I like to give credit where credit is due. When someone points out an error in my writing to me (as happened just the other day) I thank them for taking the time to do so. Of course, this often means having to thank people I disagree with, since it's usually your critics who have a keen eye for the mistakes you've made. That's just how discourse works.
So it always irks me a little when people correct mistakes in their public writings that I have pointed out to them without acknowledging my efforts. When they do this without marking the correction at all (i.e., simply change a blog post with the correct facts in the place of the incorrect ones), the dishonesty of it is more important than the ingratitude. (Here, the blogger's relationship to the reader is much more relevant than their relationship to me.) This, fortunately, happens very rarely at established news sites, but they can also, sometimes, be a bit weaselly about their corrections (as the Guardian was last year).
Forbes won what I thought was my undying respect when David Kroll corrected his account of Tim Hunt's toast in Seoul. Ethan Siegel's recent update to his post about sexual harassment at Forbes, however, has set the organization back a few notches in my books.
Here, as far as I can tell, is what happened.
"Sexual harassment is wrong," I had tweeted to the #astroSH hashtag. "But we just don't know how much of it there is in astronomy." A minute later Vanessa Janek tweeted the shocking research finding that "more than 75% of women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals in astronomy have experienced harassment." Grant (@usethespacebar), who thinks of me as some sort of adversary, I think, rightly found this amusing, noting the "twitter timing" by taking a screenshot of the #astroSH feed:
I had, in fact, already seen the story in Forbes that Janek had linked to. It had surprised me because it really did seem to belie the claims that had been made by credible people (like Meg Urry) who were advocating for action on the harassment issue, that we don't have any good research on the question. Here, Siegel said, we had "the first large-scale survey" of the problem, conducted under the auspices of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA). Siegel hadn't been very specific about the study he was talking about, however, and hadn't linked to further information.
Until I was prodded by Grant's ribbing, I didn't think much of it. It didn't even occur to me that this might have been the same study that Miriam Kramer had previous written and tweeted about, albeit with the slightly less shocking result that 57% experience verbal harassment in astronomy. (Since the results were different and Kramer presented it as something less than a "large scale survey", they really didn't seem like the same piece of research.) And anyway, I'm not a huge fan of survey-driven social research, and considered this just another piece of overblown science writing about an underpowered study that happened to reach an ideologically convenient conclusion. Without the actual study, I couldn't be sure whether the underpowering or the overblowing was the main problem, so I just took the, I thought, uncontroversial (because it is Urry's) position that, as a matter of empirical fact, we don't know how big the problem of sexual harassment in astronomy is, nor how it compares to the rest of science or how it compares to other professions.
But with Grant's spur in my side, if you will, I took a closer look. Here's what Siegel had originally written:
At the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS)last week, the results of the first largescale survey from the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) were released, with over 400 astronomers responding. What they found was shocking:
•That more than 75% of women, people of color, and LGBTQidentifying individuals had reported being harassed and discriminated against for being a woman, a person of color, or LGBTQ.
•That more than 75% overheard overt, derogatory remarks among their colleagues directed against women or other minorities.
•That more than 75% of them also reported skipping conferences, seminars or other opportunities for professional development because of a pattern of harassment and a culture that accepts it as part of the norm.
•And that again, more than 75%, said that they were reluctant to speak out because of the negative ramifications on their careers that would ensue.
These four results are, as Janek rightly tweeted, shocking ("!!!") individually. But they are outright incredible taken together. That a representative survey of the astronomy community would find that three quarters of them "[skip] conferences, seminars or other opportunities for professional development because of a pattern of harassment and a culture that accepts it as part of the norm" is nightmarish, just as the idea that 75% of various groups reported being harassed and (not or) discriminated against for being a member of that group. It's not surprising that 75% would also report being reluctant to report anything, but, given all this, it was immediately odd to me to see that only 75% had "overheard overt, derogatory remarks". You would think that anyone who is actually being harassed is also, now and then, overhearing something derogatory being said about them. You would would expect this number to closer to 100% if the others are at 75%.
There were two possible simple explanations, one of which I didn't really think of until after the first proved to be unable to solve the mystery. Perhaps this was a self-selected sample; perhaps this was an online survey and 75% of the respondents had in fact been seriously harassed, while the rest hadn't experienced any notable issues. As it turns out, the sample does suffer from being self-selected, but not nearly as much as Siegel's post seemed to suggest. Rather, Siegel had simply gotten the results wrong. So wrong, in fact, that it's unclear what his basis ever was for the original post.
Like I say, this next part irks me. I tweeted Siegel, asking him whether he could point me in the direction of the study, and telling him briefly what I've just explained puzzled me. He told me that the study would be published in the spring, and that he'd only seen the conference presentation, not the actual report. He helpfully suggested that while I wait I could "listen to the women who tell their stories." I thanked him and said that I'd probably just contact the authors of the study. Which I did. I wrote a mail to Christina Richey, explaining my concern with the numbers reported in Siegel's article, which I linked to. As I understand it, Grant also contacted Richey through Twitter.
I still haven't heard back from Richey, but Siegel's story has been "updated" in what is to me a highly dishonest manner. Here's what it now says about the CSWA survey:
At the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) last week, the results of the first large-scale survey from the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) were released, with over 400 astronomers responding. (Note, this post has been updated with additional, more accurate information based on the preliminary results that have been publicly released.) What they found was shocking:
•That more than 82% of all respondents (including men, women, people of color, and LGBTQ-identifying individuals) had reported hearing sexist remarks from someone that they worked with, with a full 44% reporting hearing it from their advisor.
•That 57% reported being personally, verbally harassed (and 9% physically harassed) because of their gender.
•That 24% of all respondents reported feeling unsafe in their workplace because of their gender.
•And of that 24%, more than 75% of those also reported skipping conferences, seminars or other opportunities for professional development because of a pattern of harassment and a culture that accepts it as part of the norm.
Seeing this I was at first pleased. Siegel had reacted to my request, found the source he needed, and corrected his post accordingly. This sort of thing is (or at least should be) normal in science and journalism. But on closer inspection I found his "update" a bit weaselly. (The update also includes mistakes, like that 75% of 24% skipping events. But more on that later.) When he says that "this post has been updated with additional, more accurate information based on the preliminary results that have been publicly released," the reader might easily think that the previous results were not wrong, just imprecisely (cf. "more accurate") or incompletely (cf. "additional") stated, and that Siegel, in any case, should be excused because he didn't have the information at the time of writing.
This appearance is misleading. On January 7, Miriam Kramer had reported the CSWA survey's results at Mashable, providing a link to the publicly available slides. So I expressed my disappointment that Siegel had called it an "update", not a "correction" on Twitter and added a somewhat huffy "you're welcome", also on behalf of @ticobias, who had located the study before Siegel had updated the post.
Not only did he not thank us, he refused to thank us. And he said something that I found still more irksome about this conversation. Siegel claimed that his correction had not resulted from our intervention, but from a request by "one of the authors", whom he wouldn't name. He also wouldn't say when the request was made, but since my mail to Richey had included a link to his post, I feel confident in guessing that it followed immediately after she received it. She did not respond to me, but apparently asked Siegel to stop inflating her study's results. I followed up with another mail, and then, when I noticed that she had blocked me on Twitter, a final mail to her and her co-author Kathryn Clancy, politely stating my frustration with their refusal to discuss their results. I have received no answer, but I'm now also blocked by Clancy.
Out of curiosity I also tweeted Vanessa Janek to hear what she thought of the revised figures. She said that "lower numbers are good" but it's still an "enormous" problem. That our sense of the "enormity" of our problems is insensitive to whether 3/4, 1/2 or 1/3 of respondents in a survey say they experience it [is] puzzling to me. It's like the numbers don't really matter. And that's actually what Meg Urry has openly said in her column at the AAS: "Even though the vast majority of astronomers are not serial harassers, I know the number of bad actors isn’t 0 or 1. And even one is one too many" (my emphasis). It makes you wonder why a survey was even necessary.
No one who is calling for action on #astroSH, sometimes (but not so much any more) on the basis of the CSWA study, is willing to discuss these issues with me. Siegel's Twitter account, like his very popular blog, is called Starts With A Bang. That phrase, of course, immediately evokes another—T.S. Eliot's famous closing lines in "The Hollow Men":
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Some of us, of course, are trying not to let it go down that way.