Astronomy and Disappointment


A little over two months ago during the peak of “The Geoff Marcy Situation”, I was in Cancun celebrating my birthday, blissfully offline. I am often offline, and often not paying any attention to the Interwebs, because I’m busy with Real Life, which I highly recommend. On this occassion I made an exception, checking in to respond to birthday wishes. In addition to lovely birthday greetings, I found an inbox stuffed with inquiries about “The Situation”:

“What does it mean?” “Do you actually believe any of this?” “Sounds like a setup, to me, what do you think?” “I’m not an expert, but I sense some deeply seated psychological problems with these people; am I on track?” “What do we do to restore sanity to the field?” And, so on.

I didn’t know anything about “The Situation,” so I responded to all queries with a note that I would get back to the world when I knew enough to open my mouth about the business.

I think that’s an appropriate response. I don’t think that it’s wise for anyone to publicly comment on a situation until they possess actual evidence in hand, particularly in relationship to a colleague’s career, and most definitely when it’s a topic that is so prominent in the cultural wars. Unfortunately, at this point in the culture wars, one can’t really trust a rag like Buzzfeed to provide “truth,” or  the statements of any admin or official who knows that it’s safest to say the most damning things about The Accused. And the frequency with which social justice warriors will lie or twist the truth is sufficient that the First Law of SJWs is that “SJWs always lie.” It’s a lot to wade through in order to arrive at an intellectually honest and rigorous point of view.

Having said that, I did form an opinion fairly early on, that has not changed over the course of time, and it is that I am deeply, profoundly disappointed. The feeling of disappointment has nothing to do with Geoff Marcy, or whatever his behavior might be.  My disappointment is in the astronomy community.

I spent years earning a degree that would prepare me to be able to study the human issues of science, astronomy in particular, and I’ve now spent years doing that kind of research. In that time, I have observed that astronomy is extreme in the sciences, in that astronomers have an unusual capacity to constrain their claims to available, valid evidence. They do this more often than almost all human beings, even more so than other scientists. Perhaps due to the true “open secret” of astronomy, which is that astronomers fall somewhere on the Autism spectrum at a higher rate than the general population, astronomers tend to stick to the verifiable facts, stay out of politics, and focus head-down on  the science. While this can be a bit problematic (for instance, in making the Maunakea situation more difficult than it had to be) I have to say that I love it.  Quirky, cutthroat when it comes to funding, but more often than not, sensible and fair. Astronomers are remarkably resilient to the bane of human progress, “herd psychology,” and I love them and the field for it.

This resistance to herd psychology is the very thing that could, should, insulate Astronomy from the culture wars.

The rest of academia has come to equate individuals’ subjective feelings with objective fact, never mind the reality that our culture is filled with an ever-growing number of folks with personality disorders, narcissism, and just plain old meanness. Not to mention people who just aren’t very good at doing the science but who still want to be “important” and “special” in the field. Those folks tend to lie, and lies about social justice issues are so easy to get away with; anyone who makes a “Guilty” finding on these issues will be lauded for being on the right side of justice, while any person or institution that finds that there is insufficient evidence to find someone guilty will be eviscerated by their peers in the media of the Interwebs for doing too little to protect the vulnerable. So “Guilty” it is! Astronomy, with its focus on fact over feeling should be protected from the misrepresentations and crazy opinions that are destroying the detached scholarship and logical processes that have been the bedrock of Western Thought for these several centuries.

So, I am disappointed in the downward spiral into herd thinking. In an attempt to be socially progressive, and to avoid “moral cowardice,” too many in the community have swung the pendulum not to “moral righteousness,” but all of the way over to “rush to judgement.” And, I guess I just believe that astronomers are better than that.  While the rest of the nation, and academia in particular, are overrun with political correctness and speech/thought control, I have counted on astronomers to be a holdout, and to do what they do best: to think rigorously and independently, to demand valid and verified evidence before believing a claim, to be scientific even when it comes to the human side of being an astronomer.

As a community, Astronomy has let me down, and I am sad for myself to see so many that I respect abdicate their responsibility to bear the banner of Astronomy Culture, and I’m sad for the community, as you have collectively thrown off the very characteristics that have make the field so unique.

For instance, it has become clear that members of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status on Women in Astronomy (AAS CSWA) spent years soliciting investigative information on a member of the astronomy community. Now, I don’t think that’s their job.  Indeed, I don’t think it’s the job of any branch of the AAS to investigate its own members:  not in regard to sexual harassment, grant proposals, publications, resource management, or any other topic.  Yet, they did, and they admitted it, and I am yet to hear many voices in the community call that activity into question.

I mean, I didn’t know that the AAS might be investigating Geoff Marcy, or Meg Urry, or me…for anything. I’m a corporate member of AAS for goodness sakes, which means that I pay a whole lot more in dues than almost everyone else in the field, and I sure better not find out that AAS was investigating my actions outside of AAS events, or the actions of anyone on my team, because there will be hell to pay. As a Full Member and a Corporate member of AAS, in good standing, I’m making my stand on that issue explicit and public.

I would bet that if more people had slowed down long enough to digest what was happening, I wouldn’t be alone. To me, this is far more important than how UC Berkeley handles its internal matters, or for that matter, anything else having to do with Geoff Marcy. This is a serious violation of the relationship between Council and the AAS office, and its membership. So, how did we get so paralyzed with the scintillating details of something related to sex, that we didn’t notice that our professional society is working against its own membership? How could the Astronomers, that are so detail oriented, so prone to fall enthrall to protocol, not notice or mention this Very Big Thing? ….Disappointing.

How is it that no one has taken issue with the AAS CSWA posting that they have solicited, from the community, a list of a large number of “known sexual harassers”? First of all, I mean, how can doing such a thing create a positive climate? “Let’s dig up as much dirt as we can on everyone we can,” is about as antisocial an act as one could conceive. It turns colleague against colleague, and provides positive social reward for the “victim.”  It’s just a really bad idea.

If the social destructiveness of such activity is not enough to get someone to step out of line with the herd mentality, what about the absolute recklessness of it all? The creation of an astronomical blacklist, McCarthy-style, is the antithesis of due process; it is overseen by a group that has no expertise in how to handle such matters; it is so very, very ripe for abuse; and it has untold potential to damage the careers of our colleagues….

So the AAS CSWA, under the oversight of the AAS Council, is taking deliberate action that may damage the careers of AAS members, who may or may not be guilty…. Compared to this, Geoff Marcy and everything related to him is kind of irrelevant, I think. The goal of making astronomy a safe and welcoming environment, cannot come at the expense of innocent community members, and it cannot come in the form of the AAS violating its own responsibility to do its membership no harm.

I think that many agree and yet were too afraid to say so, for anyone who questions the tactics of the cultural warriors is quickly labeled a sexist, racist, or whathaveyou.  But saying that this behavior is unethical, is not equivalent to saying that sexual harassment is acceptable, and if no other group on the planet has the intellectual capacity to make that differentiation clear, it should be Astronomy.

But, everyone is too busy ducking for cover to mention it.  Ugh.  I am disappointed.  This is not the Astronomy that I love.

And 2,500 astronomers sign a petition supporting victims of a crime, prior to seeing evidence of the crime, or the existence of actual victims? Perhaps there are many in the community who believe that a finding of a violation of the sexual harassment policy requires that there be victims.  This is not true.  Such violations can be found without the findings that anyone was harmed, or even without a complaint being filed. This could just be my granddaddy whispering in my ear, but I’m not signing a public petition about anything without plenty of evidence in hand, and I’m loath to do so at that point. Such things do little real good, but are more often political tools used by the authors.  No, thank you.

I’m disappointed that so many in the field didn’t wait, at the least so that they could put their name on the paper with a more complete idea of what they were supporting. What’s even more disappointing? Hearing members of the community justify their rush to judgement because it was for “a good cause”, or worse, failing to think about the meaning and implications of the released investigative “Marcy documents,” because the contents are uncomfortable, and might cause us to question the self-righteous moral certainty we displayed in flaying a colleague’s career to pieces.  For the love of frickin’ Galileo.  Not looking at data because it stands in conflict with what you think you know about the situation? That has nothing to do with Dr. Marcy’s character; that is about our collective cultural character. It’s a failure of integrity, and it doesn’t represent what I believe to be true about the core values of the community.

More than the 2,500 is the 250 who signed the petition asking for the retraction of Dennis Overbye’s article on the matter. I spoke to Mr. Overbye at length about the matter, and was informed that several who signed that petition have subsequently contacted him to express their regrets about signing, and to apologize.  I asked if they had expressed their regrets and apologies publicly.  He laughed and asked me if I was kidding.

What cowards. They signed a petition to be included in the herd, realized they had erred, but lacked the integrity to undo the damage they had attempted to do to Mr. Overbye.  Who are these people and what have they done with my truth-seeking-and-speaking astronomers?

So, if I stand alone on this, I’m disappointed, but I’m stating that I think that it was foolish, a bit clueless, and an example of repressive authoritarianism, for some members of the astronomy community to attempt to influence the way that news is reported, and to insult one of the field’s best allies in the process. They do not represent all of astronomy, and they do not represent me.

Finally, I am so very disappointed that so many have given up their God-given right to be ornery and bullheaded, and have instead taken on a pattern of parroting the words of whoever appears to be the cult leader of the moment.  For instance, was it an “open secret” that Geoff Marcy was a “serial harasser?”  No, I don’t think so.  Upon reflection, members of the AAS CSWA investigated Geoff Marcy for years, and in the process talked to a fairly large number of people about Geoff Marcy being a serial harasser, and they talked to their friends, and so on, and so on. AAS CSWA approached UC Berkeley for years in an attempt to take action against Marcy. And thus, they created a situation in which a great deal of energy was being spent talking about, researching, actively seeking out negative comments on Dr. Marcy. They created the gossip that they then complained about.

But, I’ve interviewed hundreds of astronomers, including some of Marcy’s former students, and I have heard more than a tale or two about astronomers and sex, including matters that fall into the category of harassment, including from Marcy’s former students, and even assault, but I’ve never heard anything about Marcy.  I know where there are skeletons hiding in closets, but to be honest, all of the sex tales I’ve ever heard about Marcy are about women (older women) in astronomy pursuing him. In all of this probing of the astronomy community, an “open secret” would have been mentioned, at least once. So, no, it wasn’t an “open secret” because that phrase has a particular meaning, and it doesn’t fit this situation. This was gossip, led and stirred up by leadership within the AAS, which is a different, very disturbing thing. I’m disappointed in astronomers adopting a heavily laden term without thinking the business through.

Or, did Marcy get a wrist slap from UC Berkelely as a result of their investigation?  I keep hearing people repeat that, and all I can think is that they either don’t understand what it means to forego due process, or they don’t know what “slap on the wrist” means. I can assure you that they aren’t the same thing, and I’m disappointed, irritated actually, that the intellectually vigorous, precise, skeptical astronomy community that I have loved so much, would be so lazy, so scared, that they wouldn’t call out the difference.

It is enough to walk away from Astronomy, to be honest, and I know that I’m not the only one thinking so.  But today is the first day of a new year.  With the hope that new beginnings bring, it is possible that Astronomy may find the intestinal and intellectual fortitude that it seems to have lost in the midst of the culture wars. If that happens, I don’t want to miss it.

So, if you please, come back to being the astronomers that I know and love. Return to your insistence on evidence, as opposed to feeling. Demand due process. Stand against the abuse of social justice issues in the effort to restructure the work and culture of astronomy. Call B.S. Refuse to engage in rumor. Decry “public shaming” for the intellectual weakness that it is.  If you really want to do something about sexual harassment in astronomy, get off of Facebook and Twitter. Go home to your own institution, and get involved in the faculty governance process.

And above all else, at all cost, resist herd psychology. It’s anti-astronomy.


2 thoughts on “Astronomy and Disappointment

  1. Yes, this is all sadly very true. I experienced a severe attack on me because I firmly (although discretely and only in person) opposed some pretty hostile stuff introduced by a local social justice warrior. Since then I am terrified to speak. Still did in public. Got shamed in public. How to go back to work on Monday? Will I get fired for my openness? Or “warned”?


  2. Brilliant article! An answer to why the SJWs have been so effective is right here: “If you really want to do something about sexual harassment in astronomy, get off of Facebook and Twitter.”!!

    Also, just a thought: the love of astronomy is a deeply personal thing that transcends any movement or individual. I would never even consider “walking away from astronomy”. I would fight for it! If you love something that much, you stay and fight! Indeed, anyone who chooses to “walk away” and adopt an alternative career (which was one of the aspects of Geoff Marcy’s case in the allegations against him that I found so questionable) didn’t really love astronomy in the first place.


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