Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Ballad of Geoff and Sarah

"A certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him."

I have decided to take this blog out of retirement for the specific purpose of addressing the question of sexual harassment in astronomy. Readers of this blog from the past will recognize my approach as the one I took in the case of Tim Hunt (feel free to search the archives if you want to see how I go about things). Not only do I believe Geoff Marcy has been unfairly maligned, I believe that we're seeing here, again, the indecent collusion of science writers and science policy makers in the sacrifice of an individual's career to an agenda that, though ostensibly well-intentioned, will do (and is already doing) more harm than good.

As a commentator, I come to this case quite late. In the past, I've been hesitant to defend Marcy because the case against him seemed much stronger than the case against Tim Hunt and I didn't want to open up a second front or muddy my arguments. As I said yesterday, I can't shake the feeling that this was somewhat cowardly of me, though I assure myself that my intervention would not have made a difference at the time that Marcy needed it.

The Marcy case is more difficult because, as far as I can tell, and certainly as far as the UC Berkeley investigation could determine, he did, in fact, violate a number of sexual harassment policies. I stress that word because it is just as clear to me that he did not actually sexually harass anyone. His accusers and soi-disant victims, it seems to me, are simply unwilling to make that distinction. While his employer had a legitimate cause to be cross with Marcy for getting himself and Berkeley into this mess—by treating female students as the adults he is explicitly forbidden to treat them as—it is simply not true that he "serially harassed" his students for a decade.

And yet, in the pursuit of a very ill-considered new policy—Jackie Speier's Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act—Marcy is being made the poster boy for "rampant sexual harassment in STEM". This is outrageous not just because he is not a sexual harasser, but because there is no evidence to suggest that sexual harassment is "rampant" in astronomy, and much evidence to suggest the opposite.

To see the mud that Marcy's name is being dragged through, witness Rep. Speier's recent press conference, including Sarah Ballard's appearance, as well as their subsequent appearance on the Mother Jones podcast Inquiring Minds. I'll analyze both very closely in the days to come. To their credit, Inquiring Minds sought comment from Marcy's lawyer and her reflections, which are interjected at all the right points, are very informative and necessary. Ballard's story simply does not hold up as a harassment accusation, as I will argue. Nor does the claim that harassment is "driving women out of STEM".

The focus of my blogging on this issue (which will be the only thing I'll talk about here for the foreseeable future) will be what I'm calling "The Ballad of Geoff and Sarah". That is, I will be focusing on the alleged "abuse" that specifically Ballard suffered, and I will be situating it in the larger context of what can only be described as harassment hysteria. I know this will be seen as an "attack" on Ballard by some. But she is quite clearly participating in a coordinated attack on Marcy, so I'm sure she's ready for this. Indeed, she has a right to have her story tested, not just "heard". My work will provide such as a test. She has been described as "brave" for coming forward; indeed, she has described herself this way. Well, it's the courage to face questions like mine that is ultimately implied in that description.

This post, of course, is merely a promissory note. I will be unpacking and supporting all these claims going forward. I will look at the Ballard case, at the research into harassment in STEM and astronomy, and at the policies that are in place and being proposed to deal with it. I will also be discussing the work of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy of/and the American Astronomical Society, with which I've had some dubious encounters over the past year. Finally, I will of course be taking up the meaning of "sexual harassment" as such. At the end of the day, I remain a philosopher.

I should say that I don't know any of the involved parties in a personal or professional capacity. I'm a complete outsider to the field of astronomy. Some will say that makes me impartial; others will say it makes me irrelevant. If it's all right with you, I will simply try to make myself clear.


Anonymous said...

Insightful. It's also worth examining the backdrop and the influence of others in shaping Ballard's feelings. Not quite trusting her own feelings, she conferred with others. In Ballard's description of the events (see p. 101 in the documents released by UC Berkeley,, she mentions that she didn't think anything was wrong with the situation until "[redacted] told me that Geoff was not harmless, and actually had a history of harassing women students. This made me view our relationship in an entirely different light; I no longer believed that he was really harmless." Yet the other "harassment" was giving a student a hug and a kiss on the cheek when she shared that her parents were separating. While this action with a student might suggest poor judgment on Marcy's part, it is also a common gesture of support that someone might offer to a friend.

The bigger question is who were these people who kept the "whisper network" alive and what motivated them? Blog posts from Joan Schmelz, who won an award from Nature last year for "outing Geoff Marcy," demonstrates that she is on a crusade. Yet her descriptions of what disturbs her about the interactions of men and women are indeed bizarre. Here's one:
She meets someone in a coffee line who introduces himself and starts a conversation complimenting her on her work with the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and she accuses him of launching a "charm offensive." Really?

Schmelz apparently spent a great deal of time trying to find "victims" of Marcy's friendship. She even posed to some of these women she contacted as working WITH the Title IX office (see p. 18 in the case summary--link above). She was roundly reprimanded by the Title IX officer for that misrepresentation (see pp. 21-22). She very clearly was proud of herself for "warning" others about Marcy. One has to ask---since there was no sex, no quid pro quo, and no careers damaged (except Marcy's)---was this takedown primarily a result of the power of suggestion?

Jonathan said...

Wow. That summary of facts is amazing. Is that all there is to it? Usually if someone tells you to stop and you do that is not harassment.

Thomas said...

@Anonymous: Yes, it's interesting how harassment cases are investigated. Normally, if an investigation finds that the complaints are coming in as part of a coordinated campaign against an individual, this would count against their credibility. Here it is at least accepted, and sometimes one gets the sense that we are supposed to find the story more believable because someone else, as you put it, "suggested" that someone was wrong.

@Jonathan: When I finally passed from the news to the facts I was amazed too! The impression I got from media reports was that he was clearly abusing his position as a professor in pursuit of his own pleasure. But it's interesting to note that Azeen Ghorayshi's story at BuzzFeed actually got the title right. Marcy was found to have violated policies, not women. But Ghorayshi's story was of course picked up an exaggerated, by people like Ethan Siegel, who would say he had been "found guilty of repeated sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior". In this light (perhaps a similar sort of light as the "entirely different light" Anonymous quotes from Ballard above) everything outside of policy becomes "inappropriate" and everything inappropriate becomes "harassment".

Jonathan said...

I have kissed females o the cheek, which is stadard greeting i some cultures.

Thomas said...

That's a good point. It's that sort of thing I'm worried about when I talk the scorched lawn of excluded middle. It is a well known fact that intercultural communication requires us to move outside of our so-called "comfort zones" (do we shake hands, hug, or kiss?). In a certain sense, culture just is the setting of these boundaries.

I sometimes feel like anti-harassment campaigners are trying to cleanse all cultural content out of science. (Ironically, they do this in the name of Culture.) They want science to be so "professional" that they would nothing there for poets to do. In WCWilliams' time there were people who argued that "after socialism has been achieved it's likely there'll be no further use for poetry". Speier and Ballard strike me as that sort of ideologue.

Anonymous said...

@Thomas, yes it is interesting how these cases are investigated. The investigator in the Marcy case heard from one of the complainants (Jessica Kirkpatrick, who "felt uncomfortable" watching Marcy interact with someone at a party) that she had essentially fabricated much of her story. The date on her email was October 14 (pp. 48 of the public release of the documents) ---right after Marcy was forced out. The investigator responded (p. 50). "Thank you for providing these corrections. The updated information does not alter my analysis or finding in the original report." Interesting response, considering that in the investigation of the "crotch grab" case where there were no corroborating witnesses, he mentions that the overall behavior in the other cases as evidence that Marcy more likely than not grabbed the crotch.

You then have to look at what drives an investigator and what they are rewarded for. I fear the incentives are not purely based on finding out the facts in the context of normal human interactions. It has likely grown worse with all of the hype. We're in for a long haul.

Thomas said...

The most distasteful conclusion in the report is the suggestion that a sexual assault somehow fits the pattern of the other behavior.

T. Madigan said...

Very good post, Thomas and very good points too. I, myself, have written much about all this in my blog, specifically regarding Geoff Marcy's case. We had corresponded for a while.

Rep. Speier's bill is still languishing in pretty much the same place it was a year ago at this time. I would have thought it would have been further along or would have been passed or vetoed by this point. But then again, the country is preoccupied with the circus that this election cycle has become.

My original intent in writing the blog posts was to shine a spotlight on the hypocrisy of those in academia who are using Geoff's case to further their own agenda, including Rep. Speier who many will perceive as the heroine, the Joan of Arc on the white stallion riding in to save the day and slay the evil astronomer. It was my intention to expose them for what they are and, by some small measure, a means by which Geoff could begin to repair the damage done to his good name and to his noble profession that has been so unjustly tarnished.

Writing these blogs and telling these stories, at least in my opinion, are all well and good and may persuade one or two casual readers but a measure of their real efficacy and value is determined by how policies and regulations are implemented and/ or enforced. Rep. Speier's zeal and effort is colored by a certain bias and this may not be even clear to her. The question begs asking: are you aware that she (Rep. Speier) or other decision and policy makers have read your blog? The relief she seeks is already provided for under Title IX and she is attempting to make a name for herself at the expense of Geoff, Astronomy and anyone else unjustly targeted by overzealous Social Justice Warriors.

T. Madigan said...

Correction: "My original intent in writing the blog posts was to shine a spotlight on the hypocrisy of those in academia, including Rep. Speier who...." should have read "My original intent in writing the blog posts was to shine a spotlight on the hypocrisy of those in academia, in government and elsewhere including Rep. Speier who....".

T. Madigan said...

Brief follow-up: the relief Rep. Speier ostensibly seeks is already provided for under Title IX. We don't need anymore government regs. or overreach in this regard.

Thomas said...

@T. Madigan: Hi again. Thanks for the encouraging words. To answer your question: no, I have no particular reason to think that my writing on this, either now, or in the past, is being taken seriously by those who are promoting this issue. In fact, I have unequivocal evidence that I'm being actively stonewalled.

I'll leave the details for a subsequent post, but let me just touch on the issue of hypocrisy that your raise. It is argued that harassment thrives in a culture of silence and whispers. When I went to bat for Tim Hunt, people told me to look at the bigger picture. When I looked at the bigger picture (the surveys and the policies), I met mainly silence (and blocking on social media) from the key players.

My view is that a conversation is obviously needed. I'm willing to have that conversation. The people who celebrate this issue finally coming to light, seem entirely unwilling to talk about things. They think what has been put off too long is not a conversation, but a series of denunciations—the more official the better.