Friday, September 08, 2017

The Blogger Function (1)

Jonathan raises a key issue in the comments to my last post. He points out that he does not consider my writing on this blog "bloggy" and considers me instead an "essayist who happens to use the blog form". But I want to insist that the questions I'm raising are not really matters of style or form. I want to say that they are questions of structure and function. To blog is not to write in a particular style, or publish in a particular form. Rather, blogging is an experience that is structured by a particular functionality.

If Barthes is right to define writing as "the morality of form", then I want define blogging in terms of a kind of functional ethics. (Wayne Booth called his ethics of reading The Company We Keep; I'll pick that thread up in part II.) This means that style doesn't really enter into it. You can blog as essayistically as I do here or as aphoristically as I'm now writing over at the Pangrammaticon. What makes it a blog is a structural coordination of the blogger and the audience.

Indeed, I want to say that I'm not blogging at the Pangrammaticon at all these days. I'm writing aphorisms and self-publishing them. The important difference is the lack of a comment field and my (relative) lack of interest in my daily views.

Blogging, in my experience, reduces writing to the short-term effects you have on your readers and they have on you. You try to have an immediate, essentially real-time impact on the discourse, which makes it much more like speech than writing. Jonathan makes an important observation in this regard:
Laura Riding's essay on letters, and she tries to make a case for letters as a different sort of writing than literary writing, because of that social aspect. // Many forms of written communication have their quirks: letters, emails, texts, blog posts, face book entries, tweets, etc... Their particular ways of engaging with the interlocutor and the way in which responses can come. They are all written communications, though, and thus writing.
What I want to say, and I think here I'm following Barthes quite closely, is that you can't definite "writing" simply by way of "written communication". It is possible to write a tweet in the formal sense I want to insist on and some writers have in fact tried to do this. But most tweets and a great many emails are much more like speech than like writing. Think of the way we end an email chain when we're arranging a meeting with a short message sent from our phone: "OK. See you then. / T." I don't want to call that writing. It's speech in another medium.

Writing requires a structural displacement in time and space. When you read a novel, you are reading something in a time and place that is completely distinct from the time and place of the writer. When writing it, you are immersed in an experience that is very different from what the reader will experience.

This is much less often the case with online writing, and I want to say that it is distinctly not the case when blogging. The blogger, like the reader, is online, often engaging with something that is happening in the moment. Though that moment of course reaches beyond the mere instant, it is nonetheless the sort of thing that passes, and often passes before the blogger manages to press "publish", causing a misfire in the discourse or simply a dud.

The blogger works, essentially, under that pressure, with that possibility in mind. This does affect the style of the writing, but not in any essential way. I worked for years in a style Jonathan correctly describes as essayistic, but my mood was "present" in way that is not typical of the essayist. Every other morning I got up knowing what I wanted to say to readers that I expected would read me within a few hours. I hoped that some of them would take the time to engage with me in the comments. It was relatively important to me how many hits I got in the first 24 hours and whether any of them came from Twitter.

With a tip of the hat to Michel Foucault that's the "blogger function". It's a particular kind of subjectivity that is established in the discourse. It is not a way of being an "author" or, like I say, even a "writer". Or that idea, in any case, that function, is what I'm trying to explore in these posts.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

What is Blogging?

The first chapter of Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero asks the simple question "What is Writing?" The answer is anything but simple, but let's say he tells us that writing is not merely literacy, not just a written form of language. Writing, properly speaking, is a free engagement with what Robert Graves called "the huge impossibility of language."

Actually, Barthes put it somewhat differently. "Writing," he said, "is essentially the morality of form, the area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature of his language." The language, he says, marks "the limit of the possible", while "style is a necessity which binds the writer's humour to his form of expression." Not quite the "huge impossibility of language", let's say, but perhaps the deep contingency of history. Writing is the freedom to engage with the forces of history, their weight, according to one's "nature", in one's own manner, according to one's own style.

On this view, I want to argue, blogging is not a form of writing. It is not merely writing in another medium or even writing for another purpose. We might say that just as writing is not merely literacy, blogging is not merely literature. Blogging is an activity that is so distinct from the experience of writing that it should be called something else altogether. One does not write a blog post except in the sense that one "writes" a shopping list or a business plan. It isn't what Barthes was talking about.

Some bloggers, of course, don't know this. They try to blog by writing. They are perfectly competent writers and produce perfectly capable prose. But it is just not blogging. It remains writing. They are kidding themselves to think they have produced a blog post. They have written an essay and posted it to their blog. Others are, in fact, natural bloggers but kid themselves that their blogging makes them writers. Why should it matter whether you are submitting something to a publisher or magazine? Why does posting something directly to the internet undermine its status as "writing"?

Over the next few posts, that's the question I want to address. The short answer is that blogging is a social activity, while writing is, properly speaking, a use of one's solitude. There is nothing solitary about blogging. Composing a blog post is not experienced as Woolf's "loneliness that is the truth of things". On the contrary, blogging is an engagement with social media. It's actually not the Internet that is important here. It's the blogging "platform", which robs a text of its immediacy by means, precisely, of its instantaneity. To put it simply, the platform so completely carries the weight of History that the blogger has no leverage on it, thus, none of the freedom that Barthes finds essential to writing.

I will try to make all this clearer as I go forward. I want to stress, however, that there is no implicit value judgment here, nor any announcement of an epochal shift. I'm not declaring "the end of writing" and the "dawn of blogging". I'm neither celebrating nor lamenting the developments I'm going to think out loud about. I'm trying to say that blogging has emerged as something new, something that is sometimes mistaken for writing, and something that writing sometimes mistakes itself for. I'm just trying to understand what it is. What I have been doing all these years.

Instead of writing.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Seth Shostak and the Odds of SETI Success

"If this project is going to work at all it's going to work before you all become middle-aged." (Seth Shostak)

Seth Shostak thinks that, assuming SETI has the basically right idea, we will likely detect a signal from an alien civilization by 2035. It's important to keep in mind that this probability implies another: it is likely that a signal from an alien civilization will reach us during the next two decades. Indeed, I would argue that Shostak must believe that it is likely that the signal is already hitting us and we just haven't detected it yet. I think this assumption underpins all work in the SETI area: at any given moment it is very likely that a signal, though it may be difficult to detect, is striking the surface of the Earth.

According to the standard model, we're searching about 200 billion stars for somewhere between 10,000 and 1,000,000 "advanced technical civilizations", which Carl Sagan "operationally" defined as "societies capable of radio astronomy". Depending on how many civilizations there in fact are, Shostak argues, and given Moore's law of technological development, we should find the first of them by 2035 at the latest. That is, he is not thinking about the probability that a signal is hitting us; he is thinking about the probability of detecting one of the signals that, he assumes, is hitting us. If there are many, it won't take long. If there are few, it will take longer. But at some point we will have searched the entire probability space of the "cosmic haystack".

But consider our own detectability. Our ambient signal "leakage" from TV and radio (which would be very hard to distinguish from noise in any case) only reaches about 80 light years into space. There are only about 500 sun-like stars in that space and many more stars beyond it. The galaxy is 100,000 light years across. Our signal occupies hardly any of it. It gets even worse when we consider the few attempts at an intentional signal we've sent. In 1974 we sent the "Arecibo Message" for about three minutes. About forty light years away from Earth now, it occupies a tiny sliver of space only three-light minutes long. If it ever does hit a civilized planet, they have to be listening at the exact time that it does. If they blink for three minutes, they'll miss it.

So let's think about the space between us and any one of those "advanced technical civilizations". It is between 4 and 87,000 light years long, with more and more of the stars we're looking at being further and further away. Only .3% of the stars in the galaxy are within 5000 light years of us. And the closer the civilization is to us, the more likely it is that the signal hit us at the time of Socrates and is now a thousand light years away from us and receding! Moreover, we don't know when they might start signalling—a million years ago? A million years from now?

In other words, a million advanced technical civilizations cannot mean a million signals in our sky just waiting to be discovered like any other astronomical object. We can detect the light of stars and galaxies because it has been shining on us for billions of years and will continue to shine for billions more. But any imaginable signal from a technical civilization will have a finite duration. It is, after all, an artifact, a product of the history of the alien civilization. In my view, SETI forgets that alien intelligence, like ours, will be historically situated. When we have not found anything before Shostak's audience reaches middle-age it will prove, as he says, that it's not going to work at all. But we don't have to wait that long to realize that the project doesn't make any sense even on paper.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The SETI Coat of Arms

Somewhere along the line of my career I started to think, "Okay, maybe I won't find the signal (I can do the best job I can [but] I really can't control that). But if I can leave this field financially stronger than when we started—if we can find a way, by the time that I'm finished cheer leading, to have a stable financial funding for this kind of exploration—which may, indeed, be multigenerational—then I will have done something pretty damned good. And I can feel very good about that." (Jill Tarter)

This remark during last month's SETI Talk about Sarah Scoles' biography of Jill Tarter reminded me of a short story by Franz Kafka called "The City Coat of Arms". It is, of course, well worth reading in its own right and it is only about 500 words long so you might want to go ahead and find it and read it before reading the rest of this post. I don't want to spoil your enjoyment.

The story is about the building of the Tower of Babel. In fact, it's not so much a story as a page from a fictional history book. After noting that the building arrangements were "perhaps too perfect", our historian establishes the central premise:

The essential thing in the whole business is the idea of building a tower that will reach to heaven. In comparison with that idea everything else is secondary. The idea, once seized in its magnitude, can never vanish again; so long as there are men on the earth there will be also the irresistible desire to complete the building.

Anyone familiar with the rhetoric of SETI will see the connection. As Carl Sagan put it in his famous essay, "The Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" (which, incidentally, uses a Kafka quote about the silence of the Sirens as its epigraph),

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is the search for a generally acceptable cosmic context for the human species. In the deepest sense, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves. [...] It is difficult to think of another enterprise ... that holds as much promise for the future of humanity.

But Kafka understood, as Tarter also has come to understand, that once the, let's say, infinite promise of the project has taken hold of the imagination it does not need to succeed in any foreseeable future in order to retain its relevance, or, as Tarter rightly notes, its funding. Indeed, its significance for humanity will come from the silence, not the song, of sirens. Like Tarter, Kafka also seizes on the multi-generational aspect:

[O]ne need have no anxiety about the future; on the contrary, human knowledge is increasing, the art of building has made progress and will make further progress, a piece of work which takes us a year may perhaps be done in half the time in another hundred years, and better done, too, more enduringly. So why exert oneself to the extreme limit of one's present powers? There would be some sense in doing that only if it were likely that the tower could be completed in one generation. But that is beyond all hope.

Here, some SETI enthusiasts will say that the analogy breaks down. It is not they will insist "beyond all hope" that SETI will succeed in a generation. Yuri Milner has committed $100 million dollars to a ten-year push to find whatever there is to find—the Breakthrough Listen project. But I would encourage them to read a recent paper by Claudio Grimaldi. He shows quite convincingly that the probability of detecting a signal, even if the galaxy is teeming with intelligent life (Sagan estimated a million civilizations capable of radio astronomy) is exceedingly small. This is because the signals themselves, by definition transmitted on a "historical" timeframe, disappear in the astronomical volume of the galaxy. They simply can't fill in any reasonable volume of galactic space to make it very likely that the earth's orbit will pass through the decidedly finite volume occupied by the signal.

It is only if the alien civilization had in fact undertaken to build a lighthouse to reach the heavens, to signal continuously in all directions for millions and millions of years, that their signal would have any chance of reaching us at our particular moment in history, i.e., the ten-year funding framework of the Breakthrough Listen project. So Tarter is right, something more permanent needs to be established. But here, too, Kafka must be heard:

It is far more likely that the next generation with their perfected knowledge will find the work of their predecessors bad, and tear down what has been built so as to begin anew.

Again, there are echoes of the SETI rhetoric. We need to "speed up the search," as Shostak puts it. We need more powerful computers "on the back end" to analyze the data. We might not even know, yet, what to look for. The aliens might be messaging to us using, not radio waves, but laser beams or neutrino streams. We just don't know! On the one hand, this cornucopia of possibilities gives us hope. On the other hand, the hope is distributed across a probability space that requires millions of years (of listening and of sending) to achieve reasonable "coverage" (to use Grimaldi's term). "Such thoughts paralyzed people's powers," Kafka says of the builders of Babel,

and so they troubled less about the tower than the construction of a city for the workmen. Every nationality wanted the finest quarters for itself, and this gave rise to disputes, which developed into bloody conflicts. These conflicts never came to an end; to the leaders they were a new proof that, in the absence of the necessary unity, the building of the tower must be done very slowly, or indeed preferably postponed until universal peace was declared.

This is where it gets real for me. It is important to remember that SETI is not just a scientific field but a political situation. It must lobby for resources, as Tarter rightly points out, and it must manage its own internal conflicts and intrigues. Sarah Scoles, it should be remembered, has written not just about Jill Tarter but also about Geoff Marcy. She is not just interested in the former's heroic quest but that latter's infamous transgressions. She has, as it were, one auspicious and one drooping eye on astronomy. She is interested in the struggle for both truth and justice. She covers both the scientific discoveries and the political conflict.

"The time," says Kafka,

was spent not only in conflict; the town was embellished in the intervals, and this unfortunately enough evoked fresh envy and fresh conflict. In this fashion the age of the first generation went past, but none of the succeeding ones showed any difference; except that technical skill increased and with it occasion for conflict.

But, throughout it all, surely there is Sagan's "enterprise"—that great hope for humanity—animating these scientific and political projects? Well, one sometimes wonders. As Kafka puts it:

[T]he second or third generation had already recognized the senselessness of building a heaven-reaching tower; but by that time everybody was too deeply involved to leave the city.

It's this deep involvement that I discern in Tarter's remark, which she specifically frames in terms of her "legacy". It is no longer important to discover a signal. Indeed, Grimaldi may be right and the entire enterprise may be senseless. (I have my own back of the envelope calculation that suggests something similar.) What is important is to embellish "the city", to leave the field "financially stronger", as Tarter puts it, than we found it.

Remember that it may take generations. Tarter is still part of the first generation—those who came up with the idea of finding an intelligent signal and might yet die trying. There will now be a second and third generation, whose efforts may also fail, but will involve a great deal effort to justify increasing investments in time and technology. The odds for them will not improve markedly. In order to beat Grimaldi's house you need to listen for millions of years for signal that has been transmitted for just as long. Kafka anticipates the cultural impact of despair on such an astronomical scale:

All the legends and songs that came to birth in that city are filled with longing for a prophesied day when the city would be destroyed by five successive blows from a gigantic fist. It is for that reason too that the city has a closed fist on its coat of arms.

Or, in our case, all the movies are filled with gigantic asteroids that threaten humanity with extinction. Less dramatically, the SETI Institute's logo depicts, not so much a signal, as a question. Perhaps it should consider a fist with the tail of a comet?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Looking For Bowhead Whales One Glass of Ocean at a Time

In a recent SETI Talk celebrating the publication of Sarah Scoles' biography of Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak reminded me of a puzzling analogy that Tarter likes to use to explain why we haven't found a signal from an alien civilization yet.

Jill likes to say that [if] you go to the ocean and take out a glass of water and you don't find any bowhead whales or something [you wouldn't] conclude that there aren't any whales in ocean. She's emphasizing the fact that the sample size has been very small. (29:51, lightly edited.)

In this analogy, however, it's not so much the sample size as the sampling rate or resolution of the search that is the problem. You can't catch a bowhead whale with a highball glass; so you're looking for something in a way that precludes you from finding it. I think other SETI researchers sometimes jokingly use the parable of the drunk who's looking for his keys under the street light. When asked where he lost them, he points down the street a ways. "Why are you looking here then?" we ask. "Because the light is better," he replies. This is not a joke SETI researchers should be telling. It's literally on them.

Since Tarter is a woman, the same SETI talk begins with an obligatory discussion of gender discrimination in science. I hope women in science will soon band together against this theme—the obligation in particular. Let them talk about their struggle to discover the truth, not their struggle as women. But I digress. Tarter addresses this topic by talking about what happened at Starmus this year, when she was, shockingly, exposed to gendered humor. I ended my post about that incident with a jab at Tarter's demonstrated inability to sort signal from noise. In my view, gender activists are not looking for bowhead whales one glass of water at a time—though I think SETI is looking for aliens that way, I'm afraid. Rather, their null hypothesis seems to be finding pure H20 in a glass of raw sea water. In their surveys, of course, they're constantly finding it full of salt and life. Shocking!

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. [See this post for more.]

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.