Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Ballad of Geoff and Sarah

"A certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him."

I have decided to take this blog out of retirement for the specific purpose of addressing the question of sexual harassment in astronomy. Readers of this blog from the past will recognize my approach as the one I took in the case of Tim Hunt (feel free to search the archives if you want to see how I go about things). Not only do I believe Geoff Marcy has been unfairly maligned, I believe that we're seeing here, again, the indecent collusion of science writers and science policy makers in the sacrifice of an individual's career to an agenda that, though ostensibly well-intentioned, will do (and is already doing) more harm than good.

As a commentator, I come to this case quite late. In the past, I've been hesitant to defend Marcy because the case against him seemed much stronger than the case against Tim Hunt and I didn't want to open up a second front or muddy my arguments. As I said yesterday, I can't shake the feeling that this was somewhat cowardly of me, though I assure myself that my intervention would not have made a difference at the time that Marcy needed it.

The Marcy case is more difficult because, as far as I can tell, and certainly as far as the UC Berkeley investigation could determine, he did, in fact, violate a number of sexual harassment policies. I stress that word because it is just as clear to me that he did not actually sexually harass anyone. His accusers and soi-disant victims, it seems to me, are simply unwilling to make that distinction. While his employer had a legitimate cause to be cross with Marcy for getting himself and Berkeley into this mess—by treating female students as the adults he is explicitly forbidden to treat them as—it is simply not true that he "serially harassed" his students for a decade.

And yet, in the pursuit of a very ill-considered new policy—Jackie Speier's Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act—Marcy is being made the poster boy for "rampant sexual harassment in STEM". This is outrageous not just because he is not a sexual harasser, but because there is no evidence to suggest that sexual harassment is "rampant" in astronomy, and much evidence to suggest the opposite.

To see the mud that Marcy's name is being dragged through, witness Rep. Speier's recent press conference, including Sarah Ballard's appearance, as well as their subsequent appearance on the Mother Jones podcast Inquiring Minds. I'll analyze both very closely in the days to come. To their credit, Inquiring Minds sought comment from Marcy's lawyer and her reflections, which are interjected at all the right points, are very informative and necessary. Ballard's story simply does not hold up as a harassment accusation, as I will argue. Nor does the claim that harassment is "driving women out of STEM".

The focus of my blogging on this issue (which will be the only thing I'll talk about here for the foreseeable future) will be what I'm calling "The Ballad of Geoff and Sarah". That is, I will be focusing on the alleged "abuse" that specifically Ballard suffered, and I will be situating it in the larger context of what can only be described as harassment hysteria. I know this will be seen as an "attack" on Ballard by some. But she is quite clearly participating in a coordinated attack on Marcy, so I'm sure she's ready for this. Indeed, she has a right to have her story tested, not just "heard". My work will provide such as a test. She has been described as "brave" for coming forward; indeed, she has described herself this way. Well, it's the courage to face questions like mine that is ultimately implied in that description.

This post, of course, is merely a promissory note. I will be unpacking and supporting all these claims going forward. I will look at the Ballard case, at the research into harassment in STEM and astronomy, and at the policies that are in place and being proposed to deal with it. I will also be discussing the work of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy of/and the American Astronomical Society, with which I've had some dubious encounters over the past year. Finally, I will of course be taking up the meaning of "sexual harassment" as such. At the end of the day, I remain a philosopher.

I should say that I don't know any of the involved parties in a personal or professional capacity. I'm a complete outsider to the field of astronomy. Some will say that makes me impartial; others will say it makes me irrelevant. If it's all right with you, I will simply try to make myself clear.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Why I Left Social Media

In a word: cowardice. Here's a video of me just now thinking about my departure (I stopped tweeting and blogging earlier this year.)

For a little context, see my homage to Jason McCullough. It's worthy of comparison with Hamlet's "to be or not to be". A convocation of politic worms is turning, me thinks.