Don’t Forget Ben Carson, Who is Also Wrong About the Supreme Court

In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, Republicans have been climbing all over each other like a less well intentioned pile of zombies in an effort to most loudly claim that President Obama has no right to appoint his successor. Most of the arguments have focused on the fact that we have now entered the final year of Obama’s presidency. As you will recall, back in 2012, the ballots for president clearly stated that the results would only be construed as representing the will of the people for the next three years.

Obviously, these arguments fail any non-disingenuous reading of the constitutional and historical evidence (and contradict arguments previously made by many of those same Republicans), but, you know, the constitution, like the bible, is sacred, infallible, and beyond scrutiny — except when it turns out to be politically inconvenient.

But at the most recent Republican debate, everyone’s favorite cingulocidal maniac Ben Carson offered a different argument:

Well, the current constitution actually doesn’t address that particular situation, but the fact of the matter is the Supreme Court, obviously, is a very important part of our governmental system. And, when our constitution was put in place, the average age of death was under 50, and therefore the whole concept of lifetime appointments for Supreme Court judges, and federal judges was not considered to be a big deal.

Carson is correct that the “average age of death” used to be under 50. In fact, it did not exceed 50 until sometime in the early 20th century. However, as anyone with any educational background in public health or medicine might be expected to know, the dramatic gains in life expectancy have come mostly from reductions in early-life mortality, due to things like sewers, vaccines, and antibiotics. So, unless the Founding Fathers were appointing toddlers to the Supreme Court (spoiler: they weren’t), life expectancy at birth is pretty irrelevant. Here are a couple of graphs (generated here):

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The gray line is life expectancy at birth from 1850 to 2000. The orange and red lines are life expectancy from age 60 for women and men, respectively. Since people are not typically appointed to the supreme court until they are in their 50s, this is actually the relevant data.

So, it is true that someone appointed to the supreme court today might be expected to live longer on average than someone appointed in the 19th century, but only by about ten years. But does that mean that justices given lifetime appointments to the supreme court serve longer than they used to? Not so much. Here are a couple more graphs, constructed from this data:


In the top panel, each diagonal line indicates the term of a single Supreme Court Justice, running from the date and age of appointment to age date and age of death or retirement. The black lines are justices who died in office, red lines are justices who resigned or retired, and blue lines are the eight justices currently serving.

In the bottom panel, each dot represents a single justice. “Mid-Term Year” is the halfway point of their tenure (middle of the line in the top graph), and duration is how long they served (length of the line in the top graph. The line is a ten-point moving average. Current justices are not included.

Notice that justices were not often dying by age 50, even in the early days. There are a couple of interesting trends, though.

First, there’s a transition as we get into the 20th century, when it becomes much more common for justices to retire, rather than die in office. So, while the upper limit on the age we might expect a justice to live to might have increased by about ten years, the upper limit on the age at which they leave the court has not changed substantially in 200 years.

Second, after an initial shake-out (during which many of the justices did not have any sort of legal credentials), the long-term trend from 1820 to 1950 is towards shorter average term lengths (declining from around 20 to around 15 years). Starting with the second half of the 20th century, the trend has been towards longer tenures, with a recent average closer to 25 years. However, if you look at the scatter plot, you can see that this increase is mostly due to the absence of any short-term justices since 1970.

So, it is true that we should probably expect that the next person appointed to the Supreme Court will be there for the next twenty to thirty years, but terms of that length have been around since the beginning.

A Field Test for Identifying Appropriate Sexual Partners in Academia

Last week’s issue of Science included an article on yet another case of sexual harassment in academia — this time in Physical Anthropology. This case involves a research assistant who claims that her supervisor at the American Museum of Natural History, Brian Richmond, sexually assaulted her at a conference in Italy. I won’t go into the details here, but I would encourage you to read the excellent article by Michael Balter.  The good news is that, the response of the institutions involved, and the broader field, seems to have been pretty appropriate, despite the fact that Richmond is a prominent member of the field.

Incidents like this typically happen in the absence of third-party witnesses, and we wind up with nothing to go on but the statements of the accuser and accused. This provides room for rationalization by the morons who reflexively defend anyone in a position of authority. And it leaves the rest of us (trained as we have been by political “journalism”) to assume that the truth must lie somewhere in between. And often — though perhaps not in these most recent cases — that uncertainly provides universities with an excuse for not taking substantive action against prominent (and well funded) faculty.

With that in mind, I think it’s worth looking at Richmond’s side of the story. From Balter’s piece:

Richmond, who was also at the meeting, has vigorously denied the accusations in a statement to Science and in email responses. (He declined to be interviewed in person or by telephone.) The encounter in the hotel room, he wrote, was “consensual and reciprocal,” adding that “I never sexually assaulted anyone.”

The piece also describes a long-term pattern of behavior by Richmond at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, which led to his resignation from his role as an instructor there. Again, Richmond’s side of the story:

Richmond notes in his statement to Science that before the incident in Italy, “there had never been a complaint or report against me throughout my career,” including from students at the field school. He stresses that he “voluntarily resigned my affiliation” with the field school, and explained in an email that he hoped his resignation “would help address the anger Wood reported to me” from those accusing him of inappropriate behavior.

Richmond also says that his relationships with female researchers were consensual. Nevertheless, he says in his statement, “I take full responsibility for exercising poor judgment in the past by mixing my professional and personal lives, including having consensual affairs, and I have changed my thinking and my behavior. I am deeply distressed to learn that I have upset the women involved and colleagues in my field. I regret that I was not sensitive to how my academic position could impact the dynamics of consensual relationships.”

Here’s the thing that I don’t understand. Even if we assume that the truth is exactly Richmond’s version of events, his behavior was wildly inappropriate in a way that should be obvious to anyone who does not have a vested interest in perpetuating a culture of harassment and exploitation in academia.

I mean, it’s great that he now understands that “mixing [his] professional and personal lives” is a bad idea and that his “academic position could impact the dynamics of consensual relationships”. But there is no excuse for his not having understood these things before. It’s just not that complicated.

Here’s the rule: When you have substantial power over someone, don’t hit on them.

If you do, best case scenario, whatever happens between you is tainted by the fact that you can’t be sure if they’re really into you. Worst case scenario, you don’t care if they’re really into you, which puts you somewhere on a scale that runs between “manipulative creep” and “rapist”.

So how do you know if you’ve got substantial power over someone? Well, if you’re Curator of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History, you sure as hell have a lot of power over a research assistant who works for you. When you’re a prominent anthropologist, you sure as hell have a lot of power over young anthropology students attending a field school in Kenya. But what about the rest of us?

The Power of Destruction

Academia is hierarchical, perhaps irrevocably so. Senior academics have power over junior academics, because academic careers depend on connections and recommendations. Moreover, an academic career can easily be derailed by a phone call from the right person. As Paul Muad’Dib says, “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”

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It doesn’t matter that you would never destroy someone’s career just because they spurned your advances. If you could — or if they perceive that you could — the power dynamic is in there. And that academic power structure exists in addition to all of the power structures of society — the ones based on gender and race and age and socioeconomic status and everything else. You have somewhat less “power of destruction” over, say, a white male student whose parents are both professors at your university. You have more over a minority female student whose family lives in poverty in a third-world country, whose English is not great, and whose visa will be revoked if she leaves grad school.

To be clear, you should not sleep with either of those students. But the extent of your ability to threaten, coerce, and manipulate is very different in the two cases. Or rather, there is a big difference in the extent to which any advances on your part can not fail to be perceived as coercive and threatening.

A Field Test for Identifying Appropriate Sexual Partners in Academia

I’m going to assume that I’ve already alienated the remorseless sexual predators, and that if you’re still reading, you’re someone who wants to do the right thing, that you don’t want to exploit your power and reputation. But even with the best of intentions, it can be hard to tell where exactly the line should be.

The problem is that power differentials are often invisible to the people holding the power. To the extent that they do see their power, they feel entitled to it, and probably view themselves as benevolent dictators who would never abuse it. That makes it all too easy to ignore, or rationalize away the hazards of a sexual encounter with a student, employee, or junior colleague.

These issues are always matters of degree, and the right answer may depend on the details of the situation in a way that can be captured only very approximately by rules like “no relationships between a faculty member and a student in their department”.

I’d like to propose a thought experiment that you can deploy when you find yourself asking, “Should I hit on this person?”

Imagine that this junior person in your field — maybe a grad student or a postdoc — made a completely false allegation against you. You’ve never even been alone in a room together, but they accuse you of sexual assault. Maybe they’re just a pathological liar. You’re the victim here, but you feel a moral responsibility to make sure that this person doesn’t wind up in a position where they have authority over other people. Because you’re a hero. If that were to happen, could you stop an unsuspecting department from hiring them?

If you hypothetically could do this, then you have no business getting involved with this person — or anyone else with whom you have a similar relationship.

For fans of the mixed metaphor: If you insist on shitting where you eat, pick on someone your own size.

If we’re talking about a student, postdoc, research assistant, etc., who is under your subordinate, you absolutely have this power of destruction — so write that one off right away.

But what about other students in the department, or at other institutions? This is where the thought experiment is useful, I think. For example, if you’re an untenured assistant professor, you probably don’t have power of destruction over the career of a student who works under the chair of your department. There are a lot of other reasons why a relationship is probably a bad idea, but your power over the student might not be one of them.

On the other hand, if you’re one of the biggest stars in your field — you bring in millions of dollars of grant money, and your name comes up every year around Nobel-Prize time — you probably have power of destruction over not just all of the students in your department, but those at other schools as well. In fact, you would do well to steer clear of relationships with junior faculty in the field.

If you’re applying this to yourself, I think it’s important to use the test as I’ve described it — imagining the scenario where you’re the victim — as it will make it easier to recognize the power you have.

If you’re applying it as a third party, it’s maybe easier. If you can imagine saying to someone, “Don’t alienate Professor Whatsit. That could really mess up your career”, the corollary is that a relationship between that person and Professor Whatsit would also be inappropriate. Or, more concisely:

If Pat can’t afford to screw over Chris, then Chris has no business screwing Pat.

A Final Note on True Love

One of the objections that is always raised in these contexts is this: What about true love? What if your one true soul mate just happens to be a student in your laboratory? I’m skeptical of this argument on its face, given that most people just happen to find their soul mate — the only person they could possibly be with — within the vanishingly small fraction of the population they actually encounter. But, for purposes of argument, let’s entertain it.

If your defense is that each of you can’t possibly live without the other, that’s fantastic, and I wish you all the happiness in the world. The more senior of you just needs to quit your job. You can probably move to a new university, or, depending on the situation, maybe you just need to move to a different department.

What’s that? You say it’s hard to find faculty jobs? Well, you could leave academia! After all, yours is a love for the ages, one for which you would be willing to make any sacrifice, right? That’s what you told the folks in HR, anyway.

No? You couldn’t possibly rob the world of your singular intellect? And isn’t it unfair of the university to punish you for falling in love? Why should you have to sacrifice your career? Hmm, this is starting to sound less like “Star-crossed lovers find redemption in May-October romance” and more like “Entitled asshole deals with mid-life crisis through sexual exploitation of vulnerable subordinate while cynically exploiting naive romanticism to cover it up.”

Moments of Wonder Special

If you’re a fan of Moments of Wonder, there’s some cool news. As part of the BBC’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there will be a half-hour special featuring Philomena Cunk, who will tell you everything you need to know. According to the BBC,

Unrivalled wordsmith. Unequalled genius. Scholar of the Human Condition. Philomena Cunk is the ideal candidate to give the BBC Two audience a comprehensive guide to William Shakespeare.

A regular contributor to Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, Philomena has proven herself a shrewd interviewer, an insightful critic, and a voice of wisdom for our troubled times.

She’ll bring all of these considerable talents to bear as she authors a documentary about the Bard, across 30 factually accurate minutes.

If you haven’t seen Moments of Wonder, here’s episode 1 of the series: Time.

And, for the biologists among you, episode 3 is on Evolution:

Honestly, all television should be this.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty is Nonsense for Faculty Hiring

Good news this week for the Astronomy community! Unlike the previous three cases, the latest instance of high-profile professorial sexual misconduct to hit the press comes out of molecular biology. So, yay?

Jason Lieb resigned from the University of Chicago after he was found to have violated the University’s sexual misconduct policy. According to the report from the New York Times:

The professor, Jason Lieb, 43, made unwelcome sexual advances to several female graduate students at an off-campus retreat of the molecular biosciences division, according to a university investigation letter obtained by The New York Times, and engaged in sexual activity with a student who was “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent.”

Notwithstanding the fact that “sexual misconduct” seems to be a pretty euphemistic description of what sounds like criminal sexual assault, this is actually a pretty heartening story in a lot of ways. The University of Chicago seems to have acted quickly, recommending that Lieb be fired. That’s in sharp contrast with (and perhaps in reaction to) the handling of other cases, where it often seems that universities’ first impulse is to protect the faculty (and their research funding), only doing the right thing if and when the public finds out, and the negative press coverage threatens to become too costly.

However, there are still some questions about Chicago’s decision to hire Lieb in the first place. There were apparently rumors about Lieb, and suggestions that inappropriate sexual behavior was the reason for his having left Princeton and, before that, the University of North Carolina. However, accusers were anonymous, universities “could not comment on personnel matters”, and so . . .

At Chicago, the hiring committee struggled, Dr. Gilad said, to balance a desire to protect students with a desire not to convict someone without evidence. He said Dr. Lieb had not been found guilty of any offense at North Carolina. The department of human genetics voted unanimously to hire him.

But at the same time,

Separately, Dr. Gilad acknowledged, during the interviews of Dr. Lieb, he admitted that he had had a monthslong affair with a graduate student in his laboratory at the University of North Carolina.

So Lieb did something completely inappropriate (relationship with student in his lab), which makes the rumors feel a little less unsubsantiated. But the hiring committee fell back on the old “Well, he wasn’t formally found guilty, so our hands were tied.”

This is what always happens, in faculty meetings and comment sections — invocation of “innocent until proven guilty”. While that’s an important standard to uphold in criminal court, it’s not the standard for hiring decisions. And when hiring someone for a faculty job, it is a dangerous and destructive impulse.

A faculty job is different from (most) other jobs because of the structure of academia. Professors have enormous power over the students and postdocs who come through their labs. And there’s not an easy way to fix that power structure, because it is baked in.

If you’re a student or postdoc, your career is profoundly dependent on the good will of your advisor. You need an advisor who is willing to go to bat for you, in letters of recommendation and in person. And sure, that might be somewhat less true if there were some magical way to reduce the role of cronyism in academia, but just a bit. If you’re actually engaged in cutting-edge research, the number of people in the world who can really evaluate your work is small. And the number of people who will actually spend the time to really evaluate it is smaller still — probably mostly your co-authors.

Combine that with the extreme competition for faculty jobs, and you’ve got a system where crossing your advisor is career suicide, even if you’re in the right. People who have blow-outs with their advisors rarely land academic jobs. (Many wind up with jobs of various sorts, but rarely tenure-track positions at research universities.) In my observation, it’s mostly when the blow-out happens early on, and someone else in the department adopts them. And even then, the disruption may set them back months or years.

That puts a much greater burden on the hiring process — or at least it should. Every time you hire a new professor, especially if you’re bringing them in with tenure, you’re putting them in a position of authority over students. And if they abuse that authority, those students will have to choose between tolerating that abuse and risking their careers, no matter how good your grievance process is.

Hiring faculty should be more like hiring a babysitter. You don’t have a moral obligation to hire the skeevy guy with the windowless van just because the jury found insufficient grounds to convict him after his previous two babysitting gigs.

Now, if you were considering Lieb for a position at a research laboratory where he would be working with peers, it would be reasonable to give him a bit more benefit of the doubt. Or at least it might have been reasonable before the whole sexual assault thing.

But if you’re thinking of handing him the keys to a fiefdom where young people are entirely dependent on him, and you ignore red flags, you are absolutely responsible for the damage he causes when he turns out to be exactly what he seems.