Monday, November 16, 2015

On the Fear of Being Hunted, part 1

One arguably constructive use of public shaming is as a deterrent against bad behavior. If there is a substantial risk of being exposed as a sexual harasser in a given professional environment, and the consequences of exposure are severe for your reputation and career, then you have a powerful incentive not to sexually harass your colleagues. Every case of public shaming in your profession, then, would remind you that if you behave similarly, you risk similar consequences. The fear of exposure can come either because your profession has a strong tradition of internal whistle blowing, or because it is under the watchful eye of the public media, journalism in particular. Harassers live in what may be called just fear of exposure by these means. I.e., their fear of being shamed is a public good.

It is easy to imagine a professional environment that is deficient in "justice" on this score. Real and potential sexual harassers may never witness any notably public shaming of their "colleagues" (i.e., their fellow harassers in the profession.) Indeed, they may regularly hear of, or even witness, sexual harassment that goes unpunished, and this may embolden them to begin or continue harassment campaigns of their own. They may even be inspired by their peers and mentors as they listen to their heroic tales of conquest and the inefficacy of the machinery of justice to hold them to account. The current debates about "tolerance" on college campuses seems to turn on this kind of charge against the environment.

But there's also another kind of injustice. I'm thinking of the miscarriage of justice in which innocent colleagues are shamed and ridiculed for acts they did not carry out, or views they do not hold. I have previously referred to this as the danger of "overdiagnosing" sexism in a particular profession. (I'm purposely keeping open, for now, which profession we're talking about, on the assumption that you will grant that some professions are more sexist than others and that one can therefore very well be wrong about the extent of the problem in any particular environment.) If people who have no inclination to sexually harass their colleagues regularly witness the public shaming of people they know not to have done anything wrong, or their humiliation is based on evidence that is, on the face it, inadequate to credibly support a charge, then they may begin to fear such shaming themselves. The fear of a non-harasser of being publicly shamed for harassment is not, let us agree, a public good.

If the consequences of a just culture of publicly shaming is to discourage harassers from engaging in the dirty business, and the consequence of an unjust culture—one that lacks a sufficient sense (and practice) of shame—is to embolden people to carry on with their bad behaviour, then the consequences of an overly zealous culture of shaming is to discourage everyone, good and bad alike, from being open about their thoughts and feelings.

This year, we were offered almost a controlled experiment in public shaming. On June 8, 2015, Tim Hunt was publicly called out for allegedly sexist remarks he made at a luncheon in Seoul. (I recommend Jonathan Foreman's version of the events, though I'm obliged to note that it remains "controversial".) In early October, the results of a sexual harassment inquiry spanning over a decade of Geoff Marcy's career became public knowledge. (Azeen Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed, as far as I can tell, deserves the credit for breaking the story.) Since the theme of both cases is sexism, it's not surprising that they've been brought together in media commentary, but the difference between the two cases is in fact rather striking.

While I'm personally convinced, after having looked at the case very closely, that Tim Hunt is entirely innocent of the charges that were brought against him, i.e., I believe that Tim Hunt has nothing to be ashamed of (however much he may regret the "stupidity" of his remarks*), I have not yet looked closely enough at the Geoff Marcy case to have an independent opinion of whether he is indeed guilty. For the purposes of this post, however, the actual guilt or innocence of either man is not important. The question is what sort of example his shaming sets for others.

Consider the difference between what we can called "the fear of being Hunt" and "the fear of being Marcy". What does it mean to be "Hunted"; what does it mean to be "Marcied"?

The example of Geoff Marcy tells us that even a long and very successful career in science does not protect you from facing the consequences of an equally long career as a sexual harasser. Eventually, you will be brought down by both the academic institutions that supported you and the professional journalists that promoted your work. No matter how many planets you have discovered you will be remembered by most people for creepily groping your students at receptions. You will probably even have lost your shot at an otherwise well-deserved Nobel prize.

The example that Tim Hunt sets is quite different. If anyone takes the time to find out who Tim Hunt is, what he stands for, and what, as far as we can tell, he said in Seoul that fateful day, the lesson is only as clear as it is disturbing. It is that no matter how successful you are as a scientist, your Nobel Prize and your knighthood well-earned, and no matter how decently you treat your colleagues, men and women alike, a few minutes of carelessness, while speaking informally to an audience during a luncheon, can seriously damage your reputation. You may be dis-invited from future speaking engagements (in some cases due to threats of violence) and you may find yourself having to stay away from some of your favorite gatherings. You may even lose academic posts and appointments, in some cases explicitly couched in terms of revoking the "honour" that those positions imply.

Interestingly, the fear of being Geoff Marcy does not include the fear of being "hung out to dry" (as Tim Hunt put it) by your academic institutions or your conference hosts, nor even of being unjustly maligned by shoddy, yellow journalism. When you look at the Marcy case, you see some serious institutional protections and some thorough, well-supported journalism. Some would argue Marcy was overly protected, of course, but it is precisely therefore that he constitutes such a strong example. Even when you think you're getting away with it, you are putting your career at risk.

The fear of being Hunted, however, is the fear of being completely abandoned by your academic institutions at a time when the shoddiest of journalism (an almost illiterate tweet and a couple of obviously agenda-driven blog posts) is inciting a predictably irrational Twitter mob against you. Moreover, it's the fear of being led into a trap. The very journalists who called Tim Hunt out also served on the organizing bodies of the conference that invited him.

One of the events that Tim Hunt was forced to forego his customary participation in was the Lindau Meeting of Nobel laureates. At a panel on "Communication Overkill", his case was discussed with some concern (see this video at 1:16:00 to 1:24:00). Torsten Wiesel raised the question of whether the community should not have done more to stand by Hunt in his time of trouble. Brian Schmidt rightly pointed out that the only protections scientists really have against the irrational shaming of the Internet are strong, real-world institutions that "stick by their values"*. There is, indeed, nothing one can do about the rage of the mob except to seek shelter from the storm until it blows over—that requires institutions. Adam Smith followed up on this by saying, again to my mind rightly, that the Tim Hunt case "highlights the dangerous environment that everyone inhabits" and that it's not surprising, given what happened, that scientists would be "discouraged from getting out in front of the press and saying anything at all."

Tim Hunt didn't realize that, by attending the World Conference of Science Journalists, he had stepped outside of the civilized discourse of scientists that is established in places like Lindau. (If he could have chosen to go to Lindau instead of Seoul, I don't think there's any doubt where he would have preferred to be.) He had stepped into the "dangerous environment" of those soi-disant journalists we call "science writers". They like to "keep it simple, stupid"; they like stories that bleed. They tweet first and ask questions later. They hunt. In packs.

[Read Part 2]

*I will pick up on these points in part two. Schmidt and Wiesel, like Hunt, acknowledge that the remarks were ill-considered, but this does not imply, as Hunt's remaining critics like to suggest, that they were shameful.

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