Thursday, October 27, 2016


At first, I was outraged about the unwillingness of our scientific institutions to protect their members from the irrational passions of the mob. In the Tim Hunt case, for example, I argued that the leadership of UCL "failed in its near-sacred duty to protect an unconventional mind from the pressures of conventional thought." I agreed with Brian Schmidt that the best protection against the Internet is provided by strong, real-world institutions that "stick by their values".

These days, however, it's dawning on me that our institutions of higher learning aren't even defending themselves. The eagerness with which universities are willing to admit that they are founded on unjustly arrogated "privilege" (straight, white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, etc.), rather than long held principles (free inquiry, methodological rigor, sound scholarship), is astounding. I'm running into the same attitude in my correspondence with the American Astronomical Society. The official position of that organization appears to be that it is sexist. Astronomy, we are told, is a hotbed of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Not even the leadership of a major national professional organization is willing to defend the community against these charges.* The past two presidents of the AAS, both of them women, seem intent on telling the world that astronomy is a terrible place for women.

I'm all for being honest about particular cases. But there is something completely disorienting about the president of an organization saying that the corruption within it is systemic. A leader must always lead from a presumption of rectitude. A leader must say that the system is working correctly for the most part. She must not denounce the people she leads. A leader must represent the best of them, not the worst. A leader who says "we are all corrupt" (or sexist or racist or whatever) should simply step down. Why would anyone want to lead an organization that they can't recommend one joins?

*Where, for example, is the AAS's response to Jackie Speier's outrageous claims that sexual harassment is "rampant" in science, astronomy in particular? (Indeed, where is the reasoned response to the specific policy proposal, which is likely to make it even more difficult to expose grant-winning harassers.) "We know," says Speier, "that sexual assault and harassment are an enormous factor in driving women out of STEM." Really? We know this? Like it was rampant in the military in the 1980s? Where is the AAS statement to say that assault in astronomy is essentially non-existent; where is the clarification that quid-pro-quo harassment (sex for advancement) is a non-issue even in the most high profile cases? Where is the appeal to the studies that suggest that the pipeline isn't leaking and women don't even think of leaving their fields more than men? Astronomy, like all sciences, is one of the safest places for women to work in the already very safe Western world. It's time that our institutions took a little pride in themselves again!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Deep Impact

I've sort of decided to drop the subject, at least for a while, but I've been carrying around an analogy that I need to unload. I'll link to the reality that I'm allegorizing at the end. Readers who have been following along the past few weeks will perhaps get it immediately.

Suppose a science writer on a major news site reports he has attended a session at an astronomy conference where a researcher presented the discovery of an extinction-sized asteroid that has a 75% chance of hitting the Earth within a hundred years. Horrified, you reach out (through Twitter, say) and ask if that can be right. Has the data been published? Has the scientific community had a chance to examine it? He tells you that the paper will be published soon but that he's just working off his notes from the conference presentation. Just be patient and start getting straight with God, he tells you.

Obviously, you're not going to leave it at that. You contact the researcher who made the presentation, telling her about the news report and asking whether it's true and, if so, what observation she's basing her prediction on. She doesn't answer your mail, but the reporter soon updates his story. Linking to a set of Power Point slides, he says "more accurate" information has become available: it turns out that it's a 57% chance of impact within a 1000 years.

Okay, that calms you a little. But it still seems pretty hairy, doesn't it? You take a look at the slides and notice that on one of the tables there seems to be an adding mistake. As far as you can tell, the correct values would yield a 32% risk. And, in any case, looking more closely at the probability space, even that 32% seems to apply to a ten-fold longer time scale. Once again, you write to the astronomer, pointing out the error and asking about the timescale. And once again, you don't get an answer.

This time no update is made to the story, but within hours of sending your mail to the researcher, another science journalist, who had also written about the "troubling" asteroid, says she has been contacted by the astronomer and been told it's 32% not 57%, attributing the mistake to an adding error. She says nothing about whether or not it's 100, 1000 or 10,000 years. You now reach out to a twittizen who had been very alarmed back when it was 75% within a century and ask her how she feels now. "Well, 32% is better," she says, "but it's still really, really dangerous."

Meanwhile, the paper seems to be held up in the review process. You try a number of times to have the astronomer explain her methodology or just send you a draft version of the paper so you can look at it yourself. She never answers your mails. One day, however, you notice that she has updated the slide presentation that the first reporter linked to when he updated the risk to 57%. Without marking the change in any way, she has simply uploaded a new set of slides to the same URL with the adding mistake corrected so it now reads 32%, as though that's what the presentation had said all along, making the article look like it is misrepresenting its source.

Your head (I would hope) is now spinning. Neither the astronomer nor the journalist(s) seem very concerned about what is true or false or how worried the public might be about all this. If you think it's farfetched, read this and this. But here's the kicker: one day you notice that another researcher who had been working on the study (mentioned on the title page of the slide presentation) has testified before congress in support of ... you guessed it! ... funding a "spaceguard" program to protect the earth from "rampant" near-Earth objects that put life as we know it at constant risk.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


Science resides, not primarily in the way we form our beliefs, but in the way we correct our errors. It's not about finding the right answer but avoiding the wrong one. Your science shows in the acknowledgement of your mistakes, not in the celebration of your discoveries.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"There Is No Blue on These Slides"

"I tried to make this kind of a TSA-style scale of worry, where red is really, really bad, and blue is really good. There is no blue on these slides, just so you know."

This is Christina Richey at 13 minutes and 54 seconds into her Masursky Award presentation (video here). Here's the slide she is referring to:

It's of course true that there is no blue on the slides. But it seems to me that that's because she chose not to chart the responses that would have had to be colored blue. In fact, the top end of her graph, which stops at 350, is completely arbitrary, failing to plot 76 "no response" answers that would have put the rest into perspective. Consider this alternative chart of the same data that I made:

I have used her color scheme for the data she did chart, but it's clear what adding a little blue to the picture does for the overall impression. Indeed, Richey has chosen to color the response "rarely" in yellow, which is in line with her egregious misinterpretation (at 13:20 and forward) of her own data as showing that "people hear sexist remarks 82% of the time." This survey doesn't let us put a number on how often (X% "of the time") such language is heard. It counts how many people said they had heard it "rarely", "sometimes", and "often". And it found that only 6% of respondents fall into that last "red" category. I would have charted "no response" (I read: "never") and "rarely" in different shades of blue, "sometimes" in yellow, and "often" in red. That gives us the following picture:

Notice that I'm not here disagreeing with the data or with how it was collected (though I do have some issues with this as well). I'm simply presenting Richey's own data in a more informative way. Interestingly, it also then immediately becomes less "worrying" (to use Richey's characterization of her scale). One sometimes suspects the TSA's threat levels are constructed with an equally opportunist eye. But it's not good form. In fact, it's bad style. Just so you know.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Then It Starts Getting Creepy": A Typical Example of Sexual Harassment in Astronomy?

There are two perfectly good ways of explaining what we mean by "sexual harassment". We can provide a formal definition, usually couched in somewhat legalistic language, or we can provide a series of "typical" examples. This post is about the latter. [A more formal discussion can be found here.] (I know I said I wanted to rest, but most of this post had already been written and resting requires me to put it out there.)

When the Geoff Marcy story broke, Meg Urry, then the president of the American Astronomical Society, wrote a piece for Scientific American called "How to End Sexual Harassment in Astronomy". I remember being puzzled about it at the time. Rereading it now, however, it seems to me to give some insight into what happened to Marcy. She opens with a strange and somewhat incendiary bit of free association, unfairly linking the Marcy story to "alarmingly high number of students experiencing sexual assault on college campuses." But what's much stranger is her understanding of sexual harassment itself. "Here is a typical example of sexual harassment," she says:

A woman attending a scientific conference explains her research to colleagues with similar interests. A male scientist, usually more senior, pays a lot of attention to her and she is thrilled at this expression of interest in her work by an accomplished senior colleague. But then it starts getting creepy. Maybe there are flirtatious remarks, invitations to private meetings, perhaps a discussion that for some reason needs to happen in his hotel room or there is mention of his sex life or how his wife is inadequate in one way or another.

She spends the rest of the conference avoiding this man. Her attention is not on science, it’s on surviving the encounter. Needless to say, she doesn’t spend time talking to other senior astronomers in her field—most of whom are men—she doesn’t network much, and she thinks twice about attending a meeting like that next time.

Note that she calls this a typical example. According to Urry, when we speak of sexual harassment, this is what women in astronomy apparently have to put up with. This is the way the men in the field typically misbehave when they do. Importantly, this is also the problem that Sarah Ballard wants the federal government to fix. And Congresswoman Jackie Speier is ready to make that happen.

Meeting a man at a conference who takes more of an interest in her body than her mind, but of course begins by showing a polite (and perhaps exaggerated and perhaps not quite sincere) interest in her professional work, is somehow such a shock that it ruins the entire conference. It's an encounter she has to "survive". It's not, it seems, a silly thing that happened with a man who apparently may have some trouble at home, a few drinks under his belt, and a distorted view of his own sex appeal. It's the beginning of the end of her career in astronomy.

Until 2015, I thought a typical example of sexual harassment would involve meeting, say, the editor of a journal where she had a paper in review and getting the distinct impression that coming up to his room tonight would not just improve her chances of getting published but was required if she was to have any hope of ever publishing there, or a graduate student refusing the advances of a prof and then discovering that all her access to funding and supervision had been cut off and her chances of graduating were essentially zero.

In both of those cases, there is talk of an obvious abuse of power. But in Urry's example, there is no abuse of power, just a clumsy attempt at a conference romance. The thing that makes it "sexual harassment", it would seem, is that she is initially "thrilled" by his interest (which she mistakenly thinks is purely professional) and later, to her chagrin, must accept that he doesn't really think especially highly of her brain (or still hasn't noticed it) but likes her in ways that are more immediately pressing for him, and less important to her professionally. The most "thrilling" thing about him was not, of course, his ideas, but his "seniority" and "accomplishments", i.e., the power he ostensibly wields. It was the false hope that she had impressed a senior member of her field intellectually that constitutes the violation here, not his incapacity to be impressed by a beautiful woman's mind. That incapacity—that "bias"—has not yet been demonstrated, since it has not been demonstrated that she has rebuffed his sexual advances and tried once more to get her ideas across. Nor has anything been said about how good he would really think her ideas are if he, as it were, raised his eyes above her neckline.

As far I can tell, and certainly in the Sarah Ballard case, this is the way the "harassment in astronomy" problem is primarily framed these days. It is about the minor inconveniences of being human, of being sexual beings among other sexual beings while also trying to get some work done. It seems like we are being told that accomplished men have to understand how a certain kind of woman sees them, and they must not, then, do anything to confuse her sense of herself or her potential. No flirting. No personality. No fun. The intellectual and personal insecurity of "typical" women that is here being foregrounded, which, it is argued, should force men, especially those who have "accomplished" something, to notice, first and foremost, the power they have over less accomplished women, is quite strange to me. Their privilege[, the argument seems to be,] should be placed aggressively in between the woman and man, completely structuring the space of their interaction. Men should not enjoy the company of intelligent, beautiful women for its own sake, in the informal social settings that a conference (and a research career in general) affords. They should not assume, not at any time, that they can treat them as equal, autonomous adults, capable of managing and challenging boundaries. They should see them as extremely vulnerable. They should box them in.

For thousands of years, beautiful women have had to be wary of the schemes of libidinous men, just as powerful men have had to wary of the lure of ambitious women. They have solved this problem among themselves in the traditional manner, sometimes as adults, sometimes as adulterers. Some astronomers, it would seem, now want this problem to be solved "at the federal level". That's truly when it starts getting creepy!