Friday, December 30, 2016

Becoming and Personality

Postmodern feeling has idealized regressive concerns by exalting the spirit over the arrangement of surfaces it animates. The aim was to overcome the dialectic of the one and the many, which has already marginalized our poetry, and to replace it with the diabolism of totality. Has the attempt been successful?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Poetry is inextricably bound to politics. It is the function of a poem to extricate an emotion from the policy that governs it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Melancholy converts necessity into contingency.

Friday, December 09, 2016

The image is easy. It is what can be can seen without strain and done without effort.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Appearances are not always illusions, nor surfaces always impenetrable.


An aphorism downplays what it overstates.

I don't know if that's true but I thought I should start with one. I need an outlet for aphorisms. This place is as good as any.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Energy of Slaves

The killers that run
the other countries
are trying to get us
to overthrow the killers
that run our own
I for one
prefer the rule
of our native killers
I am convinced
the foreign killer
will kill more of us
than the old familiar killer does
Frankly I don't believe
anyone out there
really wants us to solve
our social problems
I base this all on how I feel
about the man next door
I just hope he doesn't
get any uglier
Therefore I am a patriot
I don't like to see
a burning flag
because it excites
the killers on either side
to unfortunate excess
which goes on gaily
quite unchecked
until everyone is dead

--Leonard Cohen

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.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Ends With a Whimper?

I like to give credit where credit is due. When someone points out an error in my writing to me (as happened just the other day) I thank them for taking the time to do so. Of course, this often means having to thank people I disagree with, since it's usually your critics who have a keen eye for the mistakes you've made. That's just how discourse works.

So it always irks me a little when people correct mistakes in their public writings that I have pointed out to them without acknowledging my efforts. When they do this without marking the correction at all (i.e., simply change a blog post with the correct facts in the place of the incorrect ones), the dishonesty of it is more important than the ingratitude. (Here, the blogger's relationship to the reader is much more relevant than their relationship to me.) This, fortunately, happens very rarely at established news sites, but they can also, sometimes, be a bit weaselly about their corrections (as the Guardian was last year).

Forbes won what I thought was my undying respect when David Kroll corrected his account of Tim Hunt's toast in Seoul. Ethan Siegel's recent update to his post about sexual harassment at Forbes, however, has set the organization back a few notches in my books.

Here, as far as I can tell, is what happened.

"Sexual harassment is wrong," I had tweeted to the #astroSH hashtag. "But we just don't know how much of it there is in astronomy." A minute later Vanessa Janek tweeted the shocking research finding that "more than 75% of women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals in astronomy have experienced harassment." Grant (@usethespacebar), who thinks of me as some sort of adversary, I think, rightly found this amusing, noting the "twitter timing" by taking a screenshot of the #astroSH feed:

I had, in fact, already seen the story in Forbes that Janek had linked to. It had surprised me because it really did seem to belie the claims that had been made by credible people (like Meg Urry) who were advocating for action on the harassment issue, that we don't have any good research on the question. Here, Siegel said, we had "the first large-scale survey" of the problem, conducted under the auspices of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA). Siegel hadn't been very specific about the study he was talking about, however, and hadn't linked to further information.

Until I was prodded by Grant's ribbing, I didn't think much of it. It didn't even occur to me that this might have been the same study that Miriam Kramer had previous written and tweeted about, albeit with the slightly less shocking result that 57% experience verbal harassment in astronomy. (Since the results were different and Kramer presented it as something less than a "large scale survey", they really didn't seem like the same piece of research.) And anyway, I'm not a huge fan of survey-driven social research, and considered this just another piece of overblown science writing about an underpowered study that happened to reach an ideologically convenient conclusion. Without the actual study, I couldn't be sure whether the underpowering or the overblowing was the main problem, so I just took the, I thought, uncontroversial (because it is Urry's) position that, as a matter of empirical fact, we don't know how big the problem of sexual harassment in astronomy is, nor how it compares to the rest of science or how it compares to other professions.

But with Grant's spur in my side, if you will, I took a closer look. Here's what Siegel had originally written:

At the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS)last week, the results of the first large­scale survey from the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) were released, with over 400 astronomers responding. What they found was shocking:

•That more than 75% of women, people of color, and LGBTQ­identifying individuals had reported being harassed and discriminated against for being a woman, a person of color, or LGBTQ.
•That more than 75% overheard overt, derogatory remarks among their colleagues directed against women or other minorities.
•That more than 75% of them also reported skipping conferences, seminars or other opportunities for professional development because of a pattern of harassment and a culture that accepts it as part of the norm.
•And that again, more than 75%, said that they were reluctant to speak out because of the negative ramifications on their careers that would ensue.

These four results are, as Janek rightly tweeted, shocking ("!!!") individually. But they are outright incredible taken together. That a representative survey of the astronomy community would find that three quarters of them "[skip] conferences, seminars or other opportunities for professional development because of a pattern of harassment and a culture that accepts it as part of the norm" is nightmarish, just as the idea that 75% of various groups reported being harassed and (not or) discriminated against for being a member of that group. It's not surprising that 75% would also report being reluctant to report anything, but, given all this, it was immediately odd to me to see that only 75% had "overheard overt, derogatory remarks". You would think that anyone who is actually being harassed is also, now and then, overhearing something derogatory being said about them. You would would expect this number to closer to 100% if the others are at 75%.

There were two possible simple explanations, one of which I didn't really think of until after the first proved to be unable to solve the mystery. Perhaps this was a self-selected sample; perhaps this was an online survey and 75% of the respondents had in fact been seriously harassed, while the rest hadn't experienced any notable issues. As it turns out, the sample does suffer from being self-selected, but not nearly as much as Siegel's post seemed to suggest. Rather, Siegel had simply gotten the results wrong. So wrong, in fact, that it's unclear what his basis ever was for the original post.

Like I say, this next part irks me. I tweeted Siegel, asking him whether he could point me in the direction of the study, and telling him briefly what I've just explained puzzled me. He told me that the study would be published in the spring, and that he'd only seen the conference presentation, not the actual report. He helpfully suggested that while I wait I could "listen to the women who tell their stories." I thanked him and said that I'd probably just contact the authors of the study. Which I did. I wrote a mail to Christina Richey, explaining my concern with the numbers reported in Siegel's article, which I linked to. As I understand it, Grant also contacted Richey through Twitter.

I still haven't heard back from Richey, but Siegel's story has been "updated" in what is to me a highly dishonest manner. Here's what it now says about the CSWA survey:

At the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) last week, the results of the first large-scale survey from the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) were released, with over 400 astronomers responding. (Note, this post has been updated with additional, more accurate information based on the preliminary results that have been publicly released.) What they found was shocking:

•That more than 82% of all respondents (including men, women, people of color, and LGBTQ-identifying individuals) had reported hearing sexist remarks from someone that they worked with, with a full 44% reporting hearing it from their advisor.
•That 57% reported being personally, verbally harassed (and 9% physically harassed) because of their gender.
•That 24% of all respondents reported feeling unsafe in their workplace because of their gender.
•And of that 24%, more than 75% of those also reported skipping conferences, seminars or other opportunities for professional development because of a pattern of harassment and a culture that accepts it as part of the norm.

Seeing this I was at first pleased. Siegel had reacted to my request, found the source he needed, and corrected his post accordingly. This sort of thing is (or at least should be) normal in science and journalism. But on closer inspection I found his "update" a bit weaselly. (The update also includes mistakes, like that 75% of 24% skipping events. But more on that later.) When he says that "this post has been updated with additional, more accurate information based on the preliminary results that have been publicly released," the reader might easily think that the previous results were not wrong, just imprecisely (cf. "more accurate") or incompletely (cf. "additional") stated, and that Siegel, in any case, should be excused because he didn't have the information at the time of writing.

This appearance is misleading. On January 7, Miriam Kramer had reported the CSWA survey's results at Mashable, providing a link to the publicly available slides. So I expressed my disappointment that Siegel had called it an "update", not a "correction" on Twitter and added a somewhat huffy "you're welcome", also on behalf of @ticobias, who had located the study before Siegel had updated the post.

Not only did he not thank us, he refused to thank us. And he said something that I found still more irksome about this conversation. Siegel claimed that his correction had not resulted from our intervention, but from a request by "one of the authors", whom he wouldn't name. He also wouldn't say when the request was made, but since my mail to Richey had included a link to his post, I feel confident in guessing that it followed immediately after she received it. She did not respond to me, but apparently asked Siegel to stop inflating her study's results. I followed up with another mail, and then, when I noticed that she had blocked me on Twitter, a final mail to her and her co-author Kathryn Clancy, politely stating my frustration with their refusal to discuss their results. I have received no answer, but I'm now also blocked by Clancy.

Out of curiosity I also tweeted Vanessa Janek to hear what she thought of the revised figures. She said that "lower numbers are good" but it's still an "enormous" problem. That our sense of the "enormity" of our problems is insensitive to whether 3/4, 1/2 or 1/3 of respondents in a survey say they experience it [is] puzzling to me. It's like the numbers don't really matter. And that's actually what Meg Urry has openly said in her column at the AAS: "Even though the vast majority of astronomers are not serial harassers, I know the number of bad actors isn’t 0 or 1. And even one is one too many" (my emphasis). It makes you wonder why a survey was even necessary.

No one who is calling for action on #astroSH, sometimes (but not so much any more) on the basis of the CSWA study, is willing to discuss these issues with me. Siegel's Twitter account, like his very popular blog, is called Starts With A Bang. That phrase, of course, immediately evokes another—T.S. Eliot's famous closing lines in "The Hollow Men":

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Some of us, of course, are trying not to let it go down that way.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

How Often Are You Harassed?

The title of this post is deliberately provocative in an attempt to draw attention to another puzzling feature of the CSWA survey of sexual harassment in astronomy. In her introductory comments, Christina Richey tells us that the survey questions were "confined to experiences in their current and previous positions within the past 5 years only" (slide 5). She reports that 102/426 (or 24% of) respondents answered that they "feel or have ever felt" unsafe in their current position because of their gender (slide 11). Finally, we're told that 46 respondents had found it necessary to skip work-related events because they felt unsafe (slide 12). That's 11% of the sample.

It's tempting to say that it's also 45% of the 24% who felt unsafe because of gender (46/102 = 45%). But another 72 reported feeling unsafe for other reasons. Perhaps some of these represent individuals with multiple reasons to feel unsafe. So we can only conclude that between 26% and 45% of the respondents [who felt unsafe also] felt it necessary to skip something [because of that feeling].

Let me pause to say that this is a good issue to raise. It's good to be able to compare people merely "feeling" unsafe to people who are taking action to protect themselves against a perceived threat. It lets us think about how serious the threat is perceived to be.

The puzzle arises when we ask how often they've had to stay away from an event for fear of their safety. The question reads: "In your current position, how many classes/meetings/conferences/field work/opportunities/etc. have you skipped per month because of feeling unsafe?" (slide 12). And the options given are "1 to 2", "2 to 3" (small issues of overlap there, but I'll ignore it), "4 to 5" and "6 or more". Remember, this is per month and in your "current position" but going back as far as five years. And the question that set this up asked whether they currently or had ever felt unsafe.

6 people, or 1.5% of the sample, said that they had skipped something out of safety concerns "6 or more" times per month. But how long did this go on? Up to five years? That certainly sounds horrifying, but it is also unlikely. It is possible that this describes a crisis period during which action was also taken to deal with the harassing behavior.

The other cases, in which people skip something 1 to 3 times/per month account for wholly 39 of the cases. This means that 89% of astronomers apparently never[rarely] have to skip something for reasons of safety. And 98.5% do so never or rarely.*

It would have been easier to interpret this if it had simply asked, "How often do you skip something in fear for your safety (once a year, twice a year, every other month, every month, twice a month, every week...etc.)?" We'd then get a sense of how many people are currently behaving as though they are perceiving a serious threat, and we could compare that to the amount of people who are feeling such a threat. (That's not to discount their feelings; it's merely to indicate two facts that are worth comparing.)

This all goes back to the puzzle about the definition of harassment. The CSWA study defines harassment (slides 2 and 4) as any unwanted behavior (based on gender, race, disability, etc.), no matter how severe, pervasive or effectively threatening it is. That lets them survey people on how often they are verbally "harassed", and let's them tell us that 81 (19%) are "rarely" thus harassed. But if harassment is severe andor pervasive unwanted behavior, it is hard to understand how a rare (even quite) abusive comment can be considered harassment. (Though it can certainly be considered abusive.)

Harassment, I thought, was a serious kind of workplace abuse, a violation of your civil rights. The CSWA study doesn't seem to be calibrated to separate serious from non-serious cases, severe and prevalent behavior from mild and rare behavior. This is unfortunate because the issue it deals with really is serious and the questions it raises are good ones.

[Acknowledgement: I'm grateful to @ticobas for helping me think these issues through.]

*Federico Prat Villar has rightly pointed out that my original interpretation was somewhat "strange". He's being kind, actually. What the data actually seems to show is that 89% skip something for safety reasons less than once a month, not that they never do. Wholly 11% of respondents say they skip something at least once per month, though only 1.5% say they skip something more than 3 times. Federico is right to say that skipping something less than 4 times per month is probably not best understood as doing it "rarely".

Saturday, January 23, 2016

What All the Numbers in the Harassment Study in Ethan Siegel's Post at Forbes Probably Don't Really Mean Afterall

[Update: this criticism has had the useful (if still unacknowledged) effect of correcting a widely published error in the preliminary presentation of the CSWA survey. The 57% percent figure that is cited in this post has now been corrected in the AAS presentation slides. The correct value is 32%.]

In "What All The Harassment Stories In Astronomy Really Mean", Ethan Siegel points to a CWSA study in which "57% [of respondents] reported being personally, verbally harassed (and 9% physically harassed) because of their gender." Slides from a presentation of the results at this year's AAS conference can be downloaded at the Southwest Research Institute's website.

With the slides on hand, Siegel's statement provides an excellent insight into the way the problem of sexual harassment is being constructed. I would have said "exaggerated" but that is both needlessly polemical and, ironically, a sort of understatement. We seem to be witnessing the construction of another science writing factoid here.

On physical "harassment" (please see my previous post to understand the scare quotes), Siegel seems to be referring to slide 9 in the presentation. [Update: astonishingly, the slides havebeen changed without any official corrigendum. Some slides have been changed, others have been removed. This one now appears as slide 6. I've written about this issue here. I hesitate to call it fraud, but it does amount to altering a dated document.]

Here we learn that 27/426 report being "rarely" physically harassed [based on gender], and 8/426 report that it happens "sometimes". The number for "often" is not given, but 9% of 426 is 38.34. If we subtract 35 (27 + 8) from that we get 3.34. Since it has to be a whole number it must be 3 or 4. Which means that less than one percent of respondents report being physically harassed often at work.

I would have reported this as good news. Keep in mind that we don't even know exactly what "physical harassment" involves here, but presumably sneaking up on a woman and snapping her bra would count. If the study is taken to be representative* then we can conclude that even that sort of thing hardly ever happens in astronomy.

The same goes for verbal "harassment", which is covered on slide 8. (The 57% factoid was also interesting enough for Miriam Kramer to tweet it.)

Here it's 81/426 (19%) that say it happens "rarely" and 48/426 (11%) that say it happens "sometimes". And here, again, we have to work out for ourselves how many respondents experience it "often". But now it gets a bit puzzling (HT @ticobas****). To get 57% we're missing 27% or 115 respondents. But that section of the bar doesn't suggest that the "often" group is bigger than the other two. So it's either an error in the graph or a typo in the total percentage. If it's an error in the graph, it would be the only result in which more people experienced something "often" than experienced the same thing "rarely", so I'm going to discount that possibility and suppose that the graph is right and the percentage is wrong.**

We can work out the true number of people who experienced verbal "harassment" often, by comparing the length of each section of the bar. The "often" section is about 1/14 of the whole bar. This means that the 129 responses that are already graphed account for 13/14 of the total, meaning that the length of the "often" section represents about 10 respondents. That's about 2.3%. So this result is probably closer to 3233%*** having been "verbally harassed" at all, and in fact over 97% percent experiencing it never, rarely or only sometimes.

If you want to take the "sometimes" more seriously than I do, that's okay. But then you should report that 87% of respondents report experiencing verbal harassment rarely or not at all. Certainly, it is misleading (and probably outright false) to simply say that "57% [of respondents] reported being personally, verbally harassed," which, again, is what Ethan Siegel would have us believe.

*I have my doubts about how representative the study is of the population of astronomers. I suspect there is some self-selection bias in the sample, which makes even 1% a high estimate of the real situation. In Miriam Kramer's piece at Mashable about the study, Christina Richey confirms that the sample was self-selected and, as Kramer puts it, "the scope of the data collected is limited," but nonetheless insists that "it is still representative of a problem in the field." I'm not entirely sure what she means by that. I have emailed Richey for information about the methodology of the study and will of course blog about it when I hear from her.

**I should be upfront here and say that quite a bit hinges on this assumption. After all, it would have been a sufficiently shocking result if wholly 27% of respondents did in fact often experience verbal harassment. Siegel could have reported that number with equal rhetorical effect.

***A rounding error. Thanks, @ticobas, for catching it.

****The original post credited @shubclimate with noticing this. But it was @ticobas who was the first to see it.