Friday, April 28, 2017

The Science and Journalism of Harassment in the Sciences

On Wednesday evening, the NYU journalism school hosted Kate Clancy and Azeen Ghorayshi to talk about sexual harassment in science. Ghorayshi had previously participated in a similar discussion at MIT, this time with Sarah Ballard and Evelynn M. Hammonds. In both cases, the Geoff Marcy case came up, as did Clancy's SAFE13 study (not surprisingly in the NYU talk, of course). I will be drawing on these conversations in upcoming posts on Clancy's work as well as Ghorayshi's. I wanted to make a general note about the mood of the conversation.

These are very interesting conversations, in part because they appear to take place in almost parallel universe, completely insulated from qualified criticism. You can see this in the way they talk about people who don't agree with them. As they tell it, there are people who see the problem as they do, and then there are people who deny that harassment happens at all. They seem to feel this way both about the research subjects who don't answer surveys the way they want and peer reviewers who don't like their data.* The perspective that I represent, in any case, is completely absent from their thinking. Indeed, as far as I can tell, my criticism of both the science and journalism of harassment in the sciences has been completely ignored by them. The view that harassment is a real problem, but that they are misunderstanding it, doesn't seem to exist in their universe.

I was also struck by the matter of fact way Ghorayshi mentions the Tim Hunt case as a story BuzzFeed chose to cover (7:15). There seems to be no critical self-awareness that, for a great many people, that story was botched—albeit not primarily by BuzzFeed (they just ran with it like so many others). Nor does she seem aware that it was a less than proud moment for science journalism. She is clearly talking to an imagined audience of people who still think Tim Hunt is a sexist and got what he deserved. To her credit, she does mention Rolling Stone's botch of the UVa rape story (46:30), but she actually can't bring herself to say it clearly. She brings it up as something to avoid and then just sort of trails off, as if she knows that this same imagined audience still hasn't quite accepted that Jackie made her story up and Sabrina Erdely destroyed her journalistic career by telling it.

The tone of this conversation is one in which error isn't a serious possibility. In fact, of course, they are repressing this possibility, perhaps in their own minds before marginalizing it from their discourse. Like all things repressed, it will no doubt return. It's going to be interesting to see when and how their errors come to light.

*Update: A great example of this is near the end, starting at 01:13:48, where Clancy marvels over people who "still haven't heard that sexual harassment happens in science, or that it happens at all," explaining this with the "blindness" that "privilege" causes. She then tells the story of what I assume is the saga of getting the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey published (on Twitter she has previously made no secret of the fact that it's PLOS ONE that she's talking about). They withdrew the paper because of criticism from a reviewer who didn't believe her data. (I must say that there are reasons to be critical of the CSWA survey's data, but she doesn't make the reviewer sound very thoughtful, and thoughtless reviewers do exist.) Ghorayshi then picks up the thread at 01:16:07, by recalling Nature's coverage of the SAFE13 study, which was apparently balanced by voices (both of them women) who were skeptical of the survey's conclusions. (It should be noted that Clancy et. al say explicitly that their survey can't speak to prevalence.) Clancy chimes in that that "wasn't [her] favorite" piece of news of coverage. Perhaps not, but it was an actually critical piece, and one finds it hard to take seriously a researcher in this area who doesn't acknowledge the opinion of Wendy Williams. Indeed, it seems to me that SAFE13 would be much more credible if it were part of a sustained conversation with people like Ceci and Williams. For Clancy, Williams is just another "denier," I guess.

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