Sunday, February 21, 2016

I'm Leaving Twitter

Unlike Ken White, I have no strong emotions about Robert Stacy McCain. Until yesterday, I had never heard of him. What I know about him I know from reading White's post at Popehat and Robby Soave's at Reason.

I grant White's argument that Twitter is a private company and that "free speech" is therefore not, technically, the issue. (Interestingly, this is also something that Katie Hinde has emphasized in her argument to change academic culture. That's a bit more troubling, since academic freedom, to my mind, is a stronger norm than mere "free speech", i.e., an academic's free-speech "platform" should be more, not less, protected than a mere citizen's. It's a practice, not just a principle. But that's a longer argument.) White puts it well when he says that the McCain suspension is not a violation of civil rights but "bad customer service".

It feels a bit like a free speech issue because, from my point of view, the real harm is not done to McCain, who is now a little less able to express his views, but the rest of us, who are now a little less able hear them. As John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty:

Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

I've experienced the collision of truth and error many times on Twitter since I began. From both sides, of course. Of late, however, I've felt them bringing less clarity of perception; my impression of truth has become ever less lively. The reason for this, I think, is the spirit in which the place is increasingly "policed", and the spirit in which many of the participants (on both sides of the discussion) approach the exchange.

Too many people on Twitter are much more interested in exposing each others' heresies than exchanging their errors for truth. That would be tolerable if my issue were only with other individuals in the conversation. With the invention of the Trust and Safety Council, however, something important has changed. An "authority" has asserted itself. I don't want my exchanges to be subject to its power.

Again, it's not just that I don't want to moderate my tone so as not to run afoul of the Council. I'm also not much interested in talking to other people who can do so only at the Council's pleasure. Twitter is not a place I thought I had free speech in principle, but it was a place I felt I enjoyed it—both mine and that of others—in practice. I no longer feel that way. The user experience is not what it once was. So I'm taking my freedom elsewhere.

This appears to be an interesting moment in Twitter history, so I'm going to use this as a bibliography of commentary on the McCain suspension.

Feb 23: J.R. Salzman. "I’m Leaving @Twitter Because Of @Jack Dorsey, And I’m Taking My Partygoers With Me." (personal blog)

Feb 24: Debra J. Saunders. "The Twitter police: Conservatives not welcome." (SFGate)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Exaggeration of Underreporting (a digression)

It occurs to me that I should explain why SAFE13 didn't impress me in regards to the "underreporting" problem. This is the chart from the SAFE13 study that Michael Brown tweeted as support for the claim that physical harassment is underreported in science:

To many people, this chart paints a "troubling picture" (as Miriam Kramer put it about the similar study of the workplace climate in astronomy). It's not hard to see why. The second and third column (from the left) represent answers to these two questions:

“Have you ever personally experienced inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other jokes, at a field site? (If you have had more than one experience, the most notable to you).”

“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 a field site? (If you have had more than one experience, the most notable to you).”

Here's how the authors of the study describe the results:

A majority (64%, N = 423/658) of all survey respondents, stated that they had personally experienced sexual harassment: i.e. inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other such jokes. Over 20% of respondents reported that they had personally experienced sexual assault: i.e. physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which they could not or did not give consent, or felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give consent (N = 140/644, 21.7%).

As I read the chart, then, there are 658 dots in the very left colum, 423 in the next one, and 140 in the next. The fifth column represents the 37 respondents who reported the physical contact and the sixth represents the 7 respondents who felt they got a satisfactory outcome from their reporting.

It is neither surprising nor distressing that more people will experience unwanted sexual comments than will experience unwanted sexual contact. Nor is it surprising or distressing that more people will experience something than will report it. Presumably, if a man steals a kiss and the woman pushes him away, this would put a red dot in the third column. If she leaves it at that, and he gets the message and does nothing further, the incident will go unreported. (No red dot in the fifth column.) I think we would all expect this to be a very common way of dealing with unwanted physical contact and inappropriate remarks, i.e., adults working things out among themselves. A certain amount of "underreporting" in this sense is going to be normal.

It's also desirable, since it would put a completely unreasonable burden on administrators to formally adjudicate the appropriateness of all 140/658 instances of unwanted physical contact, let alone the 423 instances of sexual remarks. The more people can establish their boundaries among themselves the better. If this idea seems outrageous, it may be because of the language that the authors of the study use to summarize the survey responses.

Like the CSWA study, which I have criticized on this blog before, I'm uncomfortable with the rather strong wording the authors use to describe the survey data. "Over 20% of respondents reported that they had personally experienced sexual assault," they say, meaning: "physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which they could not or did not give consent, or felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give consent." Similarly, they interpret "inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other such jokes" simply as "sexual harassment".

What this means (unless someone can convince me otherwise)* is that a misguided attempt to kiss a coworker at a field-site party can be counted as an "assault", even when retracted and apologized for in the moment, and that a dirty joke told in mixed company is counted as "harassment", perhaps even if no one took offense or if the point of the joke was simply misunderstood. In both cases, the non-reporting of the incident would also constitute a case of under-reporting. Needless to say, I think this exaggerates the problem.

Katie Hinde is very familiar, it seems, with this criticism of her "operational definition" of harassment.* Indeed, she would probably characterize the imagined situations I describe above as just more "contorted scenarios that quite likely [are] not harassment but could fall within SAFE’s questions about inappropriate remarks" presented as an "[attempt] to disprove [her] with a single counter-example." But my scenarios are of course merely examples that can be multiplied endlessly, and the point is only that we don't know how many of the respondents were referring to such situations when they answered "yes" to SAFE's questions.

My point is not that we therefore know that harassment doesn't take place. I'm saying this is a poorly designed study, at least if our interest is (as Michael's was) in the underreporting of sexual harassment in the sciences. (Katie has said on Twitter that I've misunderstood the purpose of the study, but I have to say I don't understand what the purpose of such a survey could be if not to gauge the size of a problem.)

"The worst way to measure sexual misconduct," she rightly says, "is to query 'Have you been sexually harassed?' or 'Have you been sexually assaulted?' People’s working definitions of these experiences are expected to fall far short of the legal definitions." But I'm not at all convinced that the questions I quoted above do anything other than err in the other direction. She dismisses this concern as overly pedantic (and not befitting the usual "squishy" imprecision of biologists, as far as I understand her argument) but the issue seems easy to clarify, precisely in terms of the legal definition.

Katie cites the US EEOC website but conveniently does not cite its parent page, which contains this sentence: "To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people." She does quote the part stating that "the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious," and requiring that, to break the law, the behavior must be "so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision." I'm not convinced that SAFE13's questions are sensitive to this at all, nor that it was based on "multiple, behaviorally specific questions" as the NRDI report she cites suggests.

To meet SAFE13's standard, it seems, the conduct need only create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to any person, even a single unreasonable person. Indeed, it's altogether likely that SAFE's sample is biased by the self-selection of precisely this kind of person and Katie's "principles of community" seem designed specifically to protect them. If such people not report their offense, we are even to count this an instance of "underreported" sexual harassment in SAFE13.

This is not a community that I would feel comfortable in. I will explain why in the next post.

*She refers to "conversation with colleagues ... scholarly publications, media reports, and the comment threads on face-melting MRA Reddits" but links only to the last one, which I'm not going to bother to click through to for the moment. If someone could point me in the direction of the discussion among scholars, I'd be grateful.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Spectrum Disorder, part 1

"He's got it all mapped out, and illustrated with cartoons." (Joe Jackson)

Studies of "workplace climate" in academia are often quite explicitly not attempts to understand the culture of science. The investigators are often quite adamant at the outset that they already understand the culture and what "the problem" with it is. Rather, these studies are attempts to change the culture of science, to solve a problem by imposing and enforcing new norms to govern the professional and interpersonal relationships of scientists to each other.

I was made acutely aware of this when Katie Hinde interjected herself into an exchange I was having with Michael Brown and Wicked Sepia on Twitter about the underreporting of physical harassment in the sciences. Michael had cited the SAFE13 study of the fieldwork climate in anthropology, conducted by Katie and others, to establish that the underreporting occurs. Unfortunately, the SAFE13 study's lead author is Kate Clancy, for whom I don't have a great deal of respect at the moment. This is the result of her involvement in the subsequent CSWA workplace climate survey, which explicitly applies the methods and insights from SAFE13 to the problem of harassment in astronomy. My response to Michael's use of a slide from SAFE13 was therefore just to say it doesn't impress me much, if you will.

As is my wont, I went on to explain myself a little more. I suggested that underreporting is not in and of itself a problem and is in fact very much to be expected, since people often find they can work things out among themselves, even in the case of violent behavior, or simply find the "physical contact" to be too minor to be worth worrying about at all. What matters is the actual degree of underreporting, and here SAFE13 can't help us because of its obvious (and declared) self-selection bias.

If Clancy and others had been willing to discuss their methodology with me, instead of ignoring my emails requesting more information, and covering their tracks when correcting errors I pointed out to them, I might take them more seriously, I said. But, at the moment, I take studies like SAFE13 to be mainly propaganda for a cause, not social science.

While Katie did initially defend the scientific integrity of her study, I appear to ultimately just have succeeded in exposing my "status quo bias" to her, which is presumably my resistance to getting on board with her preferred program of cultural change. She even recommended I read an essay of hers entitled "Work in Progress: Changing Academic Culture." (I'm not sure if the first half of that title is a description of the essay or the actual title. Both make sense.) I said I would and would get back to her in a post of my own with my thoughts. This is that post.

A quick aside. I find it distasteful that people who block me on Twitter also intervene in conversations I'm having there. Apparently this happened here, when Clancy took the time to inform Katie that I'm a "troll" (and a "dude" for that matter), leading Katie to suggest she perhaps shouldn't be "waiting with bated breath for [my] post". I guess this may explain why Katie stopped engaging. And that says something about what we're dealing with. [Update at 15:30: Not much of a surprise, but Katie Hinde has now also blocked me on Twitter, presumably because of this post. Update at 21:30: Katie has unblocked me, ostensibly so I would know why she blocked me. Update 21/02/16 at 11:00: Blocked again.]

In any case, I did read her essay with great interest and curiosity, and I am writing this post (and the next) to register what I think about it. This is not because I find her argument compelling, or her style of argument attractive, but because I recognize the very real power that stands behind her cause. As she herself points out, SAFE13 received a great deal of direct and indirect support, and resonates with initiatives at the highest levels of government. "The times are," indeed, "a-changing." I look at these developments with some worry. (More on this in part 2.)

My first source of concern is right on the surface of Katie's essay. Scroll down the page and you will immediately see a very definite aesthetic, established by pictures and animations, many of which are aggressively (and somewhat affectedly) emotive. There's a lot of glaring and eye-rolling and sighing and head-shaking and face-palming (I think it's called). She's got her program all mapped out, let's say, and illustrated with cartoons (and even tweets this way). This very affective style is also apparent in the writing itself, which is full of swearing and vitriol and pathos. And, of course, empathy, albeit empathy for a particular segment of the population, namely, the one that she cares about. (You'll notice that having empathy for people you care about is virtually a tautology. That's important, actually.)

I know, I know, I get lost in details and I always need to get things right and I point out people's mistakes all the time and I talk too much and don't listen and I make people upset. What's wrong with me?!?!? I sometimes wonder.

Well, I certainly don't feel very welcome in Katie Hinde's "community", the principles of which she discusses in section III, and which is what I now want to focus on. It's a somewhat painful section of the essay to read, even if we just skim it for the pictures. First Doctor Evil tells me to "zip it", then Blair Waldorf says there are not enough curses in the world for me, then Samuel L. Jackson is not impressed at me, and finally Tina Fey elaborately rolls her eyes at me. Once we read the text, we're really feeling put in our place by how Katie is feeling. She is, like I say, feeling it very aggressively at me. You can go read it yourself in the context of the gifs (and with links to extra bells and whistles), but here's what she says:

... assuming that most people do not want to hurt their colleagues and are motivated by principles and/or empathy to exceed the legally-mandated minimum, academics can embrace a “Dignity Harassment Concept.” Employing our kickass capacity for Theory of Mind we can contribute to a community of equal opportunity and inclusivity by pausing for one fucking second to think “does my joke or comment or invitation have the potential to deprive my colleague of their dignity based on their gender?”

And if the answer is more likely to be “yes” than “no,” then DON’T SAY THAT THING!

Where there is an imbalance of power, err in favor of affording even more dignity down the hierarchy because they are less likely to let you know you are making them uncomfortable or creating a hostile professional space. Same question applies not just to gender but all aspects of identity such as race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, faith, nationality, immigration status, alter-ability, body mass, mental health status, etc. (and the intersections among them).

And don’t fucking tell me “well it wouldn’t bother me,” or “I would take it as a compliment,” or “it’s just a joke.” Because guess what asshat- THAT AIN’T THEORY OF MIND- that is just you thinking about you- and people just thinking about themselves is the whole fucking problem. Just. Fucking. Stop.

Additional Pro-Tip: Don’t explain “intent,” start paying attention to impact. Words can marginalize, undermine, and demean colleagues whether a good person overtly means to or not. When a person invokes an “intent” argument they are basically saying “I want you to use your theory of mind to forgive me when I have refused to use my theory of mind to just be a decent person.”

And by the way, a person’s “intent” means fuck all when they have exerted zero effort to understand the impact of their words and actions. The internet is full of exceptional personal essays and the library is full of systematic research on the lived experiences of people who remain under-represented in academia in the year twenty-fucking-sixteen. Read some regularly. I am not even going to “here let me google that for you” because I am so effing fatigued at the willful naiveté of “good” colleagues.

This is all pretty exhausting, isn't it? And it got me thinking about whether I lack the requisite "theory of mind" to make sense of what Katie is thinking about. After all, my first thought was, Can "a joke or comment or invitation" ever deprive my highly educated, adult colleague of their dignity?

I can see how a stick or a stone can have this power. But words? And is the problem that I think about myself, or that I think for myself and out loud and sometimes don't think quite enough or carefully enough and that I get things wrong sometimes? And aren't my super-smart colleagues able to understand that, when I say something obviously thoughtless or otherwise stupid or just plain wrong or perhaps something they don't understand, it doesn't actually "deprive" them of anything, least of all their dignity, least of all on the basis of their gender?

Katie is obviously very intelligent and has thought (and felt) a great deal about this. And if I wasn't so fucking smart myself and didn't understand how ideology works this would be really confusing to me. I'll explain what I mean in part two but, to foreshadow a little, here's something I tweeted to Katie to telegraph my punches.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Desire and Intention

"There was no sex, no intention for sex, and no abuse of power that resulted in damaging any of the complainants’ careers."

This sentence appears in the "summary of facts" on Geoff Marcy's website. As far as I know, it is not disputed by the documents that have been released, nor by anyone that has been speaking out against him.* Geoff Marcy did not sleep with any of the complainants, nor did he, as far as anyone knows, intend to sleep them with, and he did not use any of his privileges to encourage them to sleep with him, or to punish them for not sleeping with him.

This doesn't mean he didn't want to and even hope to sleep with some of them. And it doesn't mean he didn't express, implicitly or explicitly, these desires. Marcy acknowledges that his behavior may have "made people feel uncomfortable, distressed, or confused about his intentions." The point is that, if he did have these desires, he did not undertake to satisfy them, certainly not at the expense of others.

One of the things that worries me about the effort to "end sexual harassment now" in the sciences these days is its apparent naivety about human desire. It is as if some uniform "professionalism" might clarify our (noble) intentions and suspend our (baser) desires, simply and efficiency, during "working hours", if you will. The quotation marks are necessary because many of the cases of misconduct appear to take place in decidedly after-hours settings, in bars and in hotel rooms far away from the office.

These are settings that are famously ambiguous about the space between desire and intention. There are many middle-aged professors who desire their youthful undergraduates, and there are also many undergraduates who desire their professors. For the most part, they keep their desires under wraps, either for reasons of professionalism or by their vows of matrimony. This restraint is manifest in their intentions.

Marcy says he considered the women who eventually complained about him to be his friends. He believed he had made his intentions entirely clear to them: he intended to teach them what he knows about the stars and the planets that orbit them and did not intend to pursue romances with them. The first meant merely that they were in the right place, the second, he must have assumed, told them that he knew his own. And under those conditions of explicitly good intentions "friendships" seemed to develop.

You don't have to have seen When Harry Met Sally to insist on those quotation marks. For as long as there are men and women there will be the question of whether they can really be friends, whether their intentions can remain pure. (Notice that no one thinks emotional bonds, like friendship, are in and of themselves inappropriate between professors and graduate students.) This is especially true when, as must inevitably happen, the student or the professor or both are attractive to the other. The question, then, is what can be done about the desire that is intentionally unsatisfied by, first, the professional relationship, and, next, the friendship.

Surely, at some point, a friend may wish, at the very least, to be honest about their desires, if for no other reason than to explain a particular kind of awkwardness in their silences and their glances, and perhaps even the transfer of the student to the supervision of a colleague. In this last case the friendship makes an important difference because a supervisor or student can legitimately offer all kinds of ostensible reasons when requesting a transfer, but may, out of the obligation of friendship, choose to communicate privately the real reason that the public reasons conceal.

Professionalism demands that the romantic feelings not interfere with the career prospects of the students. But it cannot demand that a supervisor or student torture him or herself with the frustration of daily contact with an object of unrequited love. That's the extreme case (and one suspects it captures the dynamic of some of the harassment cases that have recently been made public). What is much more common is the "friendly" banter between mentor and apprentice in which, good intentions having been made explicit, the impossible desire of one for the other or both for each, is vented and, only during the occasional late-night "mishap", unleashed.

What I'm worried about is that a "convocation of politic worms" is infesting these friendships. The personal, as the old feminist slogan goes, has become political once again.

I suspect that many senior scientists are baffled by the demand that they understand their relationships to their peers and students first and foremost in terms of the power they wield, not the knowledge they hold. They are not supposed to notice the student's intelligence and curiosity, which are often superior to that of the teacher, but rather their inferiority in terms of power and status. The natural inclination of scientists, in my experience, is to ignore power differentials and to engage with the part of the student's mind that interests them. And once you begin to satisfy a young mind's curiosity, let's remember, you never know what's going to happen. In a sense, that's precisely what science is.

In today's climate, this is of course ill-advised. We are being asked to be very intentional about our relationships to our peers and students, to not let anything unforeseen or inappropriate happen. We are being told to keep our desires out of it, lest they be, let's say, unintentionally satisfied.

I can see I have a lot to say on this topic, so I'll continue it another day. Comments are welcome.

*Michael Brown seems to believe that the alleged "crotch grab" bears on this statement (see page 9/31 of the Berkeley investigation). I'm not sure it does. It is not an accusation of sex, sexual intentions, or abuse of power, but an accusation of assault. Marcy has denied it and the story does seem somewhat implausible. For this reason I did not consider it worth analyzing as an example of "the ambiguous space between desire and intention". Indeed, I would have found it a bit creepy to do so.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Zero Tolerance

[Note: I'm actually not sure its promoters are really using the phrase "zero tolerance" accurately, i.e., as a policy of enforcement. I think it's just rhetorical bombast. This post explains why I hope I'm right about that.]

[Note 2: Ken White is always worth listening to. Much of what he talks about in this presentation is relevant to the issues in this post.]

[Update: I was surprised to discover how "sexual misconduct" is defined in the Title IX context. I found Penn State's definition through this statement (tweeted here). I had assumed that "misconduct" was the lesser (or vaguer) offense, as is the case in medicine, where a doctor-patient relationship constitutes misconduct even when it is initiated by the patient, or in the case of social work. It turns out that in academic settings "sexual misconduct" is often defined as "nonconsensual sexual activity", i.e., as sexual assault, and is therefore the greater (and clearer) offense, when compared to harassment. It's going to take me a while to sort out the consequences of this issue. Ave Mince-Didier clarifies the "narrow sense" of sexual misconduct I was thinking of at "sexual misconduct may not be illegal, but it may violate a workplace policy. For example, a university professor who engages in sex with an adult student may be violating the university’s internal policies and could be disciplined at work."]

"when Americans stop being themselves
they start behaving each other"
e.e. cummings

As reported by Science, on February 9, William Kimbel, Katie Hinde and Kaye Reed began circulating an online statement urging "zero tolerance of sexual misconduct" and arguing that "the reporting of misconduct by victims and bystanders should be recognized as courageous actions that are key to making our communities safer and stronger." The next day, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement declaring "zero tolerance for sexual harassment." I'm not sure if the distinction between "misconduct" and "harassment" is deliberately made in either statement. But it is an interesting way into the subject of this post, namely, the peculiar enthusiasm for zero tolerance policies among people who are presumably intelligent and knowledgeable enough to know that they are a bad idea in virtually every other domain they've been implemented.

The Wikipedia article on the subject is quite good. I haven't had time to go back and find a more credible survey of research and opinion on zero tolerance, but, as far as I can tell, Wikipedia is basically in line with what I think is the prevailing view among social scientists: "Little evidence supports the claimed effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies." More importantly, zero tolerance often causes direct harm, worsening the problem it is claiming to address, creating new problems in the affected communities, and providing opportunities and incentives for abuse of power and corruption.

How an association of social scientists could establish a zero tolerance policy is baffling to me, especially when the declared aim is "making our communities safer and stronger." As Wikipedia notes of zero-tolerance policing, "Critics say that [it] will fail because its practice destroys several important requisites for successful community policing, namely police accountability, openness to the public, and community cooperation (Cox and Wade 1998: 106)." If the policing of, say, drug offenses do not allow for authorities (police and courts) to use discretion, they lose the respect they need in the communities that they are tasked with making safer.

The analogy to the present case might be to think of sexual harassment like drug dealing and (mere) sexual misconduct like drug possession. In either case, zero tolerance means not distinguishing between minor and major offenses, and having a single, non-negotiable punishment when the policy is violated. Limiting ourselves to sexual matters, sexual harassment occurs when an advance is unwanted, whereas misconduct may occur even when both parties are willing, i.e., in the case of an inappropriate consensual liaison between teacher and student. What the anthropological community has to ask itself is whether it really wants to enforce "zero tolerance" of all sexual misconduct. This is the sort of policy that has filled American prisons with minor, non-violent drug "offenders", even when judges believed such punishment was unnecessary and unjust but had their hands tied by sentencing guidelines.

The atmosphere of "zero tolerance" also pervades the discussion of sexual harassment in astronomy. In a recent tweet using the #astroSH hashtag, Michael brown pointed out that UCL held an astronomy conference last year that had an explicit code of conduct. It states:

The organizers are committed to making this meeting productive and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, nationality or religion. We will not tolerate harassment of participants in any form. Please follow these guidelines:
-Behave professionally. Harassment and sexist, racist, or exclusionary comments or jokes are not appropriate. Harassment includes sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, sexual attention or innuendo, deliberate intimidation, stalking, and photography or recording of an individual without consent. It also includes offensive comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race or religion.
-All communication should be appropriate for a professional audience including people of many different backgrounds. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate.
-Be kind to others. Do not insult or put down other attendees.
Participants asked to stop any inappropriate behaviour are expected to comply immediately. Attendees violating these rules may be asked to leave the event at the sole discretion of the organizers without a refund of any charge.

Some of this is common sense or basic decency, and it's a bit sad that some of the most intelligent people on the planet think they need to tell each other these things. It is strange that they don't think they'd be able to resolve conflicts like ordinary adults at a conference without such rules in place.

What's more important, as Wicked Sepia immediately pointed out, is that some of the rules are clearly excessively intolerant. In classic zero-tolerance style, the policy targets the smallest infractions and threatens the harshest penalties (the harshest thing a conference can do is throw you out, after all.)

"We will not tolerate harassment of participants in any form," the code says. What does this mean? Well, this one stuck out for me: "All communication should be appropriate ... Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate." As did this one, "Do not insult or put down other attendees." It seems that if you find yourself making an off-color joke or like to wear vintage Star Wars T-shirts (with iron bikinis, for example) you may just not be tolerated. Or if, exasperated with an interlocutor's failure to understand your brilliant new theorem, you declare them to be an "idiot" or (forgetting how doubly inappropriate this is) a "moron" you may be asked to leave.

Obviously, those would be extreme applications of principle, but it's a bit scary to know that your conference attendance is "at the sole discretion of the organizers" in this sense. Remember that when you return from the conference you'll probably have some explaining to do to your department head, who will not, as they make clear, be getting a refund.

Ethan Siegel's suggestions for how to behave in a work environment are also highly intolerant of "misconduct". In "How Did Geoff Marcy Happen?" he addresses a number of objections to condemning Marcy for sexual harassment. He calls this one "the most maddening objection of all": “But how [if you call what Marcy did "harassment"] can you prevent anything from being called harassment at all?” Unfortunately, instead of showing how Marcy really did seriously cross some very clear lines, Siegel proposes draw the boundary in such a way that the objection isn't really so outrageous.

Here’s a couple of tips that I think might help you out. If you’re of equal power to someone you’re romantically interested in, even though you’re in the workplace, you are free to ask, once, if the other person is interested in you. If you get a “no,” that’s the end of it; you don’t get a second ask.

If you’re of superior power to someone you’re interested in, you don’t get to ask. That doesn’t mean you never get to pursue it, but you don’t get to start it. If you’re a grad student acting as a TA and you’re interested in one of your undergrads, if you’re a postdoc interested in a grad student, a professor interested in a postdoc, etc., you need the person of inferior power to approach you.

That’s not law, that’s just the rule of being a decent human being.

Notice that last line. Siegel is saying that, yes, indeed, we should draw the line well before any legal definition of harassment becomes relevant. We should demand that scientists be "decent human beings". He makes this sound like it's the least we can ask, but what he's actually saying is that if you ask a colleague out on a date and, when she coyly says no, you wait a week and ask her again, you're no longer a decent human being.

That's pretty harsh. But the general problem is even more disturbing. He's suggesting that "indecency" should not be tolerated among scientists. Again, it sounds unquestionable at first, like something no reasonable person could oppose, but do we really want otherwise promising scientific careers to end because of a moment's indecency?

I may be exaggerating. But there's a certain amount of hyperbole in this whole discussion, and I really do hope that "zero tolerance" is an example of this hyperbolic rhetoric. For me, Tim Hunt is the symbol of how badly wrong things can go when we refuse to be tolerant. As Cummings put it, we stop being ourselves and start behaving each other. I'm genuinely worried that we're going to ruin the good humor of all our scientists by this means as they all try to hold to this new rule of "being professional". Next they'll also have to dress like bureaucrats. Or at least have their shirts cleared by the equal opportunity office.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

It Gets Better

[Update (August 15): This paper by Rachel Ivie, Susan White and Raymond Chu provides some excellent context. From the conclusion: "Our results showed that the process of understanding attrition from astronomy and astrophysics must include multiple factors and cannot be reduced to a simple model in which respondents’ sex alone is the causal factor. The respondents’ sex had no direct effect on working outside the field." There were important indirect effects, it should be noted, which were statistically significant. I'm not entirely sure, however, that the effects as such are big enough to warrant concern. For example, the respondents seemed generally very happy with their advisors, even if women rated them significantly (again, statistically) lower on average. The most striking result, to my mind, was that women don't seem more likely even to think about leaving astronomy than men. This makes the likelihood of finding a strong effect from gender-based harassment very low. Things really do seem to be getting better. Sexual harassment is, of course, wrong. (Period.) But it does not seem to be the general problem some are making it out to be, at least not in astronomy.]

When Christina Richey presented the results of her workplace climate survey at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January, she got a lot of favorable press coverage. As far as I can tell, until @ticobas, myself and few others began to study it, no one—no astronomer, no sociologist, no journalist—had looked at her results critically since they were first presented at the DPS meeting in November. (It should be noted that, when she was told she was being given the Masursky Award, she asked to be allowed to present these findings instead of holding the customary short acceptance speech.) Sarah Scoles' coverage of the AAS presentation for the Atlantic is representative:

The committee that Richey chairs did a survey, whose results will be published this spring, to investigate the extent of harassment in astronomy and the extent of the harm done. Of 426 participants (about six percent of the total society membership), 285 of whom identified as female, 82 percent had heard sexist remarks from peers in a workplace environment during the past five years, and 44 percent had heard such remarks from a supervisor. Fifty-seven percent said that they had been verbally harassed because of their gender, while nine percent said they had been physically harassed. “This is an alarming trend,” said Richey. “This is not an issue we’re seeing with one or two people.”

It's important to keep in mind that the survey was not longitudinal and therefore didn't actually track a "trend". It's much more accurate to say, as Miriam Kramer did at Mashable, that the "survey paints a troubling picture," i.e., it offers a single still frame of what is an evolving situation. Now, we already know that the picture as reported by Scoles isn't quite accurate—it's 32% not 57% that reported being verbally harassed—but the more important question is precisely what the trend we're witnessing is.

First, any measure of gender-based harassment must be understood against the backdrop of ever increasing numbers of women entering the sciences. Astronomy is no exception, with AAS membership going from 8% representation in the early 1970s to what must be approaching 20% today. If astronomy was once a particularly hostile environment for women to work in, it thankfully didn't discourage women from signing up entirely, and that positive trend seems to be continuing.

This has an important consequence for understanding any possible increase in the incidence of gender-based harassment. Obviously, in a field with few women, there will be limited opportunities for gender-based harassment. There simply aren't very many people of the opposite sex for men to harass. As the amount of women increases, therefore, so too does the probability that harassment will be experienced. But while the amount of harassment cases (in absolute terms) may well increase, the rate of harassment [among women] might nonetheless steadily decrease. After all, the amount of possible victims is increasing, while the proportion of harassers is getting smaller. (This assumes what I think is the consensus view: that men are more likely than women to engage in gender-based harassment.)

I don't just bring this up because I see the world through rosier glasses than Christina Richey and Kathryn Clancy. I'm genuinely worried about the message that they are sending to young aspiring female astronomers. They are, in effect, warning them away from the field. But they are not asking the important question: will pursuing a career in astronomy increase or decrease their overall chances of experiencing sexual harassment?

There are two ways to look at this. The first is to compare astronomy to other professions. If a young, smart woman is trying to decide between using her formidable mathematical intelligence in astronomy, physics, philosophy or even, say, finance, and she wants to factor the risk of sexual harassment into her decision, what does she need to know? Not merely that 82% sometimes hear sexist remarks from their peers (indeed, many only rarely, and only 6% hear them often). She wants to know how this compares to the linguistic tone in her alternative disciplines, right? And this is not something Richey is able to tell her anything about.

The second way to look at it is to compare the undergraduate's current chances of being sexually harassed with her future chances of it, should she choose a career in astronomy. This possibility occurred to me when I noticed that some of the respondents in Richey's survey were, indeed, students. (They turn up explicitly in the slide about those who felt sufficiently unsafe to skip events like conferences or, in the case of students, presumably classes.)

Now, when I was 20 I was certainly more likely to make sexist remarks in public. I'd even say I was more "sexist", i.e., much more committed to the idea that "girls are different". I was also much more likely to proposition my "peers", since romance among students is (or at least was) considered a normal thing to pursue. Many of my sexual advances (actually, most of them), I can tell you, were demonstrably "unwelcome". Like most of my peers, I was turned down regularly. It was normal. No doubt some of these romances, when unrequited, border on harassment, which is a sad but true fact about how love works. It's desperate stuff some times. Fortunately, growing up is all about learning how to deal with it. We get better at it. We come to understand our boundaries and those of others.

A few years ago, Dan Savage rightly won many accolades for coming up with the "It Gets Better" campaign, which got gay and lesbian celebrities to explain to young people that an LGBT lifestyle gets easier as you get older. High school can be an especially cruel environment to be different in, but that's mainly because young people are, well, less mature than middle-aged adults.

As the individual harassment cases show, not everyone grows up, but, for undergraduate astronomy students, it's important to realize that almost all one's peers still have a lot of growing up to do by definition. They're young. I don't think the "troubling picture" that Richey is painting of the astronomy community actually indicates an "alarming trend". What the current publicity actually indicates is that women are increasingly gaining the power and stature they need to talk about and do something about the harassment that remains. (This is the one thing that Ethan Siegel gets right. This story isn't [and shouldn't be] about how bad things are in astronomy.)

Given the alternatives, and the natural increase in the maturity and civility of your peers, there's probably no safer environment in which to pursue your interest in the cosmos than the academy. And it's getting safer every day. The message to young women who are interested in astronomy, however harassed they may feel at the moment (in part because of the #astroSH campaign itself, I would argue), should be, simply: It gets better!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

True Love Leaves No Traces

I'm a bit annoyed right now, but if I were Ethan Siegel I'd be pissed.

Christina Richey and Kathryn Clancy still haven't answered my emails or acknowledged my criticism of their study of sexual harassment in the astronomy community, but they have corrected their slides in light of it. As readers of this blog know, a few weeks ago @ticobas noticed that the claim that 57% of respondents had experienced gender-based verbal harassment didn't appear to be supported by the chart that illustrated it. I brought this to Richey's attention by email, but heard nothing from her until I told Michael Brown about it. He contacted Richey and was told it was an error, though not what the right number was. I wrote a post about this strange lack of openness, and within hours of posting Miriam Kramer reported on Twitter that she had been told by Richey that the right figure is 32%. She was a bit more vague about it in the correction to her article at Mashable, where she just removed the offending slide, which she had originally embedded.

Now, many of us have linked to those slides when referencing the 57% claim. Indeed, when Richey (or Clancy) asked Siegel to change his completely erroneous >75% figure to the 57% figure that the slide actually presented, he took the opportunity also to link to the presentation. As I understand it, he had originally worked only from his notes from the presentation at the AAS conference and didn't know the slides were in the public domain.

As I write this, Siegel's article still quotes the 57% and still links to the slides. But anyone who clicks on that link will find a slide that clearly shows he's got it wrong. The relevant slide (now #5, previously #8) says 32%, i.e., the corrected figure. But nowhere in the PDF file does it say that it's been altered.

This is doubly problematic because the original file contained the slides that were used in Richey's 2015 Harold Marsursky Award presentation, held on November 12 at the AAS Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Washington, DC. I had always wondered about the URL of the slides that both Siegel and Kramer used when talking about her 2016 presentation to the AAS meeting—""—but until now I hadn't bothered to look into it. In any case, anyone who was using the original URL in a reference to slides they saw in November of last year is now being made to look as much like they misquoted slide #5 as Siegel is. And if they've specifically cited slide #8 (as I have), they're being made to look like they got the page number wrong too.

Richey has removed the first three slides, including the title page. (One of them was blank in the original presentation.) The presentation is no longer marked (except in the URL) as the Masursky presentation slides. It would have been a simple matter to strike out the 57% and append a dated note with the correct 32% figure. Instead, Richey has chosen to pretend that her slides have said 32% since they were originally posted.

I've been surprised at the way my criticism has been dealt with since I started looking at it. (Richey and Clancy don't answer my mails and have even blocked me on Twitter.) But this sort of bald-faced dishonesty and attempt to cover their tracks is really quite shocking.

Like I say, since I'm a very marginal figure in this conversation and have everything documented (for obvious reasons), I'm just puzzled and annoyed by this latest twist. If I were Siegel, who already had to update his post once in the face of my criticism to make it "more accurate", and whose link now simply belies his reading of the slides that once supported him, I'd be not a little pissed off.

Charting Harassment

The charts in Christina Richey's AAS presentation of the CSWA survey of harassment in the astronomy community all look something like this:

Factually, there's nothing wrong with this graph, but it does give a misleading visual impression of the magnitude of the problem of physical harassment that was expressed by the respondents to the survey. As with all visual representations, the important thing is to get the scale right, so that the data is put in proper "perspective", i.e., so that it is kept in proportion.

But notice the bottom axis, which offers a kind of ruler, or precisely, a scale. It goes from 0 to 40. But the 40 doesn't actually represent anything significant in the data. That is, the 36 people who reported having experienced physical harassment are not taken out of a group of forty people, and the 4-person blank space to the right of the bar therefore doesn't represent any particular part of the data. Rather, the 36 people represent a subset of the 426 respondents, i.e., as the number to the right of the bar (rightly) says, they represent 9% of the sample.

Moreover, notice the way the breakdown of the 36 responses ("rarely" = 27, "sometimes" = 8, "often" = 1) are stacked, so that "rarely" is extended with "sometimes" and then with "often". Since the blank space beyond "often" is, properly speaking, "no response" and, by implication (or my presumption, if you will), "never", the order is somewhat, let's say, jarring. It would be better to have "often" first, shading off into "sometimes", shading off into "rarely", and finally shading off into the empty space of "never".

What I would have liked to see is a chart that looks more like the following:

Here the problem is graphed so that the "often or sometimes" are grouped at the bottom in a way that lets us compare the prevalence of the different kinds of reported behavior, with "often" (which I think is the best indicator of "severe or pervasive" behavior) clearly emphasized. "Rarely or never" are then shaded off into each other to account for the remainder of the sample, giving us a clear sense of how many people this doesn't happen to, and how rarely it happens when it does.

The CSWA survey has clearly been presented to have the opposite effect. I've said in a previous post that, since sexual harassment is normally defined in terms of the frequency of behaviors (though, yes, rare and very severe behaviors can count too), it is misleading to characterize its prevalence by counting "often", "sometimes", and "rarely" equally and then say that "82% of astronomers," for example, "have heard sexist language used by peers." We really need to know the relative frequency of such observations to learn anything of relevance to the problem of harassment.

I think my criticism is best expressed by my proposed graph above alongside the relevant slides in Richey's presentation. Which is why I've written this post.

[Acknowledgement: I'm grateful to @ticobas for his invaluable assistance in analyzing the CSWA presentation and making the alternative chart.]

Tuesday, February 09, 2016


[Draft posted at 12:08. Final version at at 15:40.]

Understanding the severity[seriousness] of the problem of sexual harassment in science requires an understanding of both the range[severity] of the offending behavior and the prevalence of that behavior.*** Individual case histories can inform the first, while surveys and other data can inform the second. In both cases, it is essential that we interpret the facts carefully in order to get an accurate sense of what is going on.

I've recently had two lengthy exchanges on Twitter that have left me a bit despondent about the possibility of such accuracy. The first was with Grant, who had suggested that Jason Lieb was being justly punished by the court of public opinion for his "pretty rapey" behavior.

He was, of course, referring to the widely quoted remark in Amy Harmon's New York Times story that a University of Chicago investigation had determined that Lieb had engaged in "sexual activities" with a student who was "incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent." That sentence seemed to me to be carefully crafted to invoke a definition of sexual assault that is often used in Title IX cases without making any allegations that a crime took place (so that the police might be a more relevant authority). Indeed, given the way the story of Lieb's behavior is being told, it's not inconceivable that the woman in question did not feel violated at all, only that witnesses to the behavior felt uncomfortable with what they saw happening between her and Lieb.

I don't know what happened, of course. Nor does Grant. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that it turned out that I'm more or less right. Let's suppose, that is, that Lieb got very drunk at a party and was seen making out with a graduate student who was also very drunk. Though embarrassed, let's imagine, she did not feel he had failed to obtain consent and let's say she filed no complaint against him. She was willing to take responsibility for her part in the affair, let's say. A number of witnesses, however, found his behavior unseemly, and reported it to the Title IX office, whose coordinator determined that the young woman "could not consent," even if she herself says it's no big deal. This sort of situation is not at all a stretch in Title IX cases, as far as I can tell.

Now, suppose I confronted Grant with this version of events. (Remember, we're imagining that this is what the investigation actually found.) "Surely," I say, "it is unfair to describe what happened as an assault and Lieb as a rapist?" And now suppose Grant says, "Yes, but it's still unacceptable behavior." Indeed, it probably would be. It's entirely fair for an institution to have rules against getting drunk and making out with students, even against getting drunk with students in the first place. And such behavior could even be grounds for dismissal. But that does not make it rape. In this and other cases, there seems to be a presumption that if someone does something "unacceptable" or "inappropriate" then you can call them whatever bad names you like.

And here's an important additional point. Since the story I've made up is entirely consistent with what the NYTimes article says the investigation found, we actually don't have a very good reason to think of Lieb as a perpetrator of sexual assault at this point. Certainly, there is what a court of law would call "reasonable doubt". And that's why I refuse, for now, to describe him as a rapist (or even a "pretty rapey" guy, which I think is a hideous phrase on many levels anyway.)

In the court of public opinion, however, different standards apply. The NYTimes article (and probably the letter that Amy Harmon had obtained) was designed to elicit precisely this sort of verdict. After publishing that sentence, Grant's "pretty rapey" interpretation was almost certain to follow in social media, as were posts confidently asserting that "Jason Lieb is now publicly exposed as a sexual predator." Those who wanted to shame Lieb could depend on someone running with the insinuation. It's a powerful way of making the problem seem severe enough to warrant institutional action, as in Grant's memorable suggestion that, "We're not punishing the professors who sleep with their students; we're punishing the ones who rape them."

A similar effect can be produced when it comes to assessing the prevalence of sexual harassment. Here the relevant distinction is not between a court of law and the court of public opinion, but between a scientific study and a piece of popular science writing. This became clear to me last night (forcing me to vent with this post, actually.) I've told part of this story before, but it's worth thinking about some more.

In early January, Christina Richey presented the results of a survey sponsored by the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Her talk appears to have been partly a presentation of research findings and partly a call to action, brought together in the strong claim that "We have a problem."** There are lots of issues with the presentation, but I want to focus on just one: the prevalence of gender-based verbal harassment that was reported by the respondents.

Slide 8 tells us that 57% reported that they had been verbally harassed based on gender characteristics.** This figure was quickly reported (and Tweeted) by Miriam Kramer at Mashable. Strangely, it was also reported by Ethan Siegel as "greater than 75%" in Forbes (which was then Tweeted with fitting exclamation marks by Vanessa Janek.) I was shocked enough at the >75% that I contacted Siegel through Twitter and, ultimately, Richey by email to see if that could be right. Sure enough, it wasn't, and Siegel's article was corrected to the 57% that Kramer had reported, citing Richey and her slides. Strangely, Siegel refused to thank me for pointing out the error, and Richey has still not responded to my mail.

When @ticobas looked closely at the relevant slide, however, he noticed that the numbers didn't add up to 57%. It was more likely to be somewhere around 33%. I wrote to Richey by email again to ask about this, and again heard nothing. (Indeed, I'm blocked on Twitter by both Richey and her co-author Kathryn Clancy, for no interaction other than my questions pertaining to this study.) Then I noticed that Michael Brown was circulating the slide on Twitter under the #AstroSH hashtag, and I pointed out that it probably contained an error. To his credit, Michael did thank me. But what happened next says a great deal about how partisan this discussion is.

Michael contacted "the authors" (presumably Richey and Clancy) and was told that the slide does indeed contain an error. They did not, it seems, tell him what exactly the error consists in, nor what the right (i.e., corrected) figure would therefore be, but they assured him that in the final, published version all would be set right. In the meantime, I guess we're free to think the figure is anywhere between 1/3 and 3/4's.*

I find this very frustrating. After making the effort to find and point out an error in their work, which may well have gone unnoticed before being published if we hadn't, @ticobas and I have been cut completely out of the loop. And not even an "ally" like Michael has been told what the correct figure will be after bringing the problem to their attention.

Michael doesn't think this is a big deal. "Regardless if the number is 20%, 40%, 60% or 80%," he says, "it is still unacceptably high." This is a bit like saying "Even if it wasn't rape, it's still unacceptable behavior."**** When I asked what the point of doing a survey is, if you're going to judge 20% to be indistinguishably "unacceptable" from 80%, he said something very plausible, but more damning of Richey and Clancy than I think he intended. "The survey," he said, "provides an estimate of the scale of the harassment problem, and some people won't act without such data."

It's altogether possible that the CSWA survey's main purpose is to generate "data" in order to force people to "act". It is not intended to actually gauge the severity of the problem, which no one seriously doubts exists. We can see this by breaking down the 33% that it now seems likely actually represents the proportion of respondents that had experienced verbal harassment at all: 19% had experienced it "rarely" and 11% experienced it "sometimes". (The survey asked respondents to focus on the past five years.) Only about 2% had experienced verbal harassment frequently (like I say, at some point during the past five years). And we don't even really know what constitutes "verbal harassment" to the respondents. Perhaps they're as quick to call someone's drunken indiscretions "rapey" as Grant?

In Lieb's case, his "sexual activity" is turned into a "sexual assault" by playing a carefully constructed phrase into the hands of the media. In Richey's case, the idea is the same: carefully construct a number for maximum rhetorical impact, and count on the press not to break it down into its less dramatic components. And count on them not to look at the slide closely enough to spot an obvious error too. If an adding mistake or a typo happens to inflate the number by over 20%, after all, that's just gravy! Now you just have to wait until it's been disseminated far and wide before publishing the correct number. The important thing, it seems, is to get people to "act", not to help them develop an accurate perception of the problem.

*This is almost funny. About an hour after I tweeted the final version of this post, Miriam Kramer added the following to her original 57% tweet:

As in the case of Siegel. No acknowledgement of my work in bringing this to light. No thanks. Doesn't even tag me in.

**Update (10/02/16): I just noticed that Richey has provided a new set of slides at the previous link, correcting the 57% error, and removing the slide that says "We have a problem." [I've discussed this change here.]

***Michael Brown found my use of the word "severity" confusing here. I see his point. Severity and prevalence are normally considered two dimensions of behavior, which are used to determine whether or not it counts as harassment. I was talking about the severity of the general problem, and the prevalence of the behavior in the community. I've changed this sentence so that it now applies severity and prevalence (in the community) to the behavior alone, in an attempt to gauge the "seriousness" of the problem.

****Apparently some people (Michael and Sue) think this is an "awful" "rape analogy". Please note that it is a reference back to my critique of Grant's use of "pretty rapey" above, which I characterized as "a hideous phrase on many levels". I'm not comparing rape to anything, nor "confusing severity and incidence". I'm comparing (Grant's) imprecise talk about severity with (Michael's) imprecise talk about incidence.