Thursday, April 27, 2017

Science Discovers that Males and Females Differ in Lots of Ways

The Women in Astronomy blog draws our attention to a recent study of pigeons. I didn't know that "scientists tend to assume that—unless they are looking specifically at reproduction or sexual behavior—male and female animals are alike". It seems like a strange thing to assume. I also didn't know that that's the reason a lot of experimental work (like drug testing) use mainly males. I did know that they do this, but I thought it was because male bodies are less complicated than female bodies. (The easiest example is that women menstruate once a month during a randomized control trial of aspirin, for example.) That is, I thought males were chosen out of convenience, precisely because they differ from females, not because they were presumably similar in every way not related to reproduction. (There are still lots of political issues in that, of course, but it does not express an assumption of similarity.)

That said, the real puzzle here is how this study helps fight "sexism in science".

The work is part of an attempt to make science more gender-inclusive and aware of physiological and other differences between the sexes. [...] Like all other vertebrates, the gonads (testes and ovaries) are influenced by hormones produced by the pituitary gland, which itself is controlled by hormones from the hypothalamus, a structure in the brain. [...] "There are incredible differences in gene expression, especially in the pituitary," [one of the researchers] said. The results show that there are far more sex-based differences in the pituitary than previously thought, she said.

How does one square this result (which does not, like I say, surprise me) with the constant indignation over the gender disparity in some of the natural sciences? If there are "incredible differences" in "a structure of the brain" in males and females, why are we surprised that there might turn out to be a difference in the distribution of ability and desire to do, say, physics, in the male and female population? I'll just leave that as a question. I'm happy to have someone tell me what I'm getting wrong here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Kate Clancy and Azeen Ghorayshi at NYU Tonight

I'm looking forward to the Kavli Conversation at NYU tonight, "Covering and Uncovering Harassment in Science", with Kate Clancy, the lead author of the SAFE13 study, and Azeen Ghorayshi, who broke the Geoff Marcy story for BuzzFeed. I'll be staying up late (here in Denmark) to catch the webcast, which, as I understand it, will be streaming from 6:30 pm (EDT) at this link (if this works, it should also be embedded above). I'll make some running notes and post them here intermittently (i.e., updating this post). I'll probably write something more coherent about it afterwards too.

Update: The livestream is too choppy. So I'm going to have to watch this later and make proper notes.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Clancy: "Science doesn't have a sexual assault problem. LIFE has a sexual assault problem."

I just found a discussion of the SAFE13 study on the Breaking Bio Podcast. There are lots of things to discuss in it, but in this post I just want to highlight what Katie Hinde and Kate Clancy say about prevalence.

At 16:15, Morgan Jackson asks about this directly. Hinde first answers that they "can't really speak to prevalence" because of the self-selection problem. But "having said that" she goes on say that 71% of women and 40% of men in their sample did report experiences that "fit under the Equal Employment Office's umbrella categories for sexual harassment". What she says next is misleading. "Both men and women experienced a lot of marginalization, a lot of jokes about sex, a lot of jokes about cognitive sex differences, things like that." This leaves the impression that there were separate questions and "a lot" of women answered them in the affirmative. Actually, there was only one question* about this on the survey, and it asked about all of these (i.e., any of these) experiences, so we can only say that a lot (71%) experienced some of these things sometimes. Hinde makes it sound like the survey shows that a lot of people experience this sort of thing often. But, not only can they not "speak to prevalence" because of their sampling issues, this statement isn't even true of the sample.

Later, Clancy goes further, riding roughshod over the limitations of the study, albeit not to "belabor this prevalence point." She questions whether a completely controlled representative study of harassment could be done in practice, and then wonders whether this would actually give us any useful information. "We have absolute numbers of hundreds of women saying they were harassed and assaulted ... that's good enough for me." Again, this overstates what the survey actually shows. What they have is hundreds of women who say they have experienced anything from hearing a sexist joke (even just once) to being raped, and without actually specifying the exact behavior. And, in fact, as I've pointed out before, the survey can't distinguish between a grope and rape, nor an isolated remark from a campaign of abuse. So the "absolute" numbers are not quite what she makes them sound like they are. They're certainly not good enough for me.

What's interesting in putting Hinde's and Clancy's remarks together is the complete lack of any sense of proportion. Hinde doesn't care whether it's 75% or 50% or 20% or even 1% that get physically harassed. Even one is too many, she says. And Clancy, who actually does think she has everything she needs to assert high prevalence because they have hundreds of "absolute" responses, takes things to a new level by declaring that this isn't a problem in science but a problem in life. It's not that scientists are horrible people. It's just that they are, in fact, people, she says.

The problem with this should be obvious. Suppose the background risk of getting sexually assaulted (at your particular age) in "life" is either 5% or .5%. Now suppose that getting into fieldwork exposes you to either a 1% or a 10% chance of getting assaulted. These numbers do actually matter now. Getting them right is important. They matter as much as a man who is trying to choose between working on an oil rig and driving a truck in an oil field cares about his chances of being injured or killed. You can't just say that scientists are people and people rape and get raped. That's just not a serious statement, though it's about a very serious matter. The question is whether science is particularly dangerous. Not only do I see no evidence that it is; I see little evidence that the scientists who are studying the problem care.

The point is this. If an 18-year-old woman can reduce her odds of getting sexually assaulted by, say, half, simply by moving from the inner city to a college campus, then not only does academia not have a sexual assault problem, it appears to have found a solution to it. Likewise, if her risk of getting harassed as a 25 year-old is less if she chooses anthropological fieldwork over, say, business consulting or military service, then science (i.e., the culture of anthropology) appears have found an at least partial solution to the harassment problem that "life" poses. My guess is that universities at the very least offer a culture that both selects less rapists and keeps those that slip through better in check—better than other professional spheres, and better than society as a whole.**

Science, I suspect, is a safer place for women than "life". But Clancy and her colleagues appear hell bent on obscuring this fact.

*Update: for good order. Here are the only two questions that measure what sorts of experiences people had:

32. Have you ever personally experienced inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other jokes, at an anthropological field site?

39. Have you ever experienced physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which you could not or did not give consent or felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give your consent at an anthropological field site?

If you answer "yes" to question 32 (as you must if you've heard a sexist joke, someone has said "typical female" about something you said, or, it appears, someone has complimented you on your legs ... once) you are counted as having been "harassed". If you answer yes to 39 (even if just to acknowledge that a colleague—or local stranger—once copped a feel at a party somewhere in the tropics) you have, according to the study, been "assaulted".

**An anonymous commenter, backed up by a correspondent whose opinion I respect, has noted that I seemed to be conflating rape, assault, and harassment in an earlier version of this paragraph. After thinking about it, I think I understand why they think so, and I've rewritten it to avoid this impression. It is, after all, something I'm accusing others of doing. Please note that I'm not claiming that business consultants experience more harassment than anthropological fieldworkers; I'm saying that it is interesting to know whether that is in fact the case. And I'm noting that Clancy and Hinde don't seem to be interested in such things.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Power and Gravity

"Gravity is a mysterious carriage of the body invented to cover the defects of the mind."
La Rochefoucauld

"Don't be enamored of power."
Michel Foucault

One of my aims in writing about harassment in astronomy is to encourage astronomers to be more critical about the things social science is telling them. You might say I'm teaching intellectual self defense.

This is especially important when natural scientists listen to social scientists since there may be a presumption that both are "scientific" in the same way. Astronomers might assume that sociologists have the same sort of basis for talking about the structure of society as they themselves have for talking about the structure of the universe. Many years ago, Friedrich Hayek offered an analogy in an attempt to correct this misunderstanding. He said that, when thinking about social "science", physicists should imagine having first-hand knowledge of the inside of an atom but no opportunity to observe interactions between them, nor any way to experiment on them. I'm sure the aptness of that analogy is debatable but it suggests another one that I want to elaborate here.

Power is to sociology as gravity is to astronomy. In a certain sense, it explains everything. It certainly affects everything and you can't understand the relevant phenomena without taking it into account. But as a phenomenon in its own right it's not very well understood. Already Newton had to treat it as an essentially "occult" force, only observable through its effects on other things. Today, to be sure, there are very smart people working on it, but what gravity is, the ontology of gravity, if you will, is still one of the great mysteries. While light "particles", i.e., photons, have been demonstrated to exist, the corresponding particle of weight, if you will, the graviton, remains a hypothesis.

And yet gravity obviously "works". It not only determines the passage of our Earth around the Sun. It structures space across billions of light years. As one astronomer put it to me recently, many of these structures were "baked in" at the creation of the universe. Very slowly (from our point view) they also change. Today, the Milky Way is one structure and Andromeda is another, two spiral formations, each consisting of billions and billions of stars circling an enormous well of gravity. But in about 4 billion years this will change. The two structures will collide and produce a single new structure. Here, again, gravity will be doing most of the work.

Like I say, it may be useful for astronomers to think of power as a kind of "social gravity". This will avoid misunderstandings that I think pervade the pursuit of social justice in the STEM fields, and perhaps actually the concept of justice as it is understood in many of the social sciences today. (One point at which the analogy breaks down, after all, is that sociologists are much less "on the same page" about power than astronomers are about gravity.) It is natural to think of power as a primarily oppressive or "marginalizing" force. Indeed, this is the sense I get when listening to Sarah Ballard explain her vision of scientific "humanity". But this, I want to suggest, is a bit like thinking of gravity as something that is only "keeping us down", only holding us back. To be sure, it does that too. But do we really want to say that photons are more "liberated" than, say, rocks? Does that make sense?

We would not want a universe without gravity. It does limit how high we can jump, but at the same time, by the very same force, it makes jumping a meaningful activity. While it determines how difficult it is to get from point A to point B, it also, in an important sense, creates the "here" of A and B, whether that be two different places on our planet, or two different planets around two different suns. We don't resent gravity, because we know that it works for us as often as it works against us. Why are we so inclined to resent power?

Activists do sometimes demonstrate an understanding of this. When they talk about "empowerment" they are using the concept of power in the positive, creative sense. But the end game of empowerment too often seems to be an equal distribution of power. Astronomers who are trying to get their mind around what this implies need only imagine a universe with a completely uniform distribution of mass, a completely homogeneous gravity "structure". I put that word in quotation marks because, though I'm not an expert, I believe I just described the opposite of structure, namely, total chaos. I'm describing a world in a state of maximum entropy. The fabled heat death of the universe.

When Ballard imagines a scientific culture as "a place in which everyone could thrive" she's actually describing a place that is no place at all. There would be no "there" there, as Gertrude Stein or Martin Heidegger or, if you will, Tristan Tzara might have said. She is forgetting that we actually don't want everyone to thrive in science, we want it to be a place where mainly smart and curious people can thrive, and the less intelligent and less inquisitive among us can run palpably into our limitations. (The sooner the better so that we can quit and find work we are more suited for.) We also want it to be a place where "thriving" means different things to different people at different times. It's a place where the young learn and the elders teach, and where everyone is a little young and a little old at the same time, but not, I dare say, equally young and equally old in every way. We want there to be a tension, a dynamic. We want there to be movement, from falsehood to truth, from darkness towards the light. As individuals and as a society. We want a culture in which difference thrives, in which people thrive differently.

But what social science, too often I'm afraid, is teaching natural scientists is that society—or culture, if you will—is just spinning eternally around a gravity well of oppression. Call it the Toilet Model of social mechanics. There's no joy in their description of science, no hope, only pain and fear and harm. There is no sense of velocity, no possibility of escape. No levity. The only hope they see is that everyone who has power ("privilege") "check" it, i.e., abdicate it, that they lay their heavy burden down on the cold, hard ground. They don't seem to understand that the hard work a young scientist does early in her career, against a host of odds, some of which certainly channel injustices that have been "baked in" to our culture since the time we either came out of the caves or planted our first crops or opened the first bank, can actually, and in some cases literally, put her into orbit.

Ballard doesn't seem to understand this even though it describes her very own experience. The giants may be white and male but you don't end up under their heel. You stand on their shoulders. Sometimes they steady you by holding firmly onto your ankles. It is a tragedy that social science is teaching astronomers to think of this as "physical harassment".

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Does Sarah Ballard Want?

At the recent MIT Communications Forum panel on "Sexual Harassment and Gender Equity in Science", Christina Couch asked Sarah Ballard what she would consider success in the effort to change the culture and institutions of science on those issues. I found her answer quite revealing.

[41:30] When I imagine what a sea change would look like, [one that would produce a more equitable scientific culture], a place in which everyone could thrive, it would no longer be a myth about a few bad people—or good people. Instead, there's humanity. Along certain axes people possess more power; then there are axes along which people possess less power. So even though I am a survivor of harassment as a woman, I'm also complicit in this scientific culture, which excludes and marginalizes women of color, who in fact experience harassment at higher rates than white women. And yet I am the one who ended up coming forward in this particular case. And I was treated very, very differently, I'll say, than individuals in my exact field in astronomy who have drawn attention to racism.

Let me stop for a moment to note underlying anthropology here. In Ballard's vision of "humanity" there aren't good people and bad people; rather, there are "axes" of oppression. And they "intersect", as they say. So here she is displaying her awareness that even though she's oppressed along what we might call the Axis of Sex, she's also "complicit" along the Axis of Race. The "even though" is worth emphasizing because it expresses the intuition (within this world view) that those who are themselves oppressed don't matter-of-factly oppress others, i.e., that this is something that needs to be brought to awareness. And that's really the view that's being promoted here—everyone is oppressed, and everyone oppresses. It's hard to see how anyone, let alone everyone, could thrive in this environment. This becomes especially clear when she turns attention on herself:

[42:25] So in that sense it's beholden upon me to not only think about how I've been wronged but also to think about what I can do to avoid wronging others. In this sense, every individual scientist should adopt some of those advocacy ideas, [namely], that there are ways in which we can behave that can remove us from this dichotomy that there are bad people and good people, which is why a lot of people [otherwise] resist the existence of harassment. [They think:] "So-and-so is a good guy, so it's not possible." Well, I'm sure he's good in some ways, but he's also harassed people. Likewise, I've experienced harassment and have probably also been very careless and thoughtless with other people around me, and not treated them the way they ought to have been treated. I would want to be told.

This is an important moment in her statement. What she says about supposedly "good" people presumably applies to Geoff Marcy. And she is herself now making the comparison. Indeed, my sense has been that Marcy's "wrong" in Ballard's account lay merely in being careless with one of his young female students. Ballard is saying that Marcy's thoughtless sexism probably has a counterpart in Ballard's implicit racism. And she here announces that she would like someone to point this out to her. I wonder if, somewhere down the line, she'd be happy to be forced into retirement by an organized movement of astronomers of color who found her a little condescending ten years earlier. I don't think so. At some level, I believe her actual view is that Marcy is not a "bad" person and he should not have been personally punished or shamed. The problem is "systemic", she could have said, and must be solved at the institutional level. Ballard's harassment, on this view, did not finally come from Marcy's behavior as such, but through the "axis of power" along which his behavior transmitted an oppressive force.

The interesting consequence of this is that Marcy did not harass Ballard to his own ends. The harassment was a result of his failure to consider the institutional forces working willy-nilly around him. From this insight, it is a short step to Ballard's ideal scientific community:

[43:22] When I imagine how a scientific culture could look different it would be one in which we really get away from this idea that science is distinct from advocacy. Rather, science and the way science is performed is necessarily sociological, necessarily political, and it would ultimately be a different kind of identity to be a scientist. That’s what I imagine longterm.

That is, what Ballard wants is a culture in which everyone is constantly aware of power and politics. She wants scientists to construct their identities, not around the natural facts that stimulate their curiosity, and certainly not around their emotional connection with people they like, but around the "intersections" of the axes of oppression that structure the scientific community, just like any other community. A scientist's first concern should not be figuring out how the world works, but finding new ways of "including" others in the work. Science is not sometimes inconvenienced by politics, it is necessarily political. A scientist is not simply free to pursue the truth. She is always "complicit" in one or another injustice.

This image of science doesn't appeal very much to me and I suspect it doesn't appeal to a great many other people who have a natural inclination toward science. I suspect that Ballard herself didn't realize she wanted to be scientist until she spotted in it a culture that might need her "advocacy". For Ballard, science is just another system by which people (here, "scientists") are oppressed. I think she's doing a disservice to the women of color who were hoping science might be a place where, for a time, they could be free of their identity as an "oppressed minority" and just do some interesting work. I still believe science offers such a place to anyone who cares to ignore the advocates long enough. But the times they are a-changing.