Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Professional Society

"You know if someone likes your face you'd be a fool to stay
strictly amateur." (Joe Jackson)

I made an interesting discovery this week. Christina Richey has resigned as chair of the American Astronomy Society's Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA). She has been replaced with Patricia Knezek. Curiously, however, Richey's resignation has come without any ceremony whatsoever. I discovered it by chance when I happened to look at the list of committee members. As I write this, the page was last updated on February 12, 2017. Richey's Wikipedia article was modified by an anonymous user (the IP address traces to Washington, DC) on February 11. So I'm assuming that's roughly the date of the resignation. No announcement was made on the Women in Astronomy blog, nor on the AAS's website.

As regular readers of this blog know, my attempts to engage in a dialogue with Dr. Richey about the status of women in astronomy have completely failed. She has not answered a single one of my mails (nor my most recent open letter). And it was only when I contacted the president of the AAS that my inquires began getting some response, first from an AAS press officer, and currently from Kevin Marvel, the executive officer of the Society. On February 6, he asked me not to contact AAS "volunteers" like Richey (and now Knezek), presumably because answering critical questions is not part of what they signed up for. So I wrote to him about the change of chair.

"Dr. Richey resigned," he responded, "to dedicate more time to her regular employment." (Richey is a program officer at NASA. Specifically, she is the Deputy Program Scientist for the OSIRIS-REx mission and the Deputy Science Advisor for Research and Analysis for the Science Mission Directorate.) Now, given the fanfare with which she stepped into the position in 2015, one would have expected a glowing post thanking her for her service and introducing her replacement. But it was apparently very important to remove her from the position before such an announcement could be made, including, like I say, updating her Wikipedia page.

Having served on volunteer boards and committees myself, both in my private and my professional life, I fully appreciate Marvel's efforts to protect the AAS's volunteers from criticism and nuisance. (I'm willing to grant that my interest in this committee constitutes a bit of a disruption. I will insist, however, that all my communications with the AAS/CSWA have been courteous and accurate and that I have, of necessity, been very patient with the Society's unwillingness or inability to answer my questions.) But as I have explained to him, I think the image of CSWA members as amateurs who are giving their time freely is a bit naive, and perhaps, as I will try to suggest here, even disingenuous. The CSWA is a powerful committee that has been driving cultural change in the astronomy community, especially during Richey's tenure. Like all power, we do well to keep an eye on how it is being wielded.

Two famous slogans come to mind. "With power comes responsibility." "Power corrupts." The latter is especially true if the constituency does not insist on the former. That is, when someone takes on the role of chair of a committee, they are not just volunteering their time to work on behalf of the members of the relevant organization. They are stepping into a position of power. (It is interesting that feminists, who are so obsessed with "power" in the hands of men, are so often blind to their own power, even when it when comes with a formal title.) The power of the CSWA has been very conspicuous over the past year and half, and Dr. Richey has real responsibility for what the committee has accomplished. Note, that this is true whether you approve or disapprove of the committee's work. Whether you want to thank her or blame her, Dr. Richey is the proper subject of that judgment.

Most notably, Geoff Marcy was forced into retirement on Dr. Richey's watch. A strong statement of support from the CSWA for Berkeley's investigation and disciplinary process, i.e., a statement acknowledging the original sanctions, would have a done a great deal to keep him working in the field, and to share responsibility for his behavior. After all, Marcy was once a member of the committee (1994-1997)! Instead, the CSWA, under Richey's leadership, very definitely threw Marcy under the bus. It must have been clear to everyone, both at Berkeley and in the astronomy community, which way the wind was blowing. To borrow from the language of sociology, the CSWA is a key "organized component" of a very effective political movement. Whatever one may think of it, one has to respect it.

With Richey's strangely unceremonious resignation, I wonder if the winds are changing. For the sake of astronomy, I of course hope so, and I will keep an eye on developments going forward to do my part in reminding power of its responsibility. If we do not hold the CSWA to account, it is simply too easy to imagine it being corrupted by opportunists who would use it to advance less "progressive" agendas—like their own careers or personal vendettas. Once a court of oyer et terminer has been established, it can be put to all kinds of ulterior uses.

I'm going to keep a watchful eye, like I say. Here's how an anonymous commenter on my recent bleg described the mood in the community.

... please don't stop writing! ... But ... it's absolutely radioactive to discuss [harassment] among a random group of astronomers --- you WILL be branded as a harasser yourself if you show any sympathy to those accused, never mind that the prevailing view infantalizes women, treating them as if they are incapable of taking care of themselves. But those of us who disagree are starting to find each other. We welcome and share your blog posts and hope for sanity to re-emerge from the wreckage. Thank you for providing a different perspective. I don't think anyone in astronomy could get away with it.

My independent research largely confirms that this is what is going on. Indeed, an "astronomy underground" appears to be forming.* This, of course, is not being covered by the science press. In fact, I haven't yet decided whether it would be most accurate to say that so-called "science writers" have been mainly co-opted by the "ally" movement or that they are simply wagging the dog. Since the scientists, science communicators, and science policy makers are increasingly part of the same "complex", with well-oiled revolving doors, it's probably a little bit of both.

Scientists, and academics more generally, have always had an ambivalent attitude about their "profession". Traditionally, being a professor is not quite the same thing as being a professional. But in an age of Big Science this is changing, and many who earned their doctoral degrees back in the 1980s are no doubt having a hard time adjusting to the new order. As I've said before, the problem here isn't actually "feminism", though it's certainly part of the problem. The problem is corporatism. Working in science is much more like working for a large multinational corporation with a "bottom line" to watch, and a "brand" to protect, than serving on the faculty of a university, pursuing free inquiry under the protections of tenure. The Bora Zivkovics, Tim Hunts, and Geoff Marcys of the world are perhaps a dying breed. Indeed, they are being intentionally hunted to extinction, as I think the leaders of the ally movement would agree.

Here it is worth noting something I think traditional scientists haven't properly appreciated about many of the "allies" who are leading the movement to "end sexual harassment" in science. I'll write a more detailed post about this soon, but it's important to keep in mind that Dr. Richey is not an "academic" in a traditional sense. When she was introduced as chair of the CSWA, she was "a Senior Scientist at Smart Data Solutions, LLC, working for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters." Today, she is still working at NASA, but not as an employee of that agency. She is a contractor employed by the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

The corporate culture of astronomy can also be seen in a weird statement from Kevin Marvel about those slides I always complain about. When I tried to get him to confirm that the slides had been changed, he surprised me by simply abrogating responsibility for them. The slides are hosted on a "third party" server, he said. "It is not affiliated with the AAS. Christina is also not affiliated with [it]." (I am currently trying to contact the organization that hosts the file in order to clarify the situation, so I'll hold off on drawing it into the controversy by name at this point.) This is odd to me because I haven't really been in any doubt that it was Richey who provided the files that were uploaded. Nor has Ethan Siegel at Forbes, nor has the DPS.

Or consider someone like Jessica Kirkpatrick, who was a vocal witness** in the Geoff Marcy investigation. Somewhat baroquely, she has compared the astronomy community to the Catholic Church. Kirkpatrick earned her PhD from Berkeley in 2012, but never really pursued a career in astronomy. She is a data scientist at Hired, Inc. Nonetheless, she joined the CSWA in 2012 and was elected to the Council of the AAS last year. "My first goal for being on the council," she wrote in her candidate statement, "is to broaden the perspective of the AAS to include astronomers who are currently working in industry." Not surprisingly, her second goal is "to leverage [her] experience on the CSWA, the Women in Astronomy Blog, and the Equity & Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy Community to help the AAS better serve those who are currently underrepresented in astronomy and/or marginalized by society as a whole."

Like I say, I don't really believe that this is all about serving underrepresented populations. I believe it is about the corporatization of scientific inquiry. In his 1983 epilogue to his classic Concept of the Corporation (1946), Peter Drucker noted that his ideas were largely ignored by the company (GM) that it was about. Rather, its major impact was on the reorganization of the state institutions such as universities. In the same epilogue, he also speaks of the rise of a "society of organizations". This, too, is a subject that deserves a post of its own. My aim here is merely to note that there are enormous (and long standing) pressures on scientists to "professionalize". The American Astronomical Society is obviously subject to those pressures. I truly worry that, however well-intentioned some in the "ally movement" may be, they are leveraging forces that may ultimately break the spirit of inquiry. Amateur hour, sadly, is over.

But this story is not. Christina Richey remains co-Chair of the Division for Planetary Sciences' Subcommittee on Professional Climate and Culture.

[Updated on Feb 23 at 21:30]
*As a couple of readers have pointed out, the Real Astronomy website isn't exactly active. It was last updated over a year ago, on January 19, 2016. To take it as evidence of a growing "underground" resistance is probably overstating things. It is my sense, however, that the commenter I cited is right to say that concerned astronomers are "finding each other".
**Technically, Kirkpatrick is a "complainant" (#4) in the Marcy case, as distinct from what the PRA documents refer to as "witnesses". But since Kirkpatrick's "complaint" was essentially that she was made uncomfortable witnessing Marcy's behavior, I did not want to give readers not familiar with the details the impression that Kirkpatrick claims to have been actually harassed by Marcy. Indeed, the woman whose alleged harassment she witnessed did not file complaint during the investigation.


Anonymous said...

There are days when I am tempted to stop following your blog. I think you sometimes give short shrift to see important concerns, and that you are just a bit too obsessed.

But your observations on the corporate nature of this are spot-on. On the surface the feminist critiques are thoroughly outsider critiques, coming from radical left analyses of power. But their effective always to push people towards more corporate, institutional behavior. Corporate types (both outside of universities and those who are in universities but run large research groups in a corporate style) embrace these feminist critiques more than traditional scientists do. Federal funding agencies embrace these critiques.

Thomas said...

Thanks (I think). I apologize for the narrow range, but it's basically the focus of the blog these days. (I took it out of retirement to write about these things specifically.)

I know there are more important things going on. But most of those things are already getting written about or are topics that I can't really contribute to. This is an area I have, by a kind of accident, become an expert on.

Anonymous said...

Where I dissent from you is that sometimes you give too little consideration to whether it would be better if someone had behaved differently, focusing entirely on whether the conduct in question provably crosses a threshold for institutional action. While I agree that institutions need to focus on that, a society of well-behaved individuals will see fewer people pressuring institutions to overstep. That's an important element of what's going on here.

As to the "Astronomy Underground", as near as I can tell that rarely-updated website is an attempt by a few individuals to push back against accusations made against them. Whether their cause is a good one or not, it's hardly indicative of a wider backlash in astronomy.

Thomas said...

Thanks for the feedback. You raise a good point that I'm going to have to write a whole post to do justice.

Your point about the "underground" is well taken. I will write a footnote to acknowledge it.