The Sciences

Infinite in All Directions: Academia's #MeToo, Moonmoons, Sophistry v. Knowledge

If we're to minimise sexual harassment in academia, piecemeal or reactionary efforts won't do. We'll have to rebuild academia from the ground-up.

Go where science takes you, even if it is infinite in all directions. Subscribe to the newsletter format here and get this column in your inbox every Saturday morning.

My apologies that Infinite in All Directions wasn’t sent out last week. I was travelling in Sikkim with a spotty internet connection, for a conference called ‘Science for Monks’. You can read about it here.

Hypothetical Homepage

You can’t have all news items on the homepage all the time even though they might each deserve that place, nor can a single publication cover all the notable news in the world on a given day. But if given the chance, these are the stories I would have liked to showcase on my hypothetical homepage October 12 morning:

* Huge iceberg poised to break off Antarctica’s Pine Island glacier – “If the iceberg breaks off in one piece, it will be a whopping 115 square miles (300 square kilometres), which is even larger than the one that broke off last year. (The 2017 iceberg was 103 square miles, or 267 square km.) If the resulting iceberg is large enough, it will receive a name… But regardless of whether the crack leads to one or many icebergs, this will be the sixth large-calving event that Pine Island Glacier has experienced since 2001 [and] it’s calving icebergs more frequently than it used to”

* Everyday discrimination literally raises women’s blood pressure – “It goes like this. On her walk to work, a driver wolf-whistles at her. She sits in a meeting and gets interrupted when she speaks. She is also told, with a hint of surprise, that she’s pretty articulate. She vents on social media and is told by strangers to go back to the kitchen. She frowns at this – and is told to smile more. These little hits of everyday discrimination are the daily realities for many women and people of colour, says Danielle Beatty Moody, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They are indignities so ostensibly subtle that people who don’t experience them firsthand often think nothing of them. But these slivers of “disdain, distance, and disrespect” add up, over days and years: “It’s like a thousand tiny cuts,” Beatty Moody says.”

* Why Indian academia’s harassment woes need radical rethink of its structure – Madhusudhan Raman argues that if we’re to minimise sexual harassment in academia, piecemeal or reactionary efforts won’t do. We’ll have to rebuild academia from the ground-up. “For #MeToo, going from talking about individual instances of sexual harassment to structures of power and dominance that form a substrate conducive to sexual violence can bring many more people into the fold. A popular movement can’t effectively be fought on isolated turfs like the media, the entertainment industry or academia, as this compromises its strength in numbers by large degrees, in addition to being largely centred around urban upper caste/class women.”

* Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra, the founding editors and correspondents of The Life of Science, curated a list of stories on Twitter concerning “sexual harassment cases in science in India that were reported in the past year & then forgotten”. To this – whose existence itself is a tragedy – I’d like to add the case of Mitul Baruah at Ashoka University.

* Japan set to allow gene editing in human embryos – “Manipulating DNA in embryos could reveal insights into early human development. Researchers also hope that in the long term, these tools could be used to fix genetic mutations that cause diseases, before they are passed on. But the editing of genes in human embryos, even for research, has been controversial. Ethicists and many researchers worry that the technique could be used to alter DNA in embryos for non-medical reasons. Many countries ban the practice, allowing gene-editing tools to be used only in non-reproductive adult cells.”


Science is frequently understood as an enterprise engaged in the unearthing of new facts, or verification of older, supposed facts, through methods that strive to eliminate biases. Missing in this picture is the key role of interpretation itself: science lies in its facts but also in how those facts are interpreted together in various contexts. In turn, this requires us to view science as a knowledge-building enterprise for all of society, beyond just for a group of specialists.

* The first ‘social network’ of brains lets three people transmit thoughts to each other’s heads – “In 2015, Andrea Stocco and his colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle used this gear to connect two people via a brain-to-brain interface. The people then played a 20 questions–type game. An obvious next step is to allow several people to join such a conversation, and today Stocco and his colleagues announced they have achieved this using a world-first brain-to-brain network. The network, which they call BrainNet, allows a small group to play a collaborative Tetris-like game. “Our results raise the possibility of future brain-to-brain interfaces that enable cooperative problem-solving by humans using a ‘social network’ of connected brains,” they say.”

* Global temperature for REALLY STUPID people – “I hope that doesn’t include you. But it does include some people who write opinion pieces in newspapers, and/or their readers who suck it right up. I’m not just talking about ‘made a mistake’ or ‘that was dumb’ or ‘oops, I had a brain fart,’ I’m talking about REALLY STUPID. How would you present global temperature as ‘no problem’ if you were REALLY STUPID, or if you weren’t but you wanted to sucker the hell out of people who are REALLY STUPID?”

* The social sciences literature has a sophistry/knowledge confusion problem – “What if we write a paper saying we should train men like we do dogs – to prevent rape culture? Hence came the “Dog Park” paper. What if we write a paper claiming that when a guy privately masturbates while thinking about a woman (without her consent—in fact, without her ever finding out about it) that he’s committing sexual violence against her? That gave us the “Masturbation” paper. What if we argue that the reason superintelligent AI is potentially dangerous is because it is being programmed to be masculinist and imperialist…? That’s our “Feminist AI” paper. What if we argued that “a fat body is a legitimately built body” as a foundation for introducing a category for fat bodybuilding into the sport of professional bodybuilding? You can read how that went in Fat StudiesFeminist glaciology? Okay, we’ll copy it and write a feminist astronomy paper that argues feminist and queer astrology should be considered part of the science of astronomy, which we’ll brand as intrinsically sexist. Reviewers were very enthusiastic about that idea. … We wrote a paper about trans people in the workplace that does just that. Men use “male preserves” to enact dying “macho” masculinities discourses in a way society at large won’t accept? No problem. … our “Dildos” paper … answered the questions, “Why don’t straight men tend to masturbate via anal penetration, and what might happen if they did?” Hint: according to our paper in Sexuality and Culture, a leading sexualities journal, they will be less transphobic and more feminist as a result.”

* Is impact factor suppression biased against small fields? – “Earlier this summer, three economic history journals were suppressed from the 2017 edition of the Journal Citation Reports (JCR), the annual metrics source that reports Journal Impact Factors along with other citation metrics. … The grounds for suppressing all three journals was “citation stacking,” a pattern wherein a large number of citations from one or more journals affects the performance and ranking of others. In some instances, I have referred to this pattern as a “citation cartel“. … Shortly after the JCR release, Nicola Giocoli, Editor of HEI [one of the suppressed journals], posted an open letter dated June 21 to Tom Ciavarella, Manager of Public Relations for Clarivate, arguing that the anomalous citation pattern was caused by a single annual review of the literature. This type of review, Giocoli argued, was “a serious piece of research that we commission to junior scholars in the field ‎to let them recognise and assess the research trends in the discipline.” HEI had published a similar review in 2016 and was planning to publish others in 2018 and 2019.”


Piecing together stories published at disparate times and places but which have a theme or two in common.

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Sciencey things people are trying to do that are out of the ordinary in some way

* Agricultural research – or a new bioweapon system? – “an ongoing research program funded by DARPA aims to disperse infectious genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to edit crop chromosomes directly in fields. This is genetic engineering through horizontal transfer, as opposed to vertical inheritance. The regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications of dispersing such horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs) into ecosystems are profound. Further, this program stipulates that the means of delivery of these viral HEGAAs into the environment should be insect-based dispersion. In the context of the stated aims of the DARPA program, it is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies (in either the short or long term).”

* Two scientists list and describe common diseases known to afflict scientists more obsessed with where they’re publishing than what. “We have recently observed a widespread affliction of scientists known as impact factor mania, also referred to asimpactis, for which there appears to be no cure. This has led us to consider whether additional unrecognised medical conditions may be unique or overrepresented among scientists,” they write.


Some interesting articles from around the web

* Moons can have moons and they’re called ‘moonmoons’ – “If you’ve never heard of a moonmoon, that’s because no one’s ever seen one before. But that doesn’t mean, as Kollmeier and Raymond argue in their paper, that a small moon, orbiting a larger moon, which in turn orbits a planet, can’t exist. Their analysis suggests that moonmoons are possible, under the right circumstances—if, for instance, the large moon is quite large, the small moon is quite small, and both are sufficiently far away from the host planet.”

* The case for making cities out of wood – “There is also, alongside the environmental and economic, an aesthetic-psychological case for wood cities. Clare Farrow, who is co-curating a current London exhibit called “Timber Rising–Vertical Visions for the Cities of Tomorrow,” wrote in Dezeen, “Studies are showing that the presence, scent and touch of wood can have remarkably positive effects, not only on people’s wellbeing in a general sense, but more specifically on stress levels, blood pressure, communication, learning and healing.” A 2015 review in Wood Science and Technology supports her claims and also suggests that “specific aspects of wood such as colour, quantity, and grain pattern should be examined” in future studies.”

Dear men of #MeToo: Abuse is behaviour, not a symptom of mental illness – “Putting bad mental health on the table when you’re accused of misconduct is a common gambit. After the poet Mary Karr wrote about how her former partner David Foster Wallace had abused her physically and emotionally, a lot of backlash focused on Wallace’s mental health issues. In a personal essay for the New Yorker, Junot Diaz talked about the repression of his childhood abuse and linked it to the accusations of assaulting and harassing multiple women. The courtroom trials of Roman Polanski mentioned his ‘mental illness’ several times, following his arrest for sexually abusing children. The similarities are clear. All these men, and many others, influenced generations with their work in literature and the media, suffered from mental health issues and abused those who seemed less powerful. However, it would be amiss to connect abuse and mental health.”

* Jupiter’s moon Europa may have a belt of 15-metre-tall ice spikes – “In the driest, coldest places on Earth, sunlight bouncing off of small depressions in ice and snow creates pointy formations called penitentes, which can reach several metres tall, as shown in the picture above. As the sunlight hits the bottom of the divot it turns the ice directly from a solid to a gas, which floats away and leaves icy spikes behind. Europa is much colder and much drier than Earth because it has almost no atmosphere, and it has lower gravity. Daniel Hobley at Cardiff University, UK, and his colleagues calculated that means it could build even bigger penitentes.”

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