Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sarah Ballard's Love of Stars, part 2

"Do not become enamored of power."
(Michel Foucault)

In the campaign against sexual harassment in the sciences, I can't help but notice its fascination with the power of science. I mean this in contrast to taking an interest in the knowledge that science brings. This is easy to understand once we realize that the harassment issue is largely being imposed on the STEM fields from the outside. The forces that are being brought to bear on, say, astronomy are as external to it as politics is external [to] science. Indeed, the forces are, precisely, political.

In my last post, I noted that Sarah Ballard describes her interest in science in aesthetic terms, rather than, let's say, epistemic ones. In this post, I want to suggest that her interest is also ethical before it is epistemological. I don't get the sense that she struggles very much with the philosophical problems of modern cosmology. Just as she thinks of the universe in terms of its "majesty", she thinks of scientists in terms of their fame. And, like I say, their power. This is important because, in her encounters with Geoff Marcy, so much depends on her subjective experience of the man, and so little on his objective acts.

Before we get to those encounters specifically, I want to highlight how she describes her sense of Marcy before he began to take his allegedly inappropriate interest in her. In her interview on the Inquiring Minds podcast, Kishore Hari asks her whether she had the necessary context to understand who Marcy was, i.e., whether she knew he was a big deal in the field. Hari wonders whether perhaps this wasn't so early in Ballard's education that she thought of him mainly as a professor of astronomy, not a star in his own right.

"No, no," she assures him, "you have an idea." She knew of him through the news, she says, adding that, like any young scientists, she knew that he was one of the people who had an "overlarge presence". She knew he was "particularly important" in his field and "particularly exciting", even if she might have been "ignorant of who was doing what exactly." (Here's it's important to remember that she didn't begin to take a real interest in Marcy's field, exoplanets, until she was at Harvard, under another supervisor.) "And it's hard to get more famous than Marcy," she tells us. She was "very aware of how exciting and cutting edge" his research was.

Part of Ballard's story is that her suspicion that he might be more sexually than intellectually interested in her undercut her confidence in herself. When he said she showed great promise as astronomer, she had felt great. Now, I suppose, she worried that it was just empty flattery. We'll get back to this in later posts, including her basis for thinking that his interest was sexual. But what I want to point out is that perhaps her interest in Marcy wasn't altogether pure either. I'm not saying she was sexually attracted to him, but she was, very clearly, enamored with his power and his fame. At this time, this part of him was more salient to her than his scientific accomplishment. It was not that he had discovered the smallest ever exoplanet. It was that it would be in the news.

I'm not saying this just to draw Ballard's motives into question. (I think all our motives are mixed and we lie, mainly to ourselves, when we say our hearts are pure. This, in itself, is trivial.) What is important here is that Ballard is not just enamored of Marcy's power, she is afraid of it. As Marcy makes clear in his "summary of the facts", he has never been accused of abusing his power, whether to get something out of someone or to get back at them. And yet, this is why his interest in her worried her, forcing her into a complicated ethical calculus. What if she broke off the friendship (she apparently saw as an "escalating", albeit one-sided, romance)? Would he then refuse to give her a letter of recommendation? Indeed, she even felt at one point that she might have to physically run away from him.

Now, the relationship did in fact end. And the letter was in fact written. At no point did she have to run away from his violent clutches. It did not even come to a point where she had to insist on lines being drawn, but, the story goes that he was told (by someone else) to knock it off. Any fears she (and her roommate) had about what this might do to her career turned out to be completely unfounded. She attributed both powers and motives to him that he did not have.

It can be argued that he did "have the power" to abuse her. But he had it only under threat of having exactly what happened to him happen too. He manifestly did not get away with anything in the long run. And, surely, if he had been truly coercive or abusive or vengeful or violent as often, and to as many women, as he was merely a little too friendly, he would have been punished even more severely. In that sense, he didn't even have the power to do what little he did do. The point I'm trying to make here, and where I'll leave it for now, is that Ballard's "harassment story" begins with a distorted—indeed, an "overlarge"—image of the alleged harasser. She submits to a power that is mainly of her own construction. It is not a power that Marcy, it seems, ever undertook to wield.


Anonymous said...

A very interesting series so far, thanks for taking a close look at these incidents which constitute the so-called "epidemic" of sexual harassment. I hope that you will examine the cases against Christian Ott and Tim Slater as well.

Thomas said...

Thanks. I don't know if I'll have the time or energy to look at the other cases in the same way, but you're right that they seem to have some similar dynamics.

My next post is going to take a step back look at how "rampant" the harassment is in astronomy. That is, I will try to put Ballard's story in perspective. Then I will return to the facts of her case, Marcy's actual behavior.

Jonathan said...

different case, but this could occur as well

Thomas said...

Yes, Jonathan. I have no position on that case (I know nothing about.) But the default response is that suing "victims" is just a continuation of the "harassment". I think that's a wrongheaded view. As I've said, there seems to be a good case against Marcy for violating harassment policies. The mistake is for someone who can truly say, "Marcy's behavior towards me violated UC Berkeley's sexual harassment policy" to publicly say "Geoff Marcy sexually harassed me." I'm no lawyer, but I would hope that sort of thing is actionable as libel. Otherwise we've completely lost the plot. (Again, I'm no lawyer, but I do think that when Ballard talks about her "harassment story", she is actually libeling Marcy. Marcy did no harass Ballard, nor did UC Berkeley say that he did.)