Discussing sexual misconduct in STEM in our post-Weinstein world

Boy oh boy have we been entering lots of “new eras” lately. The Geoff Marcy story really did usher in a new era in which reporters were far more interested in writing about sexual misconduct in the sciences, and scientists were far more open to reading such stories. Subsequent stories about other researchers, such as Christian Ott, got researchers thinking that creeps from their institution could also one day end up in the news — you might call that another “new era” that we entered.

And now, just this year, we’ve entered new “new era,” in which the revelations about Harvey Weinstein have opened the floodgates: people we’ve heard of (e.g., Kevin Spacey, Louis CK) and people we haven’t heard of (e.g., producers named Andrew Kreisberg and Gary Goddard) are seeing their careers go up in smoke as women and men come forward with testimony of having been sexually assaulted and harassed.

This “new era” coincides, roughly, with the one-year anniversary of the publication of a news article detailing how a scientist Miguel Pinto sexually assaulted me, and how the Smithsonian screwed up the aftermath in nearly every conceivable way. While it’s exhilirating to see such rapid change in the film industry’s attitudes toward sexual assault, it’s also maddening to see that such progress has not occurred in science or in academia.

This “new era” that we’re in has had profound impacts on Hollywood but appears to have had no impact at all whatsoever on STEM. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case.

Everyone was forced to condemn Weinstein

Kate Winslet has worked with Roman Polanski, of drugging-and-raping-a-child-and-then-fleeing-the-country fame, and with Woody Allen, of marrying-his-step-daughter-after-being-accused-of-molesting-another-step-daughter fame.

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You want a picture of Kate Winslet putting her arm around an admitted child rapist? Here you go.

When the Weinstein story broke, there was no reason to wonder whether Kate Winslet would be offended by a powerful Hollywood man violating women who are not Kate Winslet. Yet Winslet released a statement to Variety about Weinstein. All of Hollywood was pressured into denouncing a sexual predator. And while we may doubt that all of these statements really were genuine, it is nevertheless encouraging that hypocrites felt they had to pretend to care. This really is a new development, a sign that we are in a “new era.”

But in STEM, we don’t see these universal condemnations of known sexual assailants. When it was reported that Miguel Pinto sexually assaulted me, one of his male labmates from the Smithsonian briefly acknowledged these revelations and made it about himself, while another deleted a photo of Pinto that he had tweeted and otherwise remained silent. A self-aggrandizing female scientist — who has used the issue of sexual misconduct as an opportunity to bring additional attention to herself — issued a sweeping-but-vague condemnation of sexual misconduct to the reporter who broke the Pinto story, but refused to say anything about Pinto himself.

Imagine that, three days after the Weinstein story broke, Winslet had issued a statement in which she criticized sexual assault but didn’t name Weinstein (or anyone else). Imagine, further, that the vast majority of Winslet’s colleagues had remained silent about Weinstein. That’s where the scientific community was one year ago, and that’s still where we are today.

Weinstein’s enablers and friends were called out

Imagine we enter a new world, rather than a new era: a world in which all sexual predators lose their jobs and are cast out of their industries as soon as their victims speak to the press. Even if we did live in such a world, victims wouldn’t be able to rest easy: if and when you end the career of a predator, his enablers and friends can still try to destroy you.

While the Weinstein revelations are typically discussed in terms of the sheer number of victims, the severity of his crimes, and their occasional strangeness (e.g., the potted plant thing), what is truly most important here is that Weinstein’s enablers and friends were also called out for their role in this saga. Lisa Bloom insisted that Weinstein felt “chagrined” after getting called out for sexual assault. NBC didn’t move forward with Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein, so Farrow had to go to the New Yorker instead. Both Lisa Bloom and NBC have been called out on their bullshit. Quentin Tarantino was called out on having known about Weinstein’s proclivities for years, while continuing to work with him.

How many scientists have been called out for knowing exactly who [Geoff Marcy/Christian Ott/Brian Richmond/Miguel Pinto] was, and for continuing to work with him anyway? Every single one of these men has countless Tarantinos of their own, and many seem to have had at least one enabler. Yet these enablers are barely mentioned when news stories initially break and are subsequently ignored.

In my own case, Miguel Pinto’s advisor, Kris Helgen, brought Pinto into his lab in 2015; in 2011, Pinto confessed to Helgen that he had sexually assaulted me. That’s right, the Smithsonian’s (disgraced, former) Curator of Mammals brought a known sexual assailant into his lab in the National Museum of Natural History. Helgen fought tooth-and-nail against any protections that would have kept Pinto away from me, and went on to make some pretty outrageous statements in writing:

  • Helgen acted like the assault was no big deal because “Miguel thought he was flirting with” me.
  • Four years after Pinto confessed to Helgen that he is a sexual assailant, Helgen wrote, “I have a very high opinion of Miguel, both in terms of academic background and conduct.”
  • Helgen wrote that my advisor’s demonstrably accurate statements “could be unfairly damaging to Miguel and even grounds for claims of defamation.”

Don’t believe me? Read Helgen’s whole e-mail here.

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Left: Hands that grab without consent. Right: Mouth that spews b.s. accusations of “defamation.”

And yet, it would be an understatement to say that Helgen has not been held accountable for this obvious enabling. Just a few months before the Pinto story broke, the self-proclaimed intersectional feminists of science Twitter were competing with each other to see who could most thoroughly kiss Helgen’s ass. When the Pinto story came out, all of a sudden nobody had anything to say about Helgen. It’s reminiscent of how certain comedians care very, very much about women’s issues — until one of their colleagues is named as a sexual predator.

Imagine that, since the Weinstein story broke, Tarantino had remained completely silent about knowingly collaborating with a sexual assailant. Imagine, further, that any Weinstein victim who said that Tarantino should apologize was attacked by self-proclaimed “feminists” in her industry. That’s where the scientific community was one year ago, and that’s still where we are today.

Connecting the dots is done for movies but not for science

The New York Times published interviews with five women who said that Louis CK had engaged in similar sexual misconduct toward them. A mere two days later, the New Yorker published this epic takedown of CK’s latest movie, connecting the dots between CK’s professional output, his public image, and his depravity.

In addition to the New Yorker’s brilliant article, men in Hollywood who have been publicly outed as sexual assailant have largely been shunned. CK’s movie won’t be promoted, much less distributed, and production was immediately halted for Kevin Spacey’s TV series. Sure, one could argue that we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater and that all movies associated with a sexual assailant aren’t necessarily inherently and completely bad. But the profound professional consequences faced by sexual assailants send a message to victims: this issue is finally being taken seriously (in Hollywood).

Sexual assailants in STEM tend to be a self-aggrandizing bunch. Yet this self-aggrandizement is encouraged by certain journalists and by some other scientists. These people collectively engage in a circle jerk in which self-promotion is exalted as “science communication,” which is judged not by its merit or effectiveness but by the enthusiasm with which it is performed. If you’re a scientist who has spent zero time honing your public speaking skills, and if you lack the intellectual capacity to identify and answer interesting questions, you can still talk about yourself for hours on end — and your bosses and colleagues will praise your commitment to outreach. “Science communication” is often a means through which predators and enablers endear themselves, such that reporters won’t go too hard on them and their colleagues will remain silent when the truth is finally revealed.

Nobody ever connects the dots between self-aggrandizement — er, “science communication” — and sexual assault. The Orchard has been criticized by the New Yorker for indulging CK’s bullshit, but I haven’t seen science journalists engage in any introspection at all whatsoever for contributing to the sort of cult of personality that emboldens predators and enablers.

One day after Louis CK admitted to being a sexual predator, he was fired from working on a children’s movie. This isn’t hard to understand — sexual predators should not be promoted to children. Young children shouldn’t be encouraged to idolize sexual predators.

But compare this to the Smithsonian’s actions. Barely a month after it became public knowledge that Miguel Pinto is a sexual assailant and that Kris Helgen isn’t exactly Wonder Woman, the Smithsonian held a special event to promote a children’s book about the “olinguito,” a well-known subspecies that was elevated to species status after Helgen, Pinto, and friends discovered a tag that a dead man had left on a museum specimen. This children’s book prominently features Miguel Pinto (like CK, except he grabs your ass instead of grabbing his own dick) and Kris Helgen (Pinto’s #1 fan), and the event was held in the building where Pinto sexually assaulted me.

To my knowledge, I am the only person who made any public statements criticizing the Smithsonian for promoting a children’s book about a sexual assailant, in a building where he committed sexual assault. To understand a more typical response, check out this tweet from another Smithsonian curator:

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Thank you @khelgen for promoting a children’s book that prominently features a known sexual assailant!

Imagine that, when the Weinstein story broke, he simply moved to a different production company and kept working in Hollywood. And imagine that a special event was held, in a hotel where Weinstein had previously committed sexual assault, in which his top enabler promoted a children’s book about him. That’s where the scientific community was one year ago, and that’s still where we are today.

Hollywood doesn’t have a reporting system

The Smithsonian’s policies allow the Institution to give postdoctoral fellowships to known sexual assailants, in the building where they committed sexual assault. My understanding is that the Smithsonian’s policies also prohibit administrators from firing curators after “only one” offense, such that a curator can commit sexual assault, the victim can follow all of the procedures to a t, and the curator will face little or no consequences and will only leave the Smithsonian if they choose to do so.

So there’s not much point in reporting sexual misconduct, because little or nothing is done about it, and administrators treat you terribly the whole time. (I am far from the only person who has had a terrible experience reporting sexual misconduct.) Press coverage is a typical prerequisite for any meaningful change: Geoff Marcy “retired” not after his university found that he had engaged in sexual misconduct, but after this became public knowledge; Miguel Pinto was banned from the Smithsonian not after he admitted to sexually assaulting me, and not after I had raised hell time and again, but after this became public knowledge. So for many victims, going public is their only shot at any sort of justice. But if you don’t file a report, media lawyers will make it damn near impossible for any reporter to publish a story on your experiences.

In academia and in STEM, victims are therefore put into a soul-crushing bind in which we must spend our time and our emotional energy on a useless process (reporting with our institutions) if we want any shot at getting a sexual predator out of our workplace. We must endure months, if not years, of bullshit and mistreatment before any reporter can publish an investigation into our experiences.

However, because Hollywood doesn’t have this sort of worse-than-useless reporting system, reporters can publish on credible allegations very shortly after they are made.

The institutional reporting system is a leaky pipeline through which victims become disheartened and give up before they can go to the press, causing victims in STEM to speak to journalists far less often than is the case for Hollywood.

Entertainment reporters are more critical than science reporters

There is no “Rotten Tomatoes” in which journalists take a critical look at scientific papers, books, and conference proceedings; the vast majority of science that gets journalistic attention, is praised. Science journalists write breathlessly glowing stories about researchers who are not yet publicly known to be assailants or enablers, and when the truth comes out about scientists who are assailants or enablers, these same journalists have little or nothing to say.

I had hoped that, in the two years since the Geoff Marcy story broke, science journalists would fawn noticeably less over prominent scientists. That hasn’t really happened; a few science journalists have specialized in covering sexual misconduct, and the rest have continued worshipping at the altar of This Man From A Fancy Institution Who Says His Latest Discovery Is Very Important And Who Is Willing To Let Me Interview Him.

So where does this leave us?

In the year since the Pinto story broke, the Smithsonian has not shown any signs of revising its disgustingly useless policies. It made us take a new Prevention of Workplace Harassment Training module; this module contradicts itself on what counts as actionable misconduct, and omits key details about how victims can actually file a report. Other institutions, such as UC Berkeley, show no signs of having gotten their act together, either.

It was science journalism that got Marcy, Ott, Pinto, et al. out of the institutions where they engaged in misconduct. Not the good will of senior scientists, and certainly not integrity among administrators. Science journalism is still by and large our only hope, but few science journalists are willing to confront this issue head-on and there doesn’t seem to be any audience demanding thoughtful, comprehensive criticism of the ways in which press coverage and academic culture enable sexual predators.

What can we do about this?

If you’re a member of the general public, you can contact well-meaning science journalists and use the New Yorker’s article on CK as an example of the sort of analysis you’d like to read. You can also contact the publishers (yes, plural) that are promoting children’s books that feature Miguel Pinto, and use CK being fired from a children’s movie as an example of responsible communication toward minors. Perhaps most importantly, you can seek out nuanced science journalism, and you can let your favorite news outlets know that you prefer critical science writing over breathless fawning.

You can tell the American Museum of Natural History that you don’t plan to visit as long as they continue to uncritically present their video promoting admitted sexual assailant Miguel Pinto. You can say the same thing to the Smithsonian about their video promoting admitted sexual assailant Miguel Pinto. Et cetera.

And if you’re a science journalist, then for the sake of all that you consider holy, please don’t promote any media that exalts the “discoveries” of a known sexual assailant. When you have to make decisions about covering a researcher who is a known sexual predator, ask yourself, what would an entertainment reporter do if this person were Harvey Weinstein? Think critically about whether you’re being used as a mouthpiece for nerdy narcissists. If your editor doesn’t want to publish nuanced, critical science journalism, you can still make a difference by promoting such journalism on social media. And while you’re at it, you can amplify the voices of assaulted researchers by sharing their blog posts on social media.

If you’re a scientist, please please please please please stop collaborating with known sexual predators. Don’t send your manuscripts to journals whose editor-in-chief sexually harasses his own students in writing, don’t invite a PI who lost a harrasment lawsuit to be the keynote speaker in your conference symposium, etc.

If you have any sort of permanent job, the biggest way to make an impact is to speak on the record to journalists in support of those of us who have been victimized. Go back and read all the articles that broke stories about sexual misconduct in STEM and in academia — is there a single one that doesn’t feature a tenure-track or tenured scientist speaking out about a particular instance of sexual misconduct?

Don’t ever brush off sexual misconduct because the victim(s) didn’t come to you — instead, ask yourself what you can do so that victims will feel comfortable coming to you in the future. When discussing sexual misconduct, go beyond platitudes. Show that you’re willing to stand up to predators in your discipline; don’t be one of those people who makes grand proclamations, but clams up as soon as one of their colleagues or friends is mentioned. If left to their own devices, institutions will never treat victims with respect; use your privilege to contact administrators and let them know that you take the issue of sexual misconduct seriously.

If Hollywood actors and entertainment reporters can take sexual misconduct seriously, then so can scientists and science journalists — if we ever muster the willpower to pull our heads out of the sand.

Postscript

I recently got an e-mail from Clare Fieseler, who works as a freelancer for National Geographic, saying the following:

I’m a photographer who has been asked by the EIC of National Geographic Magazine to identify women willing to speak openly about their experiences with sexual harassment in the sciences. NG is interested in doing an interview series accompanied by portraits to the wake of the Weinstein news. An NG writer and I are hoping a science-focused story inspires other women in the sciences to come forward about harrassment. As you know, National Geographic has a substantial, wide-reaching platform.

I read about your experience at the Smithsonian in the Verge last year. I was horrified.

In a subsequent e-mail, Fieseler clarified that she really did want to take and publish a picture of my face; she claimed that when she initially contacted me, she did not know that “Angie” is a pseudonym. So let’s review the issues with this e-mail:

  • National Geographic supposedly publishes on science, not celebrity news, so it’s quite telling that the stories about Marcy et al. had no impact on National Geographic, and that revelations about a man with zero scientific credentials were what finally got them interested in this issue.
  • National Geographic demonstrated its seriousness with regards to this issue by choosing, as a liaison to victims, a woman who supposedly can’t recognize pseudonyms. (The Verge made it very clear that Angie is not my name, and if I had gone public with my name, would one not expect some sort of last name to be involved? I’m just “Angie”; I’m not “Angie K. Edwards-McHugh.”)
  • Fieseler advertises her (alleged) connections to the Smithsonian on her Twitter and Instagram accounts, and acknowledged upfront that she knows I was assaulted at the Smithsonian. But she never mentioned to me that she is (allegedly) affiliated with the Institution. There’s no way I’d ever trust this woman to do an adequate job of communicating the way I have been, and continue to be, treated there.
  • Fieseler appears to have a conflict of interest in covering sexual assault at the institution with which she claims to be associated, but if that somehow weren’t enough, National Geographic also has a conflict of interest in that the National Geographic Society employs Kris Helgen as a tour guide and makes money when people sign up to take a trip with him. A society called “National Geographic” employs the man who enabled my assailant, and I’m supposed to trust a magazine called “National Geographic” to do a good job of reporting on my experiences?

The Weinstein revelations have, at best, gotten science news outlets to make a feeble attempt to photograph the women who have already come forward.

Update (13 December 2017)

National Geographic, the magazine whose freelancer asks to photograph pseudonymous sexual assault victims, has two stories that are showing up all over social media today. The first is a story from 2014 in which National Geographic says that more women should get into science. The second is a feature about a new taxonomic revision of anteaters. Kris Helgen is not a coauthor of this study, is not listed in the acknowledgements, and is barely cited in the paper, but National Geographic quotes him anyway. What’s more, immediately below his quote is a photograph of a female scientist actually contributing to this study, and her name is not mentioned:

So, just in case National Geographic’s priorities were somehow unclear until this point, the magazine has left no room for doubt. They’ll continue to provide uncritical publicity to a self-aggrandizing enabler, and can’t be bothered to show basic respect to female scientists.

Thanks to an anonymous friend (you know who you are) for bringing the anteater story to my attention.

Written by

I was sexually assaulted at the Smithsonian in 2011, and the museum administration continues to mishandle my case. Here I write about ways to move forward.

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