Hi and welcome back! I don’t know about you, but I’ve been just agog at what’s been going on in Science Twitter the past few days. BethAnn McLaughlin, a onetime assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University, has been in the news. Today, let me catch you up on this controversial figure, her #MeTooSTEM movement — and, of course, the indigenous bisexual woman she invented (‘Sciencing_Bi’) to give herself some extra credibility when she needed it most.
(H/t to Twitter peeps for alerting me to this story. This thread from @endlesswario explains the basics of the story.)
2019: BethAnn McLaughlin, “The Twitter Warrior.”
In February 2019, Science published an article about BethAnn McLaughlin. They unironically titled it “The Twitter Warrior.” The piece presented her efforts to fight sexism in what are called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Over the last few years, McLaughlin has been busy. She created websites where women could discuss harassment and share their own tales of it, demanded changes of universities that did little to prevent female STEM employees from being harassed, and sought to change policies in both the public and private spheres. To top it all off, she led an activist group, MeTooSTEM.
Her efforts seemed to be paying off. In November 2018, she shared a USD$250k prize for her civil disobedience from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
The Writing On the Wall.
But already, we see the writing on the wall in that article. Even as it hit digital print, McLaughlin teetered on the very edge of losing her job at Vanderbilt. And it was all her own fault.
Once poised for tenure, in February 2019 she struggled just to stay employed. And the reason: Vanderbilt had gotten reports that she’d published “anonymous, derogatory tweets about colleagues.” One of the victims was a professor involved in a sexual harassment investigation a few years previously.
McLaughlin had testified against that professor, but he’d won his hearing. Shortly afterward, insulting and alarming tweets about him began popping up around Twitter. Once Vanderbilt’s probe identified them as being from McLaughlin, they halted her tenure review process.
As well, she lost an important speaking gig at a neuroscience convention in 2018. Though she won an award from the same group putting on the convention, they withdrew her speaking invitation. The cause: her prerecorded speech deeply concerned them. Their lawyer disinvited her, telling her that her content “may be defamatory.”
Her take on the matter looked very different.
The Common Factor Here.
When McLaughlin lost the speaking gig, she declared that she was just one of those “rebels and truth sayers” who were wayyyyy too red-hot for those fuddie-duddies.
Similarly, when she ultimately lost her tenure hearing over the anonymous hate-tweets, her lawyer declared that the loss had occurred because of McLaughlin’s testimony in that harassment investigation, not so much because of the tweets. Her lawyer insinuated that the loss amounted to retaliation from Vanderbilt because McLaughlin had aired their dirty laundry. She said, and I’m assuming McLaughlin at least agrees with this notion, that her client’s case “is a perfect example of the tactics that universities so often use to sweep complaints under the rug.”
It disturbs me when inflammatory people describe themselves in such ways.
To me, it indicates that they can’t accept when they’ve gone too far — or that maybe they need to change their approach. It means they think they’re always right, while their critics are always wrong. And that attitude can open the door to the mentality of the ends justifying the means.
It’s not okay when Christians act like this, and it’s not okay when anybody else does it either.
A New Friend For BethAnn McLaughlin.
As Bethann McLaughlin fought for tenure, in fact midway through the Vanderbilt probe, a new Twitter account popped up in her mentions.
Called Sciencing_Bi, this person claimed to be the account of a Native American bisexual woman professor. She taught anthropology at Arizona State University (ASU). Starting in 2016, as we learn from The New York Times, the account tweeted about science — but not “just what the mantis shrimp DO” type of stuff. Instead, the account focused way more on activism, and even more particularly on the systemic harassment of women in STEM fields.
And wow, this account sure liked McLaughlin. In fact, Sciencing_Bi’s very first tweet, on October 10, 2016, consisted of a lavish compliment for McLaughlin.
Sciencing_Bi even heavily promoted a Change petition beseeching Vanderbilt to give McLaughlin tenure.
Due to Sciencing_Bi’s activity on Twitter, many people engaged with her. She interacted quite often with victims of sexual harassment — with some of those folks coming to see her as a friend.
And through her, they saw MeTooSTEM as a force for good.
In fact, Sciencing_Bi even had an explosive story of harassment of her own.
When a Harvard newspaper printed a story in June 2020 about three of its professors being alleged serial harassers, Sciencing_Bi claimed to have been sexually harassed by one of them, Theodore Bestor, and to have a Title IX case pending against another, Gary Urton, from her time at Harvard.
Sciencing_Bi approached other victims of Harvard abuse. Her story gained their trust.
When Sciencing_Bi claimed that MeTooSTEM had helped her enormously during those dark days, well, her audience swelled with sympathy and goodwill toward McLaughlin’s organization in response.
Of course, at all times and by far, Sciencing_Bi’s bestie forever was BethAnn McLaughlin. How bestie? Well, Venmo donations to Sciencing_Bi went to McLaughlin’s account so she didn’t have to “break pseud.” And (according to an August 4 Buzzfeed article) another scientist mentioned in 2019 that an invitation to access a Google document from Sciencing_Bi actually came from McLaughlin’s own email account.
So apparently, only one other person — McLaughlin — knew exactly who Sciencing_Bi was in real life. Equally apparently, that one person was ferociously invested in protecting her dearest friend’s anonymity.
Meanwhile, at MeTooSTEM.
However, Sciencing_Bi couldn’t save McLaughlin from her own ineptitude in running a
nonprofit activism organization. See, McLaughlin started this group called MeTooSTEM. It was (as the name suggests) supposed to fight sexism and expose harassment in the STEM community.
Ironic, in retrospect, isn’t it?
Just a few months after that praise-filled Science article, Buzzfeed published a very critical article exposing McLaughlin’s management tactics. She does not come off well in this article. In it, we learn that she kept her staff “in the dark about key decisions,” behaved unprofessionally when asked perfectly normal questions about the group’s financial situation, and perhaps most telling of all, kept upsetting MeTooSTEM allies with “combative tweets.”
That Buzzfeed article also raises some very concerning questions about exactly how McLaughlin used a GoFundMe’s money. The GoFundMe raised $78,000, and her volunteers wanted to know where that money was going. Officially, MeTooSTEM was supposed to be using it, in part, to file for its tax-exempt status. But those volunteers did not get the answers they needed.
In response to her behavior, her staffers began to quit out from under her.
And It Gets Worse For McLaughlin.
In February 2020, Buzzfeed ran another article of a very similar nature. In this one, we learn that staffers with MeTooSTEM also resigned because of alleged mistreatment from BethAnn McLaughlin herself.
In fact, it seemed by then like she mistreated women of color (WOC) way worse than white women. Buzzfeed tells us:
Two individuals on the group’s three-person leadership team have resigned, a week after one of them wrote to the group’s governing board calling for MeTooSTEM’s controversial founder, BethAnn McLaughlin, to step down. The two leaders, Angela Rasmussen and Teresa Swanson, had backed a Chinese American MeTooSTEM volunteer, Jaedyn Ruli, who complained that McLaughlin had harassed them. Ruli has also resigned from the group.
“Time and time again, she doesn’t listen to people of color,” Ruli told BuzzFeed News.
Ow ow ow ow.
But things were about to get even worse — for McLaughlin.
A Pandemic Panic For BethAnn McLaughlin.
It sounds like the pan was heating up under Sciencing_Bi.
Things weren’t adding up. The strange Venmo and Google Docs connection combined with another strange incident noted by the New York Times: when someone asked McLaughlin a question regarding Vanderbilt, Sciencing_Bi replied in detail about the university’s pay system — as if someone operating two Twitter accounts had forgotten which one she was using right then. Sure seemed weird for a gal in Arizona to know about that kind of minutiae.
Maybe by then Science Twitter had even noticed that literally all of the supposedly-personal photos posted on the Sciencing_Bi account were all stock photos taken from elsewhere online.
Whatever it was, McLaughlin decided that it was time to end Sciencing_Bi’s illustrious career as a Twitter activist. And she decided to do so in the weirdest and most ill-advised way imaginable.
She metaphorically killed her.
(This next subsection might remind older folks of the Wild West days of Internet 1.0.)
Sciencing_Bi began to complain that ASU was forcing instructors to work despite there being a pandemic. She fretted about her health and the mistreatment she suffered from ASU.
Then, she revealed the worst: she had a bad case of COVID-19. Her condition worsened over time as she struggled to recover.
Science Twitter, of course, got really upset. Apparently, Sciencing_Bi was one of the first instructors in their community to get the virus. And she’d apparently gotten it because she’d been forced into the classroom.
Finally, on July 31 BethAnn McLaughlin announced on her own Twitter that Sciencing_Bi had died of her illness. McLaughlin wrote a touching eulogy for her in tweetstorm fashion. Here’s a bit of it:
Other scientists offered their own eulogies as well. The ones I’ve seen have been touching, gracious, loving, and sorrowful.
Unfortunately, Sciencing_Bi’s death very quickly became McLaughlin’s downfall.
Welcome to the Internet.
Mysterious deaths just aren’t common in these heady new days of instant, 24/7, 100% interconnection. The idea of a World-Wide Web was almost just a fantasy when normies first gained internet access (probably through their schools). Now, though, it’s all but ubiquitous.
Sciencing_Bi wasn’t an anonymous nobody. She claimed to be a professor in a very specific field at a very specific university. Moreover, she claimed to have some very specific traits that would not have been all that common around her area.
Like look, I’m far from a net-ninja and even I could probably have worked out exactly who she was within a few minutes — if she’d been real. Those are some intense self-reveals there for someone claiming to be in terror of losing her job if she got outed as the person behind Sciencing_Bi.
In short, there should have been numerous tangible signs of her existence — if anyone only asked the questions needed.
Sound familiar at all, friends?
Asking the Questions…
After Sciencing_Bi’s death, McLaughlin hosted a Zoom call to memorialize her best friend.
The people who attended it expected it to be huge — as a professor, and a well-loved one at that (according to McLaughlin at least), surely there’d be tons of people swarming the call.
But only five people total attended, one of whom was McLaughlin herself.
And almost immediately, one of those attendees (Michael Eisen, a UC-Berkeley computational biologist) realized that McLaughlin was the only person there who claimed to have even met Sciencing_Bi in person.
While McLaughlin told Eisen and another Zoom participant that they’d been mentioned in Sciencing_Bi’s will, he began querying search engines. Within what he describes as “five minutes,” he’d figured out that Sciencing_Bi did not actually exist.
…And Answering the Questions.
See, if ASU had really lost a professor to COVID-19, there’d be some evidence of it. There’d be obituaries, probably a statement of mourning/condolences from the university’s leaders, and social media posts from her peers and students. But nobody could find anything like that regarding the death of Sciencing_Bi.
In fact, according to Heavy, ASU’s own people tried to figure out who Sciencing_Bi was as a result of McLaughlin’s Twitter death announcement.
ASU noticed immediately that Sciencing_Bi had gotten some very important details about her supposed employer very wrong — like her assertion about performing her job in person on-campus in April, leading to her infection, when ASU had gone to remote-only teaching in March. She’d also claimed to have suffered a salary reduction, but ASU had not actually implemented such a measure.
And, of course, nobody had reported the death of any faculty member to ASU, much less one fitting Sciencing_Bi’s description.
Once all the pieces had been laid on the board, the picture formed almost by itself:
Sciencing_Bi had never existed. She was the creation of BethAnn McLaughlin. McLaughlin probably created her to bolster her own credibility — and that of MeTooSTEM.
BethAnn McLaughlin Is Really Sorry Though.
Once fully and completely caught out, BethAnn McLaughlin confessed to the New York Times. Yes, indeed, she’d created Sciencing_Bi. Through her lawyer, she sent this note:
“I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account,” it said. “My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.” [. . .]
“As I’ve reflected on my actions the last few days, it’s become clear to me that I need mental health treatment, which I’m pursuing now. My failures are mine alone, so I’m stepping away from all activities with MeTooSTEM to ensure that it isn’t unfairly criticized for my actions.”
I don’t think that’s gonna mollify too many people, though. The fact that Sciencing_Bi claimed to be indigenous and LGBT has really — and rightly — torqued all kinds of folks.
White people have a long history of pretending to be Native American (NA) in particular. Real NA people see “pretendians” as undermining their rights and stealing visibility from them, the people who actually need it. As well, white people sometimes lean hard on rationalizations like “I totally have black friends!” to get away with saying and doing unacceptable things.
And well, BethAnn McLaughlin kinda did both — and then killed off the character she’d made once her usefulness had ended. I guess at least she didn’t stuff her fictional Hopi professor into a refrigerator for her dean at ASU to find.
The Ends Do Not Justify Any Means.
This story fascinates me for so many reasons. As a longtime internet hound, I’ve seen countless fake accounts made and then exposed. You can be literally anything you want to be online — and people sometimes take that idea to extremes. Women pretend to be men, men pretend to be women, both pretend to be animals, and Feds pretend to be children. People shift their ages around, use fake photos of themselves, and even conduct long conversations with themselves on forums.
This time, though, fake accounts became part of the go-to strategy of someone who wanted to make a real difference in a sometimes-troubled career field. It’s a very noble intention — paired with a very crass and underhanded strategy. McLaughlin seems to have this history of creating anonymous accounts on social media to snipe at the people she sees as enemies. It’s like she sees the ease of creating these accounts as a retaliatory power — which she completely trusts herself to handle properly, natch.
More than that, even, she seems to have a history of insulting those who try to rein her inflammatory behavior in a little. She’s the fiery revolutionary — and they’re the wet blankets getting in her way.
Well, that didn’t work out. She lost Vanderbilt and now she’s lost what sounds like a very comfortable proto-nonprofit leader gig. I hope she eventually learns this powerful lesson:
If your cause is just, then don’t do stuff that undermines that cause on the way to achieving it. All you’re setting yourself up for at that point is becoming the next villain to defeat.
The cycle has to end somewhere.
Let it be right here.
NEXT UP: The Law of Conservation of Worship strikes again in Atheist Overreach.
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