Feminist Philosophers has been running a series of posts on the Geoff Marcy harassment case in Astrophysics (here, here, here), and see this piece by Janet Stemwedel in Forbes. It makes for depressing reading: lots of folk had witnessed the harassment, several victims leave the profession, a big time university (UC Berkeley) is unwilling to move beyond symbolic sanction, and we're asked to support the perpetrator while leaving many of the victims out in the cold. It's all depressingly familiar for those of us in professional philosophy, who have followed several such high profile cases in our profession. Except that, alerted by Stemwedel, I noticed one non-trivial detail:
David Charbonneau, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, said the matter has broad implications.
“Geoff Marcy is undeniably the most prominent exoplanet researcher in the U.S.,” he said, referring to the study of planets beyond our solar system. “The stakes here couldn’t be higher. We are working so hard to have gender parity in this field, and when the most prominent person is a routine harasser, it threatens a major objective nationally.”
With the biggest exoplanet conference of the year coming up at the end of next month, Charbonneau told BuzzFeed News, he called Marcy on Wednesday. Charbonneau says he told Marcy that, given the concerns that some attendees would have following the investigation, Marcy shouldn’t go. Charbonneau said Marcy agreed not to attend and also stepped down from the meeting’s scientific organizing committee.--Quoted in Buzzfeed.
I already knew that the astronomers were ahead of the philosophers on these issues (recall). But Charbonneau's comments and stance are non-trivial. First, he understands his own community as being committed to gender-parity as a goal. Perhaps, it's the company I keep, but I have not heard such an ambitious goal articulated among professional philosophers.* Second, he speaks up without coded language. How refreshing. Third, Charbonneau's interest in these matters is not sudden: he serves on the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and is a contributing blogger for Women in Astronomy.
Fourth, Prof. Charbonneau was not alone in his forthrightness; there was another Harvard astronomer, John Asher Johnson (a former student of Marcy), who did not mince his words (the whole post is worth reading because Johnson also describes the way grooming of victims takes place):
In 2013 I received tenure. Leading up to my tenure decision, I decided that I would use my position, voice and male privilege to finally do something about the open secret—Geoff's long con of holding the community in fear to provide himself cover to continue harassing our junior female colleagues. Yes, I have greatly benefited from Geoff's letters over the years. But his publication record shows that he has benefitted [sic] from my scientific productivity. In 2013 I figured we were square, and I effectively ended our 13-year collaboration.
Without criticism: there is nothing especially heroic in Prof. Johnson's stance (as he recognizes). Tenure is, in part, designed to protect one from retaliation. It's the tenured that can make the culture of silence (and shame) within a profession disappear (recally my own non-heroic reflections). Obviously they need help from their employers (universities and grant agencies), but it does make a difference.
What is so distressing about professional philosophy, is that too much of the hard work in changing our norms and practices has fallen on some of the most junior and vulnerable in our profession (when these are not actively undermined or shunned for breaking the culture of silence) or on a relatively small group of change-agents.
Yes, there is a lot more support of victims and far wider public recognition of our profession's problems than there was, say, a decade ago. (I hope that's true; there is also a lot more public vilification too, so I may be too optimistic.) During all the scandals that have come to light during the last few years, some of our senior colleagues were instrumental in aiding victims; behind the scenes there is a lot more effort to prevent serial harassers from speaking at conferences and workshops. But too many of our profession's big shots continue to show indifference or, worse, cover for philosophically talented peers about which there are plenty of "open secrets." Perhaps, it's because the astronomers look at the stars that they recognize the moral law with more clarity than the philosophers?
Can we do better?
We must; the astronomers can pilot the way.
*I am not claiming that parity is the only such worthy goal or even the best such goal. It's the ambition that I find notable.