All posts by jonfwilkins

Three points on sexual harassment

So, thanks to the Harvey Weinstein story, sexual harassment is in the news again. The specific context this time is the entertainment industry, but it may well remind you of the ongoing endemic harassment in academia. In fact, there are some structural similarities between the two industries that make them prone to this sort of abuse.

Both are industries where there are far more people aspiring to careers in the industry than there are top-tier positions. For another, both rely heavily on patronage systems. Plus, both are imperfect meritocracies: favoritism and connections play huge roles in career success, but there is enough real meritocracy to provide a degree of plausible deniability.

Previously, I provided some guidelines for people in academia who are thinking about pursuing a colleague. If you think of yourself as being a genuinely “good guy” who wants to make sure you don’t cross the line, give them a read. But here are a few additional points to consider.

Point 1: Your workplace is not a singles’ bar

Whenever a case of sexual harassment comes up, one of the inevitable knee-jerk defenses is concern trolling about policing behavior in the workplace. “You can’t stand in the way of human nature!” “But what about true love?” Or, from Woody Allen, you need to avoid a “witch hunt,” where “every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”

The implication is always that if we stop people from “flirting” in the workplace, we will somehow be standing in the way of romance. Like, if you cut people off from hitting on their co-workers, they will all die alone.

If you’re an academic looking for romance, good luck to you! But do it someplace where the expectation is that other people are also looking for romance. Whether you’re looking for a life partner or a hook-up, there are plenty of apps and meet-ups and clubs and bars that people use as vehicles to meet romantic partners. Make use of one of those.

That is, when you go to work, you should be going to work. And you should assume that the other people there are there for the purpose of working. If you wink at someone at a singles’ bar, they may or may not be interested in you, but it is reasonable to assume that they have come to the bar open to the possibility of meeting someone. At work, that is not a reasonable assumption.

Now one of the defenses that gets wheeled out in academia is that it is natural to date people in your lab, or department, because you naturally have shared interests. Well, that’s what your Tinder profile is for, jackass. (“Passionate about long walks on the beach and invertebrate neuronal development!”) Plus, anecdotally speaking, the people I have heard articulating this excuse are almost entirely people with reputations for inappropriate behavior. So, don’t be that guy.

Point 2: If you’re dating “down,” you’re not actually looking for romance

In hierarchical systems like academia (or the entertainment industry), social relationships almost always have a strong hierarchical element. Even if two people are not in a direct supervisory relationship, there is very often a big power imbalance. Typically, one person is more senior, respected, connected, and generally influential than the other. Most academic fields are small enough that alienating a senior member of the field can do huge damage to your career, even if that person is at another institution.

People on the receiving end of this power imbalance are well aware of it, and they get a lot of advice, so I’d like to speak for a moment to the folks in a position of power:

Stop it.

If you’re a professor hitting on grad students, or postdocs, just stop. Yes, I’m sure you’re having some sort of crisis that is entirely sympathetic in an Updike/Roth sort of way, and I promise not to judge you harshly if you go out and buy a motorcycle. But quit hitting on people who are below you in the hierarchy.

If you’re a fifty-something man hitting on a twenty-something woman who works for you, the best-case scenario is that you are desperately grasping after your lost youth, that you’ve been conditioned to view younger women as sexually desirable, that you’ve been seduced by a narcissistic fantasy of academically and sexually mentoring a younger version of yourself.

And look, that’s pretty bad. But it still begs the question of why you’re looking in your own department, instead of going online. The answer is that you don’t want a relationship with an equal. You want a relationship with someone who can’t say no. The power differential is a guarantee of success.

And, of course, for many of you, the relationship is not even the primary goal. The goal is simply the exercise of power, whether you are embarking on a coercive relationship, or just seeing how many hugs and back rubs you can get away with. You’re like a toddler knocking over a tower of blocks, engorged by your own ability to make change in the world.

Stop it.

Point 3: People with power need to start putting themselves out there

There are a lot of good reasons why people who get harassed don’t speak up. Typically, they are in positions of little power, which is part of why they were targeted in the first place. For bystanders, the impulse to value peace over justice means that many people, including people who would never be harassers, will actively seek reasons to minimize or justify what happened. As a result, people who speak out about harassment, whether as victims or witnesses, often pay a very real price for that.

So, each person needs to decide for themselves whether or not they are willing to pay that price. And victims, in particular, should not be pressured to do so. However, if you have a position of power, where you have the ability to speak up on behalf of victims, you need to be honest with yourself about what that price actually is.

Here’s the thing. If you’re a student, speaking up may mean the end of your career, even if you are vindicated by the process. And that’s a heavy price to pay. But if you’re a professor, particularly one with tenure, you are in no such position. Yes, speaking up may cost you professionally. You may get invited to fewer conferences. You may get your grants funded at a lower rate. But other than in extraordinary circumstances, your career and livelihood are not likely to be in jeopardy.

Most people I know in academia are good, well intentioned people, people who do not actively participate in bad things. However, most are also extremely reluctant to speak publicly about injustice if there is a chance that there will be any sort of negative impact on their careers. And somehow we tend to act like that’s okay, like every professor is Jean Valjean, with a sister whose children will starve if they report a serial harasser to the Dean.

We need to acknowledge that yes, there is a cost associated with speaking out. But once you’ve made it past a certain point in academia, you can afford to pay that cost.

A lot of you went into your field in order to make the world a better place. Here’s your chance.

About That Whole “Land of Immigrants” Thing

So, it is common for people to talk about the United States as a “Land of Immigrants.” This is usually well intentioned, often said in the context of defending the rights and value of recent immigrants. The message is, “Our ancestors were immigrants once, too, so we should have empathy for these new immigrants.”

That’s great, but it is always worth remembering that there are two groups in this country who are not descended from immigrants – at least not in the conventional sense of the word: Native Americans and African American descendants of slaves.

Why bring this up now? Well, the administration has been ramping up its assault on immigrants, with ICE’s horrifying series of raids and deportations, and, today, with the issuance of the revised Muslim Ban. Also, Ben Carson, the man who singlehandedly changed the meaning of the phrase “It’s not brain surgery,” did this:

Here’s the thing. the first Native Americans were technically immigrants in much the same way that a tomato is technically a fruit. Yes, maybe their ancestors “immigrated” across Beringia twelve or thirteen thousand years ago, but you and I both know damn well that’s not what people mean when they use the word.

Referring to African slaves as immigrants is more like putting tomatoes in fruit salad. It requires a complete disregard for linguistic convention and cultural history. Plus, it’s disgusting.

Carry on.

The Baseball Playoffs are a Crapshoot, but Having 100 Wins Doesn’t Hurt

The Cubs wound up the regular season with the best record in baseball: 103 wins (out of only 161 games, due to a rain-out that went down as a tie). Does this guarantee that the Cubs will win it all this year? No. In fact, if you read Slate, “having such a record is nearly a kiss of death.”


The premise of the piece seems that winning 100 games actually hurts you in the playoffs, as does having the best regular season record. What follows from that assertion would be an exercise in p-hacking, if any of the supporting evidence were statistically significant. Instead, it is exactly the sort of exercise in anecdotal misinterpretation that statistics were invented to avoid.

It is certainly true that having the best record in the regular season does not guarantee postseason success. Baseball is a game where any team can beat any other on a given day. Typically, only one or two teams win more than 60% of their games over the course of the regular season, and winning 55% will usually get you into the playoffs. When these teams play each other in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, the odds of the “better” team coming out on top are not much different from a coin toss.

But does it hurt you? Let’s see what stats Slate musters to support the argument. They restrict their analysis to the 21 years from 1995 through 2015, when the playoffs have had the current wildcard structure. During that time:

• No National League team has won 100 regular-season games and won the World Series. The only team in baseball to achieve the feat is the New York Yankees, in 1998 and 2009. Only two 100-win National League teams have even reached the Series.

Okay, during that time period six National League teams and eight American League teams have won at least 100 regular season games. If each playoff was a 50/50 coin toss, each of those teams would have a one in eight chance of winning the world series. So, the expected number of NL wins would be 0.75, and the expected number of AL wins would be 1.0. The NL falls slightly below expectation (0/6), but not significantly so. The AL exceeds expectation (2/8), as does the combined NL-AL record (2/14).

No team other than the aforementioned 1998 and 2009 Yankees has posted the outright best record in baseball and won the World Series. Boston won the Series in 2007 and 2013 after tying for baseball’s best record.

In five of the 21 years, there was a tie for the best record in baseball. So, in the 16 years with a single best record, that team won the world series twice. Again, coin toss would give you a one in eight chance, so 2/16 is right in line with expectations. In the five years with a tie, there’s a one in four chance that one of those two teams will win, so the expected number of wins would be 1.25, less than the 2/5 Red Sox wins.

Last year, Kansas City became the seventh team of the wild-card era to post the best record in its league (excluding Boston’s tie in 2007) and win the World Series. In that same span, six wild-card teams have won the Series.

Well, if it’s a coin toss, the team with the best record would have the same odds of winning as the wildcard (or the two wildcards combined, in the extra-expanded playoff structure in place since 2012). So, pretty much what you would expect.

• The top National League team in the regular season hasn’t won the World Series since the Atlanta Braves did it in 1995.

This is the first statistic that seems to deviate at all from expectation. In 21 years, if the top NL team had a one in eight chance of winning the World Series each year, you would expect 21/8 World Series wins. That is, more than two, but fewer than three. And one is less than two, right? Well, the probability that you would have zero wins in 21 years is about 6%. The probability that you would have one win is about 18%.

The standard way to ask this question is to say, “What is the probability that the observed value would deviate by this much or more from expectation”.  That probability, in this case, is about 24%. So, not really all that unlikely at all.

Or, in sciencey terms, p=0.24, and we fail to reject the null hypothesis that having the best record in the National League gives you less than a one in eight chance of winning the World Series.

Plus, it’s a bit weird to cherry-pick the top NL team. After all, we were just told that Kansas City was the seventh team to win the World Series after posting the best record in its league. The six cases besides 1995 Atlanta are all from the AL (and exclude the 2007 Red Sox, who tied with Cleveland for the best record).

So what would happen if we asked the analogous AL question. Well, of the 19 years when there was a single top record in the AL, six of those teams went on to win the World Series. The chances of at least six teams doing that, given 1/8 odds, is about 2.5%.

Now, we can’t really read anything into that result, since it is one of a number of statistical tests we did here, so any multiple-tests correction would eliminate the significance of the results. But if we had asked the question about top AL records in isolation, notice that it would have supported the conclusion that having a good regular-season record helps, rather than hurts, your playoff chances.

I wonder why they didn’t include that analysis . . .


You Can Stop Donating to the NC GOP Now, Please

Following the firebombing of a Republican campaign office in Hillsborough, NC over the weekend. Shortly thereafter, a group of self-identified Democrats (but not part of the Clinton campaign) set up a gofundme campaign to raise funds to help them reopen, and within a few hours, they had raised $13,000.

The impulse to donate to something like this seems honorable on the surface. It’s a way of rising above partisan politics to condemn political violence. It’s also bullshit.

There is exactly one legitimate reason to donate to a campaign like this: to disrupt the media narrative of “Democrats firebomb GOP offices”. Sort of a show-don’t-tell version of #NotAllDemocrats. Mission accomplished. This fundraising campaigns will now be part of the news story, which will blunt attempts by Republican operatives to make this a campaign issue, or, worse, to encourage and justify things like voter intimidation at the polls.

So, I’m glad the gofundme campaign happened. But you can stop now, and maybe pause to consider the ways in which donating to the NC GOP is a bad idea, and how the decision to do so maybe does not reflect so well on you as you might think.

1. We don’t know what happened, yet

Despite Trump’s claim that the firebombing was perpetrated by “Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems”, we don’t actually know who did this or why. Yes, one option is that it was people associated with the Clinton campaign and/or the Democratic Party. A more likely possibility is that is was some pissed-off, disenfranchised kids who are fed up with Trump’s hate-fueled campaign.

It’s also possible that this was a false flag attack as part of an attempt to undermine the emerging narrative of Trump supporters being particularly violent. I’m not saying that this is particularly likely, but it is certainly not unprecedented. The most famous case, of course, is the Reichstag fire, which at least some historians believe was ordered by the Nazis to create a pretense for curtailing civil liberties. Certainly if any group were predisposed to do something like this, it would be hangers on of the Trump campaign.


There’s also the issue of the graffiti left at the scene: a swastika and the message “Nazi Republicans Leave Town Or Else”. What seems strange to me is the inclusion of the swastika. Most liberals perceive writing a swastika as an act of violence in itself, similar to using the N-word. I think your typical anti-Nazi activist would tend to shy away from drawing a swastika, even in the context of calling someone a Nazi. I’m not generally inclined towards conspiracy, but this, more than anything, makes me think that it’s a possibility in this case.

2. They don’t need the money

I assume that the NC GOP had insurance, and that the losses suffered in the fire will be fully covered. And I know that they have the financial resources to open another office, even if it takes some time for that insurance check to come through. So, while donating to “reopen the office” seems like fair play, in practice, your money is actually going to go to fund general operating expenses, that is, to elect Trump and down-ballot Republicans.

And if, for some reason, the NC GOP is not insured (or “self insured”, as the parlance goes), keep in mind that this is the party of personal responsibility. The libertarian argument against insurance mandates is that you should have the right to assume your own risk. The second half of the argument, for non-hypocrites, anyway, is that you should not expect anyone else to bail you out once you’ve made that choice.

3. Other charities exist

Donating to the NC GOP as a way of “not condoning” the firebombing makes a lot of sense, if you view the act in complete isolation. But the implication, of course, is that you are condoning every disaster – man-made or natural – that you did not donate to. And, in North Carolina, the NC GOP bears direct responsibility for at least some of the disasters befalling poor people, minorities, and LGBTQ folks.

If you’re a Democrat who was moved to open your wallet because some Trump/Pence signs got burned and the NC GOP is going to need to rent office space in a different strip mall, but you were not moved to open your wallet by the flooding of poor communities by Hurricane Matthew, or the systemic disenfranchisement of minorities, or the regressive anti-trans policies, maybe you need to take a good long look at what your actual motives were.


Future Kirk Kobayashi Marus the Trolley Problem

You know the trolley problem, where there’s a trolley on a track where it will hit and kill five people, but there’s a switch that will move it onto another track with only one person. The ethical dilemma is basically whether it is okay to proactively take a life in order to save five other lives. It’s a no-win situation, sort of like the Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek.

A young James T. Kirk foiled the Kobayashi Maru by reprogramming the computer, changing the rules of the test in order to make possible a winning scenario. Now, this two-year-old future Starfleet Captain has done something similar to resolve the trolley problem.

h/t @nick_kapur

DNA Confirms Tyrolean Iceman Died of Extreme Fashion Violation

In 1991, the five-thousand year-old mummified remains of a man were discovered in the Italian Alps. Numerous DNA analyses have been performed on those remains in the past, providing a lot of information about who he was and what he ate. But now, a team of Italian and Irish researchers have analyzed ancient mitochondrial DNA recovered from his clothing, providing critical insight into his likely cause of death.

The results were published earlier this month  in Scientific Reports, and hoo boy is the ghost of Joan Rivers angry. Shoelaces made from cattle, sheepskin loincloth, and goatskin leggings; a quiver made from roe deer and a bearskin hat. His coat? Goat and sheep! I mean, this guy was basically wearing a Guy Fieri nacho recipe.

Artist’s reconstruction of the iceman’s ensemble. Image via

The results provide information about the ancient phylogeography of these animals, as well as insight into the iceman’s lifestyle. The cattle, goats, and sheep all appear to be closely related to contemporary domesticated populations in Europe, consistent with an agricultural/pastoral existence. The deer and bear point to an important additional role for the use of wild species.

Other analysis has suggested that this iceman died as a result of an arrow wound. Alternative theory: this is evidence of early mirror technology — a technology that, like the nanobots in Wool, developed before the culture was advanced enough to handle it.