NATURE PODCAST

Backchat: Sexual harassment, social media, and celebrity scientists

Adam Levy hosts our regular roundtable discussion show, with guests Lizzie Gibney, Nisha Gaind and Davide Castelvecchi.

Our reporters discuss celebrity scientists, sexual harassment in research, and the science behind a social media scandal.

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In this episode:

01:26 Celebrity scientists

What can Stephen Hawking teach us about how fame operates in science? Obituary: Stephen Hawking (1942–2018); Nature Video: Stephen Hawking: Three publications that shaped his career

10:26 Sexual misconduct in academia

What aspects of this global problem are unique to research? And how does that impact our reporting? News: UK survey reveals widespread sexual misconduct by academic staff; Editorial: More universities must confront sexual harassment

19:11 Cambridge Analytica

What is the science behind this scandal? And what’s the Nature way of reporting on a story that’s already being covered everywhere? News: The scant science behind Cambridge Analytica’s controversial marketing techniques; Editorial: Cambridge Analytica controversy must spur researchers to update data ethics

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Transcript

Our reporters discuss celebrity scientists, sexual harassment in research, and the science behind a social media scandal.

Host: Adam Levy

Hello, and welcome back to Backchat. If the regular Nature Podcast is a highly-classified dossier, then Backchat is your Facebook profile page. In today’s roundtable discussion, we’re looking at celebrity scientists, sexual harassment in research, and the science behind a social media scandal. I’m Adam Levy, and joining me in the London studio are Lizzie Gibney.

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyHi Adam. I’m Lizzie. I am a reporter here in London covering mainly physics.

Host: Adam LevyDavide Castelvecchi.

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

Hello, I’m Davide and I am the black hole correspondent.

Host: Adam LevyAnd joining us for her Backchat debut we have Nisha Gaind.

Editor: Nisha Gaind

Hi, I’m Nisha. I’m a news editor for Nature in London.

Host: Adam LevyComing up in the show, we’ll reflect on the death of Stephen Hawking. What does it take to become a famous scientist, and what are the pros and pitfalls of having a cult of celebrity in science? We’ll also be finding out how sexual harassment impacts researchers. This issue is under the microscope in every area but what aspects are unique to science, and how does covering such a sensitive topic differ from our news coverage elsewhere? Finally, we’ll discuss the science behind Cambridge Analytica. What were the research underpinnings behind this story, and how do we cover stories on Nature that are already being talked about by every other news organisation on the planet? Now first up, a science story that was heard around the world a few weeks back – the death of Stephen Hawking. Hawking was incredibly famous. I think it’s fair to say that his work was less widely known than the man himself, so Davide, just broadly, what was Stephen Hawking’s research about?

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

Stephen Hawking was, well first and foremost, a cosmologist, and he worked on the general theory of relativity, and in academic circles he’s most famous probably for his work on black holes.

Host: Adam Levy

And there’s something to do with black holes named after him, right? What is Hawking radiation?

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

So, Hawking radiation is the idea that he came up with in the early 1970s when he realised that black holes aren’t exactly black. They should be radiating because of some kind of weird quantum effect that happens just outside the event horizon of the black hole, and it leads the black hole to slowly shrivel and eventually disappear.

Host: Adam LevyWe still don’t have clear-cut evidence that Hawking radiation does exist. If we had found evidence like that while Stephen Hawking was still alive, would that have put him in the running for a Nobel Prize?

Reporter: Davide CastelvecchiI think there’s no question about that. Although virtually no one doubts that it exists, that it’s a true phenomenon, it is also extremely difficult to prove that the astrophysical black holes – the ones that are out there in the galaxy – emit this radiation because it’s supposed to be for a regular-sized black hole infinitesimally weak.

Host: Adam LevyOf course, I suppose Stephen Hawking’s academic papers probably weren’t his most famous piece of writing, which must his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which maybe is one of the most famous science books ever written, and I have to confess, I have never read. Has anyone around this table read it?

Editor: Nisha Gaind

Yeah, I think as a young girl when I had aspirations to study physics, which I did, that was probably one of the first physics books that you get pointed to by even people who don’t know that much about physics.

Host: Adam LevyAnd so did it influence your decision to study physics?

Editor: Nisha GaindI think so, I think I remember the two big figures being Stephen Hawking and – probably because we’re in Britain – Patrick Moore because he was so visible on the television. I wouldn’t say that A Brief History of Time is the only reason that I would have decided to but sure, it informs your knowledge as a kid and makes it ever more interesting.

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyI was the same. I read it probably as a youngish teenager, I read A Brief History of Time and it was the first encounter with physics that was the really discovery element, mind-blowing, this is the universe you live in kind of treatment of physics, compared to what you had been doing at school at that time was okay if you drop a ball this is how long it takes to fall. This was just completely different, it was really just opening your eyes to the very edge of physics as we know it, and that for me was transformational. That just made me think wow, this is a subject that I hadn’t realised was as fascinating as it is, and definitely had an impact on me in terms of studying it. People had written very accessible physics books before, but this was a real attempt at popularising what had, to many people, seemed like topics that you just couldn’t popularise.

Editor: Nisha GaindAnd the other thing that’s really cool about it is just that it has got one of the greatest titles of a book probably ever. It introduces the concept of time, which you don’t think about as a person or a human all the time, until it gets introduced. Who has got their head around time? No one.

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

It’s not my favourite Hawking book. I found it very obscure, so I mean I had other influences that lead me to become a geek, but probably Stephen Hawking’s book wasn’t it.

Host: Adam LevyWell, I feel quite obscure for being the only one around this table who’s not read it, so let’s move swiftly on from A Brief History of Time. Stephen Hawking’s fame itself came with a lot of attention, and the public noted comments of his on everything from artificial intelligence to Brexit. Now, what are the risks of having so much attention on an individual when they’re commenting on things which aren’t necessarily within their field of expertise?

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyWell, this is something that, I mean so Stephen Hawking famously didn’t win a Nobel Prize but this is usually Nobel Prize-itis is when you become very prominent and you have been labelled as being a very clever person then your comments, I don’t know if it’s the people themselves think they can then talk on any topic, or more likely it’s that the media pick up on anything they say and treat it as a pronouncement of authority.

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

This happens a lot in my home country which is Italy, where there aren’t a lot of Italian Nobel Prize winners, but the few ones we do have are household names just because they’re constantly on television. Maybe Hawking was unusual in this respect because he was controversial, he never feared saying something that might ruffle feathers.

Host: Adam Levy

So, what does it actually take to make a celebrity scientist? What are the ingredients that you think then turns a scientist from someone who is respected in their field to someone that the average person on the street knows about?

Editor: Nisha Gaind

I think a lot of it comes down to visibility – that’s usually television. So, those would be obvious examples, just people that you see on television. It doesn’t mean that you know what they do or what their research focuses on.

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

People who say yes to everything, so they end up on the Today programme. Probably it is also those who are willing to speak a little bit beyond their regular expertise. I mean, we often find that with people that when I’m trying to interview people for a story, you get an awful lot of people who say this isn’t my exact field of expertise, you should talk to this person instead, and you get another kind of person who kind of actually realises that the level at which we need to talk to them probably it doesn’t have to be their exact field. They know enough to tell me something really interesting and give me some good context, and so I think it’s those kinds of people who realise, who end up talking more broadly and who are just generally articulate and eloquent, or who just have a bit of a great personality, that goes a long way as well.

Host: Adam Levy

It feels a bit to me like physicists especially seem to be craved by the media, and male physicists in particular. When I’ve asked around, a lot of people name people like Einstein and Feynman and Hawking. There are fewer people in the life sciences or fewer women I think. Do you think that’s just because physics has this mystique to it and men have historically been seen more as authority figures?

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyI think physics is definitely considered just to be difficult and a bit more other and a bit less accessible and therefore having some authority figure who can just tell you the right answer is something that people crave.

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

Yeah, and who has this kind of oracular aura around them. You can feel like they can pull out the answers from thin air because as long as you don’t know how they do their science, it adds this mystery that makes them almost like supernatural.

Editor: Nisha GaindLots of the other people that you might see on television and so on, if they’re doctors they might be selling something. I think with physicists, they’re just selling wonderment often, which I think people are drawn to.

Host: Adam Levy

Can any of you think of a female celebrity scientist who would be on a par in public fame with someone like Hawking?

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyI foresaw this question and had a good think about it, and still didn’t manage to come up with anybody who is anywhere near that level of fame. I mean in physics you’ve got people like Lisa Randall who is a theoretical physicist who has written a lot of books and who is very accessible, but her fame is nowhere near that of Stephen Hawking. Making it on to The Simpsons is something that is very rare for any kind of scientist.

Reporter: Davide CastelvecchiHe was also the only living person to appear as himself on any Star Trek series. He made a cameo appearance in Next Generation.

Editor: Nisha GaindAnd I think what’s really interesting – Lizzie talks about The Simpsons – when Hawking died, a lot of the coverage included exactly that fact, that he had appeared in The Simpsons, so that’s a really interesting measure of science celebrity. Now, when I was thinking about the question of women in science, there is one other person who maybe would come close to that level, and that’s Jane Goodall. She hasn’t herself been on The Simpsons, but she was I think spoofed in one episode, so a slightly different kind of appearance, but Jane Goodall is maybe a person who is very, very well known, certainly through the 70s and 80s and 90s as a primatologist.

Host: Adam Levy

Let’s move on to our second story for the month, and we’re looking at an issue that every profession is grappling with and that issue is sexual harassment. This certainly isn’t a new issue, but it’s in the spotlight more at the moment then I suppose it historically has been. Nisha, there’s just been a survey of sexual misconduct in UK academia – what is the broad picture that it’s painting?

Editor: Nisha Gaind

That’s right, there was a survey conducted by the National Union of Students in Britain looking at sexual misconduct in UK universities, and maybe we can just come back a bit later to talk about the phrase ‘sexual misconduct’. 41% of people surveyed, and there were about 2000 of them, said they had experienced some kind of sexual harassment at university. That tallies with surveys that have been done in America and in Australia. Now, it’s important to note here that we’re talking about higher education as a whole, we’re not necessarily just talking about STEM, but this is one of the first surveys, if not the first national survey in the United Kingdom, of specifically staff-to-student misconduct. And the other perhaps shocking thing that the survey found is that in almost or the vast majority of instances of sexual harassment, the perpetrator was identified as a member of academic staff rather than other types of university staff.

Host: Adam LevyWere there other ways in which the survey broke down this misconduct in terms of the victims by gender or by orientation?

Editor: Nisha Gaind

Yes, women are more likely to experience misconduct and again, tallying with other surveys, people in the LGBTQ+ community are also more likely to experience sexual harassment. There’s less data about how people of different ethnic and racial minorities experience sexual misconduct, but all of the researchers and the survey conductors say that that’s a really crucial area where more data needs to be collected.

Host: Adam LevyYou mentioned that this tallies with what we’re seeing, say, in America. Does it tally with what we’re seeing in other areas outside of academia with other professions?

Editor: Nisha Gaind

Yeah, so I think it’s probably not a surprise to say that in every field and sector and industry, sexual harassment is a problem, but there are perhaps structures within science and with the way that the scientific enterprise works and especially in higher education, that maybe make it more likely, and that’s a lot of what I heard from sources when I was reporting this story, is people using terms like ‘feudal’ and ‘medieval’ of the system in science.

Reporter: Lizzie GibneySo is that the kind of relationship between the student and the supervisor then, the fact that in academia you might have quite narrow topics and there isn’t necessarily somebody else that that student in that scenario could go to?

Editor: Nisha GaindExactly, so what a lot of people say about the science system is that PhD students and postdocs – and it should be noted that it’s more likely that graduate students, or postgraduates as their known in the UK, are more likely to experience sexual harassment than undergraduates – and that’s as Lizzie says because when you’re doing a PhD or a postdoc in a lab, you might be very dependent on your PI in terms of career development. Well, we’ve got at least two people who have done PhDs here, so maybe you can speak to what it’s like to be in a lab.

Host: Adam Levy

Yeah, certainly you can sometimes feel – I should point out that I never had this issue – but certainly you can feel quite isolated in doing a PhD, which can surely have effects in this regard, but also have effects for mental health, and the number of people you feel that you can discuss that with can be somewhat limited.

Editor: Nisha GaindWhich plays into the issue that if you’re a more junior member of a lab, you might of course feel afraid to speak out. Speaking out is an incredibly brave and difficult thing to do. You have to have immense trust in colleagues and other people around you to be able to do that.

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

What were the levels of reporting in the survey responses?

Editor: Nisha Gaind

So, the reporting levels are extremely low. I think is it about 1 in 9 or 1 in 10 people who identified experienced sexual harassment report it, and that’s because of many of the reasons that we just talked about, trust and so on, but also because people at the time might not realise that it is harassment. And maybe that’s a good opportunity to talk about the term ‘sexual misconduct’ which is what the NUS report used, and I’m quoting here, they say that they used the term sexual misconduct “to define a continuum of sexualised and predatory behaviours of staff towards students. The concept of misconduct moves beyond sexual harassment as unwanted behaviour to address the specific nature of the power imbalance between staff and students in higher education.”

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

Did they also address the question of sexual misconduct even when there is not necessarily a power imbalance because that is also quite prevalent, you know, students harassing other students, for example?

Editor: Nisha GaindThe title of the survey is actually ‘Power in the Academy’ and it was very specific at looking at staff-to-student misconduct, and that’s because that area is less studied, but you’re right – there is a lot of student-to-student harassment or misconduct and that’s an area that has had perhaps a little more study, so they were trying to look more specifically at actions by staff in this instance.

Host: Adam LevySo clearly sexual harassment stories like this are very important for us to cover at Nature. They affect many of our readers and listeners directly. Are there differences in how we report on a survey like this and other extra steps we take to be careful to this sensitive subject?

Editor: Nisha Gaind

I think when talking about subjects like sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, you’re always taking extreme care to make sure that you’re representing the problem accurately and in a very sensitive way, and also making sure that you encompass all communities.

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

When, in the end I didn’t end up covering this story, but there was a story brought to us about sexual harassment and I kind of went through the legal training as to how to deal with a story like that, and it’s just completely different from writing about black holes, say, and for very obvious reasons we have to tread very carefully.

Editor: Nisha Gaind

Sometimes you have to have quite a strong stomach as well. You’re reading about some pretty grizzly stuff that has happened.

Host: Adam Levy

As this survey demonstrates, women are more likely to be impacted by this issue. Does that affect who tends to cover these stories here at Nature?

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyFrom looking at who has written all our stories on sexual harassment, I think they have exclusively probably been women. That is certainly not something that is top-down in anyway. It is possibly to do with the people who have particular interest in this field.

Reporter: Davide CastelvecchiThere’s absolutely no reason why male reporters shouldn’t do it and obviously, there’s someone who just got a Pulitzer Prize, a male reporter who wrote about sexual harassment in the New Yorker magazine.

Editor: Nisha Gaind

That’s Ronan Farrow.

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

As a man, I’m less likely to hear rumours about prominent men scientists. Now, that said, I would be very happy to, I would feel very honoured and flattered if someone came to me with such revelations and wanted me to report on them.

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

I think as a reporter some of that does ring true in the sense that a woman might think that they would have more shared experience with you as another woman and therefore find it easier to tell their story, that I could potentially imagine.

Editor: Nisha Gaind

So, you might even identify with an experience a little bit, understand the response, and as a reporter or a journalist feel a duty to try and raise awareness of the topic because it might be something that you’re familiar with or that you’ve seen or that frankly we’re all just outraged about.

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

I think it’s quite telling that when these survey results were being discussed in our news meeting, there were some people said like wow, 41%, that’s huge, this is a massive result, and there were a lot of people in the meeting who went, it’s about what I’d expect.

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

I must say it was lower than I expected.

Host: Adam Levy

I think it’s important of course to note that while this is an issue that impacts women more commonly than it impacts men, certainly not exclusively, and certainly that’s not the only demographic divider that affects the rate at which it happens, and so no reporter is going to represent all the people in such a broad survey as this.

Editor: Nisha GaindRight.

Host: Adam Levy

Well finally, let’s turn to our third topic for the week which is Facebook, well more specifically, to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Lizzie, you’ve reported on this. What is all the commotion actually about?

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

I feel like this is the light relief now, let’s just talk about potentially swaying democracy.

All laugh

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

Okay, so people are probably very familiar with this. The story has actually been rattling on for a long time – some of the revelations first came out in 2015 – but this has recently been in the news because a whistle-blower who had worked for the company and was quite explicit about the way in which data moved from the work done by an academic to this company Cambridge Analytica, who then went on to work for some very prominent political campaigns and who boasted a lot, or boasted certainly before all these revelations came out, about their ability to target particular members of the public for their political advertising and to profile them by their personality. And so, the scandal is also a lot bigger because it involves Facebook, so the original dataset involved people answering a survey which kind of was able to draw out elements of their personality, and then in doing that survey and then clicking on a button on an app, they also gave this researcher access to all of their Facebook data pretty much, and then that was sold on to Cambridge Analytica.

Host: Adam Levy

What does this Facebook data actually provide though because looking at my Facebook profile, nowhere on it does it say that I’m a hilarious, charming individual?

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyWhich it should.

Host: Adam Levy

Which it absolutely should. I know what I am writing as my status as soon as I get back to my desk.

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

It still comes across.

Host: Adam Levy

Okay, that’s a big relief. Well, that’s my question – how does it come across from, say, looking at the things I’ve liked?

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

So, this is a big finding that again goes back a few years, that even if you have quite scant data on your Facebook profile, if you put that data together with reams of data from lots and lots of other individuals, you can draw things from it that you wouldn’t be able to do if you just had your profile as a standalone. So, originally psychologists David Stillwell and Michael Kosinski did a study where they looked at your Facebook likes, and not even that many, and managed to correlate them with aspects of personality which were gleaned from doing this separate survey, and the survey really is the gold standard for figuring out people’s personalities. It’s far from perfect but it is what psychologists use and it’s kind of pretty standard across cultures and things like that. And they were able to show, for instance, that people who like Nicki Minaj are more likely to be extrovert.

Host: Adam Levy

I feel like at least for that example it’s fairly intuitive actually, that does make some sense.

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyThere are others though, I think is it…

Editor: Nisha GaindHello Kitty?

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyYeah, openness corresponds to Hello Kitty and – I should also say it’s not just personality – there are studies that are done that could tell male from female, people’s sexual orientation and some of them really do not seem obvious at all. They are very, very subtle and they only come out from the fact that you have a relatively small effect but that becomes obvious with a lot of data.

Host: Adam Levy

So, do we know that by targeting adverts based on different personality types, you’re actually able to influence people’s behaviour in some meaningful way?

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyRight, so this is it. There are kind of two scientific questions that we tried to answer in this explainer that we wrote. So, the first is what we’ve been talking about – how do you actually build a personality profile and is that possible? And there are lots more interesting elements to that because you don’t just need Facebook data or Facebook likes, in fact, you can do that with any element of digital footprint, as long as you have a survey to correlate it with – this could be your purchasing history, your browsing data, your phone calls. Then yes, the second big question is if you know someone’s personality, is that going to influence them? And the research there is a little shaky. So, there have been some studies that showed that people were significantly more likely to buy a product if they were shown an advert that was tailored to match their personality versus one that was a complete mismatch. But this is still quite a new and developing science, and it’s very hard to do in a real-world scenario – it’s been done in the lab a lot – and when we talked to a huge number of researchers for this story, there were a lot of differing opinions. Some people said yes, you can tailor adverts but the impact is likely to be quite small, or yes, it might impact how likely you are to buy a product but that is maybe very different to whether you’ll be influenced to vote in a different way or not.

Editor: Nisha Gaind

And I think that was reflected in the headline that we ended up running with the story which was ‘The scant science behind Cambridge Analytica’s marketing techniques’.

Reporter: Lizzie GibneyCambridge Analytica had, you know, they are a company, they are a commercial company, they had spoken very widely about what they were able to do, and so I think a lot of journalists just took it as given that they were able to what they said they were able to do which of course, was kind of marketing really in the first place.

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

One thing that gets lost in this debate sometimes though is that it’s not only a crime to subvert democracy even if you try and you’re not very effective – it’s still a crime to try to divert democracy and it’s still worrying if a foreign power tries to do it, even if maybe they’re not successful.

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

I think yeah, but what is subverting democracy? So, something else that came out, and this is something that I’ve actually been looking at now for a couple of years – we never just actually got to write a story about it – is that advertising generally already segments the population to a great extent. A lot of people might break you down as a very specific, slender slice of demographic and aim adverts at you already. Doing that and on top of it saying oh and we think you’re introverted – how much of a difference does that make? I think the real big scandal that’s come out of this is that people just didn’t know what was happening with their data, and also, they weren’t helped to understand it. There’s a lot of ‘tick this box here’, but who reads those ten pages of consent? I would say very few people.

Host: Adam LevyThis was a story, of course, that was being covered by pretty much every single news outlet that you could imagine. Does that change how we end up reporting it? Do we search long and hard for the Nature way of doing it?

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

Absolutely. So, as Nature, there are a couple of different value-adds that we see we can contribute. So, one is how does this affect the scientific world because that’s where a lot of our readers come from, and then the other is how can we take a scientific view of this topic? Can we provide an analysis, an explainer, that really nails these scientific questions and buries down deep into them? So, we kind of did both of those, I suppose. We had our explainer on the turned out to be scant science of Cambridge Analytica, and we also wrote a leader on how universities and institutions need to make sure they’re applying proper scrutiny to that kind of research, as they would in lots of other fields.

Host: Adam Levy

I was actually travelling when the story broke and since I’ve been back I feel like I have a lot of ground to catch up on. I feel like every time I feel like I’ve got what this story is about, a whole host of other things have developed and I’m just constantly playing catch up.

Editor: Nisha GaindI think that was really apparent in the first few days of this story really breaking, is that every day we would come into the office and some other things had come out in the story.

Host: Adam LevyI’m afraid that is it for this month’s show, but thank you to my guests Nisha Gaind, Lizzie Gibney and Davide Castelvecchi. The Nature Podcast is sadly not on Facebook, but we are on Twitter (@NaturePodcast) and you can hear more of our guests’ internal monologues on Twitter. So where can they find you?

Reporter: Davide Castelvecchi

I’m @DCastelvecchi.

Reporter: Lizzie Gibney

I’m @LizzieGibney.

Editor: Nisha Gaind

I don’t tweet.

Host: Adam Levy

And I’m @ClimateAdam. Unfortunately, you’ll just have to imagine Nisha’s internal monologue. Until next time, I’m Adam Levy. Thanks for listening.