Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Geoff and Sarah Show

I started out calling it "The Ballad of Geoff and Sarah". But this MIT panel made me imagine another device. I'll do a closer analysis of the panel in the weeks to come, but I wanted to note an immediate impression and ask those who choose watch it along with me whether they think the same. Does it not seem that everyone is talking in very vague terms both about what Geoff Marcy did and what happened to Sarah Ballard? It is assumed throughout that Marcy sexually harassed Ballard, and that Ballard was harmed by his actions, but it is never made clear what happened.

I, for one, have never quite understood what Marcy is supposed to have done wrong. Is Ballard claiming that Marcy had sexual desires for Ballard and tried to satisfy them by wielding the power he held over her career? Is she even claiming that Marcy somehow harmed Ballard's career? I don't think she's making such claims. There's a point in the discussion (22:20) where she seems to be saying (as I've noted before) that the damage consisted mainly in her coming to question whether science is a purely meritocratic profession. Perhaps, then, it was his friendship, not his sexual interest, that disconcerted her? I, for one, am not persuaded that Marcy hoped to have a romantic relationship with Ballard. And Ballard herself seems unsure about whether he did. Otherwise, couldn't she just tell the story as a clear attempt at seduction?

Notice that for all the references to the experience during the panel, neither Ghorayshi nor Ballard ever really tell the story of what happened between Ballard and Marcy. This got me thinking. Until the scandal broke, Marcy considered himself an ally of women in science. Indeed, it's my impression that many women continue to think of him as an ally, albeit very quietly and in private for the most part. By resigning, he seemed clearly to be thinking of how to protect his colleagues (and no doubt his graduate students) from getting caught in some very destructive pressures. I think it's uncontroversial to suggest that he had the best interests of astronomy as a field at heart. It has never seemed like he was willing to take anyone else down with him in this debacle.

So why, I wonder, has his willingness to cooperate not been exploited (I mean that in a good sense) by gender activists? Why does Sarah Ballard appear on a panel like this and talk vaguely and guardedly about her experiences rather than touring the country's astronomy departments with Geoff Marcy, speaking directly and openly about their shared cautionary tale of interpersonal relationships in science? Why isn't this story being told in detail so that the very men that activists think can be taught not to harass women, and the vulnerable women that Ballard explicitly wants to help avoid such harassment, could learn from it?

It seems to me that a real opportunity was missed here. Ironically, the very people that pushed the hard line against Marcy, ultimately forcing him into retirement, keep saying that this isn't about individuals. It's a "systemic" problem, they say. It's about changing the culture and transforming the institutions. Surely, the best way to do this is to model conflict resolution between tootwo well-meaning people like Ballard and Marcy. Reading Ballard's story, I can't for the life of me understand why a healing process between them should be impossible. At this point, it's mainly Marcy's reticence to go anywhere near his accusers that makes sense. I wouldn't be easily persuaded either. I think that should sit badly with self-avowed gender activists like Ballard and Ghorayshi. With panels like this, they are not bridging the gender gap. They are deepening it.

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