Sunday, May 21, 2017


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


Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Last Word?

Paul Griffiths' farewell to the university is worth reading. He has experienced something that many of us have been watching unfold with concern from the sidelines in now countless other cases. He expressed his views and faced disciplinary proceedings as a consequence. This also happened to Laura Kipnis and, I dare say, to Tim Hunt. In all cases, one can accept that people are upset or angered by what one says. One can even accept that those who are offended call for one's dismissal or disinvitation. What we cannot and should not abide is university administrators that, knowing full well that the complaint was occasioned merely by something that was said, and said very clearly as an expression of opinion, actually move against the "offender".

Griffiths writes that

words, in universities, have been what I’ve used to make my way. I’ve used them to elucidate, to explain, to understand, and to argue. The word-life, which is the same as the life of the mind, has been for me one of struggle to accentuate and sharpen intellectual differences with the goal of increasing clarity about what they come to and what’s at stake in them.

I respect Griffiths' decision, though it saddens me and I wish he would stay. Someone who has been living, and thought he could continue to live a "word-life" cannot continue to work happily in an environment where the words he chooses are subject to administrative oversight. Critical oversight is another matter. We want our peers and colleagues to argue with us when they disagree. But the increasing legitimacy of the act of going to administrators for help in settling intellectual disputes takes the life out of our words. Academia becomes a place to negotiate ideological positions grounded in power, not knowledge. It stops being a place to make up your mind about what the truth is.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Tolerance of Ambiguity

"The idea that women cannot think logically is a not so old venerable sterotype. As an example of thinking, I don’t think we need to discuss it." (Rosmarie Waldrop)

I've been having some interesting exchanges over at Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa's blog. It think I've located an important fault line, that runs through both the discussion and what is sometimes called "sexual negotiation" (i.e., the communicative process by which consent is established). Jonathan recently summarized one of his disagreements with Kipnis as follows:

Kipnis has strange ideas about sexual agency, thinking that tolerating harassment and assault is a more genuine exercise of agency than is filing a complaint about it.

Kipnis's ideas about agency may seem strange to Jonathan, but I think it is unfair to characterize her view as suggesting tolerance of harassment and assault over filing a complaint. She is saying that stopping harassment and assault in the moment is a more genuine exercise of agency than letting it proceed (for perhaps weeks and months) and then filing a complaint (perhaps years) later. She is saying that a woman who is able to assert her boundaries and defend herself if necessary has more agency than a woman who depends on the intervention of an authority to maintain her personal space.

She not even saying that this agency also includes tolerating behavior that is merely annoying but falls short of harassment or assault. Getting a man to stop "merely" annoying her is an exercise of the very same agency that she is talking about. Indeed, exercising this agency is a way of avoiding the escalation of the behavior to something where the authorities might relevantly intervene. Note that the woman is not protected by the authority at this point, i.e., she does not have the "agency" to file a complaint if no actual harassment has taken place. [She doesn't have a "case".] But she very definitely might have the agency she needs to stop a guy from hassling her. So Kipnis is making a substantial point: the Title IX regime is (implicitly) encouraging women to tolerate mild annoyance, about which no complaint can be made, until it escalates to harassment, when the complaint-filing agency kicks in.

One of Jonathan's commenters has suggested that Kipnis is sometimes "smeared" by her critics as promulgating "rape myths". I think Jonathan is doing something like that in this way of characterizing her position. (I called him "slick" at one point for insinuating that Kipnis approves of Trump's "grabby" behavior.) Kipnis is clearly not saying that women should tolerate being assaulted. She's saying they should express their intolerance directly, not through the intercession of a higher power. I think that's important to keep in mind.

One of the things that the Tim Hunt scandal taught me was that some of today's feminists seem intolerant of ambiguity. They don't like to play on what Rosmarie Waldrop once called "the lawn of excluded middle". Ironically, she asserted the importance of this space of ambiguity with distinctly feminist intent. I recognized it again in the "difficult conversation" about harassment in astronomy. I think Kipnis is trying to indicate the importance of this space of human interaction too.

What this requires is a "comfort zone", if you will, that can be challenged without violence. That is, it requires us to "allow" or "tolerate" discomfort without immediately considering this to be harassment or assault. It means we have to take responsibility for establishing and maintaining boundaries in particular situations and allowing them to move in real time, sometimes "too far", but then back again. What is "intimacy" if not the moving of the boundaries of one's personal space with respect to some particular person? The idea that every move here can be made with the unambiguous "affirmative" consent of the other is unrealistic and, I suspect, completely foreign to most people over 40. (And most younger people without a college education, too, no doubt.)

This has a rhetorical, perhaps even logical, corollary. "The law of excluded middle is a venerable old law of logic," Waldrop tells us, "But much must be said against its claim that everything must be either true or false." There has to be a space in which we don't immediately conflate tolerating behavior that someone (and even a Title IX investigator) has found to be harassment with "tolerating harassment" itself. It may be a denial of the assumption that the behavior was indeed harassment. That is, I may simply be arguing, in a particular case, that it is false that someone harassed or assaulted someone else, given the facts.

But is may also be inexorably ambiguous, even to the two people who have direct access to memories of the experience. It may simply remain unclear whether the pain (if such there was), emotional or physical, was the result of violence or accident. That's why it's so important to work it out in the moment that unfolds, and in the moments that follow, in the days and weeks to come. Perhaps, on one outsider's interpretation, a woman was assaulted, but, on her own interpretation, she successfully defended herself against, i.e., averted, an assault. Or perhaps it was never an assault but whatever was going to happen didn't. Perhaps we must accept, then, that there is no simply true or false proposition about what was going on there.

"The four points of the compass are equal on the lawn of excluded middle," Waldrop tells us, "where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone." To say, as Kipnis does, that we should educate men and women in the art of letting the meaning of their encounters mature, rather than seeking its unambiguous adjudication by a Title IX panel, is not to say they should tolerate assault and harassment. What we need to learn, Kipnis is trying to tell us, is to manage the ambiguities of desire. In my view, we need not law but literature here, not policy but poetry. "The gravity of love," says Waldrop, "encompasses ambivalence."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Kate Clancy Gets James Watson Disinvited

"Moral character and ethics matters more than science."
(Kate Clancy)

I wouldn't normally write about this, but Kate Clancy happens to be in my wheel house, or perhaps just a little stuck in my craw. It seems she led the charge against James Watson speaking at the University of Illinois. I want to deal with this both at the level of principle and the particulars of the case. For good order: I refuse to send the obligatory virtue signal of "denouncing" the man's views before defending his right to speak.

I think this sort of silencing is distasteful, no matter who is speaking. Someone at UI wanted to hear what Watson had to say and there was no reason to think that he was going to incite anyone to violence or otherwise undermine the institutions of Western democracy. By contrast, Clancy threatened to organize a protest against those institutions if the talk was to go ahead. Clancy was objecting to the peaceful exchange of ideas between interested parties in a university setting. Watson appears to have had something on his mind that he wanted to share; an institute appeared to be willing to listen. The fact that Clancy couldn't abide this event says a great deal about her and people like her. The fact that the talk was immediately cancelled because of her Twitter-based objections says something about the institute and perhaps the larger institution. The weakness of our institutions against even the threat of protest is a bit disconcerting. But there it is.

But what about the basis of the complaint itself? James Watson is, of course, one of the discoverers of DNA, something for which he is justly famous. He doesn't just know a thing or two about genes. He knows what is, arguably, the first thing about them. It is not surprising that an institute devoted to the study of genomic biology* would want to hear his thoughts on cancer.

The News-Gazette article points out that he was going hold a narrowly "scientific" talk, but why should this matter? Watson apparently once held and perhaps still holds views about the genetic basis of intelligence and, well, "fun". He thinks, or thought, that black people are less intelligent, and women more fun, than he is. That is or was his opinion, or is at least something he accidentally said and later regretted saying. Regardless of what he now thinks, as a question of the distribution of traits in a population it may or may not be true. (We are told it is scientifically "discredited".) Watson's proposed mechanism (genes) may or may not explain the phenomenon. Now, even if that was what he had wanted to talk about it, and if the Carl Woese Institute had wanted to hear him talk about it, what business is it of Clancy's?

Or we can put this point even more strongly. If James Watson can't say that intelligence has a genetic component, who can? How can this idea ever be discussed if the Nobel prize winner on the topic can't discuss it? Likewise, if not even a Nobel prize winner can talk about how to have fun in the lab, who can? But, again, that wasn't even what he was going to talk about. On Clancy's view, it seems, once you have said something that she thinks science has "discredited" you shouldn't be allowed to speak anywhere again about anything. This is a very strange view to me. I don't mind her not inviting him to dinner, or even not putting him at the top of her list of suggested speakers for her events. But to prevent researchers (and students) from hearing what he wants to tell them seems like overreach to me.

Unfortunately, she does seem to understand the power she wields. The Carl Woese Institute was certainly sufficiently cowed by the prospect of her "plan to organize against it". She may call it "moral character and ethics" but what she really thinks matters more than science is her morality. For Clancy, ideology trumps knowledge.** It saddens me. I hope this tactic will soon be sufficiently discredited to be immediately ignored by our institutions of higher learning.

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*I wonder if some sort of underlying conflict between biological anthropology (Clancy's field) and genomic biology is playing out here. It would be interesting to look into that.
**I added these two sentences and the epigraph. I'm grateful to my anonymous commenter for bringing this tweet to my attention.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Magic Trick

I would like to do a magic trick in which an audience member has to bring an unopened can of ground coffee to the performance. The can is set down on a table out of my reach. I never come into contact with it. I then give them an unopened pack of playing cards. They are to inspect it, open it, and then inspect the cards. It is an ordinary deck of cards.

I now ask them to shuffle the cards thoroughly and set the cards down on the table beside the can of coffee. I touch neither the cards nor the can. I produce an envelope from my pocket and hand it to the audience member. I ask them to take the top card off the deck, show it to the audience, and to me, and put it in the envelope and hand the envelope back to me. I return the envelope to my pocket.

At this point I explain how the trick works. Some time in the future, I, or one of my descendants, will invent (or purchase) a time machine. I, or they, will go back in time and work out where the coffee was put into the can. At the crucial moment, before the can is sealed, they will slip the card that is now in the envelope into the can. The envelope along with the instructions for what to do when the time machine is acquired will be passed down from generation to generation.

If I am right, then, a double of the card from the future has been in the can all along. No one could have known what card would be selected during this performance. Only a visitor from the future could put the right card in the can before it was sealed and subsequently sold to the audience member.

At this point, still not having touched the can myself, I ask the audience member to open it and to dump the contents on the table. What, I wonder, would we find?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

4 hours 42 minutes and 58 seconds...


...of reason.
...without incident.

This is worth watching. You don't have to binge watch it and the sound gets better about 53 minutes in. You don't even have to watch it all. The important thing is that a reasonable conversation that went almost five hours about sexual assault on college campuses actually happened. The audience was clearly not predisposed to the speaker's point of view. Perhaps not incidentally, the invited (i.e., not dis-invited) speaker was critical of the current Title IX regime.

This makes me want to issue a challenge. Would a member of the Astronomy Allies make themselves available in this way? I'm thinking of Joan Schmelz, Christina Richey, and Bryan Gaensler. And, of course, Kate Clancy (tough she's an "ally" but not an astronomer.) Would they accept an invitation for an open-ended conversation about the problem of harassment in astronomy that could go on for four or five hours, depending on the interest of the audience?

It's an interesting asymmetry in these sorts of cases. I, for one, would love to talk about the problem of sexual harassment in astronomy (or science or academia in general) in this sort of way. I would listen to all questions and objections, and I would answer them to the best of my ability. I don't get the sense that the other side of this debate is willing to talk in this sort of open and unstructured way.

KC Johnson is very impressive here. And, like I say, very generous with his time. It is amazing to think that there was opposition to this conversation even taking place (see 03:02:00).

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Responsibility of Anthropologists

Anthropologists sometimes get the cultures they study wrong. This is not just because anthropologists, too, are human beings, and therefore fallible; it is because they are, by their own admission (or boast, if you prefer) engaged in "science", and therefore subject to falsification. [In order to say something true and meaningful you risk saying something false.] We trust science not because we think it is always right but because it regularly corrects itself. It is able, not just to discover that it has made a mistake, but to admit it when it happens.

In anthropology this is especially important because the cultures it describes also have images of themselves. Some Samoans, for example, famously took offense at Margaret Mead's description of them as sexually promiscuous. They did not recognize themselves in the image she presented. This is not surprising when we consider that her conclusions were based largely on interviews with teen-aged girls. Leaving aside the question of whether they were being completely truthful with her, looking at a culture from this perspective is likely to be distorted in particular ways. Speaking to the adults in the community would have offered a corrective.

I have lately been concerned with the cultural description of the community of astronomers. It has been described in terms that very few members of any community would take pride in. The Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy commissioned a survey of the workplace climate in the discipline, and enlisted the help of two anthropologists—Kate Clancy and Katharine Lee at the University of Illinois. At a preliminary presentation of its results, astronomers were told that their "community is steeped in unconscious bias and is set such that white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied men are the dominant group by a larger percentage than the general population". They were also told that they "have a problem": "scientists in the astronomical and planetary science communities experience and witness inappropriate language, verbal harassment, and physical assault." Women were told they'd be "lucky" if they weren't harassed.

These are claims made about a community of about 10,000 people. The study remains unpublished, which is to say, un-vetted by peers.

The claims it makes are are not inconsequential, however. Not only has the description of astronomy as a sexist culture, rife with harassment, tarnished the public image of astronomy, and that of a number of individual astronomers, it has informed policy. The American Astronomical Society has rewritten its harassment policy and begun to regulate the "romantic inclinations" of its members at conferences. Citing the problems in astronomy specifically, and with the explicit support of the very same Kate Clancy, Rep. Jackie Speier has introduced legislation at the federal level to deal with what she describes as "rampant" sexual harassment in the STEM fields.

Like I say, anthropologists sometimes get the cultures they study wrong. One check on this is the scientific culture of anthropology itself. By publishing its results, by being open about its data and its methods, anthropology exposes itself to criticism. It not only presents its results, it commits itself to a conversation about them. Given the implications of judgments about a culture, especially a culture that is subject to federal regulation, anthropologists have a responsibility to acknowledge objections to their descriptions of the communities they describe. They have an obligation to discuss, and even debate, their claims.

It will not do to just enlist the support of some members of the community under study. This is not just because of the problem of Mead's "teenage perspective" on Samoan culture. Far worse is the possibility that one's description will be informed and endorsed by a particular faction within a community during a time of political struggle. (Imagine an anthropologist describing a gang war in the inner city from the perspective of one of the gangs, or even the police.) A purportedly objective account of a culture might thus be skewed to fit a particular interest. In the case of astronomy, the image of a "harassment culture" appears to be driven by stories that circulate in a network of "allies", a network that has ended the career of at least one major astronomer by a deliberate campaign of vilification. Although not herself an astronomer, there is good reason to think that Kate Clancy has effectively joined this network. She has "gone native" as one sometimes puts it.

I believe that anthropology, as a discipline, is failing the astronomy community by not subjecting a quickly spreading characterization of its culture—as "misogynistic", "homophobic" and "racist"—and the anthropologist who is promoting it, to critical scrutiny. I have done what I can to bring the problem to light. I have long tried to engage with Clancy about her results—her methods, her data, and her interpretations of them—and she has completely ignored me. I hope that at some point Clancy's peers in anthropology will join me and help me put her work into proper perspective.

Anthropology has a long history of collusion with the powers that be. As a discipline, it is rightly, if sometimes a bit ostentatiously, ashamed of its colonial past. I believe we're seeing a repeat of this process as anthropologists conspire with reformers to transform the culture of science in the name of "diversity". This, as I have argued before, is not so much a feminist (or even an "intersectional") project as a corporatist one. We are talking about the colonization of science by politics, of knowledge by power. It is the takeover of inquiry by management. By calling itself "social science", this ideology is avoiding accountability. It is irresponsible.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

As a man in science, I need to conceal my masculinity to be taken seriously

The Women in Astronomy blog/AASWomen Newletter brings us the shocking news: "As a woman in science, I need to conceal my femininity to be taken seriously." Eve Forster, at the University of Toronto, writing at Vox, "tested the thesis [her]self". I don't doubt her results. Here's how she describes the everyday (control, I guess) condition:

"When I’m at the lab, I dress as invisibly as I can. I wear dark jeans, boring, long-sleeved shirts and hoodies, and casual shoes. My hair is tied back into a sloppy bun, and my makeup is minimal. I look like I live in an organic granola commercial."

She says she was treated less seriously by her students when she let her hair down one day. I guess that's possible. But, as the title of this post suggests, it got me thinking about the corresponding male experiment. I picked two of my currently favorite scientists (I just discovered the very good Sixty Symbols videos) and when I found comparably ordinary pictures I googled their ideal "masculine" and "feminine" counterparts using the search terms "feminine woman sunglasses" and "masculine man sunglasses", using the first picture suggested in the image search for each. Here's the side-by-side comparison:

I hope my point with this image is obvious, even if the differences are intentionally subtle. If you need it explained to you, go ahead and ask in the comments, but I warn you that to make my meaning clearer I may have to go "full frontal".

As with my previous attempt at this kind of playful pushback against a certain kind of feminism, I know this doesn't prove anything. But I do think it's a bit unrealistic to expect to be able to express your "femininity" by becoming a scientist. I don't think male scientists feel especially "masculine" at work. Perhaps "the academic fashion" stems from wanting to signal that it is not sex but truth one is (at least directly) after. Perhaps one is trying, as a scientist, to express neither one's masculinity nor one's femininity but, rather, one's intelligence. (Virginia Woolf reminds us somewhere that Coleridge thought "the great mind is androgynous".) It may be vain to deliberately dress down in order to give the impression that one cares less about how one looks (to the opposite sex)* than what the facts are in the hopes of being "taken seriously" by other scientists and students. But I don't think vanity is a particularly feminine vice, either.

PS. For good order I should mention that one of the scientists in my little comparison does actually have an opinion on gender stereotypes in science. You can hear her views here.
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*I don't think it's completely out of line to suggest that "masculinity" and "femininity" are not merely intrinsic "gender expressions"; given their role in mating, they are distinct aspects of what is, quite rightly, called "sex appeal".

Thursday, May 04, 2017

A Critique of the SAFE13 Study

[This post was edited for clarity on 05/05/17 at 14:30]

SAFE13 is widely regarded as a ground-breaking study of sexual harassment in the sciences. It was conducted by Kate Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde in 2013 and published in PLOS ONE in 2014. The data set comprises 666 survey responses and 26 interviews with field scientists from 32 different disciplines in life, physical, and social sciences. In a press conference, Clancy summarized the result as follows:

In our sample, 71% of women and 41% of men reported experiencing sexual harassment. 26% of women and 6% of men in our sample reported experiencing sexual assault including rape.

In this post I want to look at what these claims mean and how they are supported by the data. Since the study is, indeed, altogether likely to be breaking new ground, inspiring similar studies in other fields, I think it is important to take a critical look at its methodology. Does it really "reveal" what it says it does? My conclusions are, let us say, skeptical.

Part of my skepticism comes from the authors' attitude to criticism. PLOS ONE normally publishes papers only on the condition that data be made available on request, and that authors will provide information about metadata and methods. In this spirit, I have been trying to contact Clancy to discuss the issues in this post since November of last year and, in preparation for writing this post, I again contacted Clancy and requested the data. Hearing nothing back from her, I contacted PLOS ONE's data team (as per the data policy) and asked for their assistance. I was soon informed that my request had been "escalated" to the editorial team, who eventually informed me that I would not be getting the data. The reason I was given was that the data I was asking for (namely, the survey data) did not support the claims in the paper I was asking about (the incidence of rape in the sample).* Rather, I was told, the interviews supported the relevant claims and these were confidential. This seems to belie the impression left by the paper itself, namely, that the conclusions therein are based solely on the surveys. This is important to keep in mind.

At a recent NYU panel (video here, see 00:06:05f.), Clancy described the study as a "Fuck You!" to reviewers of an earlier abstract who weren't persuaded by merely listening to women's "experiences" and wanted something more "empirical" instead. The paper, however, makes it clear that the "survey data neither allow us to estimate the rate of these experiences among our trainees and colleagues, nor do they allow any estimation of the prevalence of field sites with a hostile work environment and/or systematic abuse." This has not prevented either the authors or their readers from taking the results as an indication that science has a significant harassment problem. "[T]he large number of respondents from across dozens of disciplines and high prevalence of harassment and assaults," the paper tells us, "suggests that the results presented here are likely not attributable to only a handful of hostile field sites." In a 2014 podcast Clancy emphasized that they had "absolute numbers of hundreds of women saying they were harassed and assaulted". Despite its own stated limitations, then, the study is clearly being used to support claims about prevalence. The question is whether those claims hold up.

The paper claims that the

survey revealed that conducting research in the field exposes scientists to a number of negative experiences as targets and as bystanders. The experiences described by our respondents ranged from inadvertent alienating behavior, to unwanted verbal and physical sexual advances, to, most troublingly, sexual assault including rape.
I, for one, do not think that SAFE13 provides an empirical basis for saying that field work "exposes" scientists to any particular risk of harassment or assault and, especially, that this exposure includes a significant risk of rape. This is not just because the sample has an (acknowledged) self-selection bias, but because the measuring instrument (the questionnaire) is far too imprecisely designed. Moreover, no attempt has been made to compare the result to any estimate of baseline risk, though this point is somewhat moot since the imprecision of the instrument gives us nothing very definite to compare.

It cannot be stressed enough that the survey questionnaire itself did not afford an opportunity to describe behavior. Rather, as the supplementary material shows, the respondents answered yes-or-no questions about what they had experienced. These, arguably, included alienating behavior, unwanted verbal and physical sexual advances, and sexual assault including rape, but there were only two catch-all questions, one for non-physical and the other for physical harassment:

32. Have you ever personally experienced inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other jokes, at an anthropological field site?

39. Have you ever experienced physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which you could not or did not give consent or felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give your consent at an anthropological field site?

Answering "yes" to question 32 was counted as a report of "sexual harassment", while a "yes" to question 39 was counted as "sexual assault" (presumably, "including rape"). In so far as experiences of alienating behavior, unwanted advances, assault and rape were actually described by the respondents, then, this must have been done in the interviews, i.e., by only 26 of the 666 respondents. (Like I say, this appears to have been confirmed by the authors, albeit only through the editors of PLOS ONE, after ignoring my question for months.)

We do not know how many of the 26 interviews described rapes. But it should be possible to provide the de-indentified** extracts from the interviews that were coded “alienating”, “assault”, “rape”, etc. The definition of “rape” in the social sciences, it should be noted, is somewhat elastic. The University of Texas, for example, recently announced that 15% of its female undergraduates on the Austin campus had been “raped”. By comparison, the US Department of Justice puts the baseline rate of “rape or sexual assault” among 18-24 year-old women at about 0.7%.

Now, since the rape(s) and assaults reported in the SAFE13 study can only have been described in the interviews, the survey can have counted at most 26 of them. I think a count should be in fact be provided, and the data that underpins that count (i.e., the de-identified description of the behavior that got it coded as “assault” or “rape”) should be openly available. At the very least, the coding methodology should be made available, and the authors should be willing to explain their choices to critics like me.

Otherwise the claim that 26% of the women (and 6% of the men!) in the survey experienced “sexual assault including rape” is simply not supported by the data. To be sure, if the interview data were made available, there would still be a legitimate criticism to be made about the representativeness of the interviews with respect to the overall sample; but this would not be a formal criticism of the relationship between the claims in the paper and the data, since being open about this would allow for discussion, which is all that is needed.

As far as I can tell, then, SAFE13 does not actually support the conclusion that working in the field "exposes scientists” to any particular rate or range of negative experiences (i.e., experiences that they are not already exposed to the possibility of simply by being human). If a woman is at a particular risk of being assaulted anywhere else, then SAFE13 does not provide a rate of assault among field scientists that can be meaningfully compared to it. It is entirely possible that any given woman is safer while in the field than she would be in her own neighborhood of a major US city.

"Science doesn't have a sexual assault problem," Clancy has rightly said; "life has a sexual assault problem." But what she, as well as her fellow authors and many of their readers,*** fail to consider is that the prevalence of harassment and assault—including, indeed, rape—may be lower in science than in all other social and professional spheres. If it is then, not only does science not have a harassment problem, it has a solution. This, I dare say, is an empirical question. And I hope that SAFE17, or an equivalent study, deploys a methodology that lets us answer it.

Update: See also "The Responsibility of Anthropologists"

__________
*In my request, I stated, out of what I considered courtesy, my reasons for wanting the data, but I also made clear that, in addition to the question of the basis of claims about rape, I had a "general" interest in the data. I wanted to see what the data set looked like, and be able to consider alternative interpretations of it. Though I have repeated my request, I have still not seen the actual data and can therefore not even confirm that it exists.
**The "data availability statement" at the beginning of the paper makes clear that data that could lead to the identification of respondents will not be available, but "limited, de-identified data may be available by contacting the corresponding author".
***Monica Byrne, for example, reads the SAFE13 study as showing that female scientists are exposed to a notable risk of being raped by a colleague.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Hypatia, Tuvel and ... Kate Clancy?!?!?!?!

It really is a small world. I don't have anything to add to the substance of the discussion about the Rebecca Tuvel case at this point. Jesse Singal provides a detailed account of what happened in New York Magazine. And Brian Leiter has offered his view (and legal opinion) and collected some illuminating responses to the affair. Justin Weinberg has covered it the The Daily Nous, to which Tuvel has responded. (My two cents here: she should not have apologized even as little as she did.) Feminist Philosophers weighs in too.

[Update: Brian Leiter asks the philosophers who called for the retraction of Tuvel's article, Why? Lisa Guenther answers. I'm also very curious to hear what Judith Butler was thinking.]

[Update 2: It is good to see that Tuvel's department at Rhodes College displaying some institutional decency! This is generally what is lacking in these cases, just ask Tim Hunt.]

I agree with what, thankfully, appears to be the majority view. The demand for retraction is very misguided and Tuvel has been seriously mistreated by her editors.* There is only one thing that I'm particularly well-positioned to point out. I was struck by the addendum to the letter that was sent to the editors of Hypatia. It thanks Chanda Prescod-Weinstein for pointing out that the letter had not been "direct" enough about anti-Blackness. Prescod-Weinstein is an inter-sectional feminist astrophysicist*, who has been active in the campaign against sexual harassment in her field, which I have been studying very closely for a while now. Recognizing the name, I followed a hunch: has anyone else involved with the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy signed the letter? Lo and behold, there was someone: Kate Clancy, who helped Christina Richey conduct the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey. Wow!

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Update: I originally described her as an "astronomer", but I've been told this isn't quite accurate. Her PhD is in physics and her research appears to be mainly theoretical.

*IMPORTANT UPDATE: It turns out that the statement by "the majority of associate editors" does not represent the views the journal's editor or it's board.

Miriam Solomon, president of the board of directors of Hypatia Inc. — the nonprofit corporation that oversees the journal and other activities, such as conferences — echoed Ms. Scholz’s disavowal. The apology did not represent the views of Hypatia’s editor, its local editorial advisers, or its editorial board, she said. "The associate editors are speaking for themselves."

The full story in the CHE.

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 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.

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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.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Clancy: "Science doesn't have a sexual assault problem. LIFE has a sexual assault problem."

I just found a discussion of the SAFE13 study on the Breaking Bio Podcast. There are lots of things to discuss in it, but in this post I just want to highlight what Katie Hinde and Kate Clancy say about prevalence.

At 16:15, Morgan Jackson asks about this directly. Hinde first answers that they "can't really speak to prevalence" because of the self-selection problem. But "having said that" she goes on say that 71% of women and 40% of men in their sample did report experiences that "fit under the Equal Employment Office's umbrella categories for sexual harassment". What she says next is misleading. "Both men and women experienced a lot of marginalization, a lot of jokes about sex, a lot of jokes about cognitive sex differences, things like that." This leaves the impression that there were separate questions and "a lot" of women answered them in the affirmative. Actually, there was only one question* about this on the survey, and it asked about all of these (i.e., any of these) experiences, so we can only say that a lot (71%) experienced some of these things sometimes. Hinde makes it sound like the survey shows that a lot of people experience this sort of thing often. But, not only can they not "speak to prevalence" because of their sampling issues, this statement isn't even true of the sample.

Later, Clancy goes further, riding roughshod over the limitations of the study, albeit not to "belabor this prevalence point." She questions whether a completely controlled representative study of harassment could be done in practice, and then wonders whether this would actually give us any useful information. "We have absolute numbers of hundreds of women saying they were harassed and assaulted ... that's good enough for me." Again, this overstates what the survey actually shows. What they have is hundreds of women who say they have experienced anything from hearing a sexist joke (even just once) to being raped, and without actually specifying the exact behavior. And, in fact, as I've pointed out before, the survey can't distinguish between a grope and rape, nor an isolated remark from a campaign of abuse. So the "absolute" numbers are not quite what she makes them sound like they are. They're certainly not good enough for me.

What's interesting in putting Hinde's and Clancy's remarks together is the complete lack of any sense of proportion. Hinde doesn't care whether it's 75% or 50% or 20% or even 1% that get physically harassed. Even one is too many, she says. And Clancy, who actually does think she has everything she needs to assert high prevalence because they have hundreds of "absolute" responses, takes things to a new level by declaring that this isn't a problem in science but a problem in life. It's not that scientists are horrible people. It's just that they are, in fact, people, she says.

The problem with this should be obvious. Suppose the background risk of getting sexually assaulted (at your particular age) in "life" is either 5% or .5%. Now suppose that getting into fieldwork exposes you to either a 1% or a 10% chance of getting assaulted. These numbers do actually matter now. Getting them right is important. They matter as much as a man who is trying to choose between working on an oil rig and driving a truck in an oil field cares about his chances of being injured or killed. You can't just say that scientists are people and people rape and get raped. That's just not a serious statement, though it's about a very serious matter. The question is whether science is particularly dangerous. Not only do I see no evidence that it is; I see little evidence that the scientists who are studying the problem care.

The point is this. If an 18-year-old woman can reduce her odds of getting sexually assaulted by, say, half, simply by moving from the inner city to a college campus, then not only does academia not have a sexual assault problem, it appears to have found a solution to it. Likewise, if her risk of getting harassed as a 25 year-old is less if she chooses anthropological fieldwork over, say, business consulting or military service, then science (i.e., the culture of anthropology) appears have found an at least partial solution to the harassment problem that "life" poses. My guess is that universities at the very least offer a culture that both selects less rapists and keeps those that slip through better in check—better than other professional spheres, and better than society as a whole.**

Science, I suspect, is a safer place for women than "life". But Clancy and her colleagues appear hell bent on obscuring this fact.

_______________
*Update: for good order. Here are the only two questions that measure what sorts of experiences people had:

32. Have you ever personally experienced inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other jokes, at an anthropological field site?

39. Have you ever experienced physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which you could not or did not give consent or felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give your consent at an anthropological field site?

If you answer "yes" to question 32 (as you must if you've heard a sexist joke, someone has said "typical female" about something you said, or, it appears, someone has complimented you on your legs ... once) you are counted as having been "harassed". If you answer yes to 39 (even if just to acknowledge that a colleague—or local stranger—once copped a feel at a party somewhere in the tropics) you have, according to the study, been "assaulted".

**An anonymous commenter, backed up by a correspondent whose opinion I respect, has noted that I seemed to be conflating rape, assault, and harassment in an earlier version of this paragraph. After thinking about it, I think I understand why they think so, and I've rewritten it to avoid this impression. It is, after all, something I'm accusing others of doing. Please note that I'm not claiming that business consultants experience more harassment than anthropological fieldworkers; I'm saying that it is interesting to know whether that is in fact the case. And I'm noting that Clancy and Hinde don't seem to be interested in such things.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Power and Gravity

"Gravity is a mysterious carriage of the body invented to cover the defects of the mind."
La Rochefoucauld

"Don't be enamored of power."
Michel Foucault

One of my aims in writing about harassment in astronomy is to encourage astronomers to be more critical about the things social science is telling them. You might say I'm teaching intellectual self defense.

This is especially important when natural scientists listen to social scientists since there may be a presumption that both are "scientific" in the same way. Astronomers might assume that sociologists have the same sort of basis for talking about the structure of society as they themselves have for talking about the structure of the universe. Many years ago, Friedrich Hayek offered an analogy in an attempt to correct this misunderstanding. He said that, when thinking about social "science", physicists should imagine having first-hand knowledge of the inside of an atom but no opportunity to observe interactions between them, nor any way to experiment on them. I'm sure the aptness of that analogy is debatable but it suggests another one that I want to elaborate here.

Power is to sociology as gravity is to astronomy. In a certain sense, it explains everything. It certainly affects everything and you can't understand the relevant phenomena without taking it into account. But as a phenomenon in its own right it's not very well understood. Already Newton had to treat it as an essentially "occult" force, only observable through its effects on other things. Today, to be sure, there are very smart people working on it, but what gravity is, the ontology of gravity, if you will, is still one of the great mysteries. While light "particles", i.e., photons, have been demonstrated to exist, the corresponding particle of weight, if you will, the graviton, remains a hypothesis.

And yet gravity obviously "works". It not only determines the passage of our Earth around the Sun. It structures space across billions of light years. As one astronomer put it to me recently, many of these structures were "baked in" at the creation of the universe. Very slowly (from our point view) they also change. Today, the Milky Way is one structure and Andromeda is another, two spiral formations, each consisting of billions and billions of stars circling an enormous well of gravity. But in about 4 billion years this will change. The two structures will collide and produce a single new structure. Here, again, gravity will be doing most of the work.

Like I say, it may be useful for astronomers to think of power as a kind of "social gravity". This will avoid misunderstandings that I think pervade the pursuit of social justice in the STEM fields, and perhaps actually the concept of justice as it is understood in many of the social sciences today. (One point at which the analogy breaks down, after all, is that sociologists are much less "on the same page" about power than astronomers are about gravity.) It is natural to think of power as a primarily oppressive or "marginalizing" force. Indeed, this is the sense I get when listening to Sarah Ballard explain her vision of scientific "humanity". But this, I want to suggest, is a bit like thinking of gravity as something that is only "keeping us down", only holding us back. To be sure, it does that too. But do we really want to say that photons are more "liberated" than, say, rocks? Does that make sense?

We would not want a universe without gravity. It does limit how high we can jump, but at the same time, by the very same force, it makes jumping a meaningful activity. While it determines how difficult it is to get from point A to point B, it also, in an important sense, creates the "here" of A and B, whether that be two different places on our planet, or two different planets around two different suns. We don't resent gravity, because we know that it works for us as often as it works against us. Why are we so inclined to resent power?

Activists do sometimes demonstrate an understanding of this. When they talk about "empowerment" they are using the concept of power in the positive, creative sense. But the end game of empowerment too often seems to be an equal distribution of power. Astronomers who are trying to get their mind around what this implies need only imagine a universe with a completely uniform distribution of mass, a completely homogeneous gravity "structure". I put that word in quotation marks because, though I'm not an expert, I believe I just described the opposite of structure, namely, total chaos. I'm describing a world in a state of maximum entropy. The fabled heat death of the universe.

When Ballard imagines a scientific culture as "a place in which everyone could thrive" she's actually describing a place that is no place at all. There would be no "there" there, as Gertrude Stein or Martin Heidegger or, if you will, Tristan Tzara might have said. She is forgetting that we actually don't want everyone to thrive in science, we want it to be a place where mainly smart and curious people can thrive, and the less intelligent and less inquisitive among us can run palpably into our limitations. (The sooner the better so that we can quit and find work we are more suited for.) We also want it to be a place where "thriving" means different things to different people at different times. It's a place where the young learn and the elders teach, and where everyone is a little young and a little old at the same time, but not, I dare say, equally young and equally old in every way. We want there to be a tension, a dynamic. We want there to be movement, from falsehood to truth, from darkness towards the light. As individuals and as a society. We want a culture in which difference thrives, in which people thrive differently.

But what social science, too often I'm afraid, is teaching natural scientists is that society—or culture, if you will—is just spinning eternally around a gravity well of oppression. Call it the Toilet Model of social mechanics. There's no joy in their description of science, no hope, only pain and fear and harm. There is no sense of velocity, no possibility of escape. No levity. The only hope they see is that everyone who has power ("privilege") "check" it, i.e., abdicate it, that they lay their heavy burden down on the cold, hard ground. They don't seem to understand that the hard work a young scientist does early in her career, against a host of odds, some of which certainly channel injustices that have been "baked in" to our culture since the time we either came out of the caves or planted our first crops or opened the first bank, can actually, and in some cases literally, put her into orbit.

Ballard doesn't seem to understand this even though it describes her very own experience. The giants may be white and male but you don't end up under their heel. You stand on their shoulders. Sometimes they steady you by holding firmly onto your ankles. It is a tragedy that social science is teaching astronomers to think of this as "physical harassment".

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Does Sarah Ballard Want?

At the recent MIT Communications Forum panel on "Sexual Harassment and Gender Equity in Science", Christina Couch asked Sarah Ballard what she would consider success in the effort to change the culture and institutions of science on those issues. I found her answer quite revealing.

[41:30] When I imagine what a sea change would look like, [one that would produce a more equitable scientific culture], a place in which everyone could thrive, it would no longer be a myth about a few bad people—or good people. Instead, there's humanity. Along certain axes people possess more power; then there are axes along which people possess less power. So even though I am a survivor of harassment as a woman, I'm also complicit in this scientific culture, which excludes and marginalizes women of color, who in fact experience harassment at higher rates than white women. And yet I am the one who ended up coming forward in this particular case. And I was treated very, very differently, I'll say, than individuals in my exact field in astronomy who have drawn attention to racism.

Let me stop for a moment to note underlying anthropology here. In Ballard's vision of "humanity" there aren't good people and bad people; rather, there are "axes" of oppression. And they "intersect", as they say. So here she is displaying her awareness that even though she's oppressed along what we might call the Axis of Sex, she's also "complicit" along the Axis of Race. The "even though" is worth emphasizing because it expresses the intuition (within this world view) that those who are themselves oppressed don't matter-of-factly oppress others, i.e., that this is something that needs to be brought to awareness. And that's really the view that's being promoted here—everyone is oppressed, and everyone oppresses. It's hard to see how anyone, let alone everyone, could thrive in this environment. This becomes especially clear when she turns attention on herself:

[42:25] So in that sense it's beholden upon me to not only think about how I've been wronged but also to think about what I can do to avoid wronging others. In this sense, every individual scientist should adopt some of those advocacy ideas, [namely], that there are ways in which we can behave that can remove us from this dichotomy that there are bad people and good people, which is why a lot of people [otherwise] resist the existence of harassment. [They think:] "So-and-so is a good guy, so it's not possible." Well, I'm sure he's good in some ways, but he's also harassed people. Likewise, I've experienced harassment and have probably also been very careless and thoughtless with other people around me, and not treated them the way they ought to have been treated. I would want to be told.

This is an important moment in her statement. What she says about supposedly "good" people presumably applies to Geoff Marcy. And she is herself now making the comparison. Indeed, my sense has been that Marcy's "wrong" in Ballard's account lay merely in being careless with one of his young female students. Ballard is saying that Marcy's thoughtless sexism probably has a counterpart in Ballard's implicit racism. And she here announces that she would like someone to point this out to her. I wonder if, somewhere down the line, she'd be happy to be forced into retirement by an organized movement of astronomers of color who found her a little condescending ten years earlier. I don't think so. At some level, I believe her actual view is that Marcy is not a "bad" person and he should not have been personally punished or shamed. The problem is "systemic", she could have said, and must be solved at the institutional level. Ballard's harassment, on this view, did not finally come from Marcy's behavior as such, but through the "axis of power" along which his behavior transmitted an oppressive force.

The interesting consequence of this is that Marcy did not harass Ballard to his own ends. The harassment was a result of his failure to consider the institutional forces working willy-nilly around him. From this insight, it is a short step to Ballard's ideal scientific community:

[43:22] When I imagine how a scientific culture could look different it would be one in which we really get away from this idea that science is distinct from advocacy. Rather, science and the way science is performed is necessarily sociological, necessarily political, and it would ultimately be a different kind of identity to be a scientist. That’s what I imagine longterm.

That is, what Ballard wants is a culture in which everyone is constantly aware of power and politics. She wants scientists to construct their identities, not around the natural facts that stimulate their curiosity, and certainly not around their emotional connection with people they like, but around the "intersections" of the axes of oppression that structure the scientific community, just like any other community. A scientist's first concern should not be figuring out how the world works, but finding new ways of "including" others in the work. Science is not sometimes inconvenienced by politics, it is necessarily political. A scientist is not simply free to pursue the truth. She is always "complicit" in one or another injustice.

This image of science doesn't appeal very much to me and I suspect it doesn't appeal to a great many other people who have a natural inclination toward science. I suspect that Ballard herself didn't realize she wanted to be scientist until she spotted in it a culture that might need her "advocacy". For Ballard, science is just another system by which people (here, "scientists") are oppressed. I think she's doing a disservice to the women of color who were hoping science might be a place where, for a time, they could be free of their identity as an "oppressed minority" and just do some interesting work. I still believe science offers such a place to anyone who cares to ignore the advocates long enough. But the times they are a-changing.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 2

[Part 1]

There must be something in the water. Laura Kipnis opened her talk at Wellesley by expressing not so much her admiration as her envy over Philip Roth's artistic liberties—his ability to write freely about sex (even when the acts in question are as strange as masturbating on a grave). Later, she mentioned a recent episode of Girls ("American Bitch") in which Hannah gets harassed (or allows herself to be harassed) by an author. Kipnis's interlocutor in my previous post also liked that episode (though she doesn't like Lena Dunham.) In the episode, Hannah and the famous author bond on their appreciation of Roth. To close the circle, the episode apparently also resonated with Sarah Ballard. It looks like I'm going to have to find some way of watching it.

Kipnis praises Lena Dunham for her honesty about the conflicting emotions that play out in sexual harassment situations. In the context of her other remarks, I think her point is that we can use these artistic representations to better understand such situations and, by extension, help us navigate them safely. Norman Mailer suggested, to my mind plausibly, that literature helps us draw maps of the social world that can guide our way through it. Kenneth Burke called literature "equipment for living" with, I imagine, similar thoughts in mind.

In this spirit, I want to propose for our consideration three scenes from the canon, all which of are arguably "major" contributions to American letters, and therefore the American experience. In an important sense, they are part of what America knows about sex. Actually, in a sense that I think Kipnis laments, they are more accurately part of what America has forgotten about sex and therefore no longer teaches its college-aged women. The first was published in the early 1920s, the second in the late 1950s and the last at the beginning of the 21st century. They are by Hemingway, Mailer and Roth respectively. I will provide some capsule summaries here but I will insist that any further discussion should proceed on the basis of reading them.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalls Gertrude Stein telling him that "Up In Michigan" was a good story but that it was ultimately "inaccroachable", by which she basically meant "obscene". It includes a quite explicit sexual encounter that it would not be very controversial to describe as a rape. But even so, it also includes a lot of the ambiguities and conflicts that might, more controversially, be seen as distributing, if not blame, then responsibility, or desire, or perhaps more neutrally, agency to the victim: "Jim had her dress up and was trying to do something to her. She was frightened but she wanted it. She had to have it but it frightened her."

As if to anticipate the case I discussed in my last post, however, I don't think Jim thought of it as an assault, though Liz clearly told him no: "You mustn't do it, Jim. You mustn't." (Perhaps, then, it does help me to imagine what I said I would have a hard time getting my mind around.) I think we can agree that it tells us something about what a 20th-century woman could do to avoid having sex she doesn't, finally, want to have. By extension it can, perhaps, be part of the curriculum for teaching men not to rape, as some Title IX activists like to put it.

By the time Norman Mailer wrote "The Time of Her Time", explicit sex scenes were no longer inaccroachable. And Mailer certainly tried to do something with that freedom. The story is about a Village stud, Sergius O'Shaugnessy, who sets his mind to bringing Denise, a young woman—nineteen years old and a college student no less—to orgasm. This turns out to be a very demanding task, and, in desperation and frustration, and with an almost plainly declared desire for retribution (he calls his penis, "The Avenger"), he finally commits what, on paper (as it were), looks disconcertingly like an anal rape. It certainly seems to anticipate the kinds of encounters that Title IX officers have been asked to adjudicate, with "mattress girl" perhaps the most famous example.

Neither character in Mailer's story, however, seems to think of it in those terms, even though the woman leaves in anger over what he has done. As in Hemingway's story, there is enough detail and enough perspective to help us think clearly about the agency of the participants, and the contingency of the situation. While Hemingway, it must be noted, wrote his story in the third person and peeked into the heads of both characters at key moments, Mailer chose the first-person perspective of the man alone. But in both cases we are able to see, not only how things could have been different, but who could have done something differently.

Finally, let us consider a story that provides a rich and nuanced view on perhaps exactly the kind of the situation Kipnis is most interested in. In The Dying Animal, Philip Roth imagines a relationship between a sixty-something university professor, David Kepesh, and a 24-year old university student, Consuela Castillo. For many of today's campus feminists, the relationship might be considered sexual harassment almost by definition. Even though Kepesh is careful to make sure the affair happens after the course is over and the grades have been given, there's no question that he deliberately "targets" her, nor that the power imbalance remains throughout the story.

Early on in the relationship (p. 30ff), as a continuation of a consensual encounter (again, much like the story we considered in the last post), Kepesh takes control of a sexual encounter and forces oral sex on the student in a manner that has much of the violence of Mailer's story. In both cases, the man is doing something that the woman "does not like" in order to "make something happen to her". O'Shaugnessy describes the woman as "thrash[ing] beneath [him] like a trapped little animal"; Kepesh says he "kept her fixed there, kept her steady by holding her hair." Roth suggests that this act of violence "freed her", though she "looked not just horrified but ferocious" afterwards; Mailer has Sergius say, "I gave you what you could use" after Denise tells him he did a "lousy thing". Like I say, the objections of the women notwithstanding, I think both Mailer and Roth would balk at the idea that an assault took place.

This aspect of sex, in which our partner pushes us across our boundaries, beyond, in an important sense, the limits of our "consent", is increasingly frowned upon in our culture. It is a boundary that Title IX officers appear to be only too happy to patrol and police. Indeed, in order to find O'Schaugnessy and Kepesh guilty of sexual assault, I think we'd have to project our 21st-century "academic" concept of consent into those situations. In those bygone times, the woman might be angered, and even genuinely hurt, by such actions, but she would see it more like the pain of the boxer than than that of a victim. I'm not here, not yet, taking a position on it. I'm saying that we have a literature that can provide us with what Ezra Pound called "the data for ethics".

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 1

If you want to see some really frank talk about the regulation of campus sexuality, Laura Kipnis's talk at Wellesley last month is well worth the time. I want to draw attention in particular to the exchange between Kipnis and some students at the end of the Q & A. She is being asked to comment on the experiences of the friends of these students, which is difficult terrain in this sort of forum, but one that the conversation, in my opinion, has to cover if we're going to make progress. Kipnis apparently shares this view; she rightly tells one student not to apologize for pushing the point. "You're getting to the real nitty-gritty of it," she says.

The exchange had an interesting arc. Kipnis at first takes the sketches of the experiences at face value and suggests that, since these were negative experiences, we do well to think about how they could have been avoided. (I think Kipnis is right when she says—more clearly in answer to an earlier question—that some women need to learn how to say no assertively and how to defend themselves.) This elicits some pushback from another student who proposes to consider cases that, she asserts, are definitely assault.

During the course of the conversation the scenario she is describing becomes clearer. Apparently we are talking about a steady couple who begin to have (consensual) sex (as usual) but at some point it takes a violent turn. He holds her down and forces her to engage in something she does not want. At this point, Kipnis tersely remarks that that is just illegal and the conversation could perhaps have ended there.

But there is one important discordant element in the student's description of this episode. She says that the man would "genuinely not think of [it] as an assault", nor, as I understand it, was any attempt made to make him see it as such after the fact. That is, the assault is an uncontroversial fact among a group of female friends, but would be highly controversial as such if presented to the man who is supposed to have committed it. This sits oddly with something else the student puts into her description of the case later: the woman had said no. It is unclear to me how a man, faced with these facts, could both grant that they accurately represent what happened and deny that it was assault.

This is what the conversation seems to hinge on, although Kipnis (I think wisely) doesn't force the ambiguity to a resolution. The student who had put the example forward demands a response; she demands to know what Kipnis thinks should be done here. And she rejects a number of suggestions, both from Kipnis and another student, that go to the need for better communication between the sexual partners, and perhaps better judgment in the choice of sexual partners. It's clear that while Kipnis is not blaming the victim, she is raising the question of how she got herself into this vulnerable situation. (Kipnis rightly points out that sex just is a vulnerable situation.) "What 'situation'?" the student balks. While they might be appropriate in other situations, she insists, the case as described is not open to those responses.

At this point, Kipnis, granting, I suppose, the student the right to specify the facts of the case (it's of her choosing, after all), asks what she thinks a proper response would be: prosecute? And here the student becomes very categorical. "Yes ... if someone penetrates you forcibly after you've said no—which is what I said [happened]—[then] yes [he should be prosecuted], because that's what rape is."

Kipnis basically leaves it there, but here, really, is the rub. Because it will now be the woman's word against the man's. (Keep in mind that we're talking about two people who are alone together and naked and already engaged in sexual activity on an entirely consensual basis at the time that the alleged assault takes place.) Obviously, once the accusation of sexual assault is levied, he will insist that he had consent and that she did not say no or resist. Indeed, the student had previously said that his defense here would not even be dishonest. He would "genuinely" believe that he did not assault her. (Again, I find this hard to get my mind around unless he simply didn't hear her say no.) And yet there is supposed to be no doubt in our minds, i.e., the minds of people who are hearing this story from the point of view of the alleged victim (albeit third-hand), that this was indeed an assault. It is presented as cut and dried at one level, but also somehow still "problematic", an "issue". This obviously exposes the accused to the risk of being expelled (on one sort of standard) even where there is insufficient evidence to find him guilty of rape. Kipnis is right to wonder whether we want these situations adjudicated quasi-judicially.

The problem with the case that the student is putting forward is that it is supposed to be an entirely objective assault to everyone but the perpetrator. The man in the story would not feel like he "got caught", but that there was something he just doesn't understand about women. I think this captures very neatly the idea of a new kind of subjective "rape" that the Title IX culture has fostered on college campuses. It also has obvious parallels to the problem of harassment, which is increasingly being defined in terms of the subjective experience of the victim, not the more objective judgment of what the law refers to as a "reasonable person". In Part 2, I want to suggest ways that literature can help us understand the subjectivity of these situations.

[Part 2]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Geoff and Sarah Show


I started out calling it "The Ballad of Geoff and Sarah". But this MIT panel made me imagine another device. I'll do a closer analysis of the panel in the weeks to come, but I wanted to note an immediate impression and ask those who choose watch it along with me whether they think the same. Does it not seem that everyone is talking in very vague terms both about what Geoff Marcy did and what happened to Sarah Ballard? It is assumed throughout that Marcy sexually harassed Ballard, and that Ballard was harmed by his actions, but it is never made clear what happened.

I, for one, have never quite understood what Marcy is supposed to have done wrong. Is Ballard claiming that Marcy had sexual desires for Ballard and tried to satisfy them by wielding the power he held over her career? Is she even claiming that Marcy somehow harmed Ballard's career? I don't think she's making such claims. There's a point in the discussion (22:20) where she seems to be saying (as I've noted before) that the damage consisted mainly in her coming to question whether science is a purely meritocratic profession. Perhaps, then, it was his friendship, not his sexual interest, that disconcerted her? I, for one, am not persuaded that Marcy hoped to have a romantic relationship with Ballard. And Ballard herself seems unsure about whether he did. Otherwise, couldn't she just tell the story as a clear attempt at seduction?

Notice that for all the references to the experience during the panel, neither Ghorayshi nor Ballard ever really tell the story of what happened between Ballard and Marcy. This got me thinking. Until the scandal broke, Marcy considered himself an ally of women in science. Indeed, it's my impression that many women continue to think of him as an ally, albeit very quietly and in private for the most part. By resigning, he seemed clearly to be thinking of how to protect his colleagues (and no doubt his graduate students) from getting caught in some very destructive pressures. I think it's uncontroversial to suggest that he had the best interests of astronomy as a field at heart. It has never seemed like he was willing to take anyone else down with him in this debacle.

So why, I wonder, has his willingness to cooperate not been exploited (I mean that in a good sense) by gender activists? Why does Sarah Ballard appear on a panel like this and talk vaguely and guardedly about her experiences rather than touring the country's astronomy departments with Geoff Marcy, speaking directly and openly about their shared cautionary tale of interpersonal relationships in science? Why isn't this story being told in detail so that the very men that activists think can be taught not to harass women, and the vulnerable women that Ballard explicitly wants to help avoid such harassment, could learn from it?

It seems to me that a real opportunity was missed here. Ironically, the very people that pushed the hard line against Marcy, ultimately forcing him into retirement, keep saying that this isn't about individuals. It's a "systemic" problem, they say. It's about changing the culture and transforming the institutions. Surely, the best way to do this is to model conflict resolution between tootwo well-meaning people like Ballard and Marcy. Reading Ballard's story, I can't for the life of me understand why a healing process between them should be impossible. At this point, it's mainly Marcy's reticence to go anywhere near his accusers that makes sense. I wouldn't be easily persuaded either. I think that should sit badly with self-avowed gender activists like Ballard and Ghorayshi. With panels like this, they are not bridging the gender gap. They are deepening it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Examination

These musings about an ideal (or better) college are a nice way of keeping things in perspective. I have already written about the sort of curriculum I'd like to see and how the grades should be distributed. But what about the form of the examinations themselves? First, I think there should be both oral and written exams. Some should have very little preparation and some should have a great deal. That is, students should demonstrate an ability to produce a thoroughly researched and carefully planned presentation (again, both in speech and writing) but they should also demonstrate extemporaneous mastery. As before, let's assume they are taking three courses per semester. That means they will have six exams every year.

In the last year, they should submit some sort of thesis that would be defended orally. Here all their skills would be brought together and count for maybe one half of that year's overall grade. Other than that, here a six exams I'd like to see:

1. Research paper. The student is given a general topic and is expected to narrow it to a problem that can be solved using the resources of a library. The length of the paper would increase from year to year, but there would be a consistent requirement to write well-formed prose paragraphs that present a coherent argument.

2. Take-home essay. The students would be given a limited amount of time (24, 48 or 72 hours) to answer a question pertaining to the course.

3. Written exam. Again, this is a familiar sort of performance. The students would arrive in a classroom with a specified set of materials (books, notes, etc.) and would be given a question to answer in an essay form. They would be given, say, four hours to plan and compose an essay. This would test their actual writing ability as well as their mastery of the course material.

4. Oral presentation. Students would prepare an oral presentation of a specified length. Essentially a short lecture. Afterwards, the examiner would ask questions to probe their knowledge.

5. Oral examination. Students would simply arrive at the exam and answer questions put to them by a panel of examiners. Their only preparation would be the course itself (they would receive no question in advance).

6. Debate. Students would debate each other on issues related to the course. The grade would be given on the individual performance.

There's really nothing new about any of those exams. But there's something about bringing them together like this that, at least for me, clarifies the competence that could be imparted by a "liberal arts" education. To pass these exams, students would need to be able to think, speak and write. In addition to their reading, preparing for these exams simply means building these competences through continuous practice—of thinking, talking and writing.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Guest Speakers

For the students of Claremont McKenna

A good college will often bring in guest speakers to enrich the conversation among students and faculty. The apparently growing phenomenon of students protesting guests with the intent of preventing them from speaking suggests that colleges need to develop a culture, and perhaps a set of policies, that guides decisions about controversial speakers and governs reactions to those decisions. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, there should be a limited pool of resources to draw on to host guests. That is, invitations should be considered on the basis of the value of the speaker, measured against the cost of hosting them. I'm here talking about the cost of travel and accommodation, as well as any speaking fee. All of these will vary from speaker to speaker. Some speakers demand, or simply deserve, not just a high speaking fee but first class travel and lodgings. At the end of the day, it is the president of the college (working through whatever deputies and committees) that authorizes the expense. All guests of the college, therefore, are guests of the president.

Now, I believe that faculty and students should have channels through which to propose invitations. Indeed, academic departments should have some part of the guest speaker budget that they are free to do with as they please. Likewise, some funds should be allocated to let the students themselves invite speakers. The best way to do this is to let student organizations apply for funding to invite speakers. The important thing is that even these guests, since they are a paid for by the college, are guests of the college, not just he department or student group that. Finally, students groups and departments who raise their own funds would still need campus facilities (a lecture hall) to hold the event. These should be provided free of charge and, again, approval means that the guest speaker is a guest of the college, which is to say, of the president of the college.

That is, while all guest speakers are in practice invited by members of the college of community, the invitation is in principle extended by the president of the college. This is the principle that I would put at the center of any controversies about an invited speaker.

This means, first, that "free speech" is really about the right of the community to hear views that interest them. Once an invitation has been extended, it must be assumed that some members of the community want to hear the speaker's views. The speaker did not have some pre-given right to speak at the college. The speaker is there, "at the pleasure" of the president, who represents the community.

This, in turn, suggests that any protest should be directed, not against the speaker, but against the president who approved the request and extended the invitation. It's the president's judgment that is in question, not the speaker's right to speak. Also, any disruption is a violation of the campus rules of decorum, according to which any sanctioned activity (whether a class, a sports match, or a guest lecture) must be allowed to developed under the rules appropriate to it. Students who violate these rules do so at the risk of being disciplined and ultimately of being expelled. That is, they would have to answer to the president of the college.

Finally, the president would always owe an apology to an invited speaker whose event was disrupted. Even a "peaceful" protest should embarrass the president, especially if it used the sort of strong denunciations in its rhetoric that many protests these days deploy. Once the invitation has been extended on behalf of the campus, respectful, articulate disagreement should be not only allowed but encouraged. But at no point should the speaker reasonably feel unwelcome, let alone unsafe. The very need for police protection from students calls into the question the whole culture of a campus.*

I believe that if this attitude was taken and enforced with respect to campus speakers, we would not see the sort of protests we are seeing today. In fact, I presume that this is the attitude that is preserving the good name of many colleges as we speak. We don't hear enough about them. The good example is so much less newsworthy.

_________
*Some speakers require protection on the best of campuses. Obviously, if the POTUS were invited, the ordinary security precautions would need to be taken. But not out of fear of the general student body—only the disturbed "lone gunman" among them. But this is no different than any other speaking engagement. My point is just that no speaker should feel especially unsafe on the campus I'm envisaging.