Thursday, October 27, 2016


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!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Deep Impact

I've sort of decided to drop the subject, at least for a while, but I've been carrying around an analogy that I need to unload. I'll link to the reality that I'm allegorizing at the end. Readers who have been following along the past few weeks will perhaps get it immediately.

Suppose you tweet that while asteroids can be dangerous, the chance that one will hit us any time soon is very, very low. In response, someone else tweets that the odds are actually 3/4, linking to a story by a science writer on a major news site who reports he has attended a session at an astronomy conference where a researcher presented the discovery of an extinction-sized asteroid that has a 75% chance of hitting the Earth within a hundred years. Horrified, you reach out (through Twitter, say) and ask if that can be right. Has the data been published? Has the scientific community had a chance to examine it? He tells you that the paper will be published soon but that he's just working off his notes from the conference presentation. Just be patient and start getting straight with God, he tells you.

Obviously, you're not going to leave it at that. You contact the researcher who made the presentation, telling her about the news report and asking whether it's true and, if so, what observation she's basing her prediction on. She doesn't answer your mail, but the reporter soon updates his story. Linking to a set of Power Point slides, he says "more accurate" information has become available: it turns out that it's a 57% chance of impact within a 1000 years.

Okay, that calms you a little. But it still seems pretty hairy, doesn't it? You take a look at the slides and notice that on one of the tables there seems to be an adding mistake. As far as you can tell, the correct values would yield a 32% risk. And, in any case, looking more closely at the probability space, even that 32% seems to apply to a ten-fold longer time scale. Once again, you write to the astronomer, pointing out the error and asking about the timescale. And once again, you don't get an answer.

This time no update is made to the story, but within hours of sending your mail to the researcher, another science journalist, who had also written about the "troubling" asteroid, says she has been contacted by the astronomer and been told it's 32% not 57%, attributing the mistake to an adding error. She says nothing about whether or not it's 100, 1000 or 10,000 years. You now reach out to the twittizen who had sounded the alarm back when it was 75% within a century and ask her how she feels now. "Well, 32% is better," she says, "but it's still really, really dangerous."

Meanwhile, the paper seems to be held up in the review process. You try a number of times to have the astronomer explain her methodology or just send you a draft version of the paper so you can look at it yourself. She never answers your mails. One day, however, you notice that she has altered the slide presentation that the first reporter linked to when he updated the risk to 57%. Without marking the change in any way, she has simply uploaded a new set of slides to the same URL with the adding mistake corrected so it now reads 32%, as though that's what the presentation had said all along, making the article look like it is misrepresenting its source.

Your head (I would hope) is now spinning. Neither the astronomer nor the journalist(s) seem very concerned about what is true or false or how worried the public might be about all this. If you think it's farfetched, read this and this. But here's the kicker: one day you notice that another researcher who had been working on the study (mentioned on the title page of the slide presentation) has testified before congress in support of ... you guessed it! ... funding a "spaceguard" program to protect the earth from "rampant" near-Earth objects that put life as we know it at constant risk.

*This post was reworded slightly on November 1, 2016.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


Science resides, not primarily in the way we form our beliefs, but in the way we correct our errors. It's not about finding the right answer but avoiding the wrong one. Your science shows in the acknowledgement of your mistakes, not in the celebration of your discoveries.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"There Is No Blue on These Slides"

"I tried to make this kind of a TSA-style scale of worry, where red is really, really bad, and blue is really good. There is no blue on these slides, just so you know."

This is Christina Richey at 13 minutes and 54 seconds into her Masursky Award presentation (video here). Here's the slide she is referring to:

It's of course true that there is no blue on the slides. But it seems to me that that's because she chose not to chart the responses that would have had to be colored blue. In fact, the top end of her graph, which stops at 350, is completely arbitrary, failing to plot 76 "no response" answers that would have put the rest into perspective. Consider this alternative chart of the same data that I made:

I have used her color scheme for the data she did chart*, but it's clear what adding a little blue to the picture does for the overall impression. Indeed, Richey has chosen to color the response "rarely" in yellow, which is in line with her egregious misinterpretation (at 13:20 and forward) of her own data as showing that "people hear sexist remarks 82% of the time." This survey doesn't let us put a number on how often (X% "of the time") such language is heard. It counts how many people said they had heard it "rarely", "sometimes", and "often". And it found that only 6% of respondents fall into that last "red" category. I would have charted "no response" (I read: "never") and "rarely" in different shades of blue, "sometimes" in yellow, and "often" in red. That gives us the following picture:

Notice that I'm not here disagreeing with the data or with how it was collected (though I do have some issues with this as well). I'm simply presenting Richey's own data in a more informative way. Interestingly, it also then immediately becomes less "worrying" (to use Richey's characterization of her scale). One sometimes suspects the TSA's threat levels are constructed with an equally opportunist eye. But it's not good form. In fact, it's bad style. Just so you know.

*Update: 02/11/16: As I mentioned back in February, when I first wrote about Richey's charts, I've also reordered the segments of each bar. Richey puts the most serious ("red") responses at the end of the bar, which is essentially a way of adding up all the non-zero responses. And giving them equal weight. The bar feels more troubling that way. In my chart, the "often"s give way to the "sometimes"s which give way to the "rarely's and then the "nevers".

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Then It Starts Getting Creepy": A Typical Example of Sexual Harassment in Astronomy?

There are two perfectly good ways of explaining what we mean by "sexual harassment". We can provide a formal definition, usually couched in somewhat legalistic language, or we can provide a series of "typical" examples. This post is about the latter. [A more formal discussion can be found here.] (I know I said I wanted to rest, but most of this post had already been written and resting requires me to put it out there.)

When the Geoff Marcy story broke, Meg Urry, then the president of the American Astronomical Society, wrote a piece for Scientific American called "How to End Sexual Harassment in Astronomy". I remember being puzzled about it at the time. Rereading it now, however, it seems to me to give some insight into what happened to Marcy. She opens with a strange and somewhat incendiary bit of free association, unfairly linking the Marcy story to "alarmingly high number of students experiencing sexual assault on college campuses." But what's much stranger is her understanding of sexual harassment itself. "Here is a typical example of sexual harassment," she says:

A woman attending a scientific conference explains her research to colleagues with similar interests. A male scientist, usually more senior, pays a lot of attention to her and she is thrilled at this expression of interest in her work by an accomplished senior colleague. But then it starts getting creepy. Maybe there are flirtatious remarks, invitations to private meetings, perhaps a discussion that for some reason needs to happen in his hotel room or there is mention of his sex life or how his wife is inadequate in one way or another.

She spends the rest of the conference avoiding this man. Her attention is not on science, it’s on surviving the encounter. Needless to say, she doesn’t spend time talking to other senior astronomers in her field—most of whom are men—she doesn’t network much, and she thinks twice about attending a meeting like that next time.

Note that she calls this a typical example. According to Urry, when we speak of sexual harassment, this is what women in astronomy apparently have to put up with. This is the way the men in the field typically misbehave when they do. Importantly, this is also the problem that Sarah Ballard wants the federal government to fix. And Congresswoman Jackie Speier is ready to make that happen.

Meeting a man at a conference who takes more of an interest in her body than her mind, but of course begins by showing a polite (and perhaps exaggerated and perhaps not quite sincere) interest in her professional work, is somehow such a shock that it ruins the entire conference. It's an encounter she has to "survive". It's not, it seems, a silly thing that happened with a man who apparently may have some trouble at home, a few drinks under his belt, and a distorted view of his own sex appeal. It's the beginning of the end of her career in astronomy.

Until 2015, I thought a typical example of sexual harassment would involve meeting, say, the editor of a journal where she had a paper in review and getting the distinct impression that coming up to his room tonight would not just improve her chances of getting published but was required if she was to have any hope of ever publishing there, or a graduate student refusing the advances of a prof and then discovering that all her access to funding and supervision had been cut off and her chances of graduating were essentially zero.

In both of those cases, there is talk of an obvious abuse of power. But in Urry's example, there is no abuse of power, just a clumsy attempt at a conference romance. The thing that makes it "sexual harassment", it would seem, is that she is initially "thrilled" by his interest (which she mistakenly thinks is purely professional) and later, to her chagrin, must accept that he doesn't really think especially highly of her brain (or still hasn't noticed it) but likes her in ways that are more immediately pressing for him, and less important to her professionally. The most "thrilling" thing about him was not, of course, his ideas, but his "seniority" and "accomplishments", i.e., the power he ostensibly wields. It was the false hope that she had impressed a senior member of her field intellectually that constitutes the violation here, not his incapacity to be impressed by a beautiful woman's mind. That incapacity—that "bias"—has not yet been demonstrated, since it has not been demonstrated that she has rebuffed his sexual advances and tried once more to get her ideas across. Nor has anything been said about how good he would really think her ideas are if he, as it were, raised his eyes above her neckline.

As far I can tell, and certainly in the Sarah Ballard case, this is the way the "harassment in astronomy" problem is primarily framed these days. It is about the minor inconveniences of being human, of being sexual beings among other sexual beings while also trying to get some work done. It seems like we are being told that accomplished men have to understand how a certain kind of woman sees them, and they must not, then, do anything to confuse her sense of herself or her potential. No flirting. No personality. No fun. The intellectual and personal insecurity of "typical" women that is here being foregrounded, which, it is argued, should force men, especially those who have "accomplished" something, to notice, first and foremost, the power they have over less accomplished women, is quite strange to me. Their privilege[, the argument seems to be,] should be placed aggressively in between the woman and man, completely structuring the space of their interaction. Men should not enjoy the company of intelligent, beautiful women for its own sake, in the informal social settings that a conference (and a research career in general) affords. They should not assume, not at any time, that they can treat them as equal, autonomous adults, capable of managing and challenging boundaries. They should see them as extremely vulnerable. They should box them in.

For thousands of years, beautiful women have had to be wary of the schemes of libidinous men, just as powerful men have had to wary of the lure of ambitious women. They have solved this problem among themselves in the traditional manner, sometimes as adults, sometimes as adulterers. Some astronomers, it would seem, now want this problem to be solved "at the federal level". That's truly when it starts getting creepy!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Journalists and Scholars

One of those little moments of synchronicity. Just when I had gotten annoyed at the difficulty of contacting Maggie Kuo and David Freeman about their articles in Science and the Huffington Post about the ESO study, Andrew Gelman published a post about how "some people are so easy to contact and some people aren’t".

Like Andrew, I was struck by how easy it was to get in touch with Nando Patat, the scientist who had done the study. His email was right there on the paper and he responded immediately and informatively. Trying to inform Kuo and Freeman about errors in their articles, by contrast, was much harder. In the case of Science, I had to write to the editors who have passed my mail on to Kuo, who still hasn't responded. In the case of HuffPo, I had to use a contact form, and I also haven't heard back from them.

Also like Andrew, I find it annoying that "contact information" for journalists these days mainly means a link to one or more social media profiles. Why not just provide an email address? This is actually something worth preserving in academia (and something that I think and ResearchGate might be threatening). Scholars should be easy to contact. Of course, they should only be of very limited interest.

That's the thing about science and scholarship. It's for specialists. And I can sort of follow Andrew's reasoning that writers and journalists don't have make to themselves accessible. They simply have too many readers. That's what's good about academics.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Difficult Conversations

"The four points of the compass are equal on the lawn of excluded middle where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone." (Rosmarie Waldrop)

In her presentation when accepting the Harold Masursky Award at the 2015 DPS meeting, Christina Richey proposed to have a "really difficult conversation", an "uncomfortable conversation that we need to have", "probably the most uncomfortable conversation to be ever had as a DPS prize talk." I have been trying to participate in that conversation, not as an "ally" or "advocate", but as a critic. Recognizing the importance of the topic, I have tried to clarify terms and correct errors. I've been trying to develop an accurate picture of sexual harassment in astronomy.

What motivates me is mainly the fact that people are getting hurt. I am as outraged as anyone else when a woman's career is destroyed by a man who can't take no for an answer. I am in somewhat smaller company when I express my outrage over the destruction of a man's career because a woman couldn't articulate a clear no and handle the temporary social discomfort that this inevitably occasions. To pretend that the first sort of thing is "rampant" in astronomy and the second never happens is not helpful.

Or, worse, to think that there are countless absolutely unambiguous cases of harassment in astronomy and almost no ambiguous relationships is simply to misunderstand how meaning forms in social life. The ambiguous cases must vastly outnumber the unambiguous ones. We need procedures that help men and women determine whether something actually bad happened in situations that were probably wholly innocent, not a culture in which mistakes and misunderstandings are themselves seen as harassment. We need to treat each other like human beings, even when, as human beings sometimes do, we behave badly.

The conversation of science is at risk too. I am profoundly concerned about the professionalization and corporatization of science and higher education. I worry that an overemphasis on the power that scientists wield, both in society and among each other, will eventually make all personal relationships between scientists suspect, illegitimate. Since there is no cure for love, this will put ordinary people in ordinary situations at constant risk, forcing their emotional lives underground, and producing a stilted, formal style of "interaction" (a stilted, formal generalization for the manifold ways human beings engage with each other).

I believe that public, social life is changing, and the changes worry me. I think we are burning what Rosmarie Waldrop calls "the lawn of excluded middle". There is no longer room for ambiguity. We are becoming intolerant of behaviors that aren't easy to interpret. We do not accept clarifications and apologies or even retractions—not graciously. We don't allow each other to express ourselves badly or change our minds. We no longer let the meaning of our words mature.

I took another shot at it these past few weeks, and once again I feel like I'm beating my head against a wall. When ideologues say "we need to talk", they don't mean what I would like them to mean. They don't mean, "Let us sit down and pick the morsels from the bone." Maybe I don't either. Maybe I've spent too much time in the blogosphere.

I'm going to rest awhile. While I was discussing these issues on the blog, I informed most of the people I was talking about by email. I haven't heard back from very many of them. (I am grateful to those who have acknowledged my efforts.) They are, of course, still welcome to contact me and see if we can find some common ground. Like I say, I'm not sure they are interested in finding any. And the prospect of a world without common ground on these issues does, in fact, frighten me.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Weekend Diversion

I don't want to seem like I'm all work and earnest critique and no fun. Here's something that occurred to me while looking at Christina Richey's slides the other day.

For good order: The quote is a simplified version of a statement on the first slide. The three people are, of course: (1) the face of popular astronomy today, Neil Degrasse Tyson; (2) arguably the greatest and certainly the most recognized mind in cosmology, Stephen Hawking; and, (3) the president of the American Astronomical Society, Christine Jones. I know it doesn't prove anything and is in many ways a cheap shot. It's just for fun. It's the weekend.

In any case, those images are literally what the words "white, able-bodied men" brought immediately to mind for me in the context of astronomy. The statement seemed false about the astronomy community "on its face". To say that it is "set" for white, able-bodied men is as strange as saying that America is a "white supremacist" nation, given its current president.

These arguments can, of course, be made. And I'm willing to have the argument. My point with this little jab is that people like Christina Richey seem to think such statements require no evidence or argument at all. Nor does she think that critics like me should be acknowledged and engaged with. I think that attitude, which can rightly be called "ideological", is worth lampooning.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Is the European Southern Observatory Sexist?

The short answer is no. The somewhat more sophisticated statistical answer is probably not, and the slightly more certain formulation would be probably not very much.

This hasn't prevented both Science and HuffPo from reporting that the ESO is almost certainly sexist, enlisting none other than the past president of the American Astronomical Society, Meg Urry, in the effort to spin the story in that direction. "Female Astronomers Just Can’t Seem To Catch A Break," laments the Huffington Post over David Freeman's story, citing a "jarring new study" that "shows it’s tough for women to get telescope time." Science follows the same script: "ESO finds gender bias in awarding telescope time," runs the headline over Maggie Kuo's story, which begins: "Astronomers wanting time on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO's) telescopes are less likely to get it if they’re women."

Both stories cite a recent study conducted by Ferdinando Patat of the ESO itself. Before I get into the details, I want to say that, after looking at the study myself, and discussing it with Patat, I find the media spin, and Urry's participation in it, much more jarring than the results it presents. Think about it. Suppose you are running a world class observatory and you decide to undertake, of your own accord, a study of the processes by which you allocate telescope time, specifically trying to detect a gender bias if there is one. Suppose your results are mainly inconclusive* about the question of gender bias but suggest pretty strongly that seniority, and experience in application writing, are key factors in deciding who gets time. Now suppose the media picks up the story and tells everyone your review process is biased by sexist views about women and, to put a button on it, relate the whole thing to growing concerns about harassment. I think maybe you'd think twice about conducting such a study or publishing the results next time!

I lost most of my respect for science writers during the Tim Hunt affair, so I'm not going to spend too much time criticizing the news coverage. What I want to do here is present this very interesting study, trying to reconstruct the care that went into the designing it, and by that means arrive at a more accurate sense of what it tells us about the ESO's time allocation review process. Freeman and Kuo, it seems to me, simply haven't appreciated the beauty of this study—its mastery of its own limitations (a definition of beauty in science?).

But, to start, I want emphasize Kuo's way of putting the conclusion: "Astronomers ... are less likely to get [telescope time] if they’re women." There's a clear causal implication there, but the study does not support it. The truth is that astronomers who get telescope time are less likely to be women, for reasons that the study does a pretty good job of identifying, if not quite nailing down. Like I say, it's probably not sexism.

Here's an obvious reason that fewer women than men might get telescope time: there are fewer women than men in astronomy. The breakdown is roughly 30/70. So, if we found that 30% of the successful applications for telescope time were written by women, there wouldn't immediately be a problem. But that's not, of course, what a study like this should look at. It should ask whether a female applicant has the same chance of getting telescope time as her male counterpart. And that's what Patat tried to do.

"The study found that female astronomers are less successful than their male counterparts at lining up critically important observing time on major telescopes," writes Freeman at HuffPo. But as I want to show in this post, this is a serious misstatement.

"Counterpart" is a crucial word here. After all, a female PhD student cannot expect to have the same chance as male professor, for the same reason that a male PhD student can't expect an equal chance against a female professor. What this means is that even a 30% female population cannot expect 30% of the telescope time if the women are distributed mainly on the lower rungs of the academic ladder, as they would be in a field with a legacy of male dominance. Moreover, since it takes about 30 years to get to the top of the career ladder we can expect progress on this front to be slow.

This is something Patat took into consideration, but Kuo misunderstands his procedure. "When he accounted for the career level of the proposer," she says, "the gap in success rate shrank, but not completely: The success rate for men was 22.1%, comparable with the raw data, whereas women's success rate inched up to 19.3%." As I pointed out in a footnote to my last post, "22.1%" is the result of a typo in Patat's paper, which will be corrected in a later version. The real number is 21.0%. But Kuo is any case wrong about how the paper "accounted for" career level. The 19.3 (F) vs. 21.0 (M) success rates indicate a kind of "null hypothesis": they are what we would expect to find if there is no sexism effect but seniority plays a role. That is, they aren't an adjustment of the observed values, they are just something more realistic to compare the observations to.

It's not so much that the gap in success rates "shrinks" in view of this, but that a gap is shown to be expected. The problem, however, as Patat points out in the paper, and in his emails to me, is that 19.3 / 21.0 almost certainly underestimates the gap that we should expect because the "seniority" measure in his data is very crude. In the data, it's only possible to distinguish between students, post-docs and "professional astronomers". We already know that the last of these "bins" is where the bulk of the successes are found, and we know that seniority is widely distributed there (from one's first position to one's last year before retirement). Seniority skews male between bins, so we can assume that it also skews male within the astronomer bin.

Indeed, the main conclusion of the study, as stated in the abstract, was not that there is a gender bias in ESO time allocation, but that "the disparity is related to different input distributions in terms of career level. The seniority of male PIs is significantly higher than that of female PIs, with only 34% of the female PIs being professionally employed astronomers (compared to 53% for male PIs)."

Let's look at the results more closely with this in mind.

The overall success rate for proposals is 20.7%, with professional astronomers, predictably, outperforming (23.4%) post-docs (18.3%) and post-docs outperforming students (13.2%). Overall, men (22.2) “outperform” women (16.0). That’s a 39% difference, but the scare quotes are necessary because of the non-homogeneity of the composition of the seniority bins, which, as our null hypothesis suggests, predicts a gap. Our crude estimate (19.3 / 21.0), which accounts for the gender composition of the bins, accounts for the first 9% of the 39%.

Now, the data shows that the student bin doesn’t explain the difference in male and female success rates. Men and women, it turns out, perform equally well in that bin. They are also equally “far along” from their PhD (which they are presumably engaged in trying to earn.) That is: there is no serious seniority difference in that bin and no serious gender difference in success rates. This is what suggests the hypothesis that the difference in outcomes between men and women in the higher seniority bins might be accounted for by differences in seniority, not gender differences, within the bins.

It's a hypothesis, not yet a conclusion, because it still needs to be tested. It could be measured by looking, not at three crude seniority levels, but the time elapsed since earning a PhD.

Patat tells me that the next time they do such a study, they will gather data about when the applicants completed their PhD to test this hypothesis. Note, however, that, as in pay-gap studies, we must here control for time off for maternity and paternity leave, which is notoriously unequal. The actual seniority of two astronomers who earned their PhDs in 1980 is likely to systematically differ by gender.

Keep in mind, however, that this additional data will first and foremost help us to construct a better null. The interesting variable will still be the male and female success rates themselves. Once a more granular approach is taken to seniority within the bins, and on the assumption that seniority within the astronomer bin skews male (that is: the balance gets worse the higher up you go), the hypothesized 19.3 / 21.0 spread is likely to widen. And then the 16 / 22.2 spread in success becomes less "jarring," to use HuffPo's word. [That's because we really will have matched the success rates of women with their male counterparts.]

Presumably, the 18.3 (F) vs. 24.4 (M) success rates in the astronomer bin are driven mostly by seniority, not sexism. Indeed, it's not just seniority but very a specific kind of experience that is at work here. As Patat notes, people who apply again and again are more successful than people who apply only once. This, he explains, is because it's not just about whether your proposed study is well thought out. It's also about whether you pitch it in the right way to the time allocation committee. It’s not just experience in the field of astronomy that matters but experience in the particular practice of applying for telescope time—indeed, specifically at the ESO. And, since the successful repeat applicants group is dependent on time spent in the field as well (just as career level), it will also skew male in a discipline, like astronomy, that has traditionally been (and remains) male dominated.

This post is already too long, but there something I have to say before wrapping it up. Patat did find "a small, but statistically significant, gender-dependent behaviour" among referees. Referees tended to withhold top grades from women slightly more than from men. "Both genders show the same systematics, but they are larger for males than females." It's impossible to know, at this point, how much this reflects differences in quality between the applications, differences in the standards used in refereeing, or actual conscious or unconscious biases in the minds of (both male and female) astronomers about female astronomers. The difference is certainly very small, and until we get a more accurate null for the difference in success rates, I don't think we should suspect systematic bias as the most likely culprit.

All in all, in any case, I’m pretty sure the ESO review process is not sexist, regardless of how Science and HuffPo (and the AAS and CSWA** for that matter) want to spin it. The data makes the most likely hypothesis at this point that it's all about seniority and experience, not gender. Sure, you can now make a case that this makes it all the more important to ensure that women have the same opportunities for advancement as men in astronomy. But that is actually Patat's point. To say that "an internal ESO study has found" a "gender bias in awarding telescope time", as Science reports, or, as HuffPo says, that women are less successful than "their male counterparts", in my opinion simply misstates Patat's conclusions.

*Ooops: this read "inclusive" when I first posted. I have fixed a number of other small typos too.

**Update (15/10/21016): I was disappointed to see the Women in Astronomy Newsletter link uncritically to the Science story, posting the first paragraph of Kuo's story, which says "Astronomers ... are less likely to get [time] if they’re women." Like I say, that seems to be a baseless attribution of causation. Also, like I say, Kuo misunderstands how seniority informs the null in the study. It would have been better to post the abstract of Patat's paper and a link to that.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Is Sexual Harassment Rampant in Astronomy?

Jackie Speier has proposed legislation to tackle what she describes as "rampant" sexual harassment in the sciences. As an example of the sort of thing she is talking about she cites Geoff Marcy's treatment of Sarah Ballard. Before I continue my reflections on his behavior, I want to pause and put this data point into a larger perspective.

On Sunday, I described my encounter with the CSWA Survey of Workplace Climate. For the reasons I outlined in that post, I give very little credence to the study. It's not just the way the data was collected, but the way it was presented. It's not just the presentation of the results, but the authors' refusal to discuss those results. Today, I want to draw attention to three studies that are credible in an equal and opposite sense. Not only are all three studies written up and published, their authors have all responded thoughtfully and informatively to my inquiries.

In this post, I'm going to introduce the three studies briefly and state my main take-ways. These are not always the implications that the authors of the studies themselves emphasize, but they are, as far as I can tell, reasonable conclusions to draw. Like I say, I have conferred with the authors, but I take full responsibility for any errors I might make in what follows. If they are pointed out to me, and I understand the objection, I will of course correct the post (with proper acknowledgement). The comments section is a good place to have any substantive disagreements.

All three studies, as I read them, offer a more hopeful picture of astronomy (or in one case academia in general) than is currently being presented in the media. All three belie, as far as I can tell, the idea that sexual harassment is "rampant" in astronomy. I take this to be good news. It means that if you are an intelligent, curious woman who is interested in the stars and planets, you've got a relatively safe discipline in which you can seek employment. By "relatively" I mean mainly: compared to other places you might succeed if you're smart—finance, IT, and the military, for example. But I also mean that it's a safer place at 30 than it was at 20, and safer at 40 than it was 30. As Dan Savage wisely said: "It gets better."

Also, it's very, very unlikely that you will be sexually harassed in any very serious way in astronomy. Certainly, of the choices you make as an adult, getting into astronomy is not likely going to be a mistake if your aim was to avoid sexual harassment.

The first study presents fresh results from the The Longitudinal Study of Astronomy Graduate Students (LSAGS), sponsored by the American Institute of Physics. It is authored by Rachel Ivie, Susan White and Raymond Chu. In "Women’s and men’s career choices in astronomy and astrophysics," published in August, 2016, they argue that "the process of understanding attrition from astronomy and astrophysics must include multiple factors and cannot be reduced to a simple model in which respondents’ sex alone is the causal factor. The respondents’ sex had no direct effect on working outside the field." There were important indirect effects, it should be noted, but they don't seem big enough to warrant concern. For example, the respondents seemed generally very happy with their advisors, even if women rated them lower on average. The most striking result, to my mind, was that women don't seem more likely even to think about leaving astronomy than men. This makes the likelihood of finding a strong effect from gender-based harassment very low.

"We know that sexual assault and harassment are an enormous factor in driving women out of STEM," says Speier. But the truth is that there are no signs that women are being "driven out of STEM" at all, let alone that it is because there is an "enormous" amount of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in STEM fields.

At this point, let me pause to note a general point. In general, we would expect to find more harassment in a discipline than outright sexual assault, and we would expect to find more sexism than harassment. (Just as we would expect to find more casual sexism than blatant sexism.) My point with this study, and the next one, is that there would seem to be no notable "sexism effect" in astronomy. That is, there is very little of the thing that we'd expect to find most of in regard to these issues. If sexual harassment were "rampant" in astronomy then so, surely, would sexism. And if sexism were rampant in astronomy we would expect women to at least consider leaving the discipline more often than men. But this, Ivie, White and Chu found, is not the case.

The absence (or at least rarity) of sexism is also evident in a rather elegant study of time allocation at the European Southern Observatory.* In "Gender Systematics in Telescope Time Allocation at ESO", published earlier this month, Ferdinando Patat presents the results of an investigation of the relationship between gender and successful applications for telescope time. As one would expect, more men than women are granted telescope time, but this is of course largely because there are more male than female astronomers. There is also, however, a difference in success rates by gender: 16.0% for women and 22.2% for men. It seems men have a 1.39 times (39%) better chance of getting telescope time.

But one reason for this, which Patat was not able to fully correct for because the data couldn't easily be sorted for it, was the seniority of the principal investigator. As far as he could correct for this [using a very crude bin structure to represent seniority], he found that parity of success rates would give 19.3% for women and 22.2% [21.0] for men. That is, given what we do know about seniority and its effect of the success of an application, we would expect men (who are not just more numerous, but generally more senior) would succeed 1.15 [1.09] times more often than women (15% 9% more often) for reasons unrelated to their gender. That's much lower than the observed disparity of 39%. We don't know that this difference is accounted for by gender bias but, if all of it were, the upper bound to a "sexism effect" on telescope time allocation would be 24% [30%].***

The lower bound is effectively zero. That is, once the remaining effects of seniority [using a more granular approach to seniority] and other factors are taken into account, it may turn out that there is no sexism in time allocation whatsoever. That's not just a theoretical possibility, either. In the one group where seniority could be completely ruled out as a factor, namely, students, there was no gender disparity in success rates. That is certainly a hopeful result for young women going into astronomy.

Finally, I want to look at a study of actual harassment in academia. This one draws conclusions that are somewhat at odds with the ones I would draw, but the study itself seems well done and credible. It's not the numbers that I would question but their implications.

As the title suggest, "Still Second Class: Sexual Harassment of Graduate Students" by Marina Rosenthal, Alec Smidt and Jennifer Freyd, has an explicitly "feminist"** moral in tow. They found that female graduate students experience greater rates of harassment and perceive themselves as less safe than men. What stood out for me, however, is how mild the harassment seems to be in both groups. The mean score for faculty harassment of female students was 1.44 on a scale of 0 to 72. To put it in perspective, note that the scores are calculated using responses on a 0-5 [0-4] scale to various questions. If everyone had said they had experienced “sometimes” (score of 2) being “Repeatedly told sexual stories or jokes that [they found] offensive” and no other behaviors were experienced, then the corresponding mean score would have been 2. Given that behaviors are not, of course, spread that evenly, this does not seem like a population that is experiencing "rampant" harassment.

The study applies a method developed by Louise Fitzgerald and colleagues, originally to study harassment in the military in the 1990s. It is interesting to note that the comparable scores there were 10.45 for women and 2.39 for men. It may not be a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, but at first pass it would seem that women in academia today are less harassed than men in the military in the 1990s. It is interesting to think about whether that sets a high or low bar.

According to the study, female graduate students have a significantly lower perception of their own safety than their male counterparts: 3.36 vs. 4.32 on a scale of 0 to 5. Here we can ask whether the 4.32 is an acceptable number. I think it may well be, since we can't expect an environment to offer 100% of the people a complete sense of safety. Recall the harassment score: for men it is .59; for women it is 1.44. As the male score suggests, we probably have to decide on an acceptable but non-zero value. The same goes for safety, which must have an acceptable level that doesn't score 5. In both cases, unfortunately, we may also have to accept a slight disparity between gender within an acceptable range.

This raises a delicate issue: we are talking about perceived safety. How much, one wonders, could be gained by using the low harassment scores to promote a perception of safety? That is, is it possible that women in academia feel less safe than they really are? Might they perceive some behaviors as threatening though they pose no danger, whether physical or professional? This, indeed, is my major hypothesis in the Sarah Ballard case: she misinterpreted a friendship as harassment because she was primed to do so by an ideological framework.

A final note about "Still Second Class": the numbers seem to be driven somewhat by the experience of law students. That's not good for aspiring lawyers, to be sure; but it does suggest better conditions in STEM, and, of course, astronomy.

I will take these studies up again on their own terms in separate posts. I just wanted to bring them together first and emphasize my major take-aways.

*Update (15:26): I hadn't noticed that Science has already covered this result and spun it, predictably, in the other direction, describing it as further evidence of a problem and also linking it to the harassment issue. (HT Ferdinando Patat.) I'll take this up in a later post. To my mind, the important thing to notice is that the specifically gendered effect is probably quite small, and it may be the result, not of gender bias so much much as gender differences. There may, of course, be some actual sexism at work here. But, as I keep saying, I think the main message should be that women can safely go into astronomy and expect to find, on the whole, much less sexism in their way than they would in other vocations.

**These are scare quotes, not quotation marks. I just realized that my use of the word "explicitly" might make it seem like Rosenthal et al. actually use the word feminism. They don't. But the paper is published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, and seems quite open about its feminism to me.

***(Update 13/10/2016 at 9:45): Thomas Presskorn (in the comments) was rightly puzzled that correcting for seniority predicted the observed value exactly. I had actually gotten this wrong in two ways. Patat's paper says 22.1 (not 22.2) for the predicted value. In my email exchange with Patat I had misunderstood how this correction works and assumed that the observed male success rate served as a baseline. Discussing it further, however, Patat realized that the 22.1 figure is actually a typo, and should be 21.0. This makes the situation a bit worse than I had suggested, moving the upper bound of the sexism effect from 24% to 30%. I will discuss all this at greater length on Friday.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

CSWA, AAS, and I

[10/10/2016 at 15:36: I've updated this post with more precise time markers in the video, added some charts from the presentation which might be helpful, and fixed various typos and such.]

I was going to leave this subject for later, but Andrew Gelman's recent post about the journalistic coverage of research results for which no written report exists has inspired me to move the issue forward a bit.

It was always my intention to take a look at the bigger picture of sexual harassment in science, astronomy in particular. This will require a few posts about both the policy environment around harassment and the scientific studies of the problem. In an important sense, I am trying to understand what it's like to be a woman in astronomy today. But before I get into the details, I need to tell a story about my dealings with the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

Personally, I find the way I've been treated not just strange but outrageous. But I'll let you be the judge of this.

As background, you need to know that in November of 2015, Christina Richey, the chair of the CSWA, received the Harold Masursky Award at the AAS Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Washington, DC. Instead of the customary brief acceptance speech, she asked to be allowed to present the preliminary results of the CSWA Survey on Workplace Climate. Her presentation is available as a video at the conference website. Here she promised to begin "the most uncomfortable conversation we've ever had", i.e., to broach the subject of sexual harassment in astronomy, and it is my attempt to join that conversation that my story is about.

I will probably write a more detailed post about her presentation some other time. To understand my story, the most important claims are made over four minutes that begin about 13 minutes into her presentation. Here [13:55] she explains the way she has displayed the results on a "TSA style" color scale, from yellow to red, where red, of course, is most severe. "There is no blue," she emphasizes. But that's only because her slides don't plot the data that would have to be presented in blue, i.e., all those respondents who did not report the relevant behavior. I brought this issue up on my other blog back in February. [And took it up here too.]

After this she tells us that "over 40% of the time, people were hearing sexist remarks from their supervisors." This is just false. It is a straightforward misinterpretation of her own data.

The 44% that the slide shows is a proportion of the sample (i.e., some 187 out of 426 respondents); it is not a measure of frequency with which "people were hearing sexist remarks". Indeed, according to the survey, 56% never hear such language (the missing "blue" bars) and 25% hear it rarely. 15% hear it "sometimes" and only 4% hear it "often". Presumably hearing such language 40% of the time would count as hearing it "often", so her statement applies to only 4% of the sample. This is just very bad social science. One hopes that Dr. Richey interprets her astronomical observations with greater care.

At about 15:30[15:10], she presents an important slide that says that 57% reported being verbally harassed because of their gender. She characterizes this as "over half", which 57% of course is. But as a number of people noticed* when the presentation made news again in January, the slide may say 57% but seems to show 32%. That is, the bar on the chart doesn't seem to add up to 242 out of 426 respondents. I also blogged about this at the time.

Indeed, I wasn't just blogging about it at the time. I was also tweeting about this issue. After all, as Richey emphasized in her talk, it's a conversation we have to have. I blogged about it, I tweeted about it, and wrote a number of emails to Richey asking for clarification.

In fact, my detailed engagement with the CSWA study began with a well-stuck jab by someone on Twitter. Based on a column by Meg Urry, the then-president of the AAS, I had tweeted that we didn't know the actual extent of the harassment problem in astronomy. At the same time, another tweet (using the same hashtag) announced that over 75% of women, people of color, and LGBTQ astronomers experience harassment, citing a piece in Forbes by Ethan Siegel. A twitterzen named "Grant" took a screenshot of the juxtaposition of the two tweets and remarked about the "Twitter timing". Ouch!

(I've written about all this in detail here.)

Well, I looked at Siegel's post and noticed something odd. It seemed that "over 75%" had experienced all the relevant behaviors, regardless of severity. The only reason for this that I could think of would be if the sample had overwhelming self-selection bias, so that only [mainly] people who had experienced the worst kind of harassment [or none at all] had participated in the survey at all. It is reasonable to assume, after all, that they would also have experienced less severe behaviors as part of the severe behavior.

Siegel had cited the CSWA survey, so I contacted Christina Richey by email to ask about it. She did not answer my mail, but it didn't take long before Siegel's post had been updated with corrected numbers and a link to the slides Richey had used in her November presentation. This was before anyone had noticed that the 57% verbal harassment figure was wrong. But once it was brought to my attention, I sent Richey another mail, to which she also did not respond. But this time she quietly corrected her slides: she uploaded a new PDF file with the 57% figure corrected to 32% to the same URL [compare slide 5 with 15:10 of the DPS video], so that Siegel's post now linked to a source that said something other than what he quoted it for. Remember that this is after he had changed the post at her request to reflect the 57% figure.

I wrote a post about this too. By this time I had given up on communicating with Richey and her co-author, Kate Clancy, both of whom were ignoring my mails and had blocked me on Twitter. (I am no longer on Twitter.) With this act of what I took to be simple dishonesty (changing a dated document to correct an error without acknowledging it), I decided to leave the subject for a while. Indeed, I decided to take a break from all social media, including blogging.

While all this was going on, I was being told that a paper was being published in the spring (of 2016), so I decided to save my critical energies for a reading of that paper. But it never came. In September of this year, I decided to reach out to Richey again, in part because the promised paper had not been published, with the passing of both spring and summer. (At present, Clancy has tweeted, it is being held up in the review process at Plos-One.)

But this time I had decided to treat her, not as a private citizen [and public scientist], but as an officer of the AAS, namely, the appointed chair of the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy. I wrote to her on September 15, reminding her that I've been trying to get a hold of her for some time, and then said that

I’ve had some issues [with the CSWA study], both about your methods and the interpretation of your results, but they are difficult to resolve in the absence of a write up. I understand that the paper has been under review for some time, which suggests that you have a draft version you could share. I would very much appreciate having a look at it.

After I had not heard back from her for 24 hours, I wrote to Christine Jones, the president of the AAS, explaining the situation, and requesting her help "to open a line of communication" with Richey (whom I cc'ed). Three hours later, I received a mail from a press officer of the AAS. Curiously, he did not acknowledge my mail to Jones. Instead, he said the following:

My colleague Christina Richey tells me you’ve been trying to reach her ... As NASA Deputy Program Scientist for the just-launched OSIRIS-REx asteroid-sample-retrieval mission, Dr. Richey has been extremely busy lately, so I’m writing in her stead. ... A detailed report on the survey results, including descriptions of the methods used to gather and analyze the survey data, is currently working its way through the publication process. ... Please be patient while the review and editorial process runs its course ...

Some correspondence back and forth followed, in which I tried to explain why this wasn't really acceptable (especially given the dodgy behavior with the altered slides). It ended essentially where I started: no line of communication about the widely publicized results of the CSWA study would be opened, although the slides would continue to be cited by journalist to support the claim that "academia is rife with harassment of all sorts." Any critical engagement with this claim would just have to wait until the "publication process" was finished.

I agree with Andrew Gelman's advice to journalists:

Next time someone sends you a press release and you’re thinking of running the story, first contact the organization and ask to see the written report. If they say they don’t have a report, it’s simple: Either don’t run the study, or run a report that is appropriately dripping with skepticism, including the phrase "for which the organization refused to supply a written report" as many times as possible.

Indeed, it gets a bit worse here. The AAS ethics statement says that:

Data and research results should be recorded and maintained in a form that allows review, analysis, and reproduction by others. It is incumbent on researchers involved in large, publicly-supported studies to make results available in a timely manner.

Fabrication of data or selective reporting of data with the intent to mislead or deceive is unethical, unacceptable and fraudulent, as is the appropriation of unpublished data or research results from others without permission and attribution.

It should be recognized that honest error is an integral part of the scientific enterprise. It is not unethical to be wrong, provided that errors are promptly acknowledged and corrected when they are detected.

I quoted this to the AAS's press officer and ultimately asked him to guide me towards the resources that the AAS has to resolve ethics disputes. I asked specifically if there is an ombudsperson. I was told that there isn't and there was no need for one and that there would now be no further communication. My objections to this last email have gone unanswered for a couple of weeks now. It's the first time I've experienced a press officer of a professional organization unilaterally dismissing an ethics complaint, rather than passing it on to someone with the authority to make a determination.

And that's as good a place to end this story as any, I think. It is where I stand with the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy of the American Astronomical Society.

*Here I need to acknowledge the very helpful contributions of a twitterzen "B" (@ticobas).

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Why Did Sarah Ballard Report Geoff Marcy for Harassment? (Part 1)

Sarah Ballard's "inappropriate" relationship with Geoff Marcy began in the spring of 2005 and was over by August. According to the PRA documents, she first testified against Geoff Marcy by email in 2011, after attending a Women in Astronomy conference, where she had been encouraged by one of the speakers to share her story. In early 2014, she was given the false impression that a UC Berkeley investigation of Marcy's behavior was underway, and she forwarded the same email. In September of 2014, when an investigation was in fact underway, she was contacted by phone by the investigator and provided an anonymous witness statement. She came forward in public as part of Buzzfeed's coverage of the case in October of 2015.

That is, after the personal relationship ended, Ballard continued to cultivate a professional relationship with Marcy for six years, using him as a reference, and collaborating with him on a number of research projects.* Then, in 2011, she joined forces with a growing underground campaign against him, which would lead to an official investigation, a formal censure, and, after growing public pressure, his forced resignation from UC Berkeley and departure from the astronomy community.

What motivated Ballard to participate in the ouster of Marcy from astronomy? Natalie Schreyer and Jeremy Schulman provide some interesting insights into this question in an article in Mother Jones about her appearance on Inquiring Minds.

Marcy's attorney, Elizabeth Grossman, argued that Marcy's actions weren't serious enough to justify the backlash he's experienced. "There is not a single allegation of sexual assault [against Marcy]," said Grossman. "There is not a single allegation of soliciting sex, of requesting sex in exchange for academic favor. There is not a single suggestion of his interfering with anyone's ability to thrive on campus."

Ballard, however, says she was deeply affected by her interactions with Marcy. "To have [Marcy] say, 'You are talented, you are full of promise'— that is so compelling," she explains. "And then to have all of the sudden the knowledge that ... that message might not have been delivered in good faith: You feel like the rug has been pulled out under you. So does that mean that I'm not promising? Does that mean that all of it was a lie? ... It was profoundly rattling to my nascent sense of self as an astronomer, as a scientist."

Years later, when Ballard heard that allegations against Marcy were going to become public, she made the decision to come forward and identify herself as one of the victims. She hopes that by doing so, she'll make things easier for other women.

"There was one principle which helped me to unravel the tangled knot of my feelings that I could always return to...and that was you have to be the woman you needed then," says Ballard. "You couldn't protect yourself then, but you can protect younger you today, and you can protect women who are 20 today."

Indeed, according to the Berkeley investigation, "She said that she 'felt traumatized' by [Marcy]’s behavior at the time." In my last post, I suggested that her story lacks an "objective correlative" for this feeling. That is, while we might grant that she (subjectively) felt traumatized, it is hard to see how she might have actually (objectively) been traumatized by Marcy's behavior. And the above snippet, it seems to me, makes my point quite clearly. What "deeply affected" (i.e., "traumatized") Ballard was her suspicion that Marcy might not actually find her as promising as an astronomer as he had said he did. Of course, it turns out that he did, in fact, find her promising, and he did in fact support her in her future career. Also, he was right about her promise: she is, today, an accomplished scientist.

What "rattled" her "nascent sense of self" at the time was merely the possibility that he wasn't speaking in good faith. Notice the tortured turn of phrase she needs to express the relevant sentiment: "to have all of the sudden the knowledge that ... that message might not have been delivered in good faith." How much certainty did she need that Marcy actually believed in her in order to maintain her own fragile sense of self? And what does it mean to "suddenly know" that someone "might not" mean what they're saying? It doesn't mean much at all. It means she began to suspect he had ulterior motives.

Now, his crime was not to actually harbor those motives. His failing, it seems, was to not do enough to assure her of his sincerity. Given his "overlarge presence" in her image of herself, he had a duty not just to actually be sincere, but to leave no doubt whatsoever in her mind about his sincerity. I hope it is clear that I find this demand ridiculous. It is not just impossible, but would make human interaction a sad, dreary business. Sometimes a teacher will intentionally plant a doubt in the mind of the student about the teacher's sincerity. It's called irony, and has been part of pedagogy since the time of Socrates.

I've held back from using Ballard's "tangled knot of feelings" against her. But if she really wanted to adhere to the principle she espouses, namely, to protect the "younger her", i.e., twenty-year-old women in the same situation, then she would tell her story matter-of-factly and with compassion not malice for Marcy, her mentor, whose motives she tragically misunderstood, and if she had only talked to him about them, would have learned that his feelings are as (but only as) tangled as the next guy's. She would explain to intelligent, ambitious undergraduates that ambiguity is just part of being alive. The lesson for the younger Sarah Ballard is not, "don't let the bastards grind you down," because Geoff Marcy was not a bastard and did not grind her down. The lesson is simply that human relationships are complicated and interesting and part of a career in science. The lesson is that, if you are too enamored of a professor's power, you make yourself, your identity as scientist, vulnerable to precisely that power, and that can cause undue worry and anxiety. Let your passion to know, not to master, be the core of your identity. And choose your mentors by how they stimulate your curiosity, not your ambition.

The lesson is not to report this sort of thing as "harassment" immediately. It may well be to draw clear boundaries and be reticent about your personal life with teachers who make you uncomfortable. It may well be to forego an opportunity for an easy A or a letter of recommendation from a professor who seems to be blinded by unscientific interests. (I'm not saying that Marcy was thus blinded; I am saying that Ballard thought he was.) In some cases, as I will discuss in a later post, it may be to seek help to document actually harassing behavior—actually coercive pressure, actual abuse of power. The lesson is certainly not to spend five years of your career working behind the scenes to undermine a man's reputation because he didn't make his intentions sufficiently clear to you and nurture your "nascent sense of self as an astronomer", your "tangled knot of feelings".

By reporting Marcy's behavior as harassment, Ballard participated in a campaign that ended up putting him on the sidelines of a field he help to found. It did great damage to his life and immeasurable damage to the field of exoplanet research. These days, I'm trying to figure out whether her participation in this campagin was justified by her experiences, and her relationship, with him. At the moment, it doesn't seem so.

*It's important not to over-interpret these "collaborations". In fields like astronomy, authorship is shared among members of teams in ways that do not necessarily reflect close collaborative relationships. Still, it's worth noting that Ballard published with Marcy as late as 2015.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

What Happened Between Sarah Ballard and Geoff Marcy?

One of the most frustrating things about the Tim Hunt saga, at least to me, was the unwillingness of his accusers to discuss what Hunt actually said and actually believes (i.e., meant by what he said). Any attempt to clarify these sorts of facts was ignored or dismissed, and his critics instead latched on to "facts" of a much more general kind—he confirmed the quoted words, he apologized, even his defenders called his remarks "stupid" and "unacceptable", etc.

Something similar is happening in the Geoff Marcy case, where less interest is taken in his actual behavior (from which he and others might actually learn something) and more interest is taken in the "fact" that he violated Berkeley's harassment policies and acknowledged that his behavior made people uncomfortable. I will of course address the question of whether Marcy's relationship with Sarah Ballard was appropriate. But in this post, I want to confine myself to what I think the relationship involved. My view is that whether you want to attack Marcy or defend him, you have to form an opinion about what he actually did. You can't just have a vague notion about whether there's something "off" about him.

The official account can be found in the PRA documents. Ballard's account is on page 28-30 and Marcy's response is on page 37-38 (of the pdf file).

As far as I can tell, before the spring of 2005, Marcy and Ballard had a normal, more or less anonymous teacher-student relationship. She was taking what I imagine to be a pretty large course (an introduction to astronomy) and he was teaching it. I have taught large lecture-based courses myself, and a few weeks into the semester I do recognize some names and faces, and even have an impression of the personalities of a few of the students, but mostly they constitute a crowd. There is nothing in either Marcy's or Ballard's story to suggest that, prior to the events detailed in the case, Ballard had stepped out of that crowd and distinguished herself.

Actually, there is one thing that might suggest it. The first contact between Marcy and Ballard that went beyond the teacher-student relationship was made by Ballard, who wrote him to thank him for attending and supporting a Take Back the Night rally on campus. Technically the contact had been made by Marcy to her roommate (though he appears merely to written to thank the organizer for putting on the event), who then passed it on to Ballard because she was taking astronomy. What Ballard found strange, we are told, is that Marcy wrote back immediately and invited her to call him and talk about it further.

It is possible that this was because he had already had an "eye on her" and saw this as opening to pursue a relationship. And Ballard indeed suggested something like this in her interview with Kishore Hari on Inquiring Minds. A the 8-minute mark, she talks about how the contact was first established. But, it seems to me, she implies that Marcy made the first move. She says that Marcy came to the rally in an "attempt to befriend [her] or get to know [her] better". That's a strong claim. She even suggests that this is a common pattern: harassers are often, she says, vocal advocates against harassment. The implication, I guess, is that they use the advocacy community as a stalking ground.

It is important to keep in mind that this attribution of motive (a) has no other basis than Ballard's intuition and (b) was part of the relationship from the beginning. Already from her first email exchange with him, she says, she felt that something was "off" about his interest in her.

This is important because, according to Marcy, he considered what developed over the next few months, until the relationship ended (or at least changed dramatically) in August, to be a "friendship". He was, he says, unaware of how uncomfortable he was making her, and was indeed "mortified" to be told, years later, that she considered his behavior to be harassment. From his point of view, she had come to him for advice about her studies, her future career and, eventually, her romantic relationships. And he had shared relevant experiences from his own life in response. I think he liked her; and I think he thought she liked him.

An aside: as an undergraduate, I had one relationship with a professor that resembles what was going on here. The professor was a man and the relationship utterly non-sexual. But conversations, which could go on deep into the night at the student pub, covered all sorts of topics, and were challenging both philosophically and personally. We had our ups and downs, of course. Sometimes he seemed to find me (and said I was) very promising, at other times his disappointment in me, whether intellectual or moral, was palpable. Sometimes, indeed, it felt like the relationship was itself at stake. Needless (I would have thought) to say, it's one of the most enriching relationships I had at college. After I graduated, I even called him during a moment of crisis while at grad school.

Everyone agrees that the most important encounter between Marcy and Ballard is the last one. After a conversation at a café about her romantic troubles, he drives her home and, as she is getting out of the car he puts a hand on her neck or shoulder and squeezes or rubs or massages it in a gesture of support. Already before she does this, Ballard is uncomfortable and has adopted a posture of flight. In the story, however, there is not much of what T. S. Eliot called an "objective correlative" for this emotion. The facts and actions so far presented would not make us feel uncomfortable on Ballard's behalf. We have been told, but not shown, how she feels.

The question is, if she felt that his interest in her was inappropriate, why did she tell him about her personal relationships? Indeed, she had already once before felt uncomfortable when he volunteered information about his own sex life. (He believes that he must have volunteered this only as an "in kind" response to something she had said.) And she once before declined what she saw as a too personal invitation to attend a tennis match. (She did not tell him the real reason she didn't want to go.) The answer is, as I noted earlier, that he had an "overlarge presence" in her image of academic life. She felt that a great deal depended on whether he was (personally) pleased or displeased with her. She was overly aware of his power.

To me, it is clear what happened. Geoff Marcy naively believed that Sarah Ballard was genuinely interested in him as a whole person. He was no doubt aware of his status as an inspirational figure to young scientists, but he had not properly considered the way students might also organize their ambitions around his person. He thought that taking an interest in the lives of students was mainly a good thing. He did not realize how anxious this can make someone who sees him mainly as a powerful man, not a knowledgeable person.

That, then, is the image of the relationship that forms for me. Geoff Marcy was naive to think he could have friendships with his students. He was, to borrow Laura Kipnis's image, not sufficiently paranoid. Like I say, I will try to assess this situation in a later post. My view is that Marcy and Ballard had a relationship that was appropriate in every respect except Ballard's subjective attitude. Given how she felt, she should not have pursued the relationship. If Marcy knew how she felt, he should have broken it off. It's a good question, to be taken up in that later post, whether he should have known how she felt. I don't believe that professors should presume that students will feel that way. (But I'm sure there are differing opinions about that.) Obviously, my assessment would change significantly if it were to be demonstrated that Marcy was, in fact, pursuing a romantic connection. I see no reason to think he was at this point.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Manufacture of Harassment

"The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
(The Downing Street Memo)

You don't have to be Noam Chomsky to be suspicious of a CNN report. Most thinking people have experienced that moment when a major news story reports facts about which they already themselves know something. It feels a bit like it must have felt for Copernicus when the penny dropped. "My God! It's spinning!" (Many, unfortunately, soon find themselves in the position of Galileo as well, bitterly grumbling "And yet it moves," under their breath.) I certainly stopped approaching CNN primarily as a journalistic institution long ago, taking it mainly as a propaganda operation instead. And, once one realizes that a story is not being told so much as spun, it is often also obvious that the axis of that spin is some particular policy.

Yesterday's CNN report on sexual harassment in the sciences, with particular focus on astronomy, is an excellent example. In this post I'm going to look at it from the point of view of someone who has detailed knowledge of some of the "facts" being presented. All of these are a matter of public record, and it seems clear to me that the story's credibility depends upon the viewer not knowing them, and not checking them after viewing. The underlying presumption about the lack of curiosity among CNN's viewers that this implies may of course be true.

The spin literally begins in medias res. The first shot is Sarah Ballard talking about conversations that became "increasingly sexual" and we cut to Jessica Kirkpatrick talking about a different man who "wanted a sexual relationship with her". After a brief title shot, we then cut back to Ballard talking about "physical touching, like skin on skin, on my neck" and then again back to Kirkpatrick talking about a man accosting her while drunk. I don't know anything about Kirkpatrick's story but it seems clear that she's talking about something more serious than what happened to Ballard. CNN's report wants us to think of these flashes of imagery as part of a single kind of behavior. And the only man's face they will put to it is Geoff Marcy's.

It's important to keep in mind that CNN did not have to do this. They could have told Ballard's story in every detail, and let their viewers draw well-founded conclusions about what happened to her, and how serious they (the viewers themselves) thought Marcy's behavior was. Instead they chose this impressionistic, dream-like sequence of images to leave a very distinct impression on their viewers. CNN left blanks for the viewer to fill in in ways that are, simply, counter to the facts.

I don't know anything about Springman's story either, but it, too, seems to be a more serious one. Given the obvious spin on Ballard's story, both Springman's and Kirkpatrick's are of course drawn into question, but it's clear that bringing them together vaguely, as accounts of behaviors that all three women "have experienced over their careers, multiple times, from different men", amplifies at least Ballard's story significantly. If the viewer thinks that what we hear from Ballard is just one case among many she has experienced, the viewer would be forgiven. But it's not true. This is something Ballard experienced only at the start of her career, from one man, once. (Though she has surely had occasion to do so, she has never suggested that similar behavior was endemic to her research environment in the ten years that followed.) Moreover, what happened isn't what the viewer was led to believe. But that will have to wait for another post.

Springman complains that harassment cases get dismissed because it's too much of a matter of "he said, she said". That is indeed a problem. My solution, which I will also unpack in a subsequent post, is to approach harassment cases like blackmail cases. Harassment, after all, is wrong mainly because it is a form of extortion. What an investigation should do with a habitual harasser is gather fresh evidence, not just old anecdotes. It should undertake, if possible, to catch the harasser in the act. The solution, surely, is not just to stop letting "him" say anything in his defense.

Kirkpatrick says she was asked to reflect upon how she "feels about ruining a man's life". From the tone of her voice, it's clear she did not feel that the man deserved such consideration. Since I don't know her story, I don't know whether her contempt for his life is justified (it may well be), but since I do know Ballard's story, which CNN deftly conflates with Kirkpatrick's, I conclude that the viewer is, at this point, to feel no sympathy for Marcy's fate, and Marcy's life in science (which, as CNN reported, could have earned him a Nobel prize) was, of course, very definitely ruined.

CNN has Ballard explain that harassment is often carried out by more senior people against more junior people such as students. The report then cites the SAFE13 study as saying that more than "90% of those being harassed or assaulted were students or employees". I doubt anyone really takes a reference to a scientific study in a news story seriously these days, but let me just for the record quote from the published article's statement of its methodological limitations to assess whether it can be used to support the alleged fact in question: "these survey data neither allow us to estimate the rate of these experiences among our trainees and colleagues, nor do they allow any estimation of the prevalence of field sites with a hostile work environment and/or systematic abuse." I'll leave that there for now. I have a post coming up about surveys in general.

There is a weird moment where Kirkpatrick seems to find it problematic that you can't report your thesis supervisor for sexual harassment and keep them as an advisor. It is also suggested that changing your advisor is a career-ending move. That's of course untrue; advisors die, retire, move to other institutions, etc. all the time, and doctoral students find someone else to continue with. It is certainly true that a false accusation (or just a failed one) would have detrimental consequences to your career, but that's also true of accusations of plagiarism or data fraud. In any case, the weird thing is that she seems to think victims are entitled to keep their harassers as their supervisors. I actually think this reveals something about what they mean by "harassment". But more on that later too.

I find it telling, and encouraging, that CNN had to trip up half its character assassination of Geoff Marcy with copy that was obviously written at the insistence of CNN's lawyers.* Without giving a prominent place to Marcy's side, this story, it seems, would be very open to litigation for libel. I noted the same thing about the Inquiring Minds podcast. It's an important indication of CNN's own assessment of the story they are telling. All that said, I think that anyone who actually looks at Marcy's side of this will see that CNN is being very selective in quoting him. One does not get the sense that Marcy has denied the substance of Ballard's accusation he harassed her. Indeed, one is led to believe he confessed. That is not true, but again it's something I will leave for later.

Like I said at the beginning, after noticing the spin, it is often not long before we discover the axis of that spin, the policy around which our intelligence is being organized. And, sure enough, at the end of the story, Sarah Ballard sets up the segue to Speier's policy proposal, calling for action at "the federal level". To evoke Chomsky again, here she's behaving a little like a guerilla leader calling for US troops to intervene on behalf of her people. Of course, Chomsky would explain, the guerillas are already funded by the CIA, and the intervention is already underway.

I want to stress that to criticize a news report for "manufacturing" a problem that a policy has been proposed to solve is not, of course, to deny that the problematic behavior exists. It is simply to point out that the public is being manipulated into supporting a particular solution, proposed by particular people, for their own particular reasons. Perhaps tellingly, the story ends with an image of the sun setting on (I think) UC Berkeley. Let's not let the sun go down on the sciences like this. Let's not let these ideologues destroy our ability to discover new stars and new planets.

(Updated at 16:04 to fix minor errors)

*I hadn't seen Marcy's lawyer's statement when I wrote this post. It's worth reading too. It seems to have been published at about the same time as the report aired, which leads me to think it is part of mitigation strategy against possible litigation. That is, CNN has knowingly aired a report that, taken on its own, leaves the impression that Marcy is a sexual predator, which there is no reason to think he is. By publishing supplementary materials to balance the bias of the report, they believe, no doubt rightly (I'm sure CNN's lawyers are worth their pay), that Marcy won't have a case against them.