When Doubt is a Poison

Stories of sexual harassment in the science and skeptic communities are nothing new around here, despite the efforts of far too many people to dismiss them. To understand the impact of these instances on a particular survivor, I recommend that you read carefully a recent essay by my friend and mentor, Pamela Gay, about her own issues with harassment and the “Ripples of Doubt” that they cause.

When I hear the stories from Pamela and others of overt harassment by men in power in their communities, it disturbs me. I’ve been lucky to have avoided most overt forms of harassment and sexism, but that does not give me the right to discount the experiences of others. I can, however, be grateful for the teachers and mentors that I’ve had up until now that haven’t treated me like a sex object or even just a less-well-respected scientists because of my gender. Like most women, however, I’ve become used to the constant “background sexism” that one faces from catcalls while walking down the street, or trying to fit in with the guys in the lab, or unwanted flirting that is probably well-meaning but really uncomfortable in the wrong situations.

When I came to work for Pamela, I knew she was pretty bad-ass. But I was only just starting to learn of the institutional sexism that she had faced in her career, even recently. I am one of the many who had teary eyes during her talk about changing the world for the better at TAM 2012, and I nodded along when she mentioned several instances of sexism in her career.

I was in fact present and listening when one of the most recent such instances occurred, and found myself bewildered when, as she explains in her recent post, she faced backlash from that talk. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t backlash from the community of skeptics, since I expected that. In fact, her talk seemed quite well-received at the event and online after the fact. I was expecting the appalling denial and hostility that too many women in skepticism have faced when coming out with such stories or who say, “Guys, don’t do that.” That didn’t happen, but I was even more confused when the attacks came from quite literally closer to home.

If Pamela hates herself for wishing it would go away, then I similarly hate myself for not standing up for her when this all went down. I, too, was paralyzed just watching the train wreck unfold over the last year. I saw my mentor deal with a maddening situation and PTSD and I did nothing to stand up for her in public. I, too, was scared of backlash and I let myself be silenced by my own doubt. Even now I’m trying to be careful of my wording lest the powers that be decide to get angry again. And this is: Royally. Fucked. Up.

Making time for Day of the Dead cosplay because she is that awesome.
Making time for Day of the Dead celebration with her horse amidst all this. Photo credit: Pamela Gay, L. Odom.

I’m proud of Pamela for continuing to speak up despite all that has happened, this time about another harassment experience and how the harasser continues to make life difficult. It is hard enough to pursue an academic career, a career in science, or any endeavor about which you are passionate without, I think, having to battle self-doubt. Add to that the actions of people that make you feel worthless through intention or ignorance or stupidity, and you are compounding a problem that needs compassion, not more problems. What kind of world is this where I consider myself lucky in that I’ve only had to battle my own inner demons while others struggle with such extra burdens?

There is no more room to be complacent anymore. It is long past time to stand up and make a statement when something, someplace, someone is unsafe. It’s time to end the victim-blaming and victim-shaming and expecting to have every instance of harassment spelled out in detail before we begin to take these claims seriously. Yes, we’re skeptics, we need evidence and I GET that. But this isn’t a precise scientific measurement; this is real, messy life. (Also? Real science is messy, too.) The patterns are becoming clear and it is foolish to ignore them. These aren’t one-off claims but a constant stream of stories, experiences, and allegations, and I see no end to the flood that has begun.

The people who are coming forward with these stories are immeasurably brave, in my opinion. And I think they are doing some good in allowing more and more people to realize the harassment they have faced and come out in public, or to friends, or just to not take that shit anymore. Through this pain, I hope that we’re building a better community of humans who are ready to stand up for each other. No, I’m not very optimistic about this in regards to the skeptics community specifically, but I see the ripples of hope spreading out amongst science bloggers, scientists, and many people that I have met through my involvement with skepticism. I’ve learned much from you here, and I hope to keep learning new ways to be compassionate and strong and grounded in reality, even if it’s not the reality I’ve experienced personally.

I stand with Pamela, and I believe her. I hope I continue to have the courage to take a stand against harassment and bullying when I see it. I hope many of you will, too.

Want to help other women dealing with harassment in academia? Consider contributing to the American Association of University Women’s Legal Advocacy Fund.


Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/noisyastronomer

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      1. On the contrary. I think the title you chose was excellent! Anything that’s incisive can cut both ways. Doubt is a very powerful tool when applied correctly, but can also be very corrosive when focused inward.

        If it helps, pretty much all of the scientists I’ve talked with about it have acknowledged bouts of “impostor’s syndrome”. This includes some amazingly smart and competent people. So Dr. Gay is in good company there. Ultimately, I hope she settles upon the realization that she is making the world a better place by doing what she is doing, both as a scientist and as a woman speaking truth to power.

  1. I didn’t realize that things were that bad for her until her post this week. Dr. Gay is a great person, and excellent educator. She doesn’t deserve this nonsense, and she shouldn’t blame herself for it

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