By Jenna Freudenburg 2-28-2018

Last week’s allegations of sexual harassment by cosmologist and popular science writer Lawrence Krauss have decisively brought women in science into #MeToo conversation.

But this story is nothing new in my field: while Krauss is perhaps the best known astronomer whose harassment has caught up with him, we’ve seen case after case after case of prominent men in astrophysics wreaking havoc on the professional and personal lives of the women around them. And the conversations unfolding at #astroSH suggest there may be many more.

In thinking about this latest public manifestation of astronomy’s harassment epidemic, one detail mentioned in the Krauss exposé struck me. In Krauss’ own opinion, this never should have happened: “Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias … It’s built in.”

I’ve found this to be a common attitude in the physical sciences. Many scientists talk about the field as if it’s an abstract Thing, the purest and most reliable form of Truth, external to human pettiness and emotion and irrationality. What’s more, such scientists often do not see this view as philosophical position — they see philosophy to be outmoded at best and meaningless drivel at worst. Perhaps predictably, Krauss is an atheist in the Richard Dawkins mold, often opining on the uselessness of religion, philosophy, and theology.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone in science — many of my colleagues have thought deeply about the philosophy of science and its relationship to their work. But there is a clear strain of thought within the field that understands science as superior to other forms of knowledge and immune to the biases that pervade human society.

That’s clearly ridiculous, because scientific endeavor involves so much more than a set of intellectual ideals. Science is a process that requires communication and interaction among people who carry with them the same biases that we bring to every area of our lives.

Science is also an enterprise that requires money, so it involves politics and power struggles just like any other human activity. On both the personal and systemic levels, science is vulnerable to social failings. It’s arrogant of us to pretend otherwise.

It’s also demonstrably false. The National Science Foundation has collected extensive data showing that white women and racial and ethnic minorities of all genders are under-represented in STEM fields. The gender gap is particularly prominent in physics and astronomy, as this graphic from the American Physical Society shows. And the data goes beyond demographics: Studies like this one and this one document and quantify the fact that women in physics and astronomy, particularly women of color, routinely experience subtle insults, overt sexist and racist hostility, and sexual harassment from their colleagues. In fact, researchers have even tested the precise hypothesis advanced by Krauss. As it turns out, those who believe themselves to be inherently objective are actually more prone to bias.

Formal and anecdotal evidence suggests that my particular field of astrophysics is especially plagued by harmful racist and misogynistic behavior. I don’t find this surprising, because anyone who has spent time in a physics department understands the intellectual hierarchy in place. Most physicists I know consider their work inherently superior to research in other sciences because it is more “fundamental,” and therefore somehow closer to reality.

Within physics itself, theoretical work is seen as more elite, especially when that work relates most directly to “ultimate” mysteries, like quantum mechanics or the nature of gravity. These sub-specialties are more likely to be male-dominated, and in my experience they are also the arenas of greatest contempt for other forms of science — not to mention philosophy and religion.

For many physicists, there is a tacit understanding that biology and the social sciences are inferior ways of understanding the world, so it’s no surprise that the studies I’ve highlighted are often dismissed as “not real science.” As a consequence, the scientific fields that ostensibly think most widely and deeply about the nature of things are in fact susceptible to narrow-mindedness, and often excuse bad behavior in the name of scientific objectivity.

So, common social biases and their detrimental effects on marginalized people are well-documented phenomena within scientific communities. And lot of this evidence comes from our own professional organizations. And yet the notion persists that scientific principles go hand in hand with objectivity in all areas of a scientist’s life. In the face of a weight of evidence pointing manifestly toward pervasive bias in the sciences, we remain willfully ignorant of our own internal workings.

By adopting this attitude, we make science particularly prone to bias, especially in the research areas that should be most open to radical ideas. The irony is almost painful.

If we had more imagination, we could view this predicament as an opportunity for discovery. As cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has pointed out, if we truly possess inquiring minds, we ought to let our curiosity lead the way in figuring out how science discriminates and how to address these issues in our communities.

All too often, we superficially bemoan the gender gap as a way to appear liberal-minded or as a tactic for getting a grant proposal funded, instead of framing inequity and harassment as problems to be solved. Such passivity contributes to the kind of environment that allows Lawrence Krauss to make public statements in favor of diversity and also to persistently harass women. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine what we could achieve if we tackled our problems with the same intellectual drive we bring to open questions about what makes the universe expand and supernovas explode. Surely this approach would be truer to our intellectual values.

Our posture toward harassment in science has to go beyond the intellectual. We must to aspire to a way of doing science that shows care for the human beings that do it. This takes humility — we can’t hold on to the notion that science makes us better than our fellow humans, nor can we behave as if great intellectual achievement excuses exploitation and harassment. We have to be able to have difficult conversations and say, “I was wrong.” Building truly equitable and just scientific communities will require integrity and honest self-examination. It will also require many of us to make material sacrifices, set aside our privilege, and stand up to those in positions of power, even if our careers suffer for it.

If you think all this talk of humility, selflessness, and sacrifice is starting to sound suspiciously Christ-like — I agree. As a Christian, I believe I am called to do science in this way, because I understand my work as part of the wider context of God’s kingdom on earth. Scientific inquiry can be a rewarding and meaningful way to understand creation, and even a form of devotion that brings the seeker closer to God. But no matter how excited I am to explore the mysteries of the universe, prioritizing intellectual desire ahead of loving my neighbor turns my endeavors into a form of idolatry.

If I adhere to an ideology that lionizes Science and Reason above human relationship, I am not following Christ’s example. If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and do not have love, I am nothing.

Jenna Freudenburg is an astronomer at The Ohio State University who studies the large-scale structure of the universe. You can follow her on Twitter at @TheJFreud.

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