Friday, March 24, 2017


With the always informative Andrew Gelman, as well as Brian Nosek and Deborah Mayo.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Taking a Break

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835.
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Advice to the Next Tim Hunt, Geoff Marcy, and Matt Taylor: BE COLIN MORIARTY!

Specifically, do not apologize (5:30). Don't give them anything. They are ruining everything.

First Mover Advantages

John Leo at Minding the Campus is getting impatient about the administrative response to the protests that shut down Charles Murray's talk at Middlebury College. Over at Reason, Jon Haidt warns of a "huge disruption" to the current business model of universities as the disappointment over what college has become hits home to students and the parents who pay their tuition. I, too, believe that within a decade many colleges, who have been banking on a captive audience for ideological indoctrination, will be forced to close as students find more efficient (and less exasperating) ways to gain the credentials, and especially the skills, they need to succeed in life.

I'm not as sanguine as Jon Haidt seems to be about the alternatives to four-year residential liberal arts education, though I do think it's a road too many students take. (There are too many students going to too many of these colleges without really thinking about the value of what they might be getting there.) I hope that only the ideological superstructure of today's colleges will fall apart, forcing the colleges to fall back upon their permanent infrastructure: a group of buildings, some pleasant grounds, a faculty dedicated to learning, and some longstanding academic traditions. These last will of course include free speech.

I think there are two opportunities that will open up in the wake of the coming disruption. The first is the one that Middlebury is poised (but apparently reticent) to take. It can be the first college to issue stern reprimands against students who are known to have participated in the prevention of Murray's talk. Many of them are easy to identify in the video (since, with their backs turned to Murray, they proudly face the camera.) This will win back the trust of the parents and students who are rightly concerned about the educational climate at Middlebury. The schools that make examples of truly disruptive protesters first will attract the attention of students who want some assurance that their intellectual space will be protected from ideological excesses.

The other opportunity comes out of the rubble of the colleges that fail. College campuses are highly specific places. Once they go bankrupt, they can't easily be converted to other uses. So we do well to think about how a campus can be quickly acquired and staffed, and then begin enrolling students. I'm imagining that some of these campuses may be quite nice architecturally, so the idea will be to design a low-cost, no-frills curriculum that depends mainly on the reading of widely available texts, discussion in low-tech classroom settings, and examination in straightforward written and oral forms. The students will be given an "opportunity grow" through ordinary learning of the familiar kind.

As T.S. Eliot once said, you don't make flowers grow by pulling on them, but by watering and weeding. You give students good books to read, foster lively discussion, (yes, you invite stimulating and sometimes controversial speakers), and you expel students who waste not only their own time, but that of the their fellow students, on pointless protests against their inheritance—the privilege of living in Western civilization.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Gendered Approach to Science II

I've been meaning to write about Bryan Gaensler's presentation at York University for some time. I just found another video that provides an excellent counterpoint, namely, Sarah Ballard's contribution to Jackie Speier's sexual harassment panel. Here are the two videos, which I encourage you to watch in their entirety. But this post onlymainly deals with what is said in the first two and a half minutes of each video.

I present this as part II to my earlier "A Gendered Approach to Science" for two reasons. First, because I like a good pun. In the first post, I was talking about how we might "approach" the study of science as, say, philosophers; in this post, I will be talking about how two scientists "got into" their field, i.e., how they approach their own work.

Second, this post does actually develop the theme of the first one. Both presentations, and especially Ballard, make a point of emphasizing that men and women reason differently and are differently motivated to get into science. As always, it puzzles me how easily feminists can state this fact (which I think is very plausible) and then refuse to accept that two groups who reason differently and are differently motivated might be differently represented at the higher rungs of the career ladder. It's just such an obvious contradiction to me.

But the reason I wanted to write this post is to make an even simpler point. Gaensler begins by explaining why he loves saying he's an astronomer:

Ever since I was three years old I wanted to be an astronomer. I never had any plan B; it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. It's an incredible privilege and a gift to be able to do what I always wanted. [...] And I always look back thinking there was never any doubt that I was going to be an astronomer because I wanted it so badly.

He's setting up a point, of course, (he's going "check" that "privilege") but we'll get to that in a moment. Listen to Ballard's story of how she realized that she was going to be an astronomer. Here's how she put it to Kishore Hari on Inquiring Minds about how she got into astronomy:

Hari: So you were basically interested in astronomy straight away when you came to college?
Ballard: I wasn’t … I started out in college thinking I was going to be a peace and conflict major, a gender studies major. And in fact I had taken some classes to that effect and I thought maybe I’d be a social worker. And I took an astronomy course because of what I thought of at the time as a useless physical science breadth requirement. … I felt the call of astronomy at 18.

I'm going to presume that Gaensler thinks that Ballard is precisely the sort of person that needs some extra help in a sexist world. Indeed, he has a handy graphic to make the point for him.

Ballard (being a woman) is "shorter" (in a man's world) than Gaensler (a man) and should therefore get an extra box or two to stand on. The peculiar thing is that he completely discounts the fifteen years he himself presumably spent climbing up on "the shoulders of giants" to see further into the depths of space than his school friends did. By the time he got to college, he probably already knew what a goddam "magnetar" is! Ballard by contrast, as she herself explains, heard "the call" of astronomy as a freshman by looking at a picture of space and being struck by its "magnificence".

Here's the saddening thing Gaensler finds himself saying about what is almost literally his lifelong passion for astronomy:

It was only much later that I realized that there were probably lots of other people like me who were just as focused and determined and driven to be astronomers, for whom for reasons beyond their control things didn’t work out. That was a real light bulb for me, when I realized that it wasn’t my force of will or my desire but my privilege and my fortune that allowed me to get where I am.

Actually, he's helping young women who thought they were going to be social workers when they got to college, and had to be talked in to doing science by an academic advisor, and plan not actually to do a lot of core science but "build a culture" (4:15) for younger versions of themselves (5:40), outmanoeuvre people like himself who had been obsessed with the universe since the age of three and never, for that reason, had a "Plan B"!

"No, Bryan," I want to say, "there weren't lots of people like you. That sort of passion is rare and when you have it it does actually help overcome adversity and beat out those who don't have it." If, of course, you don't let those less passionate people explain their own failures by way of the "inappropriate" affections of their professors and prop them up with all sorts of special programs. What Gaensler is basically saying to young, white men who devote their entire lives to astronomy from an early age is that they shouldn't be proud of their accomplishments. After all, perhaps even their interest in science from that early age was "engendered"!

The CSWA Workplace Climate Survey, Two Years and Counting

Data collection for the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey was completed on March 15, 2015—two years ago today. On November 12, 2015, Christina Richey presented preliminary results of the survey when she accepted the Division of Planetary Sciences' Masursky Award. She presented them again on January 6, 2016, at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

No write up of the survey has yet been made public. I gather from rumors on social media that the paper has been rejected by (or withdrawn from) one journal and is being considered for publication by another. All my questions about the survey's methods and analysis and all my requests for a draft of the paper have been rejected. This post is just to mark the current state of things.

[Added at 12:18 PM: The reason I'm so uptight about this is that Richey is withholding data about an important subject. I'm not saying she has to share her data openly—although that would be nice—but that she should present the data in a way that affords others opportunities for replication and criticism.

The questions "How many women have been sexually harassed in astronomy?" and "How often are women sexually harassed in astronomy?" are good and serious questions. They deserve serious and careful study. When Richey says something like "People hear sexist remarks over 40% of the time," she is making a serious, empirical statement. But it appears to be based on a set of data that really shows that 56% never hear such language, 25% hear it rarely, 15% hear it only "sometimes" and only 4% hear it often. She is counting people who say they rarely hear such language to support the claim that people hear it 44% of the time. Likewise, when a journalist says that "32% of women report being verbally harassed," they are citing a study that actually found that under 2% of respondents reported experiencing gender-based verbal harassment often and 11% reported experiencing it only sometimes. That is, over 60% of the "reports" (around 20% of all respondents) described such harassment as "rare".

Or that's what I think is going on, judging by her slides. I can't be sure because she won't show me her paper and won't answer my mails. Something is happening to 32% and 44% of astronomers. Something worse is happening to 9% percent of them. The problem is that Dr. Richey refuses to tell us what it is. It's as if she said "something" from outer space is coming our way "fast" and "might" hit us, but she's not going to help us understand whether it's a comet or a photon or how likely it is to miss. And she does want you to help her "do something" about it "now".]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Fran Lebowitz Talking

I'm a big fan of Fran Lebowitz. But while I was searching for videos that might teach the students at Middlebury College something I stumbled on one that, in retrospect, doesn't put her in the best light. (Granted, after Trump got elected, the light changed somewhat radically.) I hadn't paid attention to her views on Hillary at the time, but when Trump won the nomination, it seems Lebowitz took the conventional, establishment view that "everyone has to love her now".

This glibness about what "stands in the way" of Trump actually becoming president is, of course, one of the things that got him elected. The problem with that quip about hiring someone who is not a plumber to fix your pipes, leaving aside the little matter of the "plumbers" that Nixon hired, is the metaphorical fact that we've been calling plumbers to fix the pipes since 1913 and, while they never fail to send us a bill (and take us to court if we fail to pay them), the pipes also never really stop leaking.

But it turns out that long before this, and completely separate from the prospect of a Trump (or even a Clinton) presidency, Lebowitz articulated precisely the elite, liberal policy consensus that Trump's voters rejected. In the following clip, Vanity Fair had the excellent idea of putting together Lebowitz's views on homelessness, immigration and tourism (which really are related problems). I will focus on her immigration policy, which starts at 2:08.

After expressing complete despair about the prospect of peace in the middle east, Lebowitz proposes to let (literally!) everyone there move to the United States. She'll go on to say that they are not welcome in New York as tourists, but have to come as permanent residents. (As an aside, I agree with her in broad outline on this point. Immigration is a perfectly respectable activity in my book; tourism is not.)

Here's the thing that might have created a Trump voter or two: the image of Fran Lebowitz sitting high atop the (I presume) Manhattan offices of Vanity Fair announcing to the citizens of middle eastern countries: "The whole middle of [America] is empty ... Come here!" She goes on to say that, unlike Italy, America doesn't have a culture. I looked it up. She is talking about Kansas.

She is talking about this guy:

She is talking about this emptiness:

Monday, March 13, 2017

Four Black Men Talking

To mirror "Four White Men Talking" I thought it might be interesting to find four black men discussing themes that are as black as the other four's were white. Again, there's an assignment here for Middlebury's students: compare and contrast. Listen and learn. And consider the question of why exactly Charles Murray's ideas could not possibly be part of this conversation.

One White and One Black Journalist Talking to One Black and One White Nationalist

Another compare and contrast exercise for Middlebury's students. Here we have a black reporter (Roland Martin) in a confrontational interview with a white nationalist (Richard Spencer), and a white reporter (Mike Wallace) in a more controlled but no less confrontational interview with a black nationalist (Louis Farrakhan). I don't care what you think of the views being expressed here, surely their expression is instructive.

Four White Men Talking

"What whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
what candor?"
(Ezra Pound)

The tragedy of Middlebury is not just that the students wouldn't listen to the ideas of Charles Murray, but that they couldn't distinguish them from those of Jared Taylor. I would encourage them to take on (and their teachers to assign) a compare and contrast exercise. Trigger warning: you might learn something.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Middlebury Heterodoxy

For as long as I can remember*, I have nurtured a romantic fantasy about teaching at a small liberal arts college. While the image is beginning to fade, this discussion among Jonathan Haidt, Frank Bruni and Dan Senor (filling in for Charlie Rose) about the significance of the Middlebury protests against Charles Murray gives me a little hope.

While I realize that I'm merely looking for nails that the hammer I happen to have in my hand is good for pounding, I have two simple suggestions. First, make prose composition a foundational part of a liberal arts education; second, grade all students on a curve. Students should learn to compose themselves in series of coherent paragraphs. Getting a C at college should be an utterly normal experience. At college, students should discover their uniqueness against a backdrop of prosaic normalcy.

*This is obviously hyperbole. Let's say this fantasy is as old as my desire to be an academic.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

AAS: There Is No "Leaky Pipeline" in Astronomy

Yesterday, noticed a piece by Kevin Marvel, published in the American Astronomical Society's publication Status back in January 2016. Here he notes the demographic changes in the discipline:

[W]e can clearly see an ongoing trend ... : the fraction of AAS members who are women is going up and that trend has continued monotonically since the first reliable data I have available in electronic form. Also, once AAS members reach the postdoctoral stage, roughly the age bracket 28–32, the fraction of women moves forward nearly uniformly over time to the next higher age bracket — except in the oldest age bracket, where women’s longevity becomes quite obvious. We are not, actually, recruiting new female AAS members once they hit 83 years of age!

Let me pause there to point out something that perhaps deserves more attention. Men have well known early-career advantages over women related to the two-body problem and motherhood. Among astronomers who got their PhDs in, say, 1997, current career status is likely to systematically vary by gender, simply because women in their thirties have other priorities than men or, perhaps, because they are under other societal and familial "pressures" (which you are free to take as a euphemism for "sexism", though I think the direct systemic effect of that particular pressure is very small). Men, on average, probably get further along in their career in the first twenty years than women do.

But Marvel here points to the possible justice of this arrangement: men die younger too. They have shorter careers. Perhaps this can also be connected to the idea that women are held back by being more ethical. In the long run, and since women can play a longer game, this turns out to be an advantage. But that's all pretty speculative, of course.

Anyway, here's the part that caught my eye:

This positive demographic change repeats all the way back to the first data set and tells me that once a woman has her Ph. D. and is an AAS member, she tends to stay an AAS member and, I assume, an active astronomer. This is a good sign, as it shows that there is no leaky pipeline, at least for AAS membership. It may tell us that women who choose to join the AAS see benefit in membership throughout their career and stay members — quite heartening from where I sit. But what it certainly shows us is that there is an ongoing demographic change in our membership, one that stands in stark contrast to other closely aligned disciplines.

Astronomy, Marvel here tells us, appears to be one of the most welcoming disciplines for women when compared to "other closely aligned disciplines". (It's one the places they feel most welcome to stay, we might say.) It's ironic that Marvel should have found "heartening" news like this, just a few months after Geoff Marcy had been forced into retirement on the grounds that he represented merely the "the tip of the iceberg" of an allegedly systemic harassment culture in his discipline. As I've noted before, there is little credible direct evidence for a culture of harassment in astronomy and a great deal of indirect (proxy) evidence for its non-existence. The absence of a leaky pipeline is one such proxy.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

CSWA Update

It looks like there was a bigger shake-up at the CSWA than merely Christina Richey reprioritizing between work and volunteering. The Women in Astronomy blog has posted an interview with the new chair of the committee, Pat Knezek. I'll have something to say about her in the days to come. Interestingly, she is herself a past chair (2003-2007) of the committee. Last year, she took over Joan Schmelz's role in promoting awareness of "implicit bias". Schmelz, meanwhile, is a past two-term chair (2009-2015), and, importantly, the chair during the time that Geoff Marcy was being investigated for sexual harassment.

My hunch is that Knezek marks the return of some pretty entrenched power, but probably also a somewhat more cautious, liability aware, leadership of the CSWA. Indeed, as Kate Clancy noted in a recent interview (see comments to my post on that interview), implicit bias training is the preferred institutional response to Title IX pressures because they are less likely to lead individuals to sue organizations (like the AAS) than attempts to police behavior and punish harassers. Clancy, who is co-authoring the (still unpublished) CSWA Workplace Climate Survey with Christina Richey, was clearly unhappy with this approach. That's all very interesting to me.

But what suprised me about the Women in Astronomy post was the thank you note to the outgoing chair ... I mean, outgoing chairS:

The CSWA would like to thank previous Chairs Aparna Venkatesan and Christina Richey for their hard work. Aparna will be continuing on the committee as a member focusing on the CSWA cross-over with the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy. Christina will be shifting into a Past Chair position, and will continue leading anti-harassment efforts within the committee and the greater community.

I had never heard of Aparna Venkatesan before, and I consider myself an interested observer of the CSWA. I had always thought that Richey was the chair, and had been working alone in that capacity since she took over from Schmelz in 2015. I searched the WiA blog and did find a passing mention* of Venkatesan as co-chair in a post from January of this year, i.e., quite recently. I asked Kevin Marvel, the executive officer at the AAS, who had made the appointments and how it had happened, and I received the following response:

The AAS Council appoints chairs to our committees. Venkatesan was approved in a co-chair position in January 2017, it was a request from Richey to make the work load more manageable. Council was amenable, but given it was a small change, no effort to make notification was taken, although CSWA members were told when Council approved the concept. The changeover to Knezek when Richey decided to resign brought the matter before Council again and some discussion took place about the concept of co-chairs generally.

He believes that the council ultimately decided on a single chair at that time. I have to say I think this is a wise decision. I did not have much confidence in Richey's leadership, mainly because she has never answered a single mail from me, letting go-between from the AAS do it for her instead, and only after I took my concerns to the president. The co-chair structure often makes oversight of such committees more difficult because there is not single person who is answerable to the Council.

Like I say, I've got more to say about this coming up. But I just wanted to get these new facts down here. I'll develop my ideas about how this marks a transition from what we might call a harassment (or enforcement) regime to a bias (or compliance) regime. Both kinds of regime (like any power structure) pose a threat to the freedom of astronomers, but the threats are somewhat different. Interestingly, Schmelz appears to have run a kind of "hybrid" form during her six years as chair. I'm looking forward to learning more.

*Note that this interview does not announce that she has just been appointed. It merely presents her as, among other things, a co-chair of the committee. This style of communication is interesting to me. I'll probably say more later.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

A Defense of Middlebury's Students

[Update: An important question for the Middlebury protesters is whether they would have prevented, say, this conversation from happening. If not, how was his conversation with Allison Stanger* different? If yes, can't they see how destructive that is to the possibility of real progress? Seriously, watch Charles Murray and Andy Stern discuss basic income and then try to tell me that Murray doesn't deserve to share his views with college students, or college students don't deserve to hear them. Who benefits from not letting him talk? Not the student, that's for sure!]

John Patrick Leary provides a useful service by attempting to defend the indefensible protest at Middlebury College last week. His defense lays bare the misunderstandings that underpin arguments to shut down speaking events after self-styled "respectful requests" to have them cancelled fail. Let's go through them.

But first let me push two issues completely to the margins. First, I propose to say nothing positive or negative about Charles Murray or his ideas. I find the obligatory judgment passed on a person's ideas, whether before defending or questioning his right to express them, tiresome. [Update: Is Coming Apart worth taking seriously? Let's just say that when Andrew Gelman takes something seriously it's generally worth it.] Second, I will make nothing of the intensity of the protests. For my purposes, all that matters is that they intended to shut the lecture down and that they succeeded.

Leary begins by defining "free speech" and "academic freedom". In both cases, he makes two important moves that shift the conversation to a ground that he at least has a hope of holding. First, he defines the relevant freedom as narrowly and technically as possible; second, he considers only whether it can reasonably be granted to Charles Murray. Both moves are misunderstandings of what is at stake.

Free speech is not merely speech that is covered by the First Amendment. As a Dane, for example, I also have a right to free speech, but the First Amendment offers me no particular protections here at home. Free speech is not a clause in a constitution but an idea, a value. The patriarch of a family can extend free speech rights to his family, or he can refuse to extend such rights. The CEO of a corporation can likewise announce that employees have the right to speak freely or not. And a college campus can, completely separate from the question of whether or how it is bound by the First Amendment, cultivate the value of free of speech.

Likewise, academic freedom is not merely an aspect of the employer-employee relationship within a university. Leary, like the protestors, has a very parochial sense of "community" in this case. The protesters did not just violate the community standards of Middlebury but also the standards of a much larger place called Academia. That is why people from as far away as Denmark are offended by the protester's disrespect. They did not turn their back just on Murray but the entire institution of higher education. Moreover, Murray was a guest of Middlebury. He had been presumably been invited with the promise that he would be able to speak his mind, i.e., that he would be covered by the spirit of academic freedom, if not the pedantic letter of it that Leary proposes.

But the most important problem with Leary's argument is that he thinks the issue turns on Charles Murray's freedom of speech, Charles Murray's academic freedom. In fact, it was the students who invited Murray that were "shut down" last week. To them, "freedom of speech" actually meant the freedom to listen to ideas that interest them. To them, "academic freedom" meant the freedom to invite a scholar (or writer or entertainer or policy maker, or, yes, damn blast yer intellex, even a demagogue) to satisfy their curiosity. These are the students whose rights need defending today.

*The video of the event is an excellent document, since we for once have an adequate representation of exactly what the protesters were preventing. (Normally, either the protesters fail or the presentation doesn't exist.) I think Middlebury's actions here are very much to their credit. Patton's email to the community is also exemplary. It will be interesting to follow the process.

A Middlebury Protocol

The protest against Charles Murray at Middlebury College has been widely covered. As usual Robby Soave and Conor Friedersdorf are worth reading. Charles Murray's own account can be found here. Allison Stanger's account is here. I don't have anything to add. Let me emphasize this point in Murray's post:

The evidence will range from excellent to ambiguous to none. I will urge only that the inability to appropriately punish all of the guilty must not prevent appropriate punishment in cases where the evidence is clear.

Absent an adequate disciplinary response, I fear that the Middlebury episode could become an inflection point.

I agree very strongly with this. Protesting must come at a risk. In this post, I want to suggest a procedure for dealing with this sort of thing in the moment that I have gestured at before.*

Here is what I believe should have happened just before Murray and Stanger left for the secure location. Given the resolve of the protesters, it is possible that it would have taken several hours to clear the room in this manner. So it would have probably been necessary to initiate Plan B in any case, but this is what I propose should happen in the room:

1. The students should be asked to sit down (and be quiet) or leave. (This did happen.)
2. Students who remain standing or shouting should be approached and asked for student identification.
3. Those who refuse to identify themselves should be arrested for trespassing.

This should all be done individually and calmly, one protester at a time. There is no rush, no urgency, and no need to save the event. This is merely a way of ensuring that the protesters face consequences. Every encounter/arrest should be recorded on video to make it easy to identify the persons involved, for purposes of appeal cases later. Students who reach the point of being identified will already have earned a one-semester suspension and ban from campus (this should be made clear before the event, and at 1. above). Any further trouble means expulsion. (Students who get themselves arrested should be expelled.)

In line with Murray's thinking, the point of this protocol is not to punish everyone who deserves it. The first person arrested deserves punishment no more than the person who sneaks out the back before they are caught. The point is simply to give everyone an incentive to behave with decorum at college functions. If you remain disruptive after the protocol is activated, you are at risk of being expelled. You can avoid that risk simply by behaving yourself in a manner appropriate to being a student at an institution of higher learning.

PS: I hope some of the signatories to this letter will offer some public reflections. Like Berkeley Chancellor Dirks' letter, I think it exemplifies an important rhetorical error. Technically, the faculty did not call for or endorse the suppression of Murray's free speech. They merely "respectfully requested" that the event be cancelled, which is their right. But they also said that Murray "denies the basic human dignity of members of our community", which is very strong language. As a member of that community, it is difficult not think it is of paramount importance to take decisive action to stop the event. It's like saying that Murray's views are "in opposition to the basic values" of Middlebury College. What's a student to do? The faculty can plausibly defend themselves against the charge of inciting violence. But they did very definitely inform the violence that was in point fact seen.

*Update: it seems that Middlebury already has the necessary regulations: "If an event or essential operation is disrupted by a group or individual, a representative of the College may request the action to stop or ask the person or group to leave the event or area and move to an approved location for protesting. Individuals or groups who disrupt an event or essential operation or fail to leave when asked are in violation of the College's policy of respect for persons and may also be in violation of the policy regarding disrespect for College officials. These violations of College policy may result in College discipline. Disruption may also result in arrest and criminal charges such as disorderly conduct or trespass."

Sunday, March 05, 2017

A Gendered Approach to Science?

The Women in Astronomy blog draws our attention to a recent paper in Science and Engineering Ethics by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Di Di at Rice University. I may return to it and read it more closely at a later time, but I just want to note the striking contradiction in feminist science studies that it clearly exhibits.

The idea that gender stratification in science is the result of gender differences in intelligence is normally considered a non-starter. I mean that in the technical sense of "Don't even start!" To even suggest the possibility that a capacity for abstract thinking and mathematical reasoning might be differently distributed among men and women on average is taken as making excuses for the systemic influence of sexism. The only reason that there are more successful male physicists than female physicists that will normally be considered is that there is some form of discrimination at work, some mechanism driven by the "ingrained" belief that men are superior to women.

The most common exception to this rule that I've seen is the hypothesis that "stereotype threat" makes women perform under their natural ability. That is, there is, indeed, some weakness in women, it is argued, but it is a pitiable one for which, not they, but society is to blame, and therefore we should make some sort of accommodation for it in the short term, not merely wait for them to get over it in the long term.

Ecklund and Di, however, now draw on a (to me) new reason for gender stratification, also not tied directly to sexist sentiments. In their paper they consider "two prevalent theories [that] are used to explain why female professionals may be more ethical than their male counterparts." I'll leave the details to one side in this post; my concern is not with the explanans but the explanandum. Imagine a paper that proposed to examine various theories to explain why men might be more ethical than women. Or, like I say, just imagine wondering why men might be smarter than women. These research questions are easily dismissed. And yet, here we are, wondering what it is about women that might make them more ethical than men. Literally: these people are wondering why women might be morally superior to men!

I've got to say, I won't reject the notion out of hand. I would, of course, insist that women are capable of unethical behavior, just as men are capable of ethical behavior. But if we found that the reality isn't equally distributed and that men [on average] come out "the worse" for it, I would not be shocked. Why then is it that we are not allowed to consider the possibility that an aptitude for—or even merely an interest in—science might explain the gender stratification we see in, say, physics and astronomy? If a generally higher ethical standard could explain why women advance more slowly in science, why can't a generally higher epistemic standard in men explain their more rapid advance?

I simply don't understand this sort of double-think. I don't understand how they keep these two ideas comfortably in their own minds. Why can't the people who are pushing for gender equality realize that they are going to have to choose between (1) the thesis that men and women are equal in every relevant way when it comes to science, making all gender stratification a de facto injustice, and (2) the thesis that there are important differences between the sexes, allowing us to explain gender stratification in a wholly natural way?

Friday, March 03, 2017

Sexual Positivism

"[D]o not treat any AAS meeting or other event as a venue for finding a romantic partner. Yes, there are people at our events, and yes, people do make romantic connections, and yes, there may even be opportunities to make such connections at our events, but please, everyone, just shelve these inclinations for our conferences. Too much damage is being done. Just one negative interaction in the poster hall, at a session, in the bar during the meeting, or at a restaurant or offsite event may be all it takes to dissuade a bright young scientist from participating in our field. This is unacceptable, and it needs to stop." (Kevin Marvel, Executive Officer, American Astronomical Society)

The annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society lasts about five days. A conservative estimate puts attendance at around 2500. (The 2013 Long Beach meeting ran from Jan 6 to 10 and was attended by almost 3000 people.) That's 5 x 2500 = 12500 person-days of human interaction. Since 2008, or ten conferences back, that gives us 125,000 person-days of conference activity.

[Update: there are actually two conferences every year, though I'm told the summer conference is less popular. For this exercise, that only makes my estimates more conservative.]

Between 2008 and 2016 there were eight reported harassment incidents. I don't know how many were reported this year, but lets add two for good measure. That gives us ten. Now, there is of course a certain amount of under-reporting. But it must also be kept in mind that not all complaints are equally serious or equally "sexual", nor even "gendered". ("Reported behavior," Kevin Marvel told me, "has ranged from inappropriate touching or propositioning to harassing language or aggressive questioning to the point where people felt threatened. Not all of the complaints have been made by women against men. Not all of the complaints have been about sexual harassment, although the majority have been." Keep in mind that he's talking about exactly eight reports here, so this isn't so much a range as an itemization of the complaints.) So even if we imagine an under-reporting rate comparable to that for rape in society at large (sometimes said to be around 90%), by the time we remove the non sex-related offenses, we're still talking about no more than a dozen incidents in a ten year period covering 125,000 person-days of conference attendance. If we allow for an hour for each incident, and then double it for good measure, we're talking about a single person-day of harassment activity, 24 person-hours.

(I'm willing to discuss these estimates. They "inform my prior" as a Bayesian might put it. I'm happy to be better informed.)

Now, since each incident typically lasts only a few minutes (albeit sometimes spread over a handful of encounters), we're talking about a very small amount of actively bad behavior in a vast ocean of "acceptable" (if not of course necessarily ideal) behavior. (I'm not here dismissing or "erasing" the subjective experience of being harassed, which can of course last for days, and cause distress well beyond the time of the conference. I'm trying to quantify the behavior that anti-harassment policies actually police. I hope that is clear.) That, in and of itself, should put the current efforts to eradicate sexual harassment in perspective.

But that's not the only thing to notice. As I tried to point out in the imagined survey of sexual harassment that I would conduct if I were asked, we should not compare the bad behavior merely to acceptable behavior. Though I don't agree with it on this point, the AAS defines sexual harassment with a slogan that is useful here: "If it's unwanted, it's harassment." Like I say, that is wrong on many levels, but let's read it charitably and say that, in the case of romantic overtures, the line between harassment and seduction is whether or not the object of desire wants the attention. There are, of course, cases where a romantic proposition is not just "okay" (i.e., pleasantly rejected) but entirely "fine" (i.e., gladly accepted). In those cases, there is surely not talk of harassment, but consenting adults seeking sensual pleasure.

Now, as stated in my epigraph, according to the Executive Office of the American Astronomical Society, this "inclination" to seek sexual pleasure at conferences should be "shelved." Indeed, it is "unacceptable". But here is my question. How much such behavior is being forbidden to avoid about a dozen cases of "unwanted sexual attention" at conferences per decade? (Assuming my prior is reasonably accurate.) That is about one case per year where an astronomer is put into a situation that might put them off a career in science (, i.e., only will put them off it if they happen to be "dissuaded" by it.) Remember that Marvel explicitly proposes to suppress all romantic intention for the full five days of the conference "in the poster hall, at sessions, in the bar during the meeting," and even "at a restaurant or offsite event". The rule seems to allow for no exceptions, no "safe space" for romantic encounters.

I'm going to assume that this rule is not yet being observed by the majority of conference goers. So here is my question: how much positive sexual activity happens at the typical AAS annual meeting? Of the 125,000 person-days, or indeed the 8 million person-hours, how many are spent engaging in consensual romance, the adult pursuit of sensual pleasure? I'm going to venture that it's substantially more than 24 hours, which is where we set our prior for harassment activity. For some reason, the executives of the American Astronomical Society would forbid this. Let me end with a follow up question. For every "bright young scientists" who might be dissuaded from pursuing a career in astronomy because a colleague laid an ill-considered line on her (or an even less well-thought-out hand on her knee) how many would be "turned off" of the field (or just the conferences) because of a rule forcing them, and everyone around them, to "shelve" their natural romantic inclinations? How many scientists want to work in a field where love is forbidden?

I'll leave it there. I hope this provides some basis for discussing what appears [or at least pretends] to be the official policy of the AAS. Let's keep it positive, friends!

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Whole Human Beings

"...every girl child is conceived as a whole woman but from the time of her birth to her death she is progressively disabled. A woman's first duty to herself is to survive this process, then to recognize it, then to take measures to defend herself against it." (Germain Greer, The Whole Woman)

"Scientists are human," Kate Clancy* reminds us around the 24-minute mark in yesterday's interview with Niala Boodhoo of Illinois Public Media. She goes on to say that harassment is "somewhat common" in science. Interestingly, she "wouldn't say that [it is] more common in science than in other places," thus recognizing that professions can be compared, and that non-zero rates of harassment in a given field are as normal as non-zero rates homicide in a given city. Human beings are neither all good nor all bad, so once you get a number of them working together on anything you're going to see some amount of questionable behavior. It's good to see that Clancy recognizes this obvious point.

It's unfortunate, however, that she compares science so vaguely to all "other places". Surely, we would expect some places to be much worse than science on this score. A reader of this blog recently suggested I read about how things are done in the jewelry business, for example. Indeed, once we begin to imagine the "other places", a long list of professions (waiting tables, stripping, acting, banking, legal work, policing, flight attending) seem intuitively to be much, much likelier contexts for sexual harassment. It slowly dawns on us that "not more common in science that in other places" is a rather serious understatement. Off the top of our heads, we're hard-pressed to think of a place where it might be less common!

Nonetheless, she draws what I think is a reasonable conclusion. Sexual harassment is not a problem that is particular to science, nor does sexual harassment take a unique form in the sciences. Rather, the problem is a general, societal one: "We don't recognize women as whole human beings." But here I don't think she is being general enough in her anthropology.

Indeed, I wish feminists would recognize that this is actually not just a feminist, or even an "intersectional" issue. We don't recognize anyone as a whole human being. To riff on Greer's eloquence in my epigraph, let's say that each of us is conceived as a whole human being but from our births to our deaths we are progressively disabled. Our first duty to ourselves is to survive this process, then to recognize it, then to take measures to defend ourselves against it. What is this process called? Corporatization. Professionalism!

I'm being a bit hyperbolic, perhaps. But readers of this blog know that I'm very concerned about the pale cast of "corporate culture" that increasingly sicklies over the spirit of inquiry at universities. Not more so, as Clancy might say, than "in other places", like legislatures and office buildings, but perhaps nowhere more antithetically to the traditional mission of the site in question. What is more "wholly human" than the satisfaction of curiosity in the free exploration of and experimentation with the natural world? What is more opposed to this than the staid language of interdepartmental committees and institutional review boards? Scientists are conceived, we might say, as whole human beings but end up "show[ing] up for work [in] a mission t-shirt or a suit and tie", lest they be shamed for their sense of style.

To be sure, a certain amount of "professionalism" is required in the orderly pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, I rage for order frequently—order both in our writing and our lectures. Let there be a little decorum, I say. Let us compose ourselves in prose. But the irony of Clancy's invocation of "whole human beings" is glaring. She and her fellow feminists insist that the sexual being of women, at the very least, should be ignored in the workplace.

Gone are the days when Erica Jong chastized men for their intolerance of the needs of women—"red needs that telephone from foreign countries ... red as gaping wounds." The feminist argument for "professional" conduct in laboratories and observatories, seminar and conference rooms—even at after-hours parties—is the opposite of a celebration of the "whole human being", with its mess of emotions and desires—its "romantic inclinations", as the professional moralists** of the American Astronomical Society put it. Carl Sagan once wrote of "the romance of science". Today, it is run in the manner of a corporation, governed by entities like the Division for Planetary Sciences and their Subcommittee on Professional Climate and Culture.

*Kate Clancy is an anthropologist at the University of Illinois. She collaborated with Christina Richey on the CSWA workplace climate survey, which is where my interest in her views stems from.
**I had originally just written "moralists". I added the word "professional" because of the play on words. The moralists in question are, in a certain sense, doing it for a living, but they are also moralists of professionalism. The pun was particularly apt here because of the explicit way Kevin Marvel (whose piece the phrase is taken from) is running interference for the "volunteers" on the CSWA.