A month ago, a researcher named David Yesner attended the 84th annual meeting of the Society of American Archaeology. Yesner had already been banned from the University of Alaska campus where he taught for decades, following a Title IX investigation that substantiated many complaints of his horrendous behavior.
When the Title IX findings about Yesner’s behavior had become public knowledge, the Alaska Anthropological Association acted quickly to ban him— showing that it is possible for scientific societies to act decisively when leadership possesses the will to protect its membership from sexual misconduct. Various other scientific societies, from the American Geophysical Union to the Tree-Ring Society, have demonstrated that it is indeed possible to ban known sexual predators and revoke their awards, and that this can happen within a matter of days or weeks.
Various scientific societies have demonstrated that it is indeed possible to ban known sexual predators and revoke their awards, and that this can happen within a matter of days or weeks.
Unfortunately, for organizations like the Alaska Anthropological Association or the Tree-Ring Society, there are plenty of scientific societies that refuse to implement meaningful Codes of Conduct and ban known sexual predators from their meetings. There’s no excuse for this behavior in 2019, because so many organizations have already gotten their act together.
The societies that refuse to protect their membership from sexual misconduct lie to victims and our allies in four ways: (1) pretending that any Code of Conduct is good enough, (2) pretending that they have to reinvent the wheel, (3) pretending that it takes months or years to ban a sexual predator, and (4) relying on “science communication” to drown out victims’ voices.
Pretending that any Code of Conduct is good enough
In September of 2017 — before Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement gained traction from news reports on Harvey Weinstein’s behavior — the American Geophysical Union (AGU) revised its Code of Conduct (CoC), leading the way for all other scientific societies. Now anyone who receives an award from AGU or runs for a leadership position must self-report past findings of sexual misconduct. AGU members can and do lose their privileges — including getting their awards revoked — for misconduct, including sexual misconduct. The AGU’s reporting system clearly discusses how confidentiality will be respected. The AGU has an entire document outlining its conflict of interest policy. The AGU makes it clear that you don’t need to be a member to report misconduct.
The AGU’s CoC is the gold standard, and now, other scientific societies can simply copy-and-paste this policy, adopting it as their own. But instead, scientific societies are implementing weak CoCs, or revising their CoCs without making necessary changes, and acting as if that’s enough.
The American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) gave pretty much all of its student awards to a researcher named Miguel Pinto. Almost three years ago, a journalist published Pinto’s written admission to having sexually assaulted multiple women. There is no reason for the ASM not to have revoked Pinto’s awards and banned him from their meeting back in 2016. Instead, the cowards in charge of the ASM implemented a new CoC that’s so remarkably weak that it won’t ban Pinto unless he sexually assaults yet another woman at one of their meetings. And ASM leadership is pretending that this is progress.
The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has behaved similarly. Washington Post science reporter Joel Achenbach is a known sexual harasser who, as a bonus, leveraged his journalistic prominence to promote a creepy scientist. Because Achenbach’s sexual-misconduct proclivities have been public knowledge since 2018, I asked NASW officer Kendall Powell — who I have previously been in contact with — whether the NASW has banned Achenbach from its meetings. That was weeks ago, and Powell never responded.
The NASW’s recently updated Code of Conduct doesn’t say anything about revoking sexual predators’ awards or banning them from future meetings, doesn’t say anything about confidentiality, doesn’t say anything about conflicts of interest, and doesn’t require officers or award recipients to self-report findings of sexual misconduct. However, the fact that the NASW “recently updated” its CoC is used as an excuse for sending students to the NASW’s annual meeting despite the NASW’s refusal to ban known sexual predators.
The Coleopterists Society is run by a man who disseminated a sexist, racist newsletter for years. Seriously. This dirtbag is the society’s president. Two things happened when the broader scientific community first learned of and condemned the racist, sexist newsletter. First, society leadership lied, claiming that they only found out about the offensive content in April 2018. (The Coleopterists Society’s then-President Elect/now-President was participating in and disseminating that offensive content for years.) Secondly, they made a vague commitment to “amend the constitution of the society to include the requirement of adherence to the code of conduct.” What happens if the society’s president is the reason why they were shamed into implementing this CoC in the first place? Nothing, apparently. Simply claiming to have a CoC is treated as a substitute for strengthening and enforcing it.
Pretending they have to reinvent the wheel
As noted above, there is no excuse for scientific societies not to copy-and-paste the AGU’s Code of Conduct and use it as their own. At least one society has basically done this: the Paleontological Society drafted a comprehensive new CoC following the AGU’s example, and was extremely proactive about soliciting feedback during the comment period. However, the Paleontological Society’s sister society, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), has stuck its head in the sand, acting as if it’s somehow impossible to follow the AGU’s example.
In 2016, for reasons that are widely known among the members of SVP, paleontologist Philip Gingerich wrote this letter complaining that “it is now too easy” to file a sexual harassment complaint. Gingerich basically outed himself as a creep. SVP meetings are a playground for men like Gingerich, as well as this old man who married a 19-year-old and this creepy narcissist who posed for People’s Most Beautiful People and has a shop on his academic website.
The SVP has a useless CoC that is implemented in the stupidest possible way: at their last annual meeting, members of the Ethics Committee told victims to contact them via Twitter, but kept their Direct Messages closed, meaning that victims could only file Twitter-reports if the relevant SVP officers followed them on Twitter. The women who were responsible for this mess apologized belatedly, whereas the man involved — P. David Polly — never apologized.
In the seven months that have passed since this fiasco, SVP has demonstrated zero commitment to fixing its policies and its culture. SVP updated its CoC so that it’s now four paragraphs long instead of one, but the new CoC is still a joke. It doesn’t mention conflicts of interest anywhere. It doesn’t state that all complaints will be treated with confidentiality. It doesn’t reference SVP’s Professional Conduct, Collegiality, and Harassment Policy, which for some strange reason is kept separate from the CoC (is SVP trying to confuse and bewilder victims out of filing a report?) and which shares all of the CoC’s fatal flaws.
But hey, SVP updated its CoC and it’s four times as long as it used to be!
All that SVP needs to do is adopt the AGU or the Paleontological Society’s CoC, apologize for what happened last year, and revoke memberships and awards from known sexual predators. By updating its CoC without fixing any of its deficiencies, SVP is acting as if its leadership needs to reinvent the wheel — when, in reality, all leadership needs to do is copy-and-paste the CoC of a society whose officers are better people.
SVP is acting as if its leadership needs to reinvent the wheel — when, in reality, all leadership needs to do is copy-and-paste the CoC of a society whose officers are better people.
Pretending that it takes months or years to ban a sexual predator
It took the Alaska Anthropological Association less than a month to ban David Yesner once his history of sexual misconduct became public knowledge. When scientific societies actually want to do the right thing, they can do so without delay. But when societies are run by people who won’t do the right thing, and who are too cowardly to just come out and say that they don’t care about sexual harassment, the go-to excuse is that “this takes time.” (An indeterminate amount of time, of course.)
When scientific societies actually want to do the right thing, they can do so without delay.
As noted above, the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) has not banned Miguel Pinto from its meetings even though his confession of being a serial sexual assailant was published years ago. The ASM’s ombuds, Jessica Light, insists that “these things take time” as an excuse for the ASM’s ongoing, years-long cowardice. How much time? Light won’t say. Why does the ASM need years’ worth of “time” to ban a known sexual predator, when the Alaska Anthropological Association only needed a few weeks of time? Light doesn’t say.
Many of Pinto’s victims have had to retraumatize themselves, telling ASM about their ordeals over and over in the hopes that the society will finally act on information that’s been publicly available for years, and the ASM ombuds scolds victims about needing to be more patient.
Pinto’s Ph.D. advisor also jumped in, refusing to acknowledge that Pinto’s behavior has been public knowledge since 2016 and talking about the need to “be patient.” The Alaska Anthropological Association didn’t demand years’ worth of patience from Yesner’s victims, so why should the ASM be entitled to years’ worth of patience from Pinto’s victims?
Relying on “science communication” to drown out victims’ voices
When you run out of excuses for why you’ve failed harassment victims, the easiest strategy is to just drown the victims out. Enablers’ safe word is “science communication”: just say those seven magic syllables, and all will be forgiven!
When you run out of excuses for why you’ve failed harassment victims, the easiest strategy is to just drown the victims out.
Sexual assailants and their enablers love to talk about themselves. All they need to do is overstate the relevance of their research to a pressing scientific problem — pretend that you “discovered” a new species, or that you’ve figured out a way to save our planet from global warming— and anyone who criticizes you, is criticizing science. Besides, no one wants to hear about sexual harassment. People want to look at pictures of cute animals instead.
Take mammalogist Roland Kays, for example. Kays joined my sexual assailant (Miguel Pinto) and Pinto’s #1 enabler (Kristofer Helgen) in falsely claiming to have “discovered” an animal that Native people already had a name for. Roland Kays is a racist dirtbag. But hey, Kays’ narcissistic lies got people to look at photos of a rainforest animal — that’s science communication right there!
Then, in 2018 — well over a year after it became public knowledge that Miguel Pinto is an admitted, serial sexual predator — Kays used Twitter to promote Pinto. How many women does Pinto have to sexually assault before Kays stops promoting him? Roland Kays is a sexist dirtbag. But hey, Kays’ promotion of an admitted sexual assailant included pictures of an olinguito and a vague claim to be further studying this “new” species. Kays is using social media to show conservation research in action — that’s science communication right there!
Naturally the American Society of Mammalogists’ (ASM) ombuds, Jessica Light, has gone out of her way to uphold Roland Kays as a pillar of science communication. Light has organized a workshop for the upcoming ASM meeting about “trustworthy communication” and Kays will be one of the four instructors. Because nothing says “trustworthy” quite like “uses a racist lie to promote a sexual assailant.”
Another one of the instructors in this workshop will be Katie Hinde. You know how Susan Collins, Lisa Bloom, and Janeane Garofalo are huge feminists who get really, really angry about sexual assault — until a sexual assault scandal involves someone in their social or professional circles, in which case they betray their stated principles for the sake of their personal convenience? Katie Hinde is a #MeTooSTEM version of Susan Collins.
When the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) allowed known sexual predator David Yesner to attend its annual meeting, Hinde, who had nothing to do with that meeting, criticized the society on Twitter. But the ASM has failed to protect its membership from harassment at its upcoming meeting where Hinde will be a workshop instructor, and Hinde has not spoken out about the ASM’s inadequate policies or supported victims in any way.
Denouncing the sexual misconduct that occurs outside of your circle, and remaining silent when it happens in your immediate vicinity, is a great way to draw attention to yourself as a prominent activist while still remaining in the good graces of the Boys’ Club in your own discipline. Hinde has a long history of this selective outrage. When my sexual assailant’s most enthusiastic enabler, Kristofer Helgen, got in trouble for copying his boss’ signature without permission (a fireable offense at the institution where Helgen chose to work), Hinde went apeshit on social media. She offered a very specific, detailed defense of Helgen’s character that, of course, included credit for the “discovery” of the animal that Native people already knew about. When, just a few weeks later, Hinde was asked to comment on the sexual assault scandal that her buddy Helgen was in the middle of, she “declined to comment on this specific case” and made the most vague possible statements about harassment in STEM.
Denouncing the sexual misconduct that occurs outside of your circle, and remaining silent when it happens in your immediate vicinity, is a great way to draw attention to yourself as a prominent activist while still remaining in the good graces of the Boys’ Club in your own discipline.
When confronted, Hinde gets super word-salad-y in her attempts to explain away her selective silence about Pinto’s cronies and the ASM. But her participation in a workshop on “trustworthy communication” with Roland Kays tells you everything to know about where Hinde stands when her self-image comes into conflict with an opportunity for self-promotion.
Of all the D-list science celebrities out there, Kays and Hinde are two of the least trustworthy. For Jessica Light to organize a workshop promoting these individuals, while her society still hasn’t banned a known sexual predator after years, shows where her priorities are — and shows just how much bullshit scientific societies can still get away with.
When Light chastises Pinto’s victims about the need for “patience” she also points out that she and other ASM officers have to “prioritize this issue among their other duties.” Here’s some advice for you, Jessica: If you didn’t take on the promotion of racist, sexist, and hypocritical science communicators as one of your “duties,” perhaps your society wouldn’t be so many years behind the American Geophysical Union, the Tree-Ring Society, and the Alaska Anthropological Association in protecting its membership from known sexual assailants.
A path forward
In the societies you belong to, the most fruitful way forward may be to hold officers accountable when they run for their positions, when you renew your membership, and when they ask you to register for their conferences. If your society is holding elections and the candidates’ statements don’t mention strengthening the CoC, email the candidates to ask why they haven’t pledged to implement the AGU, Paleontological Society, or Tree-Ring Society’s CoC. When you receive those yearly emails asking you to renew your membership and encourage others to join the society, email the treasurer and other officers. Ask how much longer they expect you to pay dues and registration fees to a society whose CoC lags behind those of other societies.
The tenured academics who run scientific societies are failing us left and right, but it’s most often due to mediocrity, cowardice, and a pathetic need to be liked by prominent creeps, rather than heartfelt enthusiasm for sexual assault. It won’t be easy, but as demonstrated by the SAA’s belated decision to ban David Yesner, these societies can eventually be shamed into doing right by victims.