Thursday, March 24, 2016

Women in Astronomy

Eight years ago, astronomers found a new gas giant exoplanet, named 2MASS, J2126-8140 which was believed to be a rogue planet floating freely through space. It has now been determined that 2MASS is actually part of the largest solar system ever discovered. This historic discovery was made by astronomical teams headed by Dr. Niall Deacon of the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K., Dr. Simon Murphy of the Australian National University, and Dr. Joshua Shlieder from the NASA Ames Research Centre in California. The collaborators believe that the new solar system did not originate, as ours did, from a disc of dust and gas, but was formed in some way not yet fully understood.  In a recent press conference, the researchers announced that they were bringing some female astronomers onto the team to help them theorize about the origins of this system; it is felt that a woman’s perspective, a perspective operating outside the rigid, exclusionary binarisms and linear logic of masculist conceptual structures, will be more likely to solve this astronomical enigma.

Okay—that last statement is not true. It’s true that a team of male researchers has discovered a new solar system. But the researchers are not, to my knowledge,
incorporating female perspectives in the way I described, probably because they’re … phallocentric misogynists who require gender sensitivity training. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of discourse you hear in Astronomy these days.

For years I have consoled myself for the corruption of higher education with the thought that at least in the natural sciences, victimology had not derailed rational inquiry. In his book The Closing of the American Mind, the philosopher Allan Bloom accused scientists of colluding in the ruination of the liberal university because they were not unhappy to allow feminist and SJW energies to focus on disciplines the scientists had always considered ‘soft’ and therefore expendable—thus leaving the scientists to do their real work without distraction (p. 351). As a professor of English, I had always envied those in the natural sciences their oasis of academic sanity.

It turns out I was naïve. Feminists conquered many humanities departments and much of the social sciences, with almost no resistance at all. Within a few decades from the founding of the first women’s studies program in 1970, every university had one, and feminist theories and methodologies became a central part of most teaching and research outside of the sciences.

Why did we think social justice activists would be satisfied with leaving the natural sciences alone? Evidence is accumulating that the bastion of scientific rationality is already in the process of being invaded, and may even already have toppled in some places.

Recently, William Collins, a Physicist, posted an article on Jonathan Taylor’s site Boys and Men in Education reporting on the manner in which the teaching of Physics is being reformed in order to make it more friendly to girls. The idea that we need girls to like Physics is a taken-for-granted axiom of modern education.

Collins tells us about a report that was commissioned in 2006 to explore why more girls do not study Physics at A levels (A Levels is the program generally required for university entrance in Britain). The report authors recommend that Physics be made more attractive to girls by bringing in more social context, which tends to be what girls like in a subject, as opposed to boys’ greater interest in the subject itself, the neutrons and the electrons and all that. The proposed reforms were sweeping, to say the least. According to Collins, they included the following:
The curriculum should be “context based” or “humanistic.” It should: Use a variety of social situations and contexts to organize and determine the scientific content of the course; Represent science as something that people do, influenced by historical, political, cultural and personal factors, not just as a body of knowledge.
Collins’ remarks on this proposal identify how deeply at odds with the nature of scientific research this reform proposal is:
"There is no social context in physics […]. {He says.]It’s about electrons. It’s about the motion of planets, which is not noticeably influenced by the existence of homo sapiens. It’s about the primordial fireball in the first fraction of a second of the universe’s existence. It’s about pure mathematical constructs of awesome elegance which turn out, amazingly, ineffably, numinously, to align with the behaviour of inanimate matter. It is gloriously austere and deeply mysterious."
Well, the objections of people like William Collins fell on deaf ears. The curriculum has, duly, been changed, and now we have a curriculum that “shows the usefulness of the subject and illustrates the impact that discoveries in physics have had on the way people live … [in other words, it’s not Physics anymore, it’s now the social history of Physics]. Now there are “opportunities for candidates to … use their imagination, and, place physics in a social or historical context and argue about the issues that arise” [in other words, there has been a drastic watering down of physics content, and a new emphasis on peripheral aspects of the subject.]

The irony is, as Collins reports, that Physics has changed, for the worse, but girls have not become noticeably more interested in it. At the school where Collins teaches 6th form A-level Physics, only 4 out of his 40 students are girls, with the result that “90% of the candidates, the boys, are being taught a curriculum which has been optimized for the remaining 10%, the girls….”

Our politically correct preoccupation with making every subject ‘safe for girls’ has had the consequence of making no subject safe for boys, especially those boys, as Collins points out, who are not strong in language skills and who prefer subjects that have traditionally favored numeracy. Now those boys have nowhere academic to go at all.

It’s getting increasingly uncomfortable to be a male researcher in Astronomy too, even for top-tier academics in the university system. Recently an American astronomer named Geoff Marcy, highly regarded for decades and rumored to be a Nobel Prize contender, was forced to resign from his position at the University of California, Berkeley after having been found to have violated  the university’s Title IX policies against sexual harassment.

What this means according to a statement by the Chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women is that he made what in a sane age would have been considered minor sexual advances to female students involving touches or kisses, never pursued if the women objected. Forgive me for finding his behavior less than heinous. An inflammatory article in The Atlantic spins his case and a few unnamed others into a widespread sexual harassment “scandal” for which aggressive proactive measures in Astronomy departments all across the western world are claimed to be necessary.

Referring to harassers and their ‘prey’ as if the alleged harassers were predatory animals rather than male human beings who happened to ask female students out on dates or offered them rides home from university, the article also makes its ‘sky is falling’ case with survey results in which 82 percent of respondents claimed to have heard “sexist remarks” in their workplace and 57% claimed to have been verbally harassed. When nearly anything a man in authority says about or to a woman can now be perceived as ‘sexist’ or ‘harassing’ (I liked your hair better long! Your perfume is lovely), I’m surprised the figure for those harassed is actually so low. Despite such remarkably thin evidence, the article ends with the typical ‘woman as victim’ appeal. While acknowledging that not everyone in Astronomy is convinced that an anti-harassment campaign is a good idea, the article notes that, well, too bad:
“It’s been a tough forever for women in astronomy—and women in science, and also just women—who have been dealing with harassment and discrimination since always.” 
Who could argue with such sentimental bloviation? The result of the manufactured scandal, as a friend in Australia who works in Astronomy has informed me, has been a behind-the-scenes effort to encourage the lodging of complaints, as well as a naming and shaming campaign on social media in which alleged harassers are ‘outed’ by feminist vigilantes, who couldn’t care less if innocent men’s reputations or careers are ruined.

To get a flavor of the feminist perspective on so-called harassment in science, one need only look at a website called Women in Astronomy to note the typical feminist obsession with barriers to women’s advancement and the insistence that the practice of Astronomy must change to accommodate women’s preferences and habits (rather than the other way around). There’s even a special post about Matt Taylor, the brilliant Astrophysicist, you’ll remember, forced to apologize in tears for wearing an “inappropriate” shirt when appearing on television to discuss the space probe he and his team had landed on a comet. If you want a sense of what female grievance looks like in the discipline of Astronomy, take a look at this post alone, which is a kind of object lesson in feminist envy and bitterness. At one point, the writer, who chose to remain anonymous, says of Matt Taylor that “The female scientists bringing this up [i.e. his shirt] have just as cool things on their CVs. […] we're not impressed with him just for being on a mission team.” Well, if it’s true that female astrophysicists are so cool, one has to wonder why they spend so much of their time writing on this post rather than doing research: this same writer provides a list of female ‘injuries’ that culminates in an embarrassingly childish rant about being a woman in a male scientific field.

Another contributor detailed at length an experience of what she called sexual harassment, which consisted of a man she had been introduced to at an Astronomy conference expressing sexual interest at a pub gathering after the conference, where she had gone with other students. She dwells on her personal Calvary at length, telling us that his suggestion that she come back to his hotel for a threesome with his girlfriend made her feel “very vulnerable and alone” and “burning with shame.” In fact, the incident, as she reports it, made her doubt herself in every way:
"He must have not been interested in my work at all," she reports thinking, "does that mean I’m not really a scientist." 
Even six years later, it seems, the outrage is still fresh. But is it in any way justified or reasonable: did this man threaten her? Did he pursue her relentlessly even after her refusal? Was he churlish when she refused him? No.

Merely the fact that he propositioned her was enough to send this adult woman into years-long trauma, only assuaged—or exacerbated—through repetition:
“I knew that the only thing I could do was talk about it, to speak it out loud, to give it form and display it for all to see.” 
Really? Why not just forget it? Go talk to one of the other students you’d come to the bar with? Make a joke out of it? Feel flattered that a man found you attractive? The writer seems not to realize that men proposition women all the time, and a fair number of women like it. Following the feminist script, the writer emphasizes that what was so egregious in this incident was that this harasser was ten years older and “in a position of power” over her. But in fact he wasn’t. He was a Post-Doc Fellow with no involvement in her work and with whom she never had to interact again. It’s also clear from her post that during the rest of her career, nothing like it ever occurred again—we can be sure she’d have mentioned it if it did! But it’s that kind of site: women with a monumental sense of their own heroism, demonstrating through their trivial complaints that they are really not equipped with heroism, or even common sense, to function in a male space.

Sites like this go on and on about the need to “speak out” and “name our oppression” as if it were still the nineteenth century—all in the name of the advancement of women in science, which the site tells us frequently is important and beneficial. It never says why, and it doesn’t have to—every politician and opinion-maker of our time praises “diversity.” Let’s ask why. Why do we need women astronomers? Why do we need to encourage girls to go into Physics? Or Chemistry? Or Engineering? Don’t tell me justice. It’s justice to make sure that women are not prevented from pursuing their scientific passion. But there is no justice and much to be lost in changing the discipline to make it more compatible with female habits of mind. There is no justice in stigmatizing men for mistakenly calling a young female PhD ‘Miss’ or asking her out on a date. There is no justice in pretending that women face massive hurdles to achievement and must be constantly affirmed and supported. Let me say it: we do not need more women doing Physics or Astronomy, especially not if it means that standards are lowered or witch-hunts conducted. What we need are smart people doing Physics or Astronomy, smart people of whatever sex or race who will bring to the subject the dedication, the discipline, and the intellectual chops to do the subject justice. We should stop pretending that the vast majority of scientists working in these fields are less than civil and decent in their behavior. Anything else is an insult—to fair-minded women and to the men who established and developed these subjects in the first place.

To return to the astronomical discovery with which I began, one of the interesting aspects of the new-found solar system is that the planet 2MASS is so far away from its host star TYC-9486, approximately a trillion miles, that one full orbit takes about a million years—nearly 13,000 human life-spans. Let’s hope it does not take this long before feminism is finally discredited.

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