Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What Geoff Marcy Did Wrong

It's my view that Geoff Marcy's actions were most likely entirely well-intentioned. By this I mean that I don't think he befriended his young female students in the hopes of having sex with them, and certainly not that he intended to use his power as a professor to make that happen. He has never been accused of sleeping with a student; and he has never been accused of retaliating against a student who wouldn't sleep with him. It is clear that he enjoyed the company of his students. It's not clear that this enjoyment was sexual.

Despite this, Geoff Marcy has become the face of sexual harassment in astronomy. Though he did not (in my judgment) sexually harass anyone, he does seem to have violated Berkeley's sexual harassment policies by cultivating the sort of relationship he had with, for example, Sarah Ballard. If we try to state the policy implicit in Marcy's reprimand as a set of don'ts derived from Ballard's complaint, we might get something like the following:

1. Do not attend events organized by students. If you must attend, do not write to them afterwards thanking them for their efforts. If for some reason you do this, do not answer their mail thanking you for your support with anything more than a simple acknowledgement. If you think the student is trying to establish a connection of any kind (whether scientific or political), do not reciprocate.

2. Do not form friendships with your students. Do not meet with them outside of class or your office hours (and keep your office door open, of course). Do not invite them to sporting events or concerts. Do not discuss their personal lives with them, and do not share anything about your personal life with them. Talk to them only about course content.

3. Do not share your opinion of a student's suitability for a career in your discipline. Evaluate only their work in your class, grading their assignments and giving them feedback. Don't give them the impression that you think they are "promising". Don't show any enthusiasm for their ideas or suggest that they may have talent. Certainly, don't give them the impression that you see something of "you" in them.

4. Never, under any circumstances, touch a student. While touching is a familiar custom when offering reassurance to friends and family members, students may be easily confused by such gestures. Don't stand too close them. Don't look at them too intently.

I hope my distaste for the form of life these rules imply is clear. It is not only dull, it is inhibiting. If Marcy had observed these rules he would never have gotten into any trouble with Ballard, but Ballard might also never have pursued a career in astronomy. She might never have known she had the talent for it. That's an unhappy consequence of the climate that the current sexual harassment worries seem to be establishing in academic life. But there's an important fifth rule that should worry especially feminists.

5. You can safely ignore these rules if your student is male. There is virtually no risk that encouraging male students in their extracurricular activities, befriending them and attending events outside of class, inspiring them to pursue careers in science, shaking their hands, patting them on the back, or even giving them hugs will occasion a sexual harassment complaint. All these are likely to be understood in the spirit in which they are intended.

I hope the irony is clear. The rules that the Ballard complaint implicitly invoke would strongly disadvantage women in their pursuit of scientific careers, as their male professors hold them at arm's length (for fear of being fired) while cultivating the natural (non-sexual) intimacy that has always been part of an apprenticeship in science with their male counterparts. The truly sad thing is that I'm probably going to be thought of as anti-feminist for pointing this out.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Social Ontology

My critiques of the science, journalism and politics of social life (including the practice of science itself) are, I must admit, grounded in a somewhat radical philosophical critique of our understanding of culture and society in general. I've been thinking more about it, and talking with colleagues, and I thought it would be useful to post some ideas here. It's a way of exposing my underlying assumptions to criticism that they could perhaps benefit from. So do let me know what you think.

In Sensemaking in Organizations (1995), Karl Weick makes an argument that has at times puzzled and at times annoyed me. "People who study sensemaking oscillate ontologically," he tells us (p. 35), "because that is what helps them understand the actions of people in everyday life who could care less about ontology." It’s as if he believes, not just in a correspondence theory of belief and reality, but a correspondence theory of social ontologies. He doesn't just think that, in order to be true, a researcher’s belief about a social fact has to correspond to a social fact of the matter; he also seems to think that the researcher’s ontology has to correspond with the ontology of the research subject.

Obviously, we don’t hold this view in natural science. The moon presumably doesn’t have any ontological convictions, nor does a microbe, a quark, or a galaxy. A hard line on Weick’s proposal would be to say that researchers should simply “care less about ontology,” since that’s how their research subjects feel about it. But that’s of course as ridiculous as saying that biologists should concur with the ontological convictions of microbes.

My view on social ontology is somewhat complicated. I agree with Brian Epstein that social science is in a bad way because its ontological foundations are not coherent. The social sciences, as I’m sure he’s said somewhere, simply don’t know what they are talking about at the moment. But I have also long suspected that this problem cannot be solved. Thatcher was right, we might say; there is no such thing as society. There is no “what” there. There is, however, very definitely a who: people, persons, whole peoples.

The problem with social scientists is not "What do they think they’re doing?" but "Who do they think they are?" They’ve proceeded (and been encouraged) without reflecting very seriously about this. They have assumed that a "science" of the social is possible. I'm not at all sure that it is, to tell you the truth. Hence my call for a Hayekian “counter-revolution”.

I really do believe (though with much fear and trembling) that the foundations of social "science" aren't philosophical but poetical. If we want to recover our senses, our ability to "make sense" of the social, we need to turn to poetry, not philosophy. We should ground our social experience in a lyrical subjectivity, not an enlightened objectivity. All the philosopher of social science can do is to point out that sociology has no "facts" to refer to. One of the reasons everyone is going crazy about the "post-factual society" these days is that we had convinced ourselves (especially on the "liberal" end of the spectrum) that our views about society and politics were "reality-based". We quite literally abandoned our ideals.

None of this implies "methodological individualism", by the way. I'm as inclined to reject psychological "facts" as social ones. Facts, whenever they do (in fact) obtain, are always real and material in the ordinary way. (I hesitate to say "the ordinary physical way" but it's basically what I mean.) Wittgenstein put it neatly in his Tractatus: "Solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it" (5.64). That is, there remain the facts of natural science to be described in naturalistic ways. This generated a little joke for me: Socialism, when its implications are followed out strictly, approaches pure idealism. The "Socialist People’s Republic of…" recedes beyond the horizon, and there remains the ideality associated with it.

We have to understand that an analysis of material conditions offers all the "facts", all the truth, we need. (Paul Feyerabend has a messy, posthumous book called The Conquest of Abundance. I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but as I see it abundance is a 10,000 year-old fact that "scarcity economics" has gotten everyone to ignore. I think the Austrians understood this in a fundamental way.) The rest is about distributing purchasing power justly. We aren’t in need of any more "truth" about economic matters; we just need to share the damn wealth and let workers and entrepreneurs do business. And that's where my critique of social science is also a vision of utopian politics.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Language of Sex(ism)

"None of those things are funny. They have never been funny."
Roger Ebert

Here's a scene featuring Jean Pierre Bergeron and Tom Smothers from the otherwise forgettable and essentially forgotten third installment in the Cannonball Run franchise, Speed Zone:

I think it is an important scene to bring into our conversation about sexism in science, especially the sort of sexism that expresses itself through so-called "microaggressions" and is interpreted as "implicit bias". It's the sort of "sexism" that Tim Hunt was accused of channeling in his remark about "the trouble with girls" and, I would argue, the sort of "sexism" that got Geoff Marcy into trouble with Sarah Ballard.

The gag in the scene is simple (I will leave it to you and Roger Ebert to decide whether it's funny). Smothers misunderstands Bergeron's French-inflected attempt to say "peanuts" as "penis". Worse, since Bergeron is also struggling with English grammar, Smothers hears him say, "You would like my penis," instead of what Bergeron clearly meant, namely, "Would you like my peanuts?" Not only a question rather than a statement, but an entirely appropriate response to Smothers' introductory "I'm hungry. I wonder if they're going to feed us on this flight."

I bring it up as a continuation of my last post, in which I discussed Ramón Barthelemy, Melinda McCormick and Charles Henderson's "demonstrat[ion of] a language for physicists and astronomers to discuss sexism in their departments". We can easily imagine this scene played out between two astronomers on their way to or from an academic conference. And we can easily imagine replacing Smothers with a woman.

What troubles me in the way sexism is discussed in the sciences is that this story might well end up as a "typical" anecdote about "sexual harassment". Consider that in the cases of both Hunt and Marcy, the offended woman did not go through the minimal embarrassment that Smothers goes through before the misunderstanding is cleared up. In today's world of live-tweeting instant outrage, Bergeron's "harassment" would probably have gone viral before he had a chance to show Smothers his nuts.

It's interesting that even back 1989 it was possible to make this scene without the taint of homophobia. Smothers is only as uncomfortable as a married woman might be with what he takes to be Bergeron's proposition. The difference, of course, is that a woman, certainly today, would not only be uncomfortable, but likely also find the proposition to be "harmful". That is, if a colleague on a plane after a conference said, "You would like my penis," the woman would not merely say, "I'm not interested. It's not my thing." Depending on her ideological training, she might very well contact the flight crew and report an exercise of "male privilege". In today's climate, we can easily imagine her claiming to have been harassed. (Indeed, as far as I can tell, Barthelemy et al. would not hesitate to code the incident, if unresolved, as overtly "hostile".)

It's likely, like I say, that she wouldn't continue the conversation. She might simply turn away and give him a cold shoulder for the rest of the flight; more likely, she'd find a man to change seats with. But if interviewed or surveyed, she might very well bring up the story of how a colleague presumed that she "would like his penis".

To me, there doesn't seem to be any real attempt among those who are trying to draw attention to the problem of sexual harassment in the sciences to control for these kinds of misunderstandings. This is true both in research and in policy, as well as in the investigation of individual cases and in journalistic reporting of them. Interestingly, in the Bergeron/Smothers scene the language barrier is set up very explicitly. As far as I can tell, "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment in American astronomy also involves zero tolerance for cultural miscommunication. That's of course ironic given how often the same activists tout the importance of being inclusive.

It is often said that feminists have no sense of humor. I don't know how true that is as a generalization. But they do seem insensitive to the ambiguities of communication that make humor possible. This, I think, will be an enormous barrier to the construction of a "language to discuss sexism" in the scientific community.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Towards a Language for Physicists and Astronomers to Discuss Sexism

(HT Carole Mundell)

Last summer, the American Physical Society's journal Physical Review Physics Education Research published a focused collection on gender. In their contribution, "Gender discrimination in physics and astronomy: Graduate student experiences of sexism and gender microaggressions", Ramón Barthelemy, Melinda McCormick and Charles Henderson tell us what they learned from semi-structured interviews with 21 predominantly white, middle-class women pursuing PhDs in physics, astronomy or astrophysics at "major research universities that are highly ranked and respected in the physics and astronomy communities".

They found that 5 had no experiences they would attribute specifically to gender, 2 had positive gender experiences, 5 experienced overt gender-based hostility, and 16 experienced the ambiguously negative encounters that are commonly called "microaggressions". Interestingly, the purpose of the paper isn't actually to establish prevalence but, rather, "to share the gendered experiences of successful women in pursuit of their educations in physics or astronomy, while also demonstrating a language for physicists and astronomers to discuss sexism in their departments" (p. 12).

Since they are explicitly suggesting their results as a "demonstration" of a "language to discuss sexism", I'm a bit concerned about the way they have coded their interviews. It seems to me that they are calibrating their instrument in an overly sensitive way.

Here's an example of a form of sexual objectification that the paper classifies as a "microaggression". A female PhD students explained that:

At conferences I feel like I get a lot of attention at my posters because, I don’t know, I feel like people want to come talk to the friendly young girl and maybe they don’t want to talk to some guy. (P. 8)

As I understand this, the decision to talk to a "friendly young girl" rather than "some guy" at a poster session is here being counted as a microaggression. That is, if you find yourself at a poster session and a woman catches your eye, you should not try to strike up a conversation with her. The argument, I guess, is that she's "at work", so you should only talk to her if you actually find her poster interesting.

To me, the obvious solution here is for pretty young women to get used to the attention of men and to brush them off if they aren't asking them anything interesting about the poster. Or, conversely, if no one is actually interested in the poster, to enjoy the company of an interested man to pass the time. To count this as evidence of sexism in science strikes me as absolutely ridiculous.

But it gets worse when we go beyond the microaggressions. Here's an example of "hostile sexism"* that is given in the paper. An interviewee recounts an experience from high school:

Many of the boys in [the AP physics] class expressed interest in engineering. When it got around to me, I responded that I wanted to major in physics. The teacher raised an eyebrow and said “Oh, so you’re going to be a waitress”. (P. 10)

I suspect this is just a misunderstanding. Suppose the same thing had happened in a high-school English class and everyone had been expressing an interest in journalism. Then a boy says he wants to major in poetry. And the teacher now jokingly says, "Oh, so you're going to be a barista." Similarly, I don't think the point here was that girls can't do physics. It was that the road from high-school physics to a paying job normally runs through engineering. It was the idea that you could actually be a full-time physicist that the teacher found implausible.

Now, it's possible he wouldn't have made the joke if the aspiring physicist had been a boy. But that doesn't make it a sexist joke. In any case, to code this as "hostile sexism", i.e., as something worse than a microaggression, suggests to me that the instrument is going to give us way too many false positives.

I've reached out to the authors with my concerns and will report back when I hear from them. After all, I too think we need to learn how to talk about sexism in science.

*Update: It's instructive to look at their definition. "Hostile sexism is defined as overt discrimination against women, which may include sexual harassment. An example of hostile sexism would be making sexual advances toward a co-worker or believing that a female co-worker should not be in the workplace because of her gender" (pp. 3-4). Notice that merely propositioning someone you are sexually attracted to is here counted as a "hostile" and "sexist" act. Notice also that merely holding a sexist belief is counted as a kind of hostility. I'm not, of course, saying that these acts and beliefs aren't worth discussing. I'm just saying that coding them in this way is imprecise and is likely to make communication between the sexes more difficult.

Ignorance is Bliss

"The author assumes authority to propose a readily available course of study, indicated in a set of drawings by the author, together with directions, explanations and comment based upon his observation and experience." (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands)

In my response to Randy Westgren's comment on my last post, I came up with a formulation that has a more general application. I think our thinking about society should begin with an assumption of political sovereignty, not scientific ignorance. We should approach social problems from the vantage of the power we have, not the knowledge we lack. I have said before that a "knowledge society" is, in an important sense, founded on the opposite assumption, always trying to solve our social problems by ameliorating a knowledge deficit.

It gives a particular meaning to the old adage "ignorance is bliss". When faced with an obvious injustice, like poverty, we immediately absolve ourselves of guilt by invoking our ignorance. We tell ourselves we don't know how to fix the problem. I think the same thing happens in writing instruction, which is why I proposed a "counter-revolution". It's not that we don't know how students can become better writers. It's that we don't want to tell them what to do.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Anytime Soon

In a post about something completely different, Freddie deBoer makes the following sobering observation about political discussion today:

None of this is about plausibility. It’s fine to debate outcomes you can’t achieve. There’s a debate that’s been raging in my weird little political circles about whether we should support a universal basic income or a job guarantee, and it has become nasty in some instances, with accusations of one side being useful idiots for libertarians, the other for corporatists. On first blanch, this is silly – we’re not going to get either of those things. Not anytime soon. But I still value the debate because we need to define our goals for the future, and whatever else is true, the people debating have clear differences in what they want to happen. That’s important.

As I said in my comment to his post, I’ve long tried to figure out how to respond to this (very sensible) point. But what do we really mean by "not anytime soon". The only way to implement a UBI, as far as I can tell, is to phase it in over at least two decades, while phasing out the corresponding means-tested welfare payments. "Not anytime soon" can mean we’re not going start moving in the right direction in the foreseeable future, or just that we won’t have it fully implemented within a generation. I'll easily grant the latter, but I think we can start the process very soon indeed.

I agree with deBoer that we should be discussing this now, but not just because we need to have articulate goals. We should be debating the goal in a way that amounts to debating how to implement it. Some people are against basic income, not because they oppose the end goal, but because they can’t see how to get there from here. They need to be shown a 20-year plan in which welfare payments are replaced gradually with a UBI (from $1000/year and increasing over a decade or to around $12000/year) that is taxed back from working people so they feel no difference in take-home pay. (And there would be no bottom line difference on the budget.) They would only feel a difference the day they lose their job and are now automatically insured. (That is, instead of having to apply for unemployment benefits, they would simply lose the wage component of their income, keeping the basic component.) That, roughly, is the plan that should be discussed.

Now, I also believe that we should talk about phasing out all taxes other than a land tax. And I think it would be great to run the two processes in parallel. Ideally, you'd have a twenty-year period with ordinary economic growth, increasing UBI, decreasing wages, decreasing income and sales taxes, and increasing taxes on land. Also, you'd want to replace the debt-based monetary system with one in which the money is created as purchasing power, i.e, the UBI + government spending. (The only check on inflation would be the land tax. Indeed, that would be the primary purpose of the land tax, which would ensure that money had "value", namely, as the only legal means landowners would have to cover their taxes. If you want to own land you'd have to satisfy demand in the population.)

But my tax proposal is only something that can plausibly be argued once the basic UBI implementation makes sense. Interestingly, in my mind at least, once someone has granted that the UBI can be implemented in something like the way I propose, the end of income taxes follows naturally.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Scissors or Zipper?

The gender gap in the sciences is often illustrated with the "scissors diagram". It represents the fact that there are generally more undergraduate women than men, rough parity among graduate students, but then increasingly more men as we move up the career ladder to full professor. But perhaps "scissors", with its connotation of "pivot" and "leverage" is the wrong metaphor. Look at this overlay of two "scissors" from 2007 and 2013 (taken from this 2015 report):

It looks like the "pivot" is moving to the right, i.e., up the career ladder, as one would expect if the gap is being closed over time. And what this suggests is not that doctoral programs are a pivot that exerts leverage on women, keeping them out of academia, but rather that it is, today, the point at which the male and female populations are converging. There is no reason to think this process won't continue.

No one, I think, expects the gap to close overnight. So any disagreements here are really about the rate of change not the current "status of women". My question to feminists*, then, is simply this: in so far as the current (or 2013) situation is "problematic", how far to the right do you think the zipper should have moved by now (or 2013)?

*Update: It has been (and may still be) fashionable to argue about the definition of "feminism". Who am I addressing this question to? I don't consider feminism to be merely the belief that "men and women are equal" but rather an ideology and a movement that aims to bring about that equality. That is, I take feminism to be the view that men and women ought to be but are not yet treated as equals. Specifically, in this post, I point out that feminism is a particular kind of impatience with the actual "status of women" in society (here, specifically, the part of society that does science). In that sense, I am not a feminist. To me, the data shows that moral and political equality has been achieved, and we're merely waiting for the effects of this equality to work itself out over a generation or two. We do not need any particular ideological or political labor to maintain the process and, certainly, not to expedite it. That is, I don't think we "need feminism" any longer. Feminists, of course, disagree about this. And I'm here basically trying to gauge the seriousness of that disagreement. After all, I expect the zipper to close the gap to within 20% (in different directions for different disciplines) within about thirty years. I think that outcome is perfectly acceptable, and I definitely think anything above 50% (e.g., 75% male) is very likely an effect of discrimination. The point is just that it's an effect of past discrimination, which was very overt. Not the sort of "implicit bias" that today's feminists are fighting. I believe that that fight does more harm than good.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Motivation and Feedback

Andrew Gelman has left a thoughtful comment on my post joining Freddie deBoer's applause for Doug Hesse's prescriptions for composition. My response is going to be a bit disjointed, but I've already left it longer than I wanted.

I definitely agree with Andrew's general point that "motivation to practice" is important. The intrinsic motivation to practice specifically writing is that being able to write down what you know is a valuable skill. Not just in school, but in life. But what's the role of the teacher in motivating students? Where should the value of writing come from? How can it be demonstrated to the student?

Andrew emphasizes feedback. I agree that feedback is important but I want to stress that there are all kinds of feedback that don't need to come from teachers. Students can give themselves and each other feedback simply by reading their texts out loud. Moreover, in my experience, the issue of feedback is a resource allocation problem. An teacher who spends a lot of time providing detailed written feedback on assignments is often wasting much of their time. Many of the students don't read the feedback very closely. Many of them don't understand it. Many students end up merely letting it confirm their suspicion that they don't know how to write.

What is needed is a way of giving feedback to students who are, let's say, motivated to use it going forward. My model is simple. Tell students to write individual paragraphs at pre-determined times. Then have them share those paragraphs with their fellow students. The students who are giving feedback should do simple things like read the paragraph out loud back to the writer and point to the key sentence. They should say something about whether they took the paragraph to elaborate or support the key sentence. They should tell the writer what they got out of it and whether they "liked" reading it.

This gives the student a little more information than they could give themselves. But reading your own paragraph out loud does immediately tell you a great deal about how well it is written and which sentences aren't working. Now, whether it comes from you or from someone else, the important thing is not to take feedback as some sort of final judgment. It is merely input that will inform what you are doing in your next few writing sessions. That's absolutely crucial: you can only use feedback if you are practicing deliberately, one paragraph at a time, for weeks and weeks. If you simply throw a text together the night before and give it to your teacher, you are not being told anything about how good are at what you are doing. Properly speaking, you aren't doing anything very specific.

A good way of motivating students to receive feedback is to begin with a rewriting instruction. The students submit their work and you read it. Then, instead of telling them "what's wrong with it" (or even what's good about it), tell them to rewrite the paragraphs that you want to talk about. Ask them to spend an hour doing it again (i.e., rewriting three paragraphs, 18 minutes each). Your "feedback", in the first instance, is now simply to suggest that they will learn something by rewriting a particular paragraph. You might ask them to notice something—like the length of the sentences, or the use of references, or even just spelling—but you're mainly saying that there's something there to notice in this paragraph. Something that their writing suggests they are able to see, but perhaps don't quite understand the importance of.

And this brings us back to intrinsic motivation. Feedback should identify the skills a piece of writing demonstrates that the writer almost masters. It should direct them towards those skills and thereby give them the experiencing of getting it right. If this sort of feedback is done right, the student the will immediately feel the value of the skill they are learning. This will key into their intrinsic motivation to write better.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nat Hentoff

I read Onwards! when I was taking a year off before grad school. I remember wanting to like it because it was written by someone who knew a great deal about jazz. I also remember not liking something the professor said to his activist student. I think it was probably because the professor was right and I identified with the student. Anyway, here's something else Hentoff once wrote, which I just found while reflecting on his passing.

Nearly ten years ago I declared myself a pro-lifer. A Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer. Immediately, three women editors at The Village Voice, my New York base, stopped speaking to me. Not long after, I was invited to speak on this startling heresy at Nazareth College in Rochester (long since a secular institution). Two weeks before the lecture, it was canceled. The women on the lecture committee, I was told by the embarrassed professor who had asked me to come, had decided that there was a limit to the kind of speech the students could safely hear, and I was outside that limit. I was told, however, that I could come the next year to give a different talk. Even the women would very much like me to speak about one of my specialties, censorship in America. I went and was delighted to talk about censorship at Nazareth.

It is sad that our cultural conversations don't automatically include voices like Hentoff's. Instead, it seems, we first have to be chosen to be on one of the "teams"—the Left or the Right.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Adventures in Toxicology

We can, I hope, all agree that sexual harassment poisons organizations. That is all the more reason to be accurate in our measurements.

To take the literal analogue, suppose you read a newspaper article that reported that researchers have found that over 75% of sampled tap water in your city contains toxins of a particular kind. Concerned, you track down the study and find that the real value is 57%. Looking more closely at a table in the report, however, you realize that this number is actually an adding mistake. Only 32% of the samples actually contained the toxin in question; all the other samples were completely free of it.

Looking still more closely, you realize that the study didn't just detect the presence or absence of the toxin but actually measured the concentration of the toxin and classified it according to health risk. The levels were "none" (68%), "low" (19%), "moderate" (11%) and "high" (2%). "Low" here means that, while trace amounts could be detected, no action needs to be taken to protect yourself from the toxin. "Moderate" means that something should be done to bring the level down (to "low") within a few months (i.e., only continuous exposure over many years constitutes a health risk) and "high" means that the water should not be used for human consumption unless boiled first.

Moreover, it turns out that the 2% of samples that contained a "high" concentration of the toxin were all localized to a particular neighborhood, suggesting a common source, and therefore a straightforward solution. It's even possible that the samples with lower concentrations are all "downstream" from this source will therefore have the same origin.

My point in making this comparison is to counter those who would dismiss my "pedantry" about the CSWA workplace climate survey as missing the larger point that people did, in fact, report harassment. What difference does it make, these critics say, whether it's 75% or 57% or 32% that report it? Or whether they report that it happens "rarely" or "often"? Surely we have to do something about the 2% who report experiencing verbal harassment often?

Yes, of course. But a report that over 75% of the tap water in the city is "poisoned" in some unspecified sense might well lead everyone to boil their water before using it. This constitutes not just a moderate inconvenience for individuals, but an enormous energy cost for the city as a whole. If the real solution is to find and extract one dead rat from a water tower somewhere, and only 2% of households actually needed to boil their water, then the exaggerated report will have wasted a lot of resources. These are resources that could have been used more effectively elsewhere.

Similarly, there seems to be a willingness on the part of administrators in the sciences to do something about sexual harassment. It is very important that they don't make their decisions on the basis of inaccurate measurements of the problem they are trying to fix. In the case of the CSWA survey, it is very possible (given what we know about the study) that the occasional behavior of a handful of bad actors accounts for virtually all of the reported harassment. We can't know for sure until the report is made public.

Friday, January 06, 2017


It's Friday night so I don't have have time to do Hesse or deBoer justice. But this needs to be shouted from the roof tops:

I don’t disagree with most of Hesse’s prescriptions for composition. In particular, when he writes, “Students learn to write by writing, by getting advice and feedback on their writing, and then writing some more,” I want to applaud. Writing is like playing a sport or learning a musical instrument: there is no substitute for repetition. You must practice! Students need to be writing, a lot. I would personally prefer that they be working at much smaller scales than is typical in contemporary composition classrooms, taking apart their own paragraphs, finding what doesn’t work, and rewriting them until they’re polished and strong. But yes, there is simply no substitute for practice, for repetition, in training young writers.

I'll pick up the thread later.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

An Open Letter to Christina Richey

Dear Christina Richey,

Two years ago, on January 5, 2015, you announced that the CSWA was conducting a survey of workplace climate, inviting members of the American Astronomical Society to participate. On March 15, the survey closed. On November 12, 2015, more than a year ago, you presented preliminary results of the survey when you accepted the Division of Planetary Sciences' Masursky Award. You presented them again on January 6, 2016, at the annual meeting of the AAS.

These results were widely publicized and continue to be cited to this day. In January of 2016, for example, Sarah Scoles reported that "fifty-seven percent [of your survey respondents] said that they had been verbally harassed because of their gender." In December, she reported your results again. "32 percent of respondents reported experience of verbal harassment in their current job specifically because of their gender," she now wrote. As you know, the difference in the two figures reflects an error in your initial presentations, which you subsequently corrected in your slides without corrigendum. As you must also know, the statement in any case neglects the wide range of severity in the reported experiences, with 19% reporting that it happens "rarely" and 11% reporting that it happens "sometimes". Only 2%, in other words, reported that it happens "often".

These nuances are left out of both your presentations and media reports. Although journalists were initially told that a paper would be published in the spring of 2016, it was in fact merely under review at the time and, as far as I have been able to gather, has still not been accepted by any journal. Indeed, while you have made yourself available to media who communicate your results uncritically, you have steadfastly ignored my queries, including those that pointed out the error you corrected. You ignored all my requests for information about methods and data for over half a year, and then finally rejected them explicitly through a press officer of the AAS only after I took my concerns to AAS President Christine Jones. (An account of my communications with you and the AAS is available here.)

The AAS Code of Ethics states that "research results should be recorded and maintained in a form that allows review, analysis, and reproduction by others. It is incumbent on researchers ... to make results available in a timely manner." I therefore strongly suggest you upload a draft of the paper to either ArXiv or SocArXiv, so that those of us who have been interested enough in the issue to help spot and correct errors can examine your methods and analysis. Given that your results continue to be reported in the media, there is, in my opinion, no excuse for not making their basis available for critical scrutiny.


Thomas Basbøll

cc: Kate Clancy

Monday, January 02, 2017

Where are the Substantive Disagreements?

Can anyone point me to any substantive disagreements about the status of women in science (especially astronomy) and the best way to improve it? As far as I can tell, there aren't any. No one who is writing about this topic, either from within the scientific community or from a journalistic perspective, seems to be arguing with anyone else, debating the state of things or the best way forward. There just seem to be statements of uncontroversial fact, demands for action, and apologies for misdeeds. Where are the issues being discussed rationally among people with reasonable but different points of view, legitimate but competing interests?

I can't find the actual debate--certainly not a civil one--in the discourse on science and gender. There just seems to be a coalition of determined and convivial scientists and journalists pushing an agenda that is opposed, so they say, by shadowy, inarticulate forces. The authorities seem mainly to be in the position of apologizing, nonetheless forever standing accused of not doing enough. No one is even defending them.

Finally, my own experience is not very encouraging. I have been mainly ignored by both scientists and journalists who are working on this. That's not because they have more qualified critics to argue with, like I say. (I wish there were someone more qualified than me to challenge the many sometimes strange claims that are put forward.) Even when I help someone correct a straightforward error, I am not invited into the conversation. Disagreement seems simply not to be tolerated in this domain.

A body of knowledge can't live, and certainly can't thrive, if ideas cannot be put forward that turn out to be false. I may be completely wrong in my criticism of the claims that are being made about women in astronomy. But the fact that essentially no one is taking the time to show anyone that they are wrong about anything in this area does not bode well for our understanding of the subject. There are lots of people writing about this, some more radical than others. But the general procedure seems to be to acknowledge the people you agree with and ignore those you don't. To openly discuss and resolve disagreements doesn't seem to be to anyone's taste. I think that is very sad.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The "Agar Plate" of Science Writing

In her Wired review of last year's developing story about sexual harassment in science, Sarah Scoles describes academia as an "agar plate" of such behavior. The scandals, she tells us, are expressions of an environment that "doesn’t merely permit such transgressions" but actually fosters them. We might say it cultivates bad behavior; there is a culture of harassment. That's the narrative that we can expect to see developing in 2017 and that I think it is important to approach with some skepticism.

Scoles' argument does not rely merely on anecdotes, but on what Christina Richey, the chair of the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy of the American Astronomical Society, explicitly presents as "social science" (see video 406.01, at 11:10). Scoles reports as follows:

In a 2015 survey of astronomers, 32 percent of respondents reported experience of verbal harassment in their current job specifically because of their gender. Around 9 percent reported physical harassment.

Although she fails to cite her source explicitly, I have confirmed that she is referring to Richey's 2015 workplace climate survey. It is important to keep in mind that, not only has this survey not yet been published, over a year after announcing her results, Richey still refuses to discuss its methodology and results or make a write up available to people, like me, who are interested in understanding them better.

But even if we accepted the survey as valid, there are serious problems with the statement Scoles is using it to support. Scoles is drawing the 32% figure from this slide:

What she fails to say is that the 32% actually breaks down into "rarely", "sometimes" and "often", which she gives equal weight and counts merely as yes/no on whether they've been verbally harassed. (As I pointed out in a previous post, Richey plays up this sort of thing even more. The way she interprets her results we'd probably be told that astronomers are verbally harassed "32% of the time".) To see why this is a bad interpretation, consider a hypothetical result where no one had answered "sometimes" or "often", but 32% had answered "rarely" and 68% had (as it actually happened) answered "never". On Scoles' logic this result would support the very same statement. But a much more accurate (and hopeful) statement would of course be: "In a 2015 survey of astronomers, 68% reported never experiencing verbal harassment and the rest reported experiencing it only rarely."

What the CSWA survey actually (or at least also) found is that under 2% of respondents reported experiencing gender-based verbal harassment often and 11% reported experiencing it only sometimes. In the case of gender-based physical harassment, less than 1% reported experiencing it often and less than 2% reported experiencing it just sometimes; wholly 97% of respondents reported never or rarely experiencing physical harassment. Scoles' statement only becomes true when we include all those who said they experienced it "rarely", which one might of course say in response to a survey even if one's experience says that verbal and physical harassment is the exception rather than the rule.

That is, it is what one would answer if one worked in an academic environment that has enough freedom to permit* occasional bad behavior, but which is precisely not an "agar plate" for a culture of sexual harassment. I am really hoping that 2017 will bring us much less of this sort of misreporting of already dubious survey results. Bad science and bad journalism, after all, are agar plates, to be sure, for bad policy.** Let's try to keep our Petri dishes clean this year, shall we?

*No one uses this in the sense that such behavior is allowed or approved of. What is meant is that conditions exist that let people do certain things and, as Scoles emphasizes, makes it difficult to punish them afterwards. It's important to keep in mind that a free society intentionally establishes such conditions even in the case of murder. There is plenty of freedom to physically commit a murder in our society, and it is relatively difficult to be convicted of the crime. The dystopian vision presented in the movie Minority Report is, of course, the antithesis of this society; here, murders are prevented as "pre-crimes", and would-be murderers are jailed without trial for something they haven't yet done.
**Including the informal policies that guide the judgement of individuals in networks. In a previous post, I've written about Bryan Gaensler's somewhat disconcerting practice of keeping students from opportunities to get supervision from professors that he has heard rumors about. Interestingly, when Gaensler tweeted Scoles' story, it was the "agar plate" line that he found most quotable.