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!


Anonymous said...

The Calvinist doctrine of "total depravity" emphasized the idea that humans are incapable of avoiding sin. Modern academics are properly secular and dismissive of theological ideas, but are as human as our ancestors and thus attracted to similar ideas about human nature.

Jonathan said...

The idea of hostile environment was meant to describe situations like that of a woman police officer in a previously all-male department who is subjected to constant gender-based harassment. There are pornographic images placed in her locker. She is called names. Dirty jokes are told whenever she is around. There are constant remarks about her body or appearance. This is discrimination because no "reasonable person" would find this tolerable, and the aim is to drive this woman out of the department.

How this got translated into a situation where a single remark or isolated incident is enough to equate to a hostile environment is quite a story.

Of course, quid pro quo harassment is different from "hostile environment" harassment.

Another problem is that violent assault--much more serious than discrimination--is under the aegis of discrimination law. Violent crime should be punished like violent crime, not like "inappropriate"behavior of a harassing nature. The result of this confusion is a trivialization of both discrimination and violence: both are bad, but it hardly seems you would want the same mechanism to deal with both of them.

Thomas said...

I agree completely, Jonathan. Today, it's possible to fire a man for harassment though he never proposes a sexual relationship, never offers or withholds professional support, never thinks or says that women don't belong in his field, and never does anything to obstruct anybody's career. All he has do is make her feel a little unsure about whether he's really impressed with her mind or perhaps just likes looking into her eyes.

Anonymous said...

It's curious how the fact that Joan Schmelz, the former chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and a candidate for the next AAS Vice-President, was recently a sued for discrimination (see Nature News, 13th October) has received so little attention.

Thomas said...

Wow! Thank you for this. Interesting article. I think it's a somewhat too clear example of the danger I've been alluding to. Once "injustice" against (young?) women becomes an overriding concern, and their protection and promotion therefore becomes an end in itself, this sort of thing is likely to happen. If the EEOC's assessment is correct, it would seem that Schmelz's "tireless advoca[cy] for the right[s] of female astronomers" has clouded her judgment.

I note with some interest that Schmelz is being defended by Meg Urry by appealing to that advocacy, and by her former boss at Arecibo for her "utmost professionalism”. Richardson, meanwhile, is described by colleagues as "courteous and kind" and very insistent when it comes to being "scientifically proper". My take away is that Richardson is a dedicated scientist and Schmelz probably more of a political operator. Science needs both kinds of animal, of course. (Someone has to get the funding and run the observatories.) But these days, I fear, the one is crowding out the other. The scientific mindset, with all its allegedly "masculine" obsessiveness and cantankerousness, is under threat.