Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sarah Ballard's Love of Stars, part 2

"Do not become enamored of power."
(Michel Foucault)

In the campaign against sexual harassment in the sciences, I can't help but notice its fascination with the power of science. I mean this in contrast to taking an interest in the knowledge that science brings. This is easy to understand once we realize that the harassment issue is largely being imposed on the STEM fields from the outside. The forces that are being brought to bear on, say, astronomy are as external to it as politics is external [to] science. Indeed, the forces are, precisely, political.

In my last post, I noted that Sarah Ballard describes her interest in science in aesthetic terms, rather than, let's say, epistemic ones. In this post, I want to suggest that her interest is also ethical before it is epistemological. I don't get the sense that she struggles very much with the philosophical problems of modern cosmology. Just as she thinks of the universe in terms of its "majesty", she thinks of scientists in terms of their fame. And, like I say, their power. This is important because, in her encounters with Geoff Marcy, so much depends on her subjective experience of the man, and so little on his objective acts.

Before we get to those encounters specifically, I want to highlight how she describes her sense of Marcy before he began to take his allegedly inappropriate interest in her. In her interview on the Inquiring Minds podcast, Kishore Hari asks her whether she had the necessary context to understand who Marcy was, i.e., whether she knew he was a big deal in the field. Hari wonders whether perhaps this wasn't so early in Ballard's education that she thought of him mainly as a professor of astronomy, not a star in his own right.

"No, no," she assures him, "you have an idea." She knew of him through the news, she says, adding that, like any young scientists, she knew that he was one of the people who had an "overlarge presence". She knew he was "particularly important" in his field and "particularly exciting", even if she might have been "ignorant of who was doing what exactly." (Here's it's important to remember that she didn't begin to take a real interest in Marcy's field, exoplanets, until she was at Harvard, under another supervisor.) "And it's hard to get more famous than Marcy," she tells us. She was "very aware of how exciting and cutting edge" his research was.

Part of Ballard's story is that her suspicion that he might be more sexually than intellectually interested in her undercut her confidence in herself. When he said she showed great promise as astronomer, she had felt great. Now, I suppose, she worried that it was just empty flattery. We'll get back to this in later posts, including her basis for thinking that his interest was sexual. But what I want to point out is that perhaps her interest in Marcy wasn't altogether pure either. I'm not saying she was sexually attracted to him, but she was, very clearly, enamored with his power and his fame. At this time, this part of him was more salient to her than his scientific accomplishment. It was not that he had discovered the smallest ever exoplanet. It was that it would be in the news.

I'm not saying this just to draw Ballard's motives into question. (I think all our motives are mixed and we lie, mainly to ourselves, when we say our hearts are pure. This, in itself, is trivial.) What is important here is that Ballard is not just enamored of Marcy's power, she is afraid of it. As Marcy makes clear in his "summary of the facts", he has never been accused of abusing his power, whether to get something out of someone or to get back at them. And yet, this is why his interest in her worried her, forcing her into a complicated ethical calculus. What if she broke off the friendship (she apparently saw as an "escalating", albeit one-sided, romance)? Would he then refuse to give her a letter of recommendation? Indeed, she even felt at one point that she might have to physically run away from him.

Now, the relationship did in fact end. And the letter was in fact written. At no point did she have to run away from his violent clutches. It did not even come to a point where she had to insist on lines being drawn, but, the story goes that he was told (by someone else) to knock it off. Any fears she (and her roommate) had about what this might do to her career turned out to be completely unfounded. She attributed both powers and motives to him that he did not have.

It can be argued that he did "have the power" to abuse her. But he had it only under threat of having exactly what happened to him happen too. He manifestly did not get away with anything in the long run. And, surely, if he had been truly coercive or abusive or vengeful or violent as often, and to as many women, as he was merely a little too friendly, he would have been punished even more severely. In that sense, he didn't even have the power to do what little he did do. The point I'm trying to make here, and where I'll leave it for now, is that Ballard's "harassment story" begins with a distorted—indeed, an "overlarge"—image of the alleged harasser. She submits to a power that is mainly of her own construction. It is not a power that Marcy, it seems, ever undertook to wield.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sarah Ballard's Love of Stars, part 1

(Update (10:49): This post has been slightly altered since first posting.)

In a recent press conference to introduce legislation that promises a "solution" to the problem of "rampant sexual harassment in STEM", House Representative Jackie Speier stated as fact that "at UC Berkeley, astronomer Geoff Marcy sexually harassed students for more than ten years." She later introduces Sarah Ballard as "an astronomer that has bravely spoken out against the harassment she endured as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley" at the hands of Geoff Marcy. The connection is important because Ballard's story is thereby explicitly offered as an example of Marcy's behavior specifically and of the sort of behavior targeted by the legislation in general. Something bad happened to Sarah Ballard, we are told; Geoff Marcy did it to her; this sort of thing is "rampant" in the sciences; it must be stopped. Understanding Ballard's story, then, is crucial to understanding the issue of sexual harassment in STEM. I think that's the spirit in which it is being told.

But to understand a story it is not enough that we simply "listen and believe," as the slogan goes. We have to try to make sense of it; we have to fit it into our own sense of reality; we have to absorb it into our own experience. We have to approach it with what Norman Mailer once called our "full and specific sympathy". It has to become part of our understanding of the way of life we call science. This may require us to adjust our assumptions about reality, and that is certainly Speier and Ballard's intention. They want us to include in our image of astronomy the suffering exemplified by Ballard's story. We have to interpret her story and interpolate it into our own.

That is what I have tried to do. I must say that, while I don't have much difficulty believing her story on a factual level, I have hard time seeing it as an example of sexual harassment. To me, the story doesn't even really seem to primarily about Geoff Marcy. It's a story about Sarah Ballard's discovery of her identity, a coming of age story that is set, as so many such stories necessarily are, during her time as an undergraduate at a university. She learned something about herself as a scientist and as a woman, and she learned something about a scientist and a man. She learned something about scientists and about human beings, about being a scientist and being human.

Sadly, she was told that this formative experience should never have happened. She was told that it was a wrong done to her rather than a natural part of growing up. She was told that her feelings for a man she admired, and his feelings for her, were wrong—that "something was off". She was persuaded that her personal relationship with Marcy (which Marcy described as a friendship) somehow sullied her life as a scientist. She was told that astronomy must be devoid of real, human relationships. Coming of age, coming into her own as an adult, she became a professional.

And where did she learn to interpret her experiences in this way? As is too often the case, it turns out that she learned it in a gender studies class. That, indeed, is where her story begins. As she explains to Kishore Hari on Inquiring Minds, she originally thought she would become a social worker with a focus on gender issues. (This moment is worth listening to. Hari asks her whether she went to university knowing she wanted to be astronomy, obviously expecting her to say yes, that it had been her passion since she was a little girl. "No, it wasn't," she whispers ironically, like a funny little secret.) Her introduction to astronomy came while fulfilling a "useless" natural science requirement. That was Geoff Marcy's class. Indeed, her contact with Marcy didn't begin as a shared interest in astronomy, but as a shared interest in gender issues. He had attended a Take Back the Night rally; and she had written to thank him for doing so.

It is not clear from her story whether this was before or after she discovered her love of astronomy. But the way she made this discovery is itself telling, at least to me. After all, she claims she heard her calling to astronomy, not in a moment of intellectual illumination, when she finally understood something that had until then been mysterious to her. Rather, she was, she says, sitting in class (presumably Marcy's) and was shown "a particular image of outer space" that "made [her] realize, as much as any human being ever can, something of the majesty and scale of our universe." That is, she approaches science not so much through curiosity as through awe and wonder.

Ballard also tells us that she didn't stay in astronomy to solve any particular mystery of the universe. Indeed, she's quite nonchalant about what she was interested in, even going so far as to accept a graduate advisor's recommendation to study exoplanets, a topic which had held no intrinsic interest for her until then, and just happened to be an area that would require her to work closely with her supposed harasser, Geoff Marcy. At the press conference, and in the interview, it is clear that she is interested in science as much for the culture it provides as the nature it studies.

Indeed, my hunch is that, for Ballard, the natural world is an entirely secondary matter of concern. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a primarily aesthetic object for her. She finds the universe sufficiently awesome, even beautiful, and takes pleasure in working in this field. But it is not the physical universe she is really interested in understanding. Hers isn't really a quest for knowledge. The story I hear her telling is the story of finding a place where she might be "valued", not for her intellect and curiosity, but "for who she really is". Being a scientist, she advises young people, means being "intrinsically who you are". Who, then, is Sarah Ballard? That's the question we have to answer to really understand what "happened to her" at Berkeley in 2005 when she met Geoff Marcy.