Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Responsibility of Anthropologists

Anthropologists sometimes get the cultures they study wrong. This is not just because anthropologists, too, are human beings, and therefore fallible; it is because they are, by their own admission (or boast, if you prefer) engaged in "science", and therefore subject to falsification. [In order to say something true and meaningful you risk saying something false.] We trust science not because we think it is always right but because it regularly corrects itself. It is able, not just to discover that it has made a mistake, but to admit it when it happens.

In anthropology this is especially important because the cultures it describes also have images of themselves. Some Samoans, for example, famously took offense at Margaret Mead's description of them as sexually promiscuous. They did not recognize themselves in the image she presented. This is not surprising when we consider that her conclusions were based largely on interviews with teen-aged girls. Leaving aside the question of whether they were being completely truthful with her, looking at a culture from this perspective is likely to be distorted in particular ways. Speaking to the adults in the community would have offered a corrective.

I have lately been concerned with the cultural description of the community of astronomers. It has been described in terms that very few members of any community would take pride in. The Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy commissioned a survey of the workplace climate in the discipline, and enlisted the help of two anthropologists—Kate Clancy and Katharine Lee at the University of Illinois. At a preliminary presentation of its results, astronomers were told that their "community is steeped in unconscious bias and is set such that white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied men are the dominant group by a larger percentage than the general population". They were also told that they "have a problem": "scientists in the astronomical and planetary science communities experience and witness inappropriate language, verbal harassment, and physical assault." Women were told they'd be "lucky" if they weren't harassed.

These are claims made about a community of about 10,000 people. The study remains unpublished, which is to say, un-vetted by peers.

The claims it makes are are not inconsequential, however. Not only has the description of astronomy as a sexist culture, rife with harassment, tarnished the public image of astronomy, and that of a number of individual astronomers, it has informed policy. The American Astronomical Society has rewritten its harassment policy and begun to regulate the "romantic inclinations" of its members at conferences. Citing the problems in astronomy specifically, and with the explicit support of the very same Kate Clancy, Rep. Jackie Speier has introduced legislation at the federal level to deal with what she describes as "rampant" sexual harassment in the STEM fields.

Like I say, anthropologists sometimes get the cultures they study wrong. One check on this is the scientific culture of anthropology itself. By publishing its results, by being open about its data and its methods, anthropology exposes itself to criticism. It not only presents its results, it commits itself to a conversation about them. Given the implications of judgments about a culture, especially a culture that is subject to federal regulation, anthropologists have a responsibility to acknowledge objections to their descriptions of the communities they describe. They have an obligation to discuss, and even debate, their claims.

It will not do to just enlist the support of some members of the community under study. This is not just because of the problem of Mead's "teenage perspective" on Samoan culture. Far worse is the possibility that one's description will be informed and endorsed by a particular faction within a community during a time of political struggle. (Imagine an anthropologist describing a gang war in the inner city from the perspective of one of the gangs, or even the police.) A purportedly objective account of a culture might thus be skewed to fit a particular interest. In the case of astronomy, the image of a "harassment culture" appears to be driven by stories that circulate in a network of "allies", a network that has ended the career of at least one major astronomer by a deliberate campaign of vilification. Although not herself an astronomer, there is good reason to think that Kate Clancy has effectively joined this network. She has "gone native" as one sometimes puts it.

I believe that anthropology, as a discipline, is failing the astronomy community by not subjecting a quickly spreading characterization of its culture—as "misogynistic", "homophobic" and "racist"—and the anthropologist who is promoting it, to critical scrutiny. I have done what I can to bring the problem to light. I have long tried to engage with Clancy about her results—her methods, her data, and her interpretations of them—and she has completely ignored me. I hope that at some point Clancy's peers in anthropology will join me and help me put her work into proper perspective.

Anthropology has a long history of collusion with the powers that be. As a discipline, it is rightly, if sometimes a bit ostentatiously, ashamed of its colonial past. I believe we're seeing a repeat of this process as anthropologists conspire with reformers to transform the culture of science in the name of "diversity". This, as I have argued before, is not so much a feminist (or even an "intersectional") project as a corporatist one. We are talking about the colonization of science by politics, of knowledge by power. It is the takeover of inquiry by management. By calling itself "social science", this ideology is avoiding accountability. It is irresponsible.


Anonymous said...

This is much bigger than anthropologists and astronomers. Social justice, equity, and inclusion are how elite professions legitimize themselves in the eyes of a certain cultural segment. And these aren't bad grounds for legitimacy, all things considered. Where things go off the rails is when the quest for diversity turns away from an examination of causal factors (some of which may be rooted in socialization that members of the profession as such can only be bit players in addressing) and into opportunities for the grinding of axes. Anthropology is only one of many communities from which the axe-grinders come, and astronomy is only one of many targets.

I think it's pretty clear that harassment and other inexcusable acts occur, but it is very much an open question whether it's as prevalent as some claim. Moreover, for all the talk of unconscious bias and related matters, the extent to which it has tangible effects in academic astronomy (not exactly a hotbed of aggressive masculinity or culturally conservative mindsets on gender and family roles) is very much an open question. For instance, there's the Ceci and Williams study that calls into question whether unconscious bias actually works against women in academic hiring.

Nonetheless, there's a dominant narrative, and a lot of people are afraid to openly defy it because they are well-meaning and self-interested.

Astronomy seems to be an unusually dramatic example of these trends in the wider society in general and STEM fields in particular, but it's a mistake to focus too closely on astronomy and its anthropologist critics.

Thomas said...

Thanks for the comment. I agree it's a bigger problem. The pattern no doubt repeats in any number of STEM fields and social scientists, brought together by a convocation of politic journalists and scientists. It's my temperament to try to understand particular cases in detail. I'm not suggesting that this is a unique case by any means.

Anonymous said...

Dear Thomas,

You make good points. However, blogging them is open to the criticism of being unscientific in much the same way philosophers recoil at the blogosphere's attacks on the peer-reviewed journal article of philosopher Tuvel that you highlighted recently.

A first step in "science-ing the [shirt] out of it" as Matt Damon would say as The Martian, would be to give lectures at Universities and present a poster at appropriate scientific meetings. To be taken seriously, your points need to be made in a peer-reviewed journal or a book. A journal article would have the difficulty that it would be criticizing many results that have not yet passed peer review. I don't think that is insurmountable. Regardless, you could propose methods (e.g. survey questions, sampling, analysis) that you feel would overcome the limitations of prior research.

The AAS holds its next winter meeting in Washington D.C. in January 2018. I challenge you to prepare a poster, submit it, and stand by it for a day to bring attention and potential criticism to your claims. If you feel your results are newsworthy enough, you can issue a press release or press conference, although I think the AAS may not assist in either given your likely conclusions contradicting its narrative.

It would be interesting to see whether you could raise funds (e.g. in a gofundme campaign) to support your travel expenses. Or you could apply for a AAS travel grant, or perhaps obtain support by other means.

Thomas said...

Thanks for the suggestion. I'll consider it. It would be interesting to see how much money could be raised to conduct an actually rigorous survey that could answer the question, "How big is the harassment problem in astronomy?" And, yes, to cover conference attendance expenses.

I don't think blogging is "unscientific" in any obvious sense, though. The outrage over the Tuvel thing wasn't that her paper was being criticized on blogs but that a mob had been organized to call for its retraction. I personally think blog-based criticism of published work is good for science.

You might find "what has happened down in" psychology interesting. I guess I could be considered a "methodological terrorist" by Fiske's standards? Actually ... ugh! ... she's into "implicit bias" and that sort of thing. Which is on my list of things to blog about.

Anonymous said...

Come up with a methodologically sound proposal, some collaborators with relevant training and experience, and I will donate to that Kickstarter.

(Provided that donors can be anonymous. My public opinion is that activists are probably under-stating the prevalence of harassment in science, not over-stating it, and that studies like you're proposing are just Part Of The Problem.)

Thomas said...

Right now, I'm still waiting for the CSWA survey to come out. In a sense, whatever I proposed would be replicating it. I wonder if I could get a formal critique of that paper (which Clancy hinted was not far from publication) uploaded to Arxiv. It could include my suggestion for a follow up study.

I have a pretty good plan for one that could survey just the attendees of the AAS Meeting--one that could in fact be set up to run, say, semi-annually. It's important to get a sense of the natural variance in these surveys.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you that blogging is not unscientific, but I do think that most scientists will feel that way. That's why I urge you to present some of your ideas at a conference, and eventually develop them into a refereed paper, and/or a study, or a book.

Anything can be uploaded to ArXiv. That's a good idea. Some very prominent scientists have posted papers only to ArXiv, feeling it's not always necessary to put them in a refereed journal with page charges, but they had established reputations beforehand. Bohdan Paczynski of Princeton University for one example.

I think some online fund raisers allow people to contribute on the condition that their contribution will only be debited if the project obtains sufficient pledges. So why not try it? Just set one up with a budget for your travel to the January AAS meeting and see if you can raise the funds. If you find that such an attempt raises $35, then well, the astronomical community doesn't care, but if it raises $3500 in two weeks from 100+ donors, then you have just established that your presence is valued.