Scientists are furious with the New York Times: Women are underrepresented in STEM "in part because of the sexism and misogyny that this article reinforced"

It was Berkeley that said astronomer Geoffrey Marcy harassed students, not "the court of hysterical public opinion"

Published October 14, 2015 7:58PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Dmitry Brizhatyuk</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Dmitry Brizhatyuk via Shutterstock)

More than 250 astronomers and physicists have signed a letter protesting the New York Times’ coverage of sexual harassment charges brought against Geoffrey Marcy, a professor of astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley. Over the course of six months, Marcy underwent a formal internal investigation conducted by the university, responding to charges brought forward by four female students that he’d groped, kissed, and fondled them. The charges were very specific: for example, one student said that “he placed his hand on her leg, slid his hand up her thigh, and grabbed her crotch.”

After the six month investigation had concluded, the university found that Marcy had, in fact, systematically sexually harassed female students over the course of more than a decade. Nonetheless, he was not fired; the university merely put him “on a very tight leash.” Which means that if he starts groping another female student—or, more specifically, if he gets caught—then he’ll be in trouble. Or not.

This is the university version of the babysitter wagging her finger at her naughty charge and threatening, “Just wait until your parents get home!” Empty words carrying no consequences whatsoever.

Inside Berkeley’s astronomy department, more than twenty members of the faculty and staff were so incensed that they signed a petition to boot him. A fuller account compiled by Buzzfeed News helps explain why there is so much anger at the university’s decision to basically do nothing. In short: it’s not just these four students. Women warned other women about him, and inside the astronomy community, his behavior was an “open secret.” More are speaking out on Twitter using the hashtag, #AstroSH.

Which brings us back to that letter to the New York Times. The composers of that letter, as well as its signatories, represent a slice of people who make up a very particular segment of the scientific community. It’s not the easiest thing to rile up scientists who spend their life gazing at the stars, but over two hundred of them (and the list keeps growing) have signed a petition to get the NYTimes to retract its article on the following damning grounds: “on its false information, the clear bias of the author, the omission of relevant details, and the harm it is doing to your readers. Furthermore, we ask you in the future to consider that sympathy and support should be given to the survivors, not to the perpetrator.”

Here are the main concerns:

This article epitomizes the culture that champions the voices of predators and minimizes the experiences of survivors. Mr. Overbye's piece repeatedly sympathizes with Marcy, portraying him as a misunderstood, empathetic educator. This viewpoint is captured in the title of the article, and it is reinforced by quotes from Marcy and his wife that Marcy was "condemned without knowing all of the facts" and "the punishment Geoff is receiving here in the court of hysterical public opinion is far out of proportion to what he did". Not only are these statements false (see the next paragraph), but they employ the damaging tactic of painting female targets and their supporters as overly sensitive trouble-makers.

The entire letter merits reading, as it carefully documents exactly how they take issue with the coverage in the Times. These scientists are clearly frustrated by Marcy's behavior as well as his non-apology (which includes the admission that his advances were "unwelcomed by some women"-- implying just as strongly that other women welcomed them, never mind that he's married).

However, the letter takes specific issue with the coverage in the New York Times, stating that "women are dramatically underrepresented in our field and other sciences, in part because of the sexism and misogyny that this article reinforced." Their rebuke is a powerful indictment of the workings of that mythic thing called the “old boy network” where individuals of a certain class work to preserve its interests and protect its own rather than serve the interests of justice. Or, for that matter, the truth.

By Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

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Astronomy Geoffrey Marcy New York Times Science University Of California At Berkeley