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.


Presskorn said...

What might a substantive disagreement ("different points of view, legitimate but competing interests") be? One problem, I guess, in imaginining such a substantive disagreement is imagine a LEGITIMATE set of interest that favours the discrimination of women.

Instead the only discussion possible seems to be the fact-finding, empirical one of whether is a problem at all (are women really in fact being discriminated to the extent that such and such reports would lead us to believe? etc.). It is an important discussion and we could call it a substantive disagreement, but it would, ideally at least, not be one guided "different points of view, legitimate but competing interests". Hopefully (although I ackowlegde that your experiences with Richey are not encouraging in this regard), it would be purely empirical discussion.

Thomas said...

I'm not sure there aren't also normative questions. Many are writing about harassment as though the relevant behaviors are obviously unacceptable. But, as I've tried to argue, the appropriateness of both Geoff Marcy's behavior and Sarah Ballard's response to it is worth discussing. There's obviously no legitimate position from which to defend discrimination, as you put it. But it needs to be legitimate to ask whether or not certain behaviors are actually discriminatory, and, therefore, whether their perception as "harassment" is accurate.

Jonathan said...

Saying harassment is not as big a problem as other people think automatically puts you in the category of an apologist for such harassment. Set up like that, there is no room for substantive disagreements any longer, because the premise is that you recognize the severity of the problem in the first place. If you don't, you are in the category of "rape apologist" or "rape culture denier." Many issues have been set up like that. For example, the Black Lives Matter debates here in the US. As you get boxed into a corner then, in many cases, it is easy to give up in despair. If Black Lives Mattered, then they would matter if those taking them were other criminals, and not merely the police.

Thomas said...

Yes, I like that parallel. My analysis of BLM suggests that the most reasonable policy proposal would be to end the War on Drugs. Though it may be a stretch, I think something similar can be said about, say, Publish or Perish in academia. If people competed based on the quality of their minds at any particular moment, not their measurable "performance" in the publication racket, a lot the power dynamics that are today mistaken for sexism (or, in some cases, serve to weaponize sexism, if you will) would be removed.

To riff on your last sentence, if Good Ideas Mattered then they would matter when those having them are women, and not merely "powerful men".