know, the thought of a faculty member being placed in harm's way was one that would concern me for very obvious reasons. Would a US college or university continue to coerce a faculty member to teach seated courses after early to mid-March? The odds are unlikely. In my very Red state of Arkansas, we were given an extra week of spring break starting the second week of March to enable faculty to flip classes to online. My understanding is that Arizona did something very similar.

Here's the thing. The story did not add up. The cyberfiction's alleged university (Arizona State University - I had to make sure that it was not Arkansas State University, which is also referred to as ASU and which has grad programs) had no clue as to who this person was or any indication that one of their own faculty had allegedly died from COVID-19. Turns out those who considered this cyberfiction as personal friends had never met the person. Note that when dealing with pseudonymous bloggers and social media accounts, there may well be a real person. Note too that it is possible to know someone who wrote under a pseudonym who really did die, and that said death could be confirmed independently. Been there. It hurt. A bunch of us mourned. We got on with life. That said, I also have experienced at least once where someone used a sockpuppet to fake a suicide (that was back in Usenet days). Let's just say that did not go over well. A sleuth was able to put two and two together and sort out that perp of the hoax was the alleged victim. Thankfully, the truth came out, and the perp was deservedly roasted.

In the meantime, someone who was once considered the face of #metoostem is facing a lot of inconvenient questions she will likely never answer. I expect nothing less. Cosplaying on Twitter an identity that one would have no way of rightfully identifying creates a lot of collateral damage. For those who actually believed that they were interacting with a real individual, there was an initial sense of a genuine loss, followed by a sense of being duped. For those who had less of a horse in the race, as it were, this episode may reinforce the worst of #metoostem. That latter lesson is one I hope is not reinforced. For every liar, there are a ton of people who have been abused, dismissed, etc. who deserve to be heard. That a privileged White woman may well have faked a relationship that was professional and personal for whatever reason is beyond the pale. That this person may have faked being an indigenous person - and especially one belonging to the LGBTQ community - is beyond the pale.

In the meantime, #metoostem deserves new and diverse voices. The one person who was most vocal may not have been much of an ally.

Following are some Twitter threads and articles to provide some much needed context.

Here's some sleuthing from Aspiring Leftist Academic, and Keiko has a good thread summarizing this situation as it unfolds. More sleuthing by Isabel Ott.

Here's an article from Buzzfeed.

Gizmodo weighs in.

Heavy had its own deep dive into this particular saga.

Daily Beast had its own article, which did include a brief interview with BethAnn McLaughlin.

Science Magazine has its own coverage, noting that the apparently faked account in question (what I refer to as a cyberfiction), @sciencing_bi and @mclneuro are both suspended under Twitter's rules. Twitter has also restricted the @MeTooStem account due to unusual activity.

And yes, this story has made its way to Inside Higher Ed, as does Chronicle of Higher Ed (note Chronicle article is paywalled)

Since this was a situation that initially appeared to have some connection to Arizona State University, it is reasonable to expect that AZcentral would cover it.

Note that depending on the media outlet, McLaughlin has varied in her willingness to respond. Her responses themselves are troubling - including an admission that she had access to the @sciencing_bi account. I suspect that the media outlets own reporting was aided considerably by various sleuthing efforts on Twitter (@endlesswarrio, @mbeisen, @isabelott, and probably others I am forgetting at the moment), who dug up inconsistencies, as well as dug up stock photos that were passed off as authentic events, including alleged meetups between @sciencing_bi and @mclneuro, as well as the supposed trip to Yosemite that turned out to just be @mclneuro and her daughter.

There are some questions that have been circulating for a while about whether or not BethAnn McLaughlin was involved in some data image manipulation/duplication. That's above my pay grade, but certainly worth a look.

In the meantime, my sympathy and empathy to anyone who got hurt during this debacle. I expected more out of Science Twitter than a bunch of wannabe authors of really bad fanfic. Yet here we are. This is a cautionary tale. I really hope that those who are genuinely under-represented as scholars - not only on Twitter but within our various disciplines writ large - were not unduly harmed here, and that their voices get heard and respected.

Note that I have added some new links to this post as I become aware of them.This post was last updated on August 4.

One last update for this post: Bethann McLaughlin finally admits it (through her lawyer), as reported in the NYT. Make of her apology what you will. Not sure if it is sincere, or more of a move to avoid being held accountable. I am not intending on commenting further on the matter unless there is some blowback that is relevant to those who work hard to make the sciences more inclusive. Otherwise, we're done here as of August 4.

Last update as of August 6: This article from ArsTechnica slipped through the cracks. It's useful for describing how a fake account could be seen as a plausible real person, and how @Sciencing_Bi would have fooled a lot of otherwise skeptical people. Also included are plenty of screen shots. The fallout is still to be determined. I am guessing this will make it easier for trolls to attack pseudonymous Twitter users who have legitimate reasons to not be identified by name, as well as add more ammo to push back against the Me Too Movement more broadly, as well as those who are marginalized to begin with. Okay. We're done here.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Where things stand

I decided a couple years ago that trying to pretend to be even an R-2 researcher was unrealistic, and that the basics that I do, and have done since 2000, are good enough. Some years I mentor undergrad students. Some years I don't. I still have some occasional collaborators, but thankfully we work based one each others' life circumstances. Over the last couple years, my line of "my primary project is our side project" has meant something. I work primarily in a classroom - physically or virtually (the latter especially in the era of COVID-19). My service is primarily to my students obtaining degrees and me somehow managing to serve my campus community. The rest is gravy. In the meantime, I am grateful to the extent that my state manages to keep enough of us employed. How long that lasts is an unknown. I may well be teaching English in Thailand before all is said and done.

We'll just have to see how well that the Federal Government supports states and localities. If that happens, I have very little to worry about, and the likelihood of me expatriating in a completely different capacity are minimal. Time will tell.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Wow, that escalated quickly

An article published last year, Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons, is now in the spotlight. It's probably not the first in this genre of studies, but it is very recent. And it's trending all over Twitter (the hashtag #MedBikini is now a thing). I suspect the disturbing thing is the subset of male authors who created spoof accounts to collect whatever data they collected. I agree with Dr. Bik's assessment that it comes across as creepy (and yeah, I also agree that is not an objective statement, but more of a visceral reaction). Something like this in my domain comes to me inbox for peer review, I would have had pointed questions, including how this got through an IRB. The categories of behavior themselves are not necessarily as objective as they are billed, which would be a concern as well. But yeah, it got published, and it's definitely making the rounds on social media. The authors are not particularly enjoying their newly-found fame. Not surprised.

Higher Ed is Being Starved, Redux

I had a few words over a year ago, when a global pandemic was not even something I was contemplating. If anything, the situation has deteriorated. The pandemic decimated state budgets in the US. Many of us are facing budget cuts that vary from bad to draconian depending on the state. Those of us who serve students who are first-generation and who are considered "essential employees" have been hit the hardest. Look. I'm just old enough to remember when students did not need to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans in order to benefit tangibly or benefit on an intellectual level from higher ed. For those who are still curious about the tangible benefits? Those with at least some higher ed experience or who earned a 4-year degree are faring better during this particular pandemic-induced recession/depression than those without. What we offer is still an equalizer. Heck, it was a means of allowing one of my family lines to dig their way out of poverty. My dad was a first generation college student, college grad, and Masters student. He had one heck of a career. He had his challenges, but by the time he was finally willing to retire, he could do so in comfort. All of us deserve that. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it's that we need to go back to a model of colleges and universities as public goods, as utilities of a sort. We provide critical thinking skills, a knowledge base, and some very specific skills, and our students do the rest. How it was supposed to be all along.

Monday, July 20, 2020


Over the weekend, I learned that one of my former doctoral professors, Russell Geen, had passed away. Russ was one of two social psychologists on faculty at what was then the Department of Psychology at University of Missouri-Columbia (or Mizzou as we like to call it). When I came on board as a doctoral student, Russ was near retirement and was neither taking on new students nor agreeing to sit on thesis or dissertation committees. My advisor at the time made that point crystal clear to me.

Russ was still handling some editorial chores, was actively writing, and actively teaching. It was in that last capacity that I probably got to know him best. He offered a course on Motivation from time to time. I got the pleasure of sitting in on that seminar in 1996 during the winter semester. What I remember most from that particular course was Russ's demeanor. Unlike a lot of people who might be considered big names in their particular research domains, Russ was humble and down-to-earth. He wasn't much for jargon, or for droning on about his h-index or any of that nonsense. He just struck me as a guy who really enjoyed sharing what he knew and showing the rest of us some paths for discovering that knowledge ourselves. In some ways, the course almost came across as a history of motivation research. Given Russ's penchant for the history of psychology in general. I may have first learned about some of the juicier details of the early history of the department in that class - turns out one of the early founders of what eventually became Frustration-Aggression Theory was a Mizzou alum. I don't know directly what he was like in the lab, but a friend of mine who was his last doctoral student referred to Russ as a bit of a taskmaster. My friend was not complaining. I got the impression that they had developed a great working relationship and friendship.

Russ and his wife Barbara held a gathering for social psych area students (and spouses) and faculty around the start of each year during my first two or three years I was a student at Mizzou. Their house was a stately two-story house located in an upscale historical district in CoMo. Even with the impressive digs and the impressive spread of food and beverages they'd had catered, the event seemed very down-to-earth. We'll just say it always appeared to me that a good time was had by all.

My one regret was not formally taking the history of emotion theory and research seminar he offered in early 1999. I did audit it, and did sit in on a few sessions. One of the reasons I know that one can find a coherent theory of emotion in Homer's epic poems is thanks to one of those sessions. He did warn that the history of emotion theory and research was as messy as actual emotion. He was right about that. At the time, I was dividing my attention between doing the groundwork for a dissertation prospectus as I transitioned between advisors, finishing up some lab chores in Anderson's lab before he headed to greener pastures at Iowa State, and my work as a TA and lab instructor. Along with parenting a toddler, I had my hands a bit full. I had to choose my battles wisely.

Russ was one of a handful of friendly faces at an R-1 institution notorious for less-than-friendly faces. If I passed him in a hallway or somewhere around town, I could always count on a greeting and some conversation. I still keep in my personal library the two editions of the text on aggression that Russ authored, as well as several books on aggression that he co-edited. I am saddened by his passing. He was genuinely one of the good ones, and at times they seem to be a bit few and far between.

Note: The image comes from here. It is the one that we would have seen on one of the walls of McAlester Hall where the photos of all of the faculty were put on display.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

It pays to read charts correctly

This post is a brutal takedown of a false claim about the average full-time college/university faculty salary in the US. Turns out that the average salary at PhD granting universities for those at the rank of full professor is pretty impressive. Of course it is worth keeping in mind that not only does one's mileage vary depending on one's rank, but also location within the US, which is not something that chart was designed to disclose. So it goes. It pays to read a chart correctly. Regrettably, it does not add to one's compensation (if only), but at least in terms of being correctly informed and not making a complete fool of one's self.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Comment Policy

I will probably make this into a page, but I do think it is useful for my readers to understand my view on comments. Whenever I make a new post, like this one, I open up a two week window in which anyone can make a comment and have it immediately show up. After that, comments are moderated. From my perspective, there are a couple basic rules about comments. First, and foremost, comments must be on-topic. Spam is not welcome under any circumstance, and I will delete any comment that appears to be spam. That is non-negotiable. So, for this post, on-topic comments would be ones discussing my comments policy. Personally, I imagine that will be a rather dry conversation, but I could be wrong. Spam has usually been more of a concern with older posts, but those get caught up in moderation. My second rule is that any conversation is kept civil. I think that is especially important because I do take some positions that may step on some toes, are controversial, and hence could invite heated exchanges (at least potentially). It's okay to disagree. It's okay to point out a mistake. It's okay to have suggestions that help me as I formulate my thoughts on a particular matter. If the comment is directed toward an older post, that's fine too - just realize it will be in moderation limbo for a moment. Someone has an idea or has seen research that may be beneficial? I want to know. If someone sees an old post and wants to tell me that it didn't age well, I don't mind that either. Chances are I've already noticed and may have even blogged about it. But bottom line is that I won't tolerate abusive behavior in comments either. Really those haven't been issues. This is not exactly a well-known blog, nor am I particularly well-known, so for the most part, it falls beneath the cracks. That may or may not change. For now, I'll maintain my current approach, but if I notice an uptick in spam, especially, I may just make moderation of comments the default. I really want to avoid that. Okay. Back to our regular programming.