Adventures in Ethics and Science

Making repairs, staying afloat.

Like sailors we are, who must rebuild their ship upon the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry dock or to reconstruct it there from the best materials.

Otto Neurath, “Protocol Sentences”

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The Neurath quotation above was offered to explain something about scientific theories and scientific knowledge, but today it puts me in mind of scientific communities instead. For surely, if we could bring the ship of science to dry-dock, there are lots of rotten planks that we might replace with strong new lumber, but that’s not an option. We have to fix the old tub while it’s still at sea, and there are some bits in need of repair that might put the person making the repair in shark-infested waters.

I’ve been thinking about this because of a couple of blog posts that got stuck in my head.

The first is from Rob Knop, who recounts the icky behavior of a senior (male) astronomer toward some (female) grad students at an international astronomical site in Chile. In a conversation that started reasonably professionally (i.e., the talk was focused on astronomy), Rob describes the highlights of the dinner-table patter of “Herb” (the senior astronomer) as follows:

  • The assertion that “if you’re male and straight, you can tell what a woman is thinking about you by looking in her eyes.” He says this while looking directly into the eyes of one of the students observing with me.
  • The statement above came in the context a story about how he had been out running down in La Serena, and a group of schoolgirls had been watching him, evidently admiringly. (And, yes, the schoolgirl he had looked at had, of course, wanted him, oooh baby.) (Barf.)
  • Multiple tales of sexual exploits (although veiled, and without any mention (except for an example below) of sex itself). All-but-bragging about how he has been out in public with a girlfriend who is younger than him and very attractive.
  • One of the above : he tells us about how one time he was at a stand-up comedy performance. At one point, the comic points to him, and then to an attractive woman on the other side of the table (who, it turns out, was dating Herb at the time). The comic asks him something to the effect of what he thinks his chances of sleeping with her tonight were. He response: pretty good; the woman nods in agreement.

Bear in mind that all of this conversation was made with three people he had just met, including two female graduate students. He and I were professors. If it had just been the two of us, even then I would have found the conversation a little creepy. Here’s this guy I barely know, and he’s strutting his stuff in front of me… odd. But to do it before graduate students, especially female graduate students, is utterly unforgivable and egregious.

Unlike some of those who commented on his post, Rob understands that being made to feel like you are notable mostly as a potential sexual partner (or object of fantasy) is not a great way to encourage the full involvement of women in a scientific community. To the extent that being a full member of the community includes not just collecting and analyzing data and framing hypotheses but also schmoozing at dinner at the centers of scientific activity, “Herb” was drawing a reasonably clear line for the graduate students — given that you are female, you will never really be a colleague, and by my manner I will not let you forget it.

Could the graduate students call “Herb” on his creepy behavior? Not without risk. What if “Herb” ended up making decisions on a grant for which they were applying — or a job, for that matter? What if “Herb” turned out to be a good friend of their thesis advisor or department chair? Dealing with a boor is one thing, but dealing with a vengeful boor is quite another.

Of course, in relating this incident, Rob does some soul-searching:

By the way, there was another utterly unforgivable and egregious act on the part of a male faculty member on this run. That would be me. My failure was not to tell this individual right there at dinner how utterly inappropriate his conversation was. I sat uncomfortably and didn’t say anything. That’s what most of us usually do. And that’s a big part of the problem.

But honestly, I can understand why Rob didn’t say anything. Rob is faculty, but he’s a mere assistant professor — low enough on the food chain that “Herb” and his connections could have a negative impact on Rob’s career and prospects within the community of astronomy. And looking at some of the comments on Rob’s post — of the “What’s the big deal?”/”Toughen up!”/”Why don’t women have any sense of humor?” variety — it seems clear that the community is not entirely united in seeing “Herb” and his ilk as a problem in need of fixing.

Prevailing assumptions about what kind of person it takes to do good science — assumptions that, maddeningly, many in the old guard of their scientific communities are happy to accept without much empirical data to support them — are at the heart of the other blog post stuck in my head, a story from Absinthe about whether it’s safe for (female) physicists who are knitters to be open about this “girly” hobby:

[I]n 2005, my last year at Fermilab, a female colleague, E, at my experiment discovered that I knit. She got excited and said that her doctor had recently recommended that she take up knitting as a stress reliever. She also said that another female colleague, H, on our experiment had recently gotten the same advice from her doctor (a different doctor, incidentally). She said that they were considering knitting in the weekly experiment “all hands meetings”, where all collaborators at the lab are supposed to attend. I’ve sat at the back of the room occassionally in these meetings and noticed many of the males with their laptops reading Google News, or playing solitaire, or reading their email, while completely ignoring the speaker.

Now, I can knit socks in the dark (literally) and I knew that knitting would by no means affect my participation in the meeting, or my attention to the speaker. Knitting for me is a background process, and I watch TV, talk to my kids and husband, read, etc, all the time when I am knitting. So, from an “ignoring the speaker” perspective, there was no reason I could not knit in a meeting. E told me that she and H would bring their knitting in if I would do it too.

Even though it was my last few months at the lab, and I knew by then my career was destroyed and that nothing could harm something that was already dead, I told E that I would feel really uncomfortable knitting in front of male colleagues. And so E and H never brought their knitting in.

And I am ashamed to this day that I said No to them. Very, very ashamed.

Because knitting in the meetings would not have affected our participation (unlike reading email, or playing solitaire, etc, etc), and it would have been an enlightening thing for the males to witness that women could do something feminine like knitting, right out in the open, and still be active particpants in meetings. It also would have been a good thing for the junior women to observe.

But I said No, so it never happened, and it is my shame that I will take to my grave.

I wonder if some of Absinthe’s hesistance to knit in front of male colleagues was actually motivated (perhaps subconsciously) by a desire to protect her female colleagues E and H, whose careers in physics were not destroyed. Or maybe, as a means of self-preservation, scientists and academics are trained so well to quash their impulses to make a stink about things that aren’t right that it’s hard not to quash them even when self-preservation is no longer an issue.

It’s a frustrating situation. Those who are in the community have a lot to lose by challenging the status quo. Those who are no longer in the community can speak out without the same risk of losing their standing — but, having no standing, they are also in a position where the community can safely ignore them. The status quo lumbers on, but that doesn’t mean the ship isn’t taking on water. Putting off real repairs for too long endangers the whole community.

And maybe that means that members of the community who are not accustomed to stepping up to identify these problems or make the repairs need to take a turn facing the sharks.


  1. #1 Mark
    November 15, 2006

    I can understand why graduate students wouldn’t want to call the boor on his behavior. On the other hand, many institutions are sensitive enough to sexual harassment lawsuits that a discrete word to someone in authority might have had some effect.

    I am not sure that knitting at a meeting would be any more or less acceptable than the obvious, boorish behavior of playing solitaire or surfing the net.

    All I can figure is that there are boors in science just as there are in every other profession.

  2. #2 New Kid on the Hallway
    November 15, 2006

    I know at least two women I’ve seen knit at conferences, but they’re both relatively invulnerable – one is an independent scholar (and not interested in getting an academic job), and the other is an eminent full professor. I know the latter well enough to know that she could knit in her sleep (and she always asks very cogent questions at the sessions she attends), so I know it’s not a way of disregarding what’s going on (and I’ve also seen people with ADHD tendencies argue that having something to do with their hands HELPS them focus on a talk. I have a student this semester who brings in a little pot of play-dough to work between her fingers in class because “it helps her focus”). I do know people who’ve considered it rude, though, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying it myself (for one thing, I’m not a good enough knitter…).

  3. #3 Janne
    November 16, 2006

    My reaction, apart from the cringe of embarrassment when encountering a socially inept performance, really is about the field of science as a career environment.

    What kind of environment are we working in when we gladly accept many years of complete vulnerability to the slightest whim of our elders? When people’s lives and livelihood constantly hangs on slender threads twitched and twanged by our seniors – while most of us unthinkingly dangle our juniors in the same way. Why do we accept an environment so dysfunctional that a slight personality conflict with the wrong person can mean financial ruin and the end of ten or twenty years of work? How many people are chasing a tenured position because they’re actually interested in the kind of work and responsibilities it entails, and how many are doing so simply as a way to get under cover from this kind of exposure?

  4. #4 David Harmon
    November 16, 2006

    In the general issue, Janne’s hit the nail on the head….

    What you’re seeing reflects a drastic power imbalance, which is ultimately a structural issue. I wasn’t able to comment on another article I saw about this issue, but the gist of my point was that, in “real-world” workplaces, there’s usually a natural limit to power imbalances. The boss may be “in charge”, but he still needs subordinates to get things done, and if he fires or chases off all his subordinates, he’ll be liable for the lack of deliverables. Meanwhile, the fired employees can not only get jobs elsewhere, but they keep their pay to the date of firing, and can also cite their period of employment as “experience”, regardless of how it ended. Various legal constraints make it pretty risky for an employer to badmouth prior employees — they can be sued for defamation or worse. If an employee’s been treated badly enough, they can go over the bosses head, or even sue the company for back pay — sometimes even for continued employment!

    In the academic world, the students are “stuck for the duration”, and the professors have the near-equivalent of a blacklist. A “fired” student, meanwhile, carries away comparatively little from a “partial” stint — half a project is no project, and to get a new position, they’re dependent on their prior “boss” for recommendations. And their only recourse is to the same departmental heirarchy they were just working under. This is a recipe for abuse of power!

    Regarding the specific matter of knitting, it might be worth passing around a few articles about those folks who’ve been knitting geometric models (hyperspaces?), chemical structures, etc. I don’t have links offhand, but I think this was one of the blogs where I saw them in the first place!

  5. #5 beajerry
    November 16, 2006

    Perhaps women scientists should always carry around knitting needles and “accidently” jab them into any inappropriate cad.