Sunday, April 30, 2017

How Things Change

"I met and fell in love with radio astronomer, Gerrit Verschuur, at an AAS meeting in 1985. We got married a year later and have managed to move together from place to place." (Joan T. Schmelz, Past Chair, Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy, American Astronomical Society, 2015)

"[D]o not treat any AAS meeting or other event as a venue for finding a romantic partner. Yes ... there may ... 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." (Kevin Marvel, Executive Officer, American Astronomical Society, 2016)

The good thing about blogging is that it allows other people to contribute little details you might not otherwise have found. The above juxtaposition was suggested by a commenter to a previous post. I am going to assume that Schmelz is "on board" with Marvel's comment today, so this is a great indication of how the times change over thirty years or so. It would be interesting to hear both of their views (i.e., Marvel's and Schmelz's views) on this and I have of course notified them by email that their comments are welcome. I'll keep you posted.

In fact, it seems that the changes are coming quite fast. As recently as 2002, astronomers made no secret of their love lives with each other.

Kipnis on Agency (an exchange of comments)

I'm having an interesting conversation with Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa in the comments to his post "Kipnis on Sexual Assault and Sexual Agency". While we disagree on fundamentals (I think), he's forcing me to articulate my position quite clearly, for which I'm grateful.

When it's over I'll write a post summarizing what I learned.

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 of, 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.

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*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.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Science Discovers that Males and Females Differ in Lots of Ways

The Women in Astronomy blog draws our attention to a recent study of pigeons. I didn't know that "scientists tend to assume that—unless they are looking specifically at reproduction or sexual behavior—male and female animals are alike". It seems like a strange thing to assume. I also didn't know that that's the reason a lot of experimental work (like drug testing) use mainly males. I did know that they do this, but I thought it was because male bodies are less complicated than female bodies. (The easiest example is that women menstruate once a month during a randomized control trial of aspirin, for example.) That is, I thought males were chosen out of convenience, precisely because they differ from females, not because they were presumably similar in every way not related to reproduction. (There are still lots of political issues in that, of course, but it does not express an assumption of similarity.)

That said, the real puzzle here is how this study helps fight "sexism in science".

The work is part of an attempt to make science more gender-inclusive and aware of physiological and other differences between the sexes. [...] Like all other vertebrates, the gonads (testes and ovaries) are influenced by hormones produced by the pituitary gland, which itself is controlled by hormones from the hypothalamus, a structure in the brain. [...] "There are incredible differences in gene expression, especially in the pituitary," [one of the researchers] said. The results show that there are far more sex-based differences in the pituitary than previously thought, she said.

How does one square this result (which does not, like I say, surprise me) with the constant indignation over the gender disparity in some of the natural sciences? If there are "incredible differences" in "a structure of the brain" in males and females, why are we surprised that there might turn out to be a difference in the distribution of ability and desire to do, say, physics, in the male and female population? I'll just leave that as a question. I'm happy to have someone tell me what I'm getting wrong here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Kate Clancy and Azeen Ghorayshi at NYU Tonight

I'm looking forward to the Kavli Conversation at NYU tonight, "Covering and Uncovering Harassment in Science", with Kate Clancy, the lead author of the SAFE13 study, and Azeen Ghorayshi, who broke the Geoff Marcy story for BuzzFeed. I'll be staying up late (here in Denmark) to catch the webcast, which, as I understand it, will be streaming from 6:30 pm (EDT) at this link (if this works, it should also be embedded above). I'll make some running notes and post them here intermittently (i.e., updating this post). I'll probably write something more coherent about it afterwards too.

Update: The livestream is too choppy. So I'm going to have to watch this later and make proper notes.