Saturday, January 30, 2016

Ends With a Whimper?

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.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

How Often Are You Harassed?

The title of this post is deliberately provocative in an attempt to draw attention to another puzzling feature of the CSWA survey of sexual harassment in astronomy. In her introductory comments, Christina Richey tells us that the survey questions were "confined to experiences in their current and previous positions within the past 5 years only" (slide 5). She reports that 102/426 (or 24% of) respondents answered that they "feel or have ever felt" unsafe in their current position because of their gender (slide 11). Finally, we're told that 46 respondents had found it necessary to skip work-related events because they felt unsafe (slide 12). That's 11% of the sample.

It's tempting to say that it's also 45% of the 24% who felt unsafe because of gender (46/102 = 45%). But another 72 reported feeling unsafe for other reasons. Perhaps some of these represent individuals with multiple reasons to feel unsafe. So we can only conclude that between 26% and 45% of the respondents [who felt unsafe also] felt it necessary to skip something [because of that feeling].

Let me pause to say that this is a good issue to raise. It's good to be able to compare people merely "feeling" unsafe to people who are taking action to protect themselves against a perceived threat. It lets us think about how serious the threat is perceived to be.

The puzzle arises when we ask how often they've had to stay away from an event for fear of their safety. The question reads: "In your current position, how many classes/meetings/conferences/field work/opportunities/etc. have you skipped per month because of feeling unsafe?" (slide 12). And the options given are "1 to 2", "2 to 3" (small issues of overlap there, but I'll ignore it), "4 to 5" and "6 or more". Remember, this is per month and in your "current position" but going back as far as five years. And the question that set this up asked whether they currently or had ever felt unsafe.

6 people, or 1.5% of the sample, said that they had skipped something out of safety concerns "6 or more" times per month. But how long did this go on? Up to five years? That certainly sounds horrifying, but it is also unlikely. It is possible that this describes a crisis period during which action was also taken to deal with the harassing behavior.

The other cases, in which people skip something 1 to 3 times/per month account for wholly 39 of the cases. This means that 89% of astronomers apparently never[rarely] have to skip something for reasons of safety. And 98.5% do so never or rarely.*

It would have been easier to interpret this if it had simply asked, "How often do you skip something in fear for your safety (once a year, twice a year, every other month, every month, twice a month, every week...etc.)?" We'd then get a sense of how many people are currently behaving as though they are perceiving a serious threat, and we could compare that to the amount of people who are feeling such a threat. (That's not to discount their feelings; it's merely to indicate two facts that are worth comparing.)

This all goes back to the puzzle about the definition of harassment. The CSWA study defines harassment (slides 2 and 4) as any unwanted behavior (based on gender, race, disability, etc.), no matter how severe, pervasive or effectively threatening it is. That lets them survey people on how often they are verbally "harassed", and let's them tell us that 81 (19%) are "rarely" thus harassed. But if harassment is severe andor pervasive unwanted behavior, it is hard to understand how a rare (even quite) abusive comment can be considered harassment. (Though it can certainly be considered abusive.)

Harassment, I thought, was a serious kind of workplace abuse, a violation of your civil rights. The CSWA study doesn't seem to be calibrated to separate serious from non-serious cases, severe and prevalent behavior from mild and rare behavior. This is unfortunate because the issue it deals with really is serious and the questions it raises are good ones.

[Acknowledgement: I'm grateful to @ticobas for helping me think these issues through.]

*Federico Prat Villar has rightly pointed out that my original interpretation was somewhat "strange". He's being kind, actually. What the data actually seems to show is that 89% skip something for safety reasons less than once a month, not that they never do. Wholly 11% of respondents say they skip something at least once per month, though only 1.5% say they skip something more than 3 times. Federico is right to say that skipping something less than 4 times per month is probably not best understood as doing it "rarely".

Saturday, January 23, 2016

What All the Numbers in the Harassment Study in Ethan Siegel's Post at Forbes Probably Don't Really Mean Afterall

[Update: this criticism has had the useful (if still unacknowledged) effect of correcting a widely published error in the preliminary presentation of the CSWA survey. The 57% percent figure that is cited in this post has now been corrected in the AAS presentation slides. The correct value is 32%.]

In "What All The Harassment Stories In Astronomy Really Mean", Ethan Siegel points to a CWSA study in which "57% [of respondents] reported being personally, verbally harassed (and 9% physically harassed) because of their gender." Slides from a presentation of the results at this year's AAS conference can be downloaded at the Southwest Research Institute's website.

With the slides on hand, Siegel's statement provides an excellent insight into the way the problem of sexual harassment is being constructed. I would have said "exaggerated" but that is both needlessly polemical and, ironically, a sort of understatement. We seem to be witnessing the construction of another science writing factoid here.

On physical "harassment" (please see my previous post to understand the scare quotes), Siegel seems to be referring to slide 9 in the presentation. [Update: astonishingly, the slides havebeen changed without any official corrigendum. Some slides have been changed, others have been removed. This one now appears as slide 6. I've written about this issue here. I hesitate to call it fraud, but it does amount to altering a dated document.]

Here we learn that 27/426 report being "rarely" physically harassed [based on gender], and 8/426 report that it happens "sometimes". The number for "often" is not given, but 9% of 426 is 38.34. If we subtract 35 (27 + 8) from that we get 3.34. Since it has to be a whole number it must be 3 or 4. Which means that less than one percent of respondents report being physically harassed often at work.

I would have reported this as good news. Keep in mind that we don't even know exactly what "physical harassment" involves here, but presumably sneaking up on a woman and snapping her bra would count. If the study is taken to be representative* then we can conclude that even that sort of thing hardly ever happens in astronomy.

The same goes for verbal "harassment", which is covered on slide 8. (The 57% factoid was also interesting enough for Miriam Kramer to tweet it.)

Here it's 81/426 (19%) that say it happens "rarely" and 48/426 (11%) that say it happens "sometimes". And here, again, we have to work out for ourselves how many respondents experience it "often". But now it gets a bit puzzling (HT @ticobas****). To get 57% we're missing 27% or 115 respondents. But that section of the bar doesn't suggest that the "often" group is bigger than the other two. So it's either an error in the graph or a typo in the total percentage. If it's an error in the graph, it would be the only result in which more people experienced something "often" than experienced the same thing "rarely", so I'm going to discount that possibility and suppose that the graph is right and the percentage is wrong.**

We can work out the true number of people who experienced verbal "harassment" often, by comparing the length of each section of the bar. The "often" section is about 1/14 of the whole bar. This means that the 129 responses that are already graphed account for 13/14 of the total, meaning that the length of the "often" section represents about 10 respondents. That's about 2.3%. So this result is probably closer to 3233%*** having been "verbally harassed" at all, and in fact over 97% percent experiencing it never, rarely or only sometimes.

If you want to take the "sometimes" more seriously than I do, that's okay. But then you should report that 87% of respondents report experiencing verbal harassment rarely or not at all. Certainly, it is misleading (and probably outright false) to simply say that "57% [of respondents] reported being personally, verbally harassed," which, again, is what Ethan Siegel would have us believe.

*I have my doubts about how representative the study is of the population of astronomers. I suspect there is some self-selection bias in the sample, which makes even 1% a high estimate of the real situation. In Miriam Kramer's piece at Mashable about the study, Christina Richey confirms that the sample was self-selected and, as Kramer puts it, "the scope of the data collected is limited," but nonetheless insists that "it is still representative of a problem in the field." I'm not entirely sure what she means by that. I have emailed Richey for information about the methodology of the study and will of course blog about it when I hear from her.

**I should be upfront here and say that quite a bit hinges on this assumption. After all, it would have been a sufficiently shocking result if wholly 27% of respondents did in fact often experience verbal harassment. Siegel could have reported that number with equal rhetorical effect.

***A rounding error. Thanks, @ticobas, for catching it.

****The original post credited @shubclimate with noticing this. But it was @ticobas who was the first to see it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Redefining Harassment

"Go ahead and call the cops. You don't meet nice girls in coffee shops." (Tom Waits)

Those of us who have been urging caution in discussions of sexual harassment in astronomy (and science more generally) on Twitter are often dismissed (and, of course, blocked) as "deniers" of some kind. I recently noticed something that I think goes a long way towards explaining why this is so. It has a number of serious consequences, which I will take up in later posts. In this one I just want to point out the basic issue.

The American Astronomical Society defines harassment as "unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information." In a slogan: "If it's unwanted, it's harassment." This definition also guides a recent study, which Meg Urry, the president of the AAS, describes as follows:

Results from a recent AAS survey were reported at the last week's plenary session on harassment, defined as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. Some 82% of astronomers have heard sexist remarks from their peers; 44% heard sexist remarks from supervisors; 9% experienced physical harassment from peers or supervisors.

Slides from a preliminary presentation of the results have been made public. You can get a sense of how this study is being spun by noticing that the 82% breaks down as follows: 42% hear sexist remarks from peers "rarely", 34% hear them "sometimes", and 6% hear them "often". Indeed, the same result could be stated as: 94% of the respondents hear sexist language from their peers never, rarely or only sometimes. But the real mystery is what this result is even doing in a conversation about sexual harassment.

The AAS's definition of harassment appears to derive from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's definition (HT @wickedsepia). But but by "derives" here I unfortunately mean "has been taken out of context". Here's the full paragraph in which the AAS definition appears:

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

Indeed, in the very next paragaph the USEEOC, makes clear that

Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

It might be argued that a line is here being drawn between legal and illegal harassment, not between harassment and non-harassment. But I think that's actually just an unfortunate imprecision in the USEEOC document. After all, the document begins by saying that "Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates [the law]." Certainly, I think we can say that there are behaviors that should, rightly, get you fired from your job, and others that must, properly, be dealt with in less formal ways.

In any case, people who accuse me of "denying" harassment are missing my point entirely if they don't distinguish between legally fire-able and (in fact legally punishable) acts of abuse and mere human unpleasantness of the sort that people, unfortunately, must endure every day. They don't have to accept this behavior, but they cannot solve the problem by either demanding the "harasser" be fired or by calling the cops. Those remedies should be reserved for the sort of harassment that the USEEOC specifies: (1) when someone is told that if they don't put up with demeaning words or actions they will be fired or (2) when such behaviors can reasonably be said to be intimidating.

Please note that the knee-jerk suggestion that tweets critical of #astroSH are themselves a form of harassment completely fails both of these tests. As do a great many of stories that are being circulated as "horrifying" under the same banner. No reasonable person would be intimidated by a tweet from me. Nor is putting up with me on Twitter a condition of anyone's employment.

Meg Urry closes her president's column ("What's the Matter with Astronomy?") by quoting her friend, Phil Plait (@badastronomer, who, I'm sure not incidentally, has blocked me from following him on Twitter and) who wants us "to acknowledge that [harassment] is happening, and it’s happening everywhere. It’s not just astronomy, it’s not just science, it’s everywhere.” Well, yes, if you're defining harassment to include even rare unwelcome comments about your looks, then you're probably going to find it more or less everywhere. But if you define harassment as a serious violation of an individual's civil rights then the picture changes dramatically.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Writing and the Internet

"In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me..." (Hemingway)

Last year, I did a lot of writing online. In fact, I feel like I did hardly any writing off-line. Everything I wrote was an immediate engagement with a particular set of readers in what I imagined was a particular state of mind. I probably overestimated (and sometimes underestimated) the attention they were actually paying to me, but I was certainly addressing myself to the moment. I don't think I will do so much of that this year. Frankly, it was exhausting, and not, in the end, very satisfying.

Also, I've noticed that I don't read books anymore. They feel strangely "dead" to me because neither their authors nor my fellow readers can be corrected when they're wrong. I'm losing a particular kind of literary experience, the slow pleasure of reading to shape my emotions with precision. I imagine many of us are in a similar situation, and it is probably the source of many of the problems that have so infuriated me this past year.

We are reading and writing too close to the nerve. We do not absorb or digest our literary experiences any longer, we merely react to them. We are too quick to affirm or denounce the things we read (or even hear someone say) as though their meaning is obvious. (I say "we" out of politeness, but I know I should speak for myself.) For a moment last year, I thought this was the future and the future was good. A new kind of "situated" writing could emerge. A site could be constructed where we would once write a book. The pages could change and adapt to current conditions like a body.

I no longer think this is a healthy idea.

I want to venture a suggestion about real writing: that it is fundamentally disloyal. Loyalty is the bigotry of the heart, I once said. It's as odd as Barthes' remark about the "fascism of language". I'm uncomfortable with both ideas, but I feel that, when we write on the Internet for immediate publication, we are always playing our ideas onto a field that is conditioned by our loyalties. That is not how literature is made.

Most writing on the Internet, I fear, is merely the confrontation of our loyalties with our bigotries. Real literature is the confrontation of honesty with decency. I'm going to take some time this year to figure out what I mean by that.

Comments are off.