Thursday, June 29, 2017

On Chris Pissarides at Starmus

TL;DR: Jill Tarter's censure of Chris Pissarides at Starmus, as well as Sara Seager's walkout and Neil Degrasse Tyson's browbeating, are likely to chill the frank and open exchange of ideas. This sort of "calling out" is bad for science.

Details, gently spun, are provided by Kate Lunau at Motherboard. HT Women in Astronomy.

I was pleased to see that the "storm" over Chris Pissarides' commments at Starmus last week passed without causing any major damage. It is possible that we learned something from the overreaction to Tim Hunt's comments in Seoul two years ago. Jean Christou, editor in chief of the Cyprus Mail, for example, referred back to the Tim Hunt debacle in her account of the Starmus controversy:

In 2015 British Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt was hounded and had to quit a long and distinguished career – or be fired – over a badly-delivered self-deprecating joke at a science conference in South Korea after it was interpreted as sexist by a female journalist and then set social media ablaze.

This is the largely the right way to summarize what happened. If I have an issue it's with the idea that the joke was "badly-delivered". I still don't think we know that for sure, even if Tim Hunt believes he botched it. My research suggests it was willfully misconstrued in order to incite maximum outrage. The joke was certainly misunderstood.

As was Pissarides' remark, it seems. Like Hunt, Pissarides is no sexist and had literally just called for more women in STEM in his own talk. That is, when he brings up the subject himself, he clearly says that women are as capable of science as men. In this case, he was pressed by Larry King to explain why his Siri app had a male voice. He answered, lightheartedly, that he had been told that he would trust such a voice more. This is actually a jab at his own "implicit bias", if perhaps also (and not unjustifiably) "studies" that are forever "showing" things (like "people trust male AI voices more than female ones"). The "I'm told" sort of got lost in the groaning. But Pissarides was quite deliberately constructing a groaner, or what is sometimes called a "dad joke". The joke is self-referential and, indeed, self-deprecating. It's saying, "Yeah, I guess my implicit bias is showing a little there. Maybe I should work on that." In other words, he had graciously acknowledged the (altogether harmless) "sexism" of his choice of voice.

Sara Seager, who had apparently previously been insulted in other ways, walked out (and even left the conference early). So did Jim Al-Khalili.

But Jill Tarter decided to stay and call him out for it, which led to an uncomfortable scene for which, I believe, she is mainly responsible, though Neil Degrasse Tyson certainly aggravated it. I thought Tyson's lecturing was unseemly, and if I were Pissarides I'd be pissed off at him for his condescension. There is, I think we can agree, something distinctly American about that Tarter-Tyson episode.

Also, I think it's important to point out that Pissarides is a supporter of basic income, which would greatly benefit workers and poor people the world over—and, of course, women. In this regard, he's a bit like Charles Murray, who is accused of being a racist. Both of these thinkers support a policy that would do much more for 99% percent of the members of the races and genders they are accused of "disparaging" than any amount of "inter-sectional" call-outs. As Murray pointed out in a recent interview with Tucker Carlson, it may seem ironic that leftists are attacking them, but it's actually quite fitting that elites are doing it. Pissarides and Murray are certainly "privileged", but they are promoting policies that would distribute opportunity more equitably throughout society and the world. Tarter's problem is a distinctly middle-class and first-world one. It's simply not true that "half the world's population" is particularly "pissed off" at what Pissarides said.

I want to say one last thing. It's about the official response from Starmus. The festival did not defend Pissarides and I imagine he will not accept an invitation in the future to attend. I don't think they really understood what they way saying when they said that comments like his "will not be tolerated at our festival"; I think they were merely trying to respond in a way that would placate the critics in the short term. Indeed, if they took the criticism seriously they would also go after Tyson, who, as Tarter pointed out, stood silently by. Silence in these situations, perhaps, should not be tolerated either. Perhaps Larry King, too, should be sanctioned for "even going there" (or, as Al-Khalili suggested to Lunau, at least for not "picking up on it"). It will certainly put a damper on the spontaneous expression of opinion if people like Pissarides have to be careful what they say extemporaneously and people like Tyson are obligated to police it.

This sort of activism (and the journalism that celebrates it) is not good for science. Science depends on the open and frank exchange of ideas and the maintenance of forums where it can go on. The more speakers and panelists who are wrongfully smeared for being "sexist" and "racist" on the basis of improvised, humorous remarks, regardless of their deliberately stated views, their actual policy positions and, indeed, their lifework, the less likely intelligent people are to speak in such public settings. If I may offer a gratuitous jab: perhaps it is telling that Tarter has spent her career trying, without luck, to find signs of intelligent life in outer space. Her sense of the difference between signal and noise leaves much to be desired.

* * *

P.S. Ellinor Alseth's account and reflections on this are worth reading. They reveal an interesting tension in the younger generation of scientists. On the one hand, she says that

When someone like the renowned astronomer Jill Tarter, former director for the Center for SETI Research, towards the end of the debate stood up and asked why none of the other participants had said anything, but rather let it slide, a young scientist like myself can’t help but be inspired.

But she then also says this: is important to point out that Pissarides obviously didn’t mean any harm with his comment, and I really do not see the point in becoming upset or angry because of it. To react with anger will never change anyones opinions, but rather solidify them and result in non-constructive arguments.

But the "inspiring" Jill Tarter not only reacted with anger (which has fostered non-constructive arguments) she proposed to channel the anger of half the world's population!

Alseth, quite rightly, points out that if there are any sexist attitudes in science they are dying out with each generation. But she is caught in the double bind of having a much more constructive attitude about this sort of thing than her role models. Even as she praises them, she sets a better example for her peers. Tarter was "pissed off". Seager took an early flight home. But Alseth, thankfully, was "just more excited and glad for [her] choice of career" after attending the festival. "How lucky I really am to be part of such a community," she says, "and I hope all my fellow young scientist in the audience feel the same way."

There is hope.


Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, Siri's female voice is also problematic.

You can't win.

Anonymous said...

Here is a "winning" strategy: under no circumstances, ever, make any attempt at humor. Safest tactic is to never make any comments. Prepare all remarks ahead of time, in writing, and read from those prepared remarks. Refer all questions to your attorney or press officer.