Are we all to blame?

October 3, 2019 • 1:00 pm

The science journal Nature is getting increasingly woke, and although it’s very important to call attention to, and to investigate, instances of sexual harassment in the sciences, which prevent people (usually women) from getting equal opportunities in the field, self flagellation and blanket accusations like this one don’t help. (Click on screenshot.)

There are ways to highlight this problem, which, make no mistake, is a very real problem, but accusing all of us (as well as oneself) is not a good way.  As Valian, a psychology professor at Hunter College, says:

I would like to give myself a pass. But I cannot.

I did not see that I should help set the appropriate social norms, create the right environment and look out for warning signs. As a senior faculty member, as someone who works on gender equity and diversity, as a teacher, as a supervisor of graduate students, I have an implicit duty to promote good behaviour and prevent bad behaviour.

Here’s one incident that I still think about. Almost a decade ago, that former colleague said he was “disgusted” to learn I had referred a student to student services after she told me that she felt a man in the class was stalking her. He thought it was a ‘he said, she said’ situation and that I should not have involved the authorities. I replied that the student was visibly uncomfortable, that harassment rarely has witnesses, and that we needed to respect everyone’s rights. (Student services did intervene, in a helpful and respectful manner that resolved the situation.) What I didn’t say was that his response was one-sided, inappropriate and insensitive. I didn’t want to rock the boat, or to think through the implications of his reaction for other students.

My complicity sickens me.

Indeed, although the headline says we’re all complicit, which immediately will get peoples’ dander up and make them defensive (remember, she’s not exempting either sex), she admits that maybe it’s just “many of us” (my emphasis):

The vast majority of scholars will never have crossed paths with Jeffrey Epstein, but many of us — myself included — are guilty of lapses, of instances when we failed to recognize or take steps to prevent abuse. It is past time for us to create effective ways to intervene.

If you’re a scientist and complicit, weigh in below. If you don’t think you’re complicit, weigh in as well.

Perhaps Dr. Valian is sickened by herself, but I assume that many people of good will, who try their best to afford equal opportunities to everyone (science departments are increasingly dealing with the issue), wouldn’t have such an extreme reaction. Of course we should examine ways to improve things, and be more sensitive to harassment, but accusations of everyone in science, as well as the back-beating of penitentes who sicken themselves, are not only useless, but counterproductive.

55 thoughts on “Are we all to blame?

  1. I don’t blame all Muslims when a terrorist strikes in the name of Islam. I don’t blame all blacks men when a black person commits a crime. And I don’t blame all men when a man commits a sexual crime or harassment. Following woke logic, it seems I have been immoral and should have been generalizing by race and gender all along.

    1. Not quite! You generalise by race when it’s a white person (but not otherwise) and you generalise by gender when it’s a male (but not otherwise).

  2. Being (relatively) good at math does not mean that I am qualified to fix sexual harassment, etc.

    Referring to the proper authorities IS, IMHO, the correct way to proceed (and of course, saying something when you see it).

  3. I am not complicit and have been in the sciences for over twenty years (graduate school to research). I have seen one professor sleep with a graduate student. The student seemed very happy with the relationship, but I think that crosses the line.

    I don’t mean to derail this topic, but in the world of swimming, communities are victims of complicity. People really need to know what ‘grooming’ is. Grooming not only happens on the pool deck it happens in the workplace.

    A high school swim coach might see a girl at age 13-14 but the effect of harassment is not immediate. Predators will and do spend years grooming their targets (same with bosses at work). By 15-16 a girl (or boy) who has been groomed properly will be very comfortable with physical contact, texting, and even social contact.

    Parents of the girls don’t even realize that there is anything wrong. I call them ‘community groomers’. They are effectively not stopping the cumulative behaviors that lead to either harassment and/or abuse. And that does make me feel sick.

  4. We don’t all just have work to do, we are all sickening, and once everyone realizes that we’ll be well on our way to… mass depression.

  5. Here’s my problem. A lot of people, like the author in your quote, seem to think that all poor behaviour with respect to sexual harassment is equally bad. In reality, there’s a world of difference between being a stalker of women and failing to admonish a colleague for thinking you were wrong to report a stalking incident.

    1. This is exactly what I took away from the excerpt Jerry shared. I went back and read it again to make sure I understood what sickened Dr. Valian; it does seem that she feels she was complicit due to her not more forcefully calling out a colleague. My larger takeaway is that her decision to involve student services was appropriate and resulted in a positive resolution for the student. She helped, and maybe–just maybe–her colleague was later influenced by her good example.

  6. Just as monocausal explanations purport to explain everything, and in reality explain nothing, so does universal guilt fail to apportion actual guilt.

  7. Is this a metastasizing of the melodramatically public virtue signaling and breast-beating white guilt phenomenon?

    1. You’re dead-on. The woke thing to do now is admit that you are complicit in all types of oppression unless you belong to the right race, sex, religion, etc.

      1. It’s sort of like fundamentalist evangelicalism – you have to have a “once was lost” story about how bad a person you were, before you can talk about how Jesus (or in this case, liberalism) “found” you.

        IMO this can actually be harmful, when the telling and social acceptance of a “once was lost, now am found” story causes the person to forego any more long-term, patient approach to introspection and how you might do better in the future. Tell your story, be welcomed to the tribe, and voila! No more introspection needed.

        1. It’s not just the “once was lost, but now am found” story, it’s the constant self-flagellation that must take place. You must constantly tell everyone how terrible you are (assuming you are white and/or a man and/or a Westerner and/or whatever they don’t like), but you don’t have to actually do anything but say or write the words. In this sense, it is even more religious (specifically Catholic, I guess?) than you suggest!

          1. I’m guilty.

            This is disconcerting, since I’ve always thought of myself as (and tried to be) a fair-minded reasonably unprejudiced individual, but obviously that was just my arrogant assumption based on my white male privilege.

            I’m not sure exactly what I’m guilty of, but I’m sure the woke can find plenty.

            However, since there’s evidently nothing useful I can do about it, I’ve just decided to carry on as before and not give a shit.


  8. BTW, I AM a scientist and I am not complicit except when I am. Which is, apparently, inescapable. Whatever.

  9. It is past time for us to create effective ways to intervene.

    While perhaps a laudable goal, I’d be wary of attempts to bring it to fruition. To effectively intervene, you need to first of all know whether an intervention is necessary, and then know what kind, and then have a way to do it, and then the will to do so. And the first two or three are fraught with problems.

    To know whether an intervention is necessary is difficult. She uses the example of Epstein. Most people Epstein hung out with had no idea of the clear abuse he was reportedly up to, and how much harder will it be to divine the truth in the sorts of vague cases that are usually miscommunications or misinterpretations or pathologizing of normal human behaviors. To be sure that a response is even needed in such cases you’d normally need to see a pattern a behavior, which necessarily involves standing aside and observing, and only in retrospect can you know whether you were “complicit in abuse” with your initial inaction or not.

    Then there’s the question of what kind of intervention is necessary. If after some interaction between a man and a woman, the woman is feeling “uncomfortable”, what does that really mean? Perhaps it was a simple miscommunication or misunderstanding. Perhaps they were raised with different values, each fine in their own context, but which are incompatible. Perhaps she’s hyper-sensitive (as many people are nowadays). Perhaps the man is autistic or eccentric (as very smart people often seem to be) and meant no harm. Perhaps the man is feeling even more uncomfortable than she is. Or, perhaps he is an evil abuser. I fear that people like this want to go directly to punishment, and always for the man, without even attempting to understand the situation.

    Then there needs to be a way to intervene. As we saw with the Title IX controversy, attempting to make it easy to intervene often leads to dismantling due process and building bias into the system, resulting in injustice. These things have to be done carefully and wisely. We need to protect complainants from retaliation while also protecting defendants from injustice.

    And then there is having the will to do something once you know what should be done. I think the most common inhibitor of the will to act is lacking confidence that you really understand the situation correctly (or sufficient well to know that it’s worth investigation by experts). That step shouldn’t be skipped, and shouldn’t be bypassed with false confidence borne of an immediate rush to judgment (lest you be “complicit”). But yes, if you believe you’re probably right and have done the work to justify that belief, you should act, and we can all try to be more courageous in this way. But let’s not have any witch hunts.

  10. It’s a weird premise, in that if followed to its logical conclusion, she is also accusing the woman being stalked of being complicit.

    Also, I may be totally off base in wondering this, but are liberal science labs really hotbeds of misogyny? Anecdotally I feel like highly educated liberal guys are far less likely to act like cretins – again, just in my experience though, there may be a whole subculture there that I’m unaware of. I do wonder if it’s a case of ‘over policing’ in the areas that need it the least, however (similar to how the heaviest emphasis on policing racism tends to be on uber liberal and diverse college campuses). I grew up taking a certain amount of male bullying at school as a given – “boys being boys” and all that. Once I moved to a more liberal area I have rarely if ever experienced that type of thing, so it seems strange that this would be such a problem in science labs of all places.

  11. These confessions of guilt -even if sincere and not just virtue signaling- are toe-cringingly embarrassing.
    They remind us of the RCC as well as the Cultural Revolution….

  12. I’m not sure I understand what Valian is kicking herself for other than the stalker incident she was involved in. Maybe it’s that business of see something, say something but what did you see and who do you tell? If you had any information regarding Epstein early on, I guess you could go to the police down in Florida. But then, look how that turned out. Or may you were around Michigan State during the years of Larry Nassar. Seems you could have told a lot of people about that and got nowhere. Just getting yourself off the hook by reporting to someone is not a cure. You have to create a system within an institution that knows what to do with your report.

  13. The problem with the view in this article is that degrees of complicity are ignored or greatly downplayed. Such views remind me of a quote from a Skeptical Inquirer article written by Isaac Asimov in 1989:

    “…John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of the put together”.
    The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

    1. Yes, people IMO need to consider the ethical equivalent of the epistemological point Asimov makes. (Also more people, particularly pomos and that sort, need to consider the epistemological point, too!)

  14. Spent all my adult life in academia. I have seen various kinds of harassment and abuse by professors toward female students and staff in the ivory tower, but I do believe it has gotten considerably better. It is still there, but there is less of it. What made the difference? Of course the wide acceptance of having women in academia is a huge factor. Plus a robust HR department with staff well trained in training and mediating. Through their regular reminders, all are made aware that we need to watch it. And I think there is the ‘better angels of our nature’ aspect as well. People have gotten better in general (but we are certainly not perfect, yet).

    I don’t right now buy that we are all guilty of what abuse remains, but I think we have all played some part in the improvements that have occurred.

  15. In my experience,such cases are often not as black and white as we would like them to be.

    I have been at the receiving end of what today would be construed as sexual harassment many times during my time at university. Both by my lecturers and later by older colleagues. This included e.g. thinly veiled offers of a sexual nature, instances of getting way to close and really bad jokes about women in the geosciences. It felt very uncomfortable, mainly because the nature of the relationships involved made it difficult to react as I would have done with a fellow student.

    Today, if reported, such incidents would probably damage the careers of the men involved severely.

    The problem is: I still know most of these men, some are friends nowadays. I even was the maid of honor at the wedding of one of them. They were, at the time, inexperienced and maybe more than a little awkward, seeking a relationship in the social context they new best, academia. I resolved the situations by confronting them, and signaled I was not interested and felt uncomfortable as politely as I could, as I would have done in other social contexts. It was not easy, but I felt it was the only way. I was, of course, an adult already – similar situations involving youngsters are another matter entirely.

    Of course, there are cases in which the men (and women) harassing students or colleagues are really dangerous, abuse their power, do not taking a no for an answer and so on. In these cases, involving the authorities is called for and, fortunately, much easier today as it would have been in my case, nearly 20 years ago. But for me, empowering women (and men) to speak up even – no, especially – when they feel uncomfortable, is more helpful then seeing them only as victims.

  16. 1. Acknowledge that you are a sinner.

    2. Accept the woke gurus as your savior.

    3. Engage in ritual acts of mindless penance.

    4. Spread the Gospel of wokeness to the heathens.

    5. The Kingdom of Heaven is coming, but the forces of the anti-woke are gathering and must be defeated first.

    6. Wokeness comes not to bring peace but as a sword to divide. Those who are not allies are enemies to be tossed in the fire of eternal perdition.

    Thank God that secularism has won the battle against religious fundamentalism.

  17. I have to confess my complicity in “harassment”: About 90% of what goes for “harassment” in these times amounts to someone having thin-skin.

    You see, my statement is denial, and it terribly offends the feelings of the true victims. It even suggests that alleged perps might be entitled to due process or a presumption of innocence which would prevent a moral panic-induced pogrom from cleansing America’s workplaces.

    To question is in itself evidence of heresy, almost as bad as supposing women might be capable of agency and don’t need a bunch of white knights and/or self-anointed career feminists on the job.

  18. “What I didn’t say was that his response was one-sided, inappropriate and insensitive.”

    She is assuming here that if she had said that, his behavior would have changed, and that would have benefited other students.

    There is no evidence, though, that adding some chastising remarks in that situation would have made any difference. It is more likely he would have just scoffed at it and walked away.

    Recognizing real opportunities to speak up and intervene takes more effort than that, and usually depends on first having built up some trust and mutual respect.

    1. No, by not speaking up, she reinforced her colleagues’s false consciousness that this fragile girl had agency and an ability to make autonomous decisions, when in fact, despite her biological age, the silly thing needs an army of protectors and supporters to help her from making the wrong decisions.

      Anyone who doesn’t believe that all women (who aren’t career feminists) are the social equivalent of toddlers is a misogynist rape-enabler.

    2. But, was it even stalking? I’m sure you’ve been on a bus and someone suddenly shouts ‘Stop looking at me’ and all you’ve been doing is looking in the persons general direction, but your attention is focused elsewhere, like the outside of the bus.

      With the elevation of ones subjective perception as being the most important way to determine anothers intent, expect to see a lot more of it.

  19. I totally agree with you. I also note that Dr. Valian’s anecdote you quote here doesn’t ring true. She says:

    “What I didn’t say was that his response was one-sided, inappropriate and insensitive.”

    Maybe not in so many words but she didn’t let her colleague dissuade her from taking action. Instead:

    “I replied that the student was visibly uncomfortable, that harassment rarely has witnesses, and that we needed to respect everyone’s rights.”

    Sounds like an ideal response to me. It corrected the colleague on the issue without destroying a relationship. Would it have really been so much better to tell him off?

    If Dr. Valian feels guilty about something, perhaps she ought to look elsewhere for it.

  20. Sorry for the long post here. I hope Jerry or others might find this interesting.

    My university, and the national funding organization that supports my research (in areas similar to Jerry’s work), have both adopted standards for research excellence that include promoting equity, diversity, and inclusivity in the recruitment and mentoring of young researchers (financial support for trainees is the single largest cost associated with my research, and this is typically the largest budget line in proposals to my grant organization). In my most recent grant proposal I had to demonstrate in what ways I would create an equitable, diverse, and inclusive group of researchers.

    These criteria sound benevolent on first reading, but the documents circulated by both organizations to guide research grant applicants suggest that grant holders should assume collective responsibility for past bad or discriminatory acts and should take collective action to redress those past wrongs. Similar to Valian’s suggestion that “researchers must collectively create ways to take responsibility.” In particular, the definition of “equity” in these grant proposal guidelines excludes merely equality of opportunity without consideration of race, sex, gender identity, or other factors. Instead, implementing “equity” means taking into account membership in groups whose members historically experienced discrimination and lost opportunity, and attempting to redress those past wrongs.

    My colleagues and I correctly read these criteria as encouragement to practice affirmative action (or, if you prefer, reverse discrimination) in choosing young researchers to mentor (e.g., as new graduate students). This is hard to do on several obvious grounds. For instance, the gender identity or sexual orientation of a prospective graduate student seems like none of my business. Ironically, I live (and recruit young researchers) in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, where not being white is typical and where not being straight is so common that no one notices or really cares either way, and all of my graduate students have been members of one of these disadvantaged groups (not by trying, just by recruiting the best available person at the time). Nevertheless, my colleagues and I must now at least give the appearance of caring about these factors, finding out about them, and choosing our trainees in part by favouring and mentoring students who identify with these historically disadvantaged groups.

    Fortunately, I’m in the last 10 years of my research career so I won’t have to take these guidelines and criteria into account more than once or twice more. But the world view underlying these guidelines is increasingly influential among the people who design and write the criteria for research support, and is consistent with Valian’s “World View”.

    1. It sounds like you’re being forced to do political activism for a specific ideology in order to keep your position. We’ve seen this many times in the past few years and it scares the absolute hell out of me.

      1. Yes that’s about right: activism instead of research. I can’t remember was it Haidt who said we can have the truth university or the justice university but not both? I don’t oppose equal treatment of course, but saying that out loud just gets you labelled as obstructionist or worse. The typical reaction is to just keep one’s head down and do interesting research.

        1. And that’s what’s so insidious about it. Not only do they want you to do activism on behalf of them, but they want to convert everyone who comes through their program. They’re using their positions of authority to spread ideology when the place is for scientific research. And, if you don’t play along, you don’t get to play, and that’s the truly scary part.

  21. All mothers are complicit in the abuse of children because mothers are more likely to abuse them.

    No? Then collective guilt is stupid.

  22. Her story why she’s flogging herself is stereotypically woke. It’s insincere humble-bragging. Her atrocious, horrible moral failing amounts to near-nothing, and is far too tiny to carry the article. She did act, and I am sure wants applause and cheers for doing the right thing. Now she says she did not admonish the colleague sternly enough, and certainly wants more applause an pats on the back for how a great person she is.

    I find the woke subculture eye-rolling ridiculous. They want to convey failures or unearned privileges all the time, but in their hilarious subculture, it’s always a positive thing to admit such “wrongdoing” or having privileges. This creates this bizarre mismatch. Together with a culture of confession, also stereotypically woke, it comes across as creepy and cultish. People have to admit to something, and bath in shame, but are instantly baptised and caught in their fall by the other woke, who love melodramatic confession stories and misery-voyeurism.

    1. One puzzling aspect of wokeness. When professors (often white males) strenuously promote diversity in academia – why haven’t they resigned? Aren’t they saying they ascended to their position by an unfair process?

    2. Indeed. Prof. Valian’s “confession” sounds a lot like the classic:
      Job interviewer “tell us one negative trait you have.”
      Interviewee: “sometimes I work too hard, stay late, and don’t spend enough time with my family.”

    3. “My complicity sickens me.” A bit over-the-top, I’d say.

      If she truly felt that way, she could, well, *do something* about it, instead of writing about how she didn’t do anything about it.

  23. I see on the NBC news tonight another big sex scandal at Ohio State has hit the media and it involves many. Just another sign that College Universities do not have a clue.

  24. I would bet that she is not in the least sickened by herself, but rather that she is particularly proud of her own humility.

    I think it is quite interesting that the woke seem to find analogues of the worst aspects of religion and outdo them.

    1. “I would bet that she is not in the least sickened by herself, but rather that she is particularly proud of her own humility.”

      Ding Ding!

  25. Poster #23 reports that a national funding organization includes “promoting equity, diversity, and inclusivity” among its standards of excellence in approving grant support. The elevation of equity, diversity, and inclusivity to paramount scientific virtues is, of course, a political agenda inserted into the project of science.

    The outcome of this process does not need to be imagined, as the experiment has already been carried out, and we are fortunately able to inspect the outcome. Once upon a time, Soviet Biology was filled with statements like the following: “The followers of Virchow, Weismann, Mendel, and Morgan, talking of the immutability of the gene and denying the effect of the environment, are preachers of pseudoscientific tidings of bourgeois eugenicists and of various distortions in genetics, which provided the base for the racist theory of fascism in capitalistic countries.” [from a paper by Olga Lepeshinskaya, translated and quoted in “The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko” by Zhores Medvedev.] The outcome was the brilliant accomplishments of Soviet Biology in the 40s-60s. These included the dazzling discoveries of Lepeshinskaya herself (Stalin Prize, 1952), such as the conversion of inorganic crystals into cells, and the achievement of human rejuvenation through soda baths, as well as G.M. Bosh’yan’s discovery that antibiotics, microbes, and viruses could be converted into one another. Unhappily, these great discoveries were not confirmed elsewhere and led to no further developments, while outside the Soviet Union the fields of Genetics and Molecular Biology somehow carried on.

    1. +1

      When political activism becomes more than or even anywhere equal in importance to actually doing science, science is in big trouble. That’s one of the reasons the Woke crowd’s entryism into the field scares me so much.

  26. This reminds me of the ANC’s response to the most recent outbreak of xenophobia, which resulted in the rest of the continent booing our president and Nigeria evacuating its citizens.

    The ANC pushed the line that xenophobia was an African problem. That it didn’t represent the South African identity, despite the fact that it was South Africans doing it.

    The reason it did this was that if everyone is to blame nobody is responsible, and thus nothing gets done.

    By broadening the issue to everyone, you can make yourself look very woke and enlightened while avoiding actually doing anything about any given problem.

    By encouraging a culture of collective responsibility, one encourages both cover-ups by the groups where bad behaviour takes place (because now they’re all complicit whatever they actually did) and reduces the burden on the person actually responsible for the mishbehaviour to change.

    1. So true. If everyone is a victim, victimhood is meaningless (but still deeply felt by individuals). If everyone is an abuser, then abuse is meaningless (but still deeply felt by individuals).

      If the victims and abusers will be dealt with ‘collectively’ that’s fine, individuals need do very little.

  27. Labeling something that a person says in a derogatory way is just going to make them defensive. I think her approach in that moment was correct – she told him that the issue was affecting the student, so it needed to be addressed. She was a role model in that situation. She doesn’t say specifically that the other student was not adversely affected by the report, but it sounds like he survived. That is also an example – that perhaps the fragile little boy didn’t need the level of protection that other professor thought he did.

  28. It should be lost on nobody that post #23 mentions “equity, diversity, and inclusivity” in connection with standards imposed by a funding agency. Thus, the intrusion of the diversicrats is not into the conduct of science—at least not yet—but into its funding and administration. In a way, this is no surprise. From Evergreen to Oberlin, we find “woke” clichés and sanctimony turning up more and more among administrators. The actual conduct of science has not yet been affected, but the insertion of “woke” agendas into funding priorities could eventually have insidious effects on what young researchers choose to investigate, and on the language they use.

    I got a whiff of this sort of thing many years ago, when it still seemed merely comical. Some “science for the people” young things at a British university liked to discuss cell biology in pop-Marxist language —i.e., with DNA as “the ruling class” and ribosomes as “the proletariat”. One could imagine a more up-to-date verbiage, involving “diversity and equity” among cell organelles, etc. etc. etc.

  29. I keep thinking of Jimmy Swaggart and his tearful confessions. That’s the appropriate response! Break down in tears and confess that you sinned against Diversity or something.

    Also, could there be a bit of one-upmanship here? Maybe academics are trying to out-do each other by professing ever more-extreme versions of wokeness — a kind of woke arms race, in effect.

  30. I am very, very late to the party but I imagine Scott Aaronson’s comment 171 affair, and his and Scott Alexander’s subsequent follow-ups would say what I would want to say.


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