On “Help! My advisor won’t stop looking down my shirt!

Although I’m no longer exactly an academic, the culture of science is still close to the vest for me, which is why I must say yesterday’s conversation about Caltech professor Alice Huang’s advice column in Science magazine largely missed the point. In case you missed it, Dr. Huang responded to a woman postdoc writing in for advice about her advisor who keeps staring down her shirt. In Huang’s response, since retracted by Science but available through internet archives, she says “As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can.”

Huang’s comment understandably garnered a lot of attention. While I haven’t scraped the data for a proper study, there seems to be a gender skew to who agrees and disagrees with her advice. While many, including presumably Science’s lawyers have argued the advice-seeker who signed her letter “–Bothered,” has a right to not put up with such harassment, there are also quite a few men who seem scared that emboldening her might mean they could get into trouble for inadvertently making a female uncomfortable.

Before getting into the question of who is right and wrong, it’s worth noting that there are at least two different notions of success involved in the debate that has ensued: (1) getting as far along as possible in one’s career and (2) fostering norms that are healthy and right for the scientific community. Huang’s response should get us to acknowledge that as things stand now the best strategy for (1) may not always be aligned with (2). The gulf between the two tells us something about how far science has to go and is worth a conversation on its own.

There are the thoughtful and the telling aspects of Huang’s response. As she points out, some people are not aware of their offensive behavior. In a discipline like science that draws many reclusive and unusual personalities, it is worth Huang’s noting that there are different norms of what constitutes harassment in different places. The whole notion of glomming at Caltech largely falls under this description — it is flattering to some yet unwanted for others and by some definitions of the term, glomming is distinguished from other forms of harassment by the very fact that its perpetrators have no idea they are glomming. Though I wish she came out and said it explicitly, rather than by asking for “good humor,” Huang has a point in implying that purposefully shaming or embarrassing the advisor would be a somewhat counterproductive tactic. Shaming people for not following your norms basically amounts to bullying, which in turn breeds more bullying. It does not move science forward if all we do is scare scientists from having women and minorities in their laboratories and research groups. Universities and senior scientists need to make sure scientists have the tools not only to speak up for harassment, but to acknowledge and recover from it if they unwillingly participated.

That said, I think the word “bothered” in the signature of the advice-seeker says it all. If her advisor’s behavior is bothering her, then the leering has already crossed the line into harassment and is getting in the way of her productivity. Anyone should be able to ask for a stop to behavior that bothers her in the workplace and have a respectful discussion about it. While it may be uncomfortable, if don’t help arm ourselves as scientists with the tools and support to speak up about harassment and to move forward in a productive way when someone points out our own hurtful behavior, individuals on either side of the problem will never find what they need to be productive scientists or colleagues.

One potential fallout is that science will continue to be biased against those from underrepresented groups. My friends on social media have already responded with descriptions of faculty selecting students and colleagues based on their demographics in order to avoid the potential danger of getting accused of harassment. We’ve failed as a field if scientists are being chosen and mentored on the basis of who plays it most safe.

Another, perhaps less obvious but more dangerous, outcome is that we end up fostering a culture where it is altogether improper to question ideas and processes endorsed by more senior scientists. Discouraging questioning and discussion just because someone might get uncomfortable will weaken the field. It will ruin scientific credibility. And it will increase the challenges faced by junior scientists –those who are still students, postdocs, untenured faculty or establishing careers– if they ask the questions that they should be asking as scientists. Ultimately, discouraging questioning scientific ideas and processes results in stories like that of David Broockman, which broke last week, in which the fear of the fallout over questioning senior scientists facilitated and prolonged scientific fraud.

It took Broockman, a political science graduate student, years to uncover that an important paper establishing methods for winning political hearts and minds was falsified because each time he shared progress in discrediting the paper’s results with more senior advisors, like Stanford’s Neil Malhotra, they encouraged him to keep quiet even if he had uncontroversial proof, lest the authors of the paper wage a war against him. The graduate student who falsified the results was able to get away with very vague responses each time he was questioned by Broockman and others because he had a very well-established senior scientist, one who was by all accounts unaware of the fraud, as a coauthor on his team. Had they tried, they easily could have prevented Broockman from landing his first academic job. The fact that a concerned, established, tenured faculty would discourage sharing false science tells us how badly our field is broken.

In the moments before Science’s legal team intervened, Huang gave her honest, unfiltered assessment of where science stands. Her response, just as Neil Malhotra’s advice to David Broockman, highlights how even well-intentioned senior scientists lack the support they need to bolster junior scientists who are trying to better their field. We should take Huang and Malhotra at their word for that and address the problem that they have uncovered. As scientists, we have to deal with plenty of poorly-founded questions over our credibility. We shouldn’t keep uncomfortable conversations from adding well-founded reasons to question science to that list.