Thursday, July 27, 2017

Is Astronomy a Hostile Workplace for Women and Minorities?

The authors of a recent paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research think so. In a survey they conducted in early 2015, astronomers reported how often they heard negative language, experienced verbal and physical harassment, felt unsafe, and skipped work activities due to concerns about their safety.

88% of respondents reported hearing negative language from peers at their current career position, 51.9% reported hearing negative language from supervisors, and 88% reported hearing negative language from others. Thirty-nine percent of respondents report experiencing verbal harassment at their current position, and 9% report experiencing physical harassment. Twenty-seven percent of respondents report that they have felt unsafe at their current position, and 11% report that at their current position they have skipped attending at least one professional event such as a class, meeting, conference, or fieldwork opportunity because they felt unsafe attending.

They go on to say that their results "suggest there is not only a hostile climate in the astronomical community but that the community is experienced differently depending on one’s gender and race." The paper has received broad coverage in the press,* where "widespread harassment" in astronomy is now reported as an established fact. "The sciences are overwhelmingly hostile to women," wrote Rae Paolotta at Gizmodo, "and in astronomy, it’s doubly bad for women of color." Kate Clancy, the lead author of the paper, called it "great piece" on Twitter.**

The astronomy community appears not to have any objections to this characterization. The American Astronomical Society and the American Geophysical Union issued a joint statement, acknowledging the findings and promising "positive change". When I asked the executive director of AAS, Kevin Marvel, to comment specifically about the paper's claim that there is "a hostile climate in the astronomical community" he offered the following response:

We are glad the report has come out and it is now important for the community think carefully about the information it presents and the resultant recommendations. Although we have made good progress in some areas regarding harassment, there is more to do, and reports like this play an important role in moving the ball forward as we say in the US. We will use this, and other sources of information and recommendations to constantly work toward ensuring a professional environment free of harassment. Let us hope we achieve it sooner rather than later.

As far as I know, no one other than me has publicly challenged the assertion that astronomy is a hostile workplace for women and minorities. If the representatives of the astronomy community wanted to defend its members and its culture against this charge it could easily do so by looking more closely at the results. The AAS's Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy sponsored the survey, and one the authors is a member, so I assume they have access to the raw data. As I never tire of pointing out, this would allow them to disaggregate the results according to the never/rarely/sometimes/often scale of the questionnaire. Since the authors of the study completely ignore me, I have been estimating what this would reveal based on the slides of the preliminary results that were presented at DPS in 2015 and AAS in 2016.

Here is why I don't believe the hype. Although 39% reported verbal harassment, less than 13% appears to have reported it occurring more than "rarely", and less than 2% seem to have reported it happening often. That's about seven people in a sample with a strong self-selection bias towards people who have something to report, including witnesses and allies, and an (intentional) oversampling of women. In the most extreme self-selection scenario we can imagine, everyone in the astronomy community who feels they're often harassed would have reported. In that case, .07% of astronomers (pop. 10,000) experience verbal harassment often. I estimate the upper bound on the amount who experience verbal harassment often at 60 people (2% of female astronomers); in that case, about .6% of astronomers (men and women) experience verbal harassment often.

A similar approach applies to all the other results. First we disagreggate the total percentage into never/rarely/sometimes/often and discover that a majority of respondents in the sample report the measured experiences of "hostility" never or rarely. Next, to get a realistic sense of prevalence in the whole population of astronomers, we adjust (always downwards) for the self-selection of victims, witnesses and allies, and the oversampling of women.

I believe astronomers are being let down on multiple fronts. Journalists are clearly not covering this story in an impartial, or even competent, manner. They are not applying even a modicum of skepticism to some obviously sensational claims being published with obvious political ambitions. They don't seem to have even a basic understanding of sampling bias or the now very well-known problems associated with significance testing. (We'll get to that in another post.) Social science is also letting astronomers down by making overblown claims based on underpowered studies and promoting their spread through the media. The journal editors and reviewers here also don't seem to have thought about the reputations of astronomers, either as a field or as individuals, when accepting this study for publication (and promoting it thereafter). Finally, I think the political bodies that are supposed to tend to the interests of astronomers have let their membership down. Not only did the AAS fund this study, they have not offered any critical pushback on behalf of the community it smears as steeped in sexism and racism.

All this, of course, is just my opinion as an outsider looking on a field that I used look at with awe and envy. I hope astronomers will find a way to get their house in order. To riff on Kevin Marvel's statement: let us hope they achieve it sooner rather than later. I am here to help in any way I can.

*Here are some representative headlines: "Women of color face staggering harassment in space science" (Sarah Kaplan, WaPo). "Women of Color in Astronomy Face Greater Degree of Discrimination, Harassment" (Calla Cofield, "Survey data point to widespread problems" (Colleen Flaherty, IHE). "There’s a lot of bias in astronomy" (Angela Chen, The Verge). "Female astronomers of colour face daunting discrimination" (Rachael Lallensack, Nature). "A new survey of astronomers and planetary scientists reveals a workplace harassment problem in the space sciences" (Francie Diep, Pacific Standard). "Unprecedented study reveals widespread bias in space science, and it's particularly terrible for women of color" (Miriam Kramer, Mashable). "Astronomer survey reveals gender and racial harassment" (Michael Banks, Physics World). "Widespread harassment reported in astronomer survey" (Toni Feder, Physics Today).
**Update: I forgot to mention that Clancy endorsed Paelotta's article even though it got the study's methodology completely wrong. "Clancy and her team surveyed 474 astronomers and planetary scientists between 2011 and 2014," says Paolotta, though the study was conducted from January to March of 2015. "All subjects identified as women or non-binary," she also says, though the sample was almost one third male.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Here's question 7 of the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey:

In your current position, how often have you been VERBALLY harassed because of the following characteristics?

{Choices include: Often, Sometimes, Rarely, Never}
Race or Ethnicity
Physical Disability Status
Mental Disability Status
Sexual Orientation
Gender Identity(Cisgender or Transgender)
Gender (Female, Male, or Non-binary)
Religion or Lack Thereof

Question 9 has the same form, with "PHYSICALLY" replacing "VERBALLY". Now, here's hypothesis 1:

Female respondents will report more verbal and physical harassment than men.

This sentence appears in the first paragraph of the results section:

Thirty-nine percent of respondents report experiencing verbal harassment at their current position, and 9% report experiencing physical harassment.

And this one appears in their support for hypothesis 1:

Women were also significantly more likely than men to report that they experienced both verbal and physical harassment because of their gender.

I have underlined that phrase because it draws attention to the glaring absence in the questionnaire of a "characteristic" that is likely to have been focus of harassment directed at white male astronomers. Indeed, though the paper doesn't tell us this (we know it only from Christina Richey's preliminary presentations at DPS in 2015 and AAS in 2016), race and gender account for the great majority of characteristics that people felt they had been harassed for. In the case of verbal harassment, they account for 65% of the reports. In the case of physical harassment they account for more than 80%.

For obvious reasons white male astronomers are not likely to report being victims of harassment because of their race or gender. If they are also straight, cisgendered, protestant, able-bodied and do not suffer from mental illness, they would seem to have no way to report their experiences on the survey. And yet, surely, they might experience harassment. Most commonly, they will experience verbal (and at times physical) harassment by professional rivals, for whom they are competing for publication, promotion and research funding. This basis for harassment has been completely excluded from the Workplace Climate Survey. The questionnaire did not even provide a generic "other" characteristic in which to report harassment.

Now, if the hypotheses tested had confined themselves to race- and gender-based forms of harassment, this wouldn't be such a big problem. Except that the conclusion that women and people of color experience more gender- and race-based harassment than white men is a bit underwhelming. But Clancy et al. claim to have found support for hypothesis 1, and they are promoting the result widely as suggesting that women, and women of color, experience more harassment than men full stop. As it turns out, this conclusion emerges from a measurement instrument that excluded the most typical experiences of harassment among white men.

I'm going to take some time to think about the consequences of this. But my initial reaction is that it completely undermines the validity of the survey, given the hypotheses it claims to be testing. Also, it raises the interesting question of whether women and minorities experience harassment based on professional rivalry (they would also not be able to report it). And that, finally, raises a question that concerns me greatly: is it possible that women and minorities are getting the axis of their harassment wrong? Is it possible that they experience harassment that is really grounded in ordinary competition as grounded in racism and sexism? If so, surveys like this are distracting them from the fight they should be fighting; and this, ultimately, will be to their disadvantage.

Comments are welcome, as always.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Hypothesis 0

According to Clancy et al., the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey was designed to test four hypotheses:

1. Female respondents will report more verbal and physical harassment than men.
2. Respondents of color will report more verbal and physical harassment than white respondents.
3. Trainees will report more verbal and physical harassment than those scientists of a higher rank.
4. Women of color experience double jeopardy where they are especially at risk for verbal and physical harassment compared to white women or men of color.

While they do not make the null hypothesis explicit, it is clear that they are testing these against their simple negation. That is, the null to be rejected is that men and women, whites and non-whites, trainees and seniors, will experience equal amounts of verbal and physical harassment.

This null, I want to argue, is not very compelling. To see why, consider what these hypotheses would look like if they were not about the sample (i.e., the "respondents") but about the population (i.e., "astronomers"). Here we need to add some information to capture the wording of the survey that the respondents were responding to, fixing both the situation and the basis of the harassment (I have marked the additions with square brackets):

1. Female astronomers experience more verbal and physical harassment [from other astronomers based on their gender] than male astronomers.
2. Astronomers of color experience more verbal and physical harassment [from other astronomers based on their gender or race] than white astronomers.
3. Astronomers in training experience more verbal and physical harassment [from other astronomers based on their gender or race] than astronomers of a higher rank.
4. Female astronomers of color experience double jeopardy where they are especially at risk for verbal and physical harassment [from other astronomers based on their gender or race] compared to white female or male astronomers.

This, it should be noted, is roughly how the results have been presented to the public by press releases and news coverage. But the importance of turning the hypotheses into statements about astronomers lies in pointing to what we can call the Astronomy Effect on the likelihood of experiencing verbal and physical harassment. Does becoming an astronomer expose you to a particular risk of such harassment? Consider four hypotheses about the general population:

1. Women experience more gender-based verbal and physical harassment than men.
2. People of color experience more race-based verbal and physical harassment than white people.
3. Trainees experience more race- and gender-based verbal and physical harassment than people of a higher rank.
4. Women of color experience double jeopardy where they are especially at risk for gender- or race-based verbal and physical harassment compared to white women and men.

It would be surprising if these statements weren't true in the general population, right? So the implicit null of the CSWA survey was that joining the astronomy community would completely eradicate race- and gender-based differences. Why would we begin there? Why would we not begin with the reasonable hypothesis that becoming an astronomer would reduce your exposure to the risk of harassment, and rising in the ranks of astronomy would reduce it still further? We might then be distraught, as Clancy and Richey have said they were, to learn that it actually has no effect on your chances of being harassed, or, indeed, actually increases it.

Such an effect (which I think is unlikely, but possible) could be explained by the continuing, if shrinking, gender and race disparities in astronomy. If becoming an astronomer increases her exposure to the company of men, she might find her exposure to harassment increase as well. Likewise, by deciding to join the community of astronomers, people of color will generally be exposing themselves to the company of white people. If their baseline experience has been among people of color, they might well experience a change similar to moving from a black to a white community.

My point isn't to argue for or defend any level of harassment. My point is just that a null hypothesis does not have to have a zero value. It just has to suggest a zero effect on the dependent variable of the hypothesized force, which, here, as far as I can tell, is the particular "hostility" that the astronomical community allegedly directs toward women and minorities. Even if astronomers are not particularly hostile to women and minorities, I want to say, we would expect them to experience more gender- and race-based harassment than white men in the same field. It's just that we'd expect the overall level of that harassment to go down when they are at work.

Finally, I would assume that the baseline level of race-based and gender-based harassment that white men face (before going into astronomy) is quite low (almost by definition, you'll note) and might drop to virtually zero in the protected space of the observatory. In a small sample, it's hard to predict what this will do for the statistical significance of the disparity between genders and races. Indeed, I suspect (but I will deal with this in latter post) that the low p-values (often < 0.001) stem from the fact that we are comparing groups that (again, essentially by definition) don't face the relevant form of harassment with those who actually might.* All this seems completely obvious to me and I'm at a loss to understand how an esteemed scientific journal like JGR:Planets came to publish the result in the form it did. Again, I'm happy to hear from people who think I'm wrong. Quantitative analysis isn't my strong suit either.

*Think, for example, of what would happen if we compared unqualified harassment of men and women in the general population. I think we would find that men get pushed around, as it were, as often as women. They just don't experience this as having anything to do with being men. This survey did not give white men much room to report these experiences.

Was the CSWA survey confined to recent experiences?

As I mentioned in my last post, a commenter on my first post on its publication pointed out that it does not seem true that the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey asked respondents to confine themselves to the years 2011-2015 when answering the questions. Clancy et al. are, it should be noted, adamant on this score:

At this time, we want to remind the reader that the findings of this study cannot be attributed to events from long ago: respondents were asked to only report experiences they had had in their current career position over the last 5 years. The events and experiences reported in this survey happened between 2011 and 2015. (p. 11)

But here is what respondents were told in the cover letter to the survey:

The survey is designed to request information during the respondent's current position and previous position (if the respondent has changed positions within the last five years). [...]

Directions: Please respond to Section 1 regarding your personal experiences in your current position. If you have changed career positions in the past five years, then please also complete Section 2 regarding your personal experiences in your previous position.

This does not seem to me to confine responses to the years 2011-2015. (While it's ultimately a moot point, do notice that "the last 5 years" would cover 2010-2014, not 2011-2015, since the survey was administered in early 2015.) If a respondent had been working somewhere for, say, 15 years they would reasonably interpret this as covering the whole time there. If they have changed position within five years, they are being asked to answer also for the entire time of their previous position. In other words, they are being asked to think back at least five years, not at most.

This strikes me as a serious issue, especially given Clancy et al.'s "reminder" to the reader. If the frequency of experiences is really spread over, say, 20 years and the analysis assumes they are concentrated within 5 years, this will strongly distort the result. If anyone knows what I'm getting wrong here, do let me know in the comments.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The CSWA Survey in Plain Language

It's going to take a bit of work to properly critique the the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey as published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. In this post, I want to take a sentence-by-sentence look at the plain language summary. In later posts, I will elaborate on each point by way of a critique of the substance of the paper. I have already pointed out that the press releases spin the survey in ways that the paper itself belies. As it turns out, this spin is also present in the summary. Indeed, it is also present in the abstract, but slightly more subtly. Like I say, I will go through it one sentence at a time.

Women generally, and women of color specifically, have reported hostile workplace experiences in astronomy and related fields for some time.

This is, of course, true. As Kate Clancy has noted elsewhere, it's true of every field of human endeavor, and it is true of all races and genders. Everyone has experienced hostility at work. Work is done by humans in human environments and hostility is a human capacity. Indeed, humans are "capable" of hostility in both directions: they can dish it out and they can take. In short, the first sentence is a truism. The second sentence gestures at something less trivial.

However, little is known of the extent to which individuals in these disciplines experience inappropriate remarks, harassment, and assault.

It's true that this specific question hasn't been studied directly in astronomy. But there is some evidence to suggest that astronomy and related fields are not especially hostile places, specifically to women. (Women of color are, as is often noted, very underrepresented in astronomy and do seem to get lost in such studies.) One study found that women don't think about leaving the discipline more frequently than men; another found that, while they are 1.64 times more likely to have negative experiences than men, the average level of hostility was on the order of occasionally hearing a sexist joke. But it must be granted that the extent to which individuals have particular experiences is not well understood. The next sentence implies that this study will do something about this gap in our knowledge.

We conducted an internet-based survey of the workplace experiences of 474 astronomers and planetary scientists between 2011 and 2015.*

What they here imply is misleading since the paper explicitly states that "these data cannot provide a direct assessment of prevalence". That is, their "plain language summary", presumably intended for the non-expert (or journalist) gets the reader to think that they have done a study to gain the knowledge we lack, even though the authors are well aware that the study was precisely not designed to gain that knowledge, i.e., knowledge of the "the extent" (prevalence) of hostility in astronomy. That is of course also why they don't present general findings of prevalence, only comparisons of groups within the sample:

In this sample, in nearly every significant finding, women of color experienced the highest rates of negative workplace experiences, including harassment and assault.

This may seem like a quibble, but it is worth noting: the survey asked about "verbal harassment" and "physical harassment", not harassment and assault. They don't actually know the extent to which people in their sample were reporting assaults, except on a definition of assault in which any unwanted touching constitutes an assault (I'll discuss this in another post). Note that we are not told whether they experienced these things at a generally high or low rate, mainly because the study sets no threshold to make such judgments. The next sentence does report some alarming levels of hostility, however.

Further, women of color reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex 40% of the time, and as a result of their race 28% of the time.

This sentence is simply a misinterpretation of the relevant result. It distorts and exaggerates their actual finding, as stated in the abstract: "40% of women of color reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex, and 28% of women of color reported feeling unsafe as a result of their race." That is, it is not true that respondents felt unsafe 40% of the time; rather, 40% of respondents felt unsafe some of the time—or, more accurately, had felt unsafe at some time in the past. Indeed, they were specifically asked whether they had "ever felt unsafe" in their current position (see also footnote*). Answering "yes" here says nothing about how long or how often they felt unsafe. If 40% of respondents had ever felt unsafe, surely the population doesn't feel unsafe 40% of the time.

Finally, 18% of women of color, and 12% of white women, skipped professional events because they did not feel safe attending, identifying a significant loss of career opportunities due to a hostile climate.

As far as I can tell, this is a completely accurate summary of the result. I have said before that this is an important one, since it shows that there is a difference between feeling unsafe and doing something about it. It has been established in other studies that women feel more unsafe than men (even when both sexes feel very safe) and it stands to reason that this would translate into more absenteeism among women. It needs to be stressed that the survey found that only 9% of respondents reported "physical harassment", i.e., arguably an actual violation of personal safety. This suggests that women generally feel less safe than they are. This isn't a particularly surprising result, especially in a climate where women are told (by scientists and politicians) that harassment is "rampant". This study, of course, is one of the things that might be making women feel unsafe. Indeed, the authors say women are unsafe explicitly:

Our results suggest that certain community members may be at additional risk of hostile workplace experiences due to their gender, race, or both.

My standing objection to this way of putting it is that it does not account for the fact that "certain community members" would be in other environments if they were not doing astronomy. The authors don't give us any way to decide what the comparative ("additional") risk of hostile work experiences would be if they went into banking, politics or even another scientific discipline. As I said at the outset, there is a risk of hostility in any human environment. If a woman of color took away from this study that she best stay out of astronomy and choose another line of work then that would be a reasonable, if tragic, conclusion to draw from the "plain language" of this summary for the public. But, since the study itself eschews any claims about prevalence, it is not actually a reasonable conclusion to draw from the survey itself. I think that is a serious problem in the communication of this result to the public. It is not only astronomers that should take issue with this; the whole ear of the public is rankly abused.

Like I say, I will be looking at the paper more closely to support these various points of criticism and raise a few more in future posts. As is my custom, I will also be asking the authors for comment. To my knowledge, there has so far not been any serious criticism of the study in the press or the science blogs. It would be to Clancy's credit if she engaged with at least one critic as part of the discussion she so insists it is important to have. But I am not holding my breath.

*I will cover this in a separate post, but as a commenter on my last post pointed out, it does not seem true that the survey asked respondents to confine themselves to the years 2011-2015. As I read the questionnaire, the respondents might well have thought they were being asked "Have you ever experienced...?" I believe that the authors thought they had limited the responses in this way. But I don't think the respondents would generally understand it as limited to five years.

Monday, July 10, 2017

CSWA Study Published

The CSWA Workplace Climate Survey has finally been published. I've been following it since early 2016 and, since its authors wouldn't answer any of my questions, I've been impatiently waiting for the report. Well, here it is:

Clancy, K. B. H., K. M. N. Lee, E. M. Rodgers, and C. Richey (2017), Double jeopardy in astronomy and planetary science: Women of color face greater risks of gendered and racial harassment, J. Geophys. Res. Planets, 122, doi:10.1002/2017JE005256.

The PR push appears to be well-organized. But I notice that the subheadings of the UIL press release and the EOS interview both get the results wrong. UIL says the survey found "widespread bias"; EOS says it "reveal[s] the prevalence" of harassment in astronomy. The paper, however, says that "these data cannot provide a direct assessment of prevalence”, noting that "prevalence studies are exceedingly uncommon in research of this nature," which is true. (To their credit, the AGU and AAS get this right in their joint press release.)

In lieu of determining prevalence, the authors say* they tested four hypotheses, which I can't distinguish from the null or prior I would construct in such a study:

1. Female respondents will report more verbal and physical harassment than men.

2. Respondents of color will report more verbal and physical harassment than white respondents.

3. Trainees will report more verbal and physical harassment than those scientists of a higher rank.

4. Women of color experience double jeopardy where they are especially at risk for verbal and physical harassment compared to white women or men of color.

This isn't something that stands in need of empirical evidence. What we want to know is how astronomy compares with other fields of human endeavor. That is, we want to know whether astronomy provides a more or (as I suspect) less hostile environment for women of color than other fields. Indeed, we'd probably just be testing whether astronomy is generally less hostile for humans than other contexts. It's not going to ensure your safety 100% but it's probably a pretty good choice if it's hostility you're trying to avoid. Especially, indeed, if you're a woman of color.

Finally, it looks like a great deal is going to be made of the finding that "88% of respondents reported hearing negative language from peers". But this number does not distinguish between reports of hearing this sort of language "rarely", "sometimes" or "often". That is, the great majority of respondents reported that it is heard rarely or never. I'm going to look more closely at this in the days to come. (It actually seems a bit more complicated to disaggregate this particular result than the preliminary ones.) I just wanted to get my initial reaction out there now to encourage people to be critical in their reception of this survey. After all, the greatest respect you can pay to a scientific result is to critique it.

*I'm suspicious about whether these hypotheses had been stated explicitly before the survey was designed. They were not part of Christina Richey's 2015 and 2016 presentations of the data. If I'm right about this, there are some pretty serious "degrees of freedom" in their framing. Since the authors do emphasize their p-values, there's a risk that these hypotheses are a result of p-hacking their data.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Basic Income, Open Borders

In my utopia money is created as a basic income and collected as a single tax on land. The tax centers, as it were, the wheel of circulation by giving landowners a reason to produce something that consumers want to give them money for. There would be no sales tax and no tax on income, which only complicate the free exchange of goods, services and labor. Since every citizen has a guaranteed basic income, minimum wage laws and welfare payments could be abolished altogether. It's often said that this utopia cuts across the division between left and right by abolishing poverty while supporting free enterprise. Could it also bring the left and right together on immigration?

That's the question I want to consider in this post. I used to think that the left would have to accept strict immigration controls in exchange for the basic income. But I think this missed an important consequence of the system I'm proposing. In my utopia, everyone would be able to find a place to live that leaves them enough money after paying rent to eat. I'm imagining that the basic income would be set just below what a person would make if working full-time at the minimum wage. The lowest paying jobs, meanwhile would fall well below the current minimum wage. This means that, from the point of view of someone who has no UBI but is working a minimum wage job, rents would be incredibly high. In order to survive on a minimum wage job you'd have to work way more than full-time, perhaps more than 24/7.

Needless to say, that would take the incentive out of immigrating to my utopia. At least the incentive to immigrate illegally without the prospect of good job. It is possible to imagine someone without UBI working full time to earn the same as a citizen who doesn't work at all. But it's hard to imagine that citizens wouldn't be supplementing their income by providing a few hours of cheap labor every week. In other words, the bottom would fall out of the exploitative labor market because people who are unexploitable would gladly take those jobs to earn a bit of extra cash for luxuries and vacations.

Also, there is no illegal labor market. Without sales or income taxes, all exchanges of (legal) goods and services would be aboveboard, since the government doesn't have to know about any of them. That means you can't even offer your employer "off-book" labor. Everything is off book in the relevant sense. No one is ashamed of any of their economic transactions.

From the point of view of the potential immigrant, my utopia is not a "land of opportunity" at all. The only way it becomes attractive is through legal immigration: it would attract very hardworking, very self-reliant people who are willing to apply formally and then apply themselves over a number of years towards earning citizenship and therefore the UBI. Someone living in the shadows would see only very high rents (even at the low end of the market) and very low wages. It would simply not be an attractive place to live unofficially.

I've been thinking of this as, not the Wall, but the Platform. It would allow people to cross the borders physically as they please on very expensive vacations or, in some cases, as investments in their future, bringing savings into play in order to ascend to the very high living standard in Utopia. Immigration policy would be all about deciding how many new citizenships should be granted every year, i.e., how many more people should be given the UBI, and on what criteria they should be granted. There would be no need to have any draconian border controls since there would be every incentive to apply formally for citizenship and no incentive to live in my utopia without it.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Single Tax, Basic Income

People will always have a hard time understanding universal basic income (UBI) as long as it is presented as an improvement on (or a replacement of) the welfare system. When presented as a fiscal policy—a government spending program—people will, rightly, wonder how it will be funded. But basic income should be understood as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the fiscal and monetary systems, as well as a restructuring of capital and finance. It is not a panacea, I sometimes say, but it is somewhat utopian. It's a big idea.

First, let the state issue money (i.e., create it) as basic income. Yes, that means the "funding" question is answered by simply "printing" (digitally) the money required. If you are handing out, say, one thousand dollars every month to every adult American then that means printing about 250 billion dollars per month! That is a lot of fresh money and will, of course, have an inflationary effect if not checked by some countervailing measure. Indeed, without such measures, the money would be essentially worthless.

So we must require that only US dollars can be used to pay a single tax on the unimproved rental value of land. That would give every landowner (including homeowners) an incentive to collect dollars from their fellow citizens, whose basic needs are funded by the freshly printed money. If you own a farm or a factory, you must use it to produce something people are willing to exchange for their money. If you want to own a home you will need to get a job (on a farm, in a factory, in an office)—that is, you will need to find someone who is willing to compensate you for your time—so that you have the dollars you need to pay your property tax.

This tax would be easy to administer and could be adjusted as needed (always giving ample warning to property owners) to expand or contract the money supply. If the economy is growing, basic income could be increased, or the land tax could be lowered, leaving more money in circulation. If the economy is shrinking (perhaps owing to drought or war*) taxes can be increased. In order to cover them, producers may need to up their game.

Not much will be gained if this system doesn't also do away with income taxes and minimum wages. The economic incentive to work any amount of hours on any given day must be straightforward. Even the least skilled and most capricious worker must be able to earn a little extra so long as someone else is inclined to pay for it. The more skilled and dependable you want your labor to be, the more you'll have to pay, always mindful that no one is taking a job out of brute desperation.

As far as I can tell, the total value of privately held land in the US today is about 15 trillion dollars. The total tax needed to "cover" a $1000/month UBI would be 3 trillion dollars. Roughly speaking, then, we're talking about a "wealth tax"** of about 20%. But I'm here assuming that the value of all assets ultimately devolves upon the value of real property, which isn't true; the total amount of wealth in the US is upwards of 60 trillion. I'm also assuming that the state has no other expenses, which is also not true; so lets give the state a total budget of about 6 trillion dollars.

Since there's no tax on income (and no sales tax), it seems reasonable to tax the accumulated private wealth of the nation at about 10% annually. But since this tax is only levied in proportion to the unimproved rental value of real estate, you could avoid the administrative burden (and a relationship with the state) simply by renting your home and business address from someone else. You would pay no taxes, but have high rent (compared to today).

Update: I ended this post somewhat abruptly. What I was trying to say was that you could collect 6 trillion in taxes by way of 40% property tax on the 15 trillion dollars worth of real estate in the US. This, however, would ultimately constitute only a 10% tax on the accumulated private wealth of the nation. Moreover, fully half of the tax would be immediately redistributed as purchasing power to the consumer***, which, you'll notice, is also good for the the producer and the landlord.

Also, before you reject the property tax as exorbitant, remember that the 40% is an average. The tax will always be apportioned according to the rental value of the property. So it's all together possible that a $60,000 dollar home will be taxed at only $12,000, which, you will notice is exactly the amount of the UBI. On the other side, some properties (with very high rents, owing to desirable location or exploitable resources) might be taxed much higher. (Since every property would be apportioned some tax, and if some cap, like 40% of the total property value of nation, is set on the total tax collected, no one will pay more than 100%.) Indeed, the existence of the tax is likely to stabilize housing prices.

*Notice this sudden insertion of sanity into the economy. War is an expense; it is a use of resources for immediate destruction. It should not have a positive effect on the economy in the near term. It may of course be considered an investment, as under imperialism. The conquered territory is eventually added to the productive power of the nation. But while the war is going on it should be experienced as a drag on the home economy, not, as too often happens these days, a boon.
**Update: those scare quotes are important. While the tax is indeed on wealth, it does require reporting of actual wealth. The tax is simply levied against registered owner of the property.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

On Chris Pissarides at Starmus

TL;DR: Jill Tarter's censure of Chris Pissarides at Starmus, as well as Sara Seager's walkout and Neil Degrasse Tyson's browbeating, are likely to chill the frank and open exchange of ideas. This sort of "calling out" is bad for science.

Details, gently spun, are provided by Kate Lunau at Motherboard. HT Women in Astronomy.

I was pleased to see that the "storm" over Chris Pissarides' commments at Starmus last week passed without causing any major damage. It is possible that we learned something from the overreaction to Tim Hunt's comments in Seoul two years ago. Jean Christou, editor in chief of the Cyprus Mail, for example, referred back to the Tim Hunt debacle in her account of the Starmus controversy:

In 2015 British Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt was hounded and had to quit a long and distinguished career – or be fired – over a badly-delivered self-deprecating joke at a science conference in South Korea after it was interpreted as sexist by a female journalist and then set social media ablaze.

This is the largely the right way to summarize what happened. If I have an issue it's with the idea that the joke was "badly-delivered". I still don't think we know that for sure, even if Tim Hunt believes he botched it. My research suggests it was willfully misconstrued in order to incite maximum outrage. The joke was certainly misunderstood.

As was Pissarides' remark, it seems. Like Hunt, Pissarides is no sexist and had literally just called for more women in STEM in his own talk. That is, when he brings up the subject himself, he clearly says that women are as capable of science as men. In this case, he was pressed by Larry King to explain why his Siri app had a male voice. He answered, lightheartedly, that he had been told that he would trust such a voice more. This is actually a jab at his own "implicit bias", if perhaps also (and not unjustifiably) "studies" that are forever "showing" things (like "people trust male AI voices more than female ones"). The "I'm told" sort of got lost in the groaning. But Pissarides was quite deliberately constructing a groaner, or what is sometimes called a "dad joke". The joke is self-referential and, indeed, self-deprecating. It's saying, "Yeah, I guess my implicit bias is showing a little there. Maybe I should work on that." In other words, he had graciously acknowledged the (altogether harmless) "sexism" of his choice of voice.

Sara Seager, who had apparently previously been insulted in other ways, walked out (and even left the conference early). So did Jim Al-Khalili.

But Jill Tarter decided to stay and call him out for it, which led to an uncomfortable scene for which, I believe, she is mainly responsible, though Neil Degrasse Tyson certainly aggravated it. I thought Tyson's lecturing was unseemly, and if I were Pissarides I'd be pissed off at him for his condescension. There is, I think we can agree, something distinctly American about that Tarter-Tyson episode.

Also, I think it's important to point out that Pissarides is a supporter of basic income, which would greatly benefit workers and poor people the world over—and, of course, women. In this regard, he's a bit like Charles Murray, who is accused of being a racist. Both of these thinkers support a policy that would do much more for 99% percent of the members of the races and genders they are accused of "disparaging" than any amount of "inter-sectional" call-outs. As Murray pointed out in a recent interview with Tucker Carlson, it may seem ironic that leftists are attacking them, but it's actually quite fitting that elites are doing it. Pissarides and Murray are certainly "privileged", but they are promoting policies that would distribute opportunity more equitably throughout society and the world. Tarter's problem is a distinctly middle-class and first-world one. It's simply not true that "half the world's population" is particularly "pissed off" at what Pissarides said.

I want to say one last thing. It's about the official response from Starmus. The festival did not defend Pissarides and I imagine he will not accept an invitation in the future to attend. I don't think they really understood what they way saying when they said that comments like his "will not be tolerated at our festival"; I think they were merely trying to respond in a way that would placate the critics in the short term. Indeed, if they took the criticism seriously they would also go after Tyson, who, as Tarter pointed out, stood silently by. Silence in these situations, perhaps, should not be tolerated either. Perhaps Larry King, too, should be sanctioned for "even going there" (or, as Al-Khalili suggested to Lunau, at least for not "picking up on it"). It will certainly put a damper on the spontaneous expression of opinion if people like Pissarides have to be careful what they say extemporaneously and people like Tyson are obligated to police it.

This sort of activism (and the journalism that celebrates it) is not good for science. Science depends on the open and frank exchange of ideas and the maintenance of forums where it can go on. The more speakers and panelists who are wrongfully smeared for being "sexist" and "racist" on the basis of improvised, humorous remarks, regardless of their deliberately stated views, their actual policy positions and, indeed, their lifework, the less likely intelligent people are to speak in such public settings. If I may offer a gratuitous jab: perhaps it is telling that Tarter has spent her career trying, without luck, to find signs of intelligent life in outer space. Her sense of the difference between signal and noise leaves much to be desired.

* * *

P.S. Ellinor Alseth's account and reflections on this are worth reading. They reveal an interesting tension in the younger generation of scientists. On the one hand, she says that

When someone like the renowned astronomer Jill Tarter, former director for the Center for SETI Research, towards the end of the debate stood up and asked why none of the other participants had said anything, but rather let it slide, a young scientist like myself can’t help but be inspired.

But she then also says this: is important to point out that Pissarides obviously didn’t mean any harm with his comment, and I really do not see the point in becoming upset or angry because of it. To react with anger will never change anyones opinions, but rather solidify them and result in non-constructive arguments.

But the "inspiring" Jill Tarter not only reacted with anger (which has fostered non-constructive arguments) she proposed to channel the anger of half the world's population!

Alseth, quite rightly, points out that if there are any sexist attitudes in science they are dying out with each generation. But she is caught in the double bind of having a much more constructive attitude about this sort of thing than her role models. Even as she praises them, she sets a better example for her peers. Tarter was "pissed off". Seager took an early flight home. But Alseth, thankfully, was "just more excited and glad for [her] choice of career" after attending the festival. "How lucky I really am to be part of such a community," she says, "and I hope all my fellow young scientist in the audience feel the same way."

There is hope.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


I don't know if this is worth a post, but a tweet by Lauren Duca gave me pause just now.

It's especially the reaction that made me think. At the time I'm writing this it's only five hours old. It has almost 600 retweets, over 3000 likes, and 162 responses, many of them echoing Duca's visceral reaction. But very few people (including Duca herself) seem to be reacting to anything but the headline. Indeed, Duca's original tweet doesn't even include a link to the story in Slate. The headline is of course already clickbait. But Duca's tweet isn't linking to the story. Her tweet is merely offering what I guess can be called likebait.

Some of the people responding don't seem to even get the primary meaning of the headline, rolling their eyes at the idea of asking men whether women like being harassed. That question is obviously not an attempt to figure out if women like being harassed. It's presented, in the headline, as a survey of men's attitudes about harassment.

But that's actually a misrepresentation.

First of all, it's a survey of four countries in the Middle East. The people who are feeling sick (or, like Duca, cancerous) about this do well to keep that in mind. This is not a survey of Western males. Moreover, it's not just a survey of men. "In Morocco, for instance, 71 percent of men said women enjoyed sexual harassment, but only 42 percent of women agreed. Only 20 percent of Egyptian women said women enjoyed harassment, but 43 percent of men said they did."

Let's reflect on what this really means and what an accurate headline should have said. Notice that as many women in Morocco as men in Egypt think that women like being harassed. While (not surprisingly) more men think women like it than women do, none of these numbers are absolute. Some women say they like it and some women say they don't. Some men think women like it and some men think they don't. Let's imagine the headline:


Like I say, I don't really think this deserved a post. It tells us mainly about the lack of nuance in social media on issues of any importance. This survey showed something completely unsurprising: most men who cat call do it for fun and a significant amount of them assume the women also think it's fun. Not only does that suggest that their perhaps misguided hearts are sometimes in the right place, it turns out that they aren't completely mistaken. Some women actually do enjoy the attention.

But, strip all the nuance out of this, banish it completely from the lawn of excluded middle, and Western liberals can have a collective catharsis of the gag reflex.

I imagine they sort of like the feeling.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Last Word?

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

Griffiths writes that

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Tolerance of Ambiguity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Kate Clancy Gets James Watson Disinvited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: A Twitter exchange between Nathaniel Comfort and Kate Clancy tells us something important about discourse in this area. "[Kate Clancy] gets Jim Watson disinvited to give lecture at UIUC. What do you think: Social justice or censorship?" tweeted Comfort. That is, he simply raising the question of whether disinviting Watson is a good thing. He's calling for a reflection on a (threatened) protest. Clancy's response is to associate even raising the question with sending death threats. (She also deflected blame for "getting" Watson disinvited; she did not, of course, likewise deflect the praise she had been given before this.) This was echoed by Clancy's supporters who demanded that Comfort delete his tweet. Matthew Francis's statement clearly states (and amplifies) Clancy's objection: "OH FUCK YOU. How can this be read as anything other than calling people to give Kate more misogynistic hate? This is shitty." Grant offered the following advice: "You made a huge social media faux pas in your approach. Screencap the tweet, issue a simple apology, delete it, and try again. Very easy." Remember that Comfort's "faux pas" was to ask whether disinviting Watson was justice or censorship (which is the question to ask here and on which Clancy simply has an answer: it was justice) and to name the person who publicly led the campaign to make that disinvitation happen. Social justice activists appear to believe that questioning their actions is, in itself, as a social injustice! That's not good for discourse. To his credit, Comfort has left the tweet up and, after trying to explain himself and offering a private apology, appears mainly to have let the event pass.

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Magic Trick

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

4 hours 42 minutes and 58 seconds...

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Responsibility of Anthropologists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 07, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 04, 2017

A Critique of the SAFE13 Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paper claims that the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: See also "The Responsibility of Anthropologists"

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