At first, I was outraged about the unwillingness of our scientific institutions to protect their members from the irrational passions of the mob. In the Tim Hunt case, for example, I argued that the leadership of UCL "failed in its near-sacred duty to protect an unconventional mind from the pressures of conventional thought." I agreed with Brian Schmidt that the best protection against the Internet is provided by strong, real-world institutions that "stick by their values".
These days, however, it's dawning on me that our institutions of higher learning aren't even defending themselves. The eagerness with which universities are willing to admit that they are founded on unjustly arrogated "privilege" (straight, white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, etc.), rather than long held principles (free inquiry, methodological rigor, sound scholarship), is astounding. I'm running into the same attitude in my correspondence with the American Astronomical Society. The official position of that organization appears to be that it is sexist. Astronomy, we are told, is a hotbed of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Not even the leadership of a major national professional organization is willing to defend the community against these charges.* The past two presidents of the AAS, both of them women, seem intent on telling the world that astronomy is a terrible place for women.
I'm all for being honest about particular cases. But there is something completely disorienting about the president of an organization saying that the corruption within it is systemic. A leader must always lead from a presumption of rectitude. A leader must say that the system is working correctly for the most part. She must not denounce the people she leads. A leader must represent the best of them, not the worst. A leader who says "we are all corrupt" (or sexist or racist or whatever) should simply step down. Why would anyone want to lead an organization that they can't recommend one joins?
*Where, for example, is the AAS's response to Jackie Speier's outrageous claims that sexual harassment is "rampant" in science, astronomy in particular? (Indeed, where is the reasoned response to the specific policy proposal, which is likely to make it even more difficult to expose grant-winning harassers.) "We know," says Speier, "that sexual assault and harassment are an enormous factor in driving women out of STEM." Really? We know this? Like it was rampant in the military in the 1980s? Where is the AAS statement to say that assault in astronomy is essentially non-existent; where is the clarification that quid-pro-quo harassment (sex for advancement) is a non-issue even in the most high profile cases? Where is the appeal to the studies that suggest that the pipeline isn't leaking and women don't even think of leaving their fields more than men? Astronomy, like all sciences, is one of the safest places for women to work in the already very safe Western world. It's time that our institutions took a little pride in themselves again!