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The Empire Strikes Back
Damnatio Memoriae in the Astrophysics Community
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Note: This piece continues the saga described by uthrie earlier Critical Mass pieces. The first, from May 25th, described the removal of a distinguished astronomers name from a paper to which he had made significant contributions,. The second, a June 19th guest piece from Beatriz Villarroel, described her experience of harassment by various astronomical groups because of her scientific collaboration. The third, from Aug 18, described what looked like positive developments to ensure scientific integrity and stop discrimination against scientists based on ‘guilt by association’. Alas, those positive developments have, for the most part, disappeared. I have summarized the history here, so you don’t need to refer back to the earlier pieces, unless you want to. Also note: I thank Iona Italia for editing this article.
For a while there, it looked as if reason and professionalism had returned to the American astronomical societies and journals. But that didn’t last long.
This past boreal summer of 2023, there was a significant outcry in response to the removal of astronomer Geoff Marcy’s name from a scientific publication to which he made significant contributions, which was accompanied by efforts to punish and ostracize his collaborators. (I wrote about this for Quillette here.) Marcy is a distinguished scientist who played a major role in the discovery of exoplanets, and appeared to be a natural candidate for the Nobel Prize in Physics that was awarded to his competitors, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz in 2019. (Didier and Queloz were awarded a joint 50% share in the prize, alongside James Peebles, who was honored for his work on “theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology.”)
In 2015, Marcy was investigated by his then-employer, the University of California, for incidents of sexual harassment that allegedly took place on or before 2010. Following the investigation, UC Berkeley recommended Marcy continue in his role as a full professor, given that there had been no further complaints against him over the period 2010–15. Nevertheless, Marcy chose to resign from his position in response to a torrent of online pressure.
A full eight years after his resignation, in 2023, the editors of Science magazine and the leadership of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) began to consider whether Marcy’s name should be removed from the paper he co-authored—an action that would essentially deny him public credit for his work, something that, in science, is considered a form of plagiarism. Science published an article blindly accepting the claim that leaving Marcy’s name on the paper would “produce potential psychological harm.” In that article, it was reported that AAS President Kelsey Johnson was considering whether accusations of harassment would be sufficient grounds for removing the names of the authors concerned from AAS journals.
This was a surprising about-face for the AAS, given that, in June 2021 then president Paula Szkody published an online note stating that removing the names of authors accused of sexual harassment from AAS journals might conflict with the organization’s ethics code, which stipulates that “all persons who have made significant contributions to a work intended for publication should be offered the opportunity to be listed as authors.”
Meanwhile, Marcy’s scientific collaborator Beatriz Villaroel, who works at the Nordic Institute of Theoretical Physics, was punished for her association with Marcy. She had to withdraw an application to become an affiliate at the SETI institute in California after being instructed not to publish any papers, or apply for any grants, in connection with a project to detect optical signatures of possible intelligent civilizations—because the project involved Marcy. In June 2021, Villarroel was disinvited from presenting her work at an astrobiology conference at Penn State University[II1] because of her collaboration with Marcy. In June 2023, she wrote about her experiences for my Substack.
On 16 August 2023, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) president Debrea Elmegreen sent out an email detailing sensible new guidelines that addressed the concerns raised about the unethical removal of Marcy’s name from his co-authored papers and the online harassment of his collaborators. The new “Anti-Harassment Policy for IAU Meetings and Activities” stated:
It is a form of harassment to physically or verbally abuse or discriminate against alleged offenders of IAU’s policies, or if such policies are found to have been breached, inflict (or pressure others to inflict) punishments besides those officially sanctioned. In addition, the physical or verbal abuse or discrimination of those who work or have worked with the alleged or sanctioned perpetrator, simply because of their scientific collaboration, is also a form of harassment and as such is covered by this policy.
The IAU was instantly besieged by online commentators claiming that these guidelines protect harassers.
The style of discourse here is telling. As Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) investigator Nick Pope commented[II1] in a tweet on August 29th, , the policy change “was partially inspired by the harassment of a woman [Beatriz Villaroel]. The @IAU_org move should help ensure that people’s scientific research is judged on their data, and not on who their collaborators are.” In response, one astrophysicist—a of the founder of “Particles for Justice” and a leader of an ill-conceived effort to remove James Webb’s name from the James Webb Space Telescope (see my podcast with Hakeem Oluseyi)—wrote:
This man wants me to care that people were giving a hard time to a woman who collaborated with a man who physically assaulted my friends. Because she’s a woman. I’m supposed to care. Even though her politics are absolute fucking trash.
Perhaps intimidated by the online vitriol, on 2 October, the IAU removed Elmegreene’s proposed “Anti-Harassment Policy” from its Code of Conduct. On 13 October, they replaced it with a single sentence: “Furthermore, we emphasize that any form of physical or verbal abuse, bullying or harassment of an individual, including complainants, their allies, alleged or sanctioned offenders, or those who work with them or have worked with them, is not allowed.” While the previous policy referred to “physical or verbal abuse or discrimination,” the new code only lists abuse, bullying, and harassment. This seems like a crucial omission as it gives the organisation tacit permission to discriminate against individual members.
The AAS has also retreated from its 2021 position. Their updated August 2023 Code of Ethics states that
“..anyone under a current AAS ethics violation sanction that restricts authorship in an AAS journal cannot be included as an author, but may be named in the acknowledgements with a simple statement such as “We acknowledge the contributions of XXX to this work.”
As Szkody pointed out in 2021, this is incompatible with the requirement to allow all major contributors “the opportunity to be listed as authors.” But apparently the AAS no longer cares.
Meanwhile, Jason Wright, director of the PSETI Center at Penn State, has defended their decision to disinvite Villaroel from presenting her research there in June 2021. Wright states that, while Villaroel is welcome to attend their meetings, she is debarred from discussing any research she has conducted in collaboration with Marcy.
This is especially remarkable, given that Marcy was Wright’s own doctoral advisor and that Marcy and Wright have frequently collaborated on scientific work. Wright has issued a written apology[II2] for having previously conducted scientific research with his former mentor.
It seems strange that Wright and the AAS are willing to discard longstanding conventions of scholarly accreditation and open scientific debate and discussion in response to these kinds of accusations. But they are. Wright writes:
Many have argued our bar against harassers’ work is completely inappropriate, being both unfair to Marcy and even more unfair to his innocent co-authors. I disagree, and argue that it is in fact an appropriate way to protect vulnerable members of the community who are disproportionately harmed by sexual harassment and predation.
As if this were not sufficient, Wright virtue signals his social justice views with the remarkable additional statement:
One should not discriminate on matters that have nothing to do with science, especially against minoritized people.
This double standard seems to sum up the current sad state of this corner of science, in which censorship and discrimination appear to be acceptable within the scientific community—if they are done in the name of social justice.