I am complicit

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My academic societies support the March for Science. So do I.

I’m familiar with the arguments for and against the March, from major newspapers and social media. If you’re not familiar, don’t worry, I won’t rehash them for you.

I think it’s possible for some people to have an ethical position to oppose something, and for others to have an ethical position to support the same thing. Nobody’s got a monopoly on being right.

Ethics are complex. It’s possible for two people to have different and legitimate value systems, that can use the same set of facts and end up with different decisions that are not harmful to the other*. (Of course, sometimes things can be harmful, too.)

Please humor me, and let me talk about food for a while.

I think we all eat unethically.

No matter what we put in our mouths, we’re going to commit some kind of wrong. Eating consumes resources, the labor of people, and often the lives of other creatures. Our food choices involve a jazillion tradeoffs, with interactions among: carbon emissions, health, safe and fair working conditions, immigration policy, nitrogen deposition, community development, animal welfare, biodiversity, long-term food security, illegal pesticide use, trade deficits, and even human trafficking. These are very serious issues, that are also very complex.

It’s simpler to think about behavioral decisions involving food made by, say, squirrels. (Squirrels may or may not face as many ethical dilemmas as we do, though this is not well studied.) Regardless, when squirrels make decisions, they employ a “currency” that governs their decision. When you watch a squirrel collecting nuts, what currency do you think they are they trying to maximize? The number of nuts? The mass of nuts? The quality of nuts? The amount of energy gained (the energy in nuts minus the energy spent hunting for them)? There’s no shortage of folks who have worked on such questions. This sort of work has been the bread and butter of behavioral ecologists.

What’s the main goal of the squirrel, while looking for food? The way we talk about biology nowadays, they’re working to pass copies of their genes to the next generation of squirrels, and more food helps them do that. Maybe a squirrel is thinking about sex and babies all the time, I don’t know. But when they’re looking for food, they’ll have one or more currencies at work, that help them get to this goal.

When we’re making ethical decisions, we often have different currencies, just like squirrels. Okay, now I’m ready to talk about people again.

Like you and every other person, I’ve made ethical decisions about food that don’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny. I’ve been veg** since about 1990. This doesn’t often come up in conversation***, but I’ll volunteer this fact if it’s necessary for practical reasons (for restaurant-choosing, food-ordering, being hosted). Once in a while when I’m at the field station dining hall, as I’m eating the veg option, someone will be curious about my choice. They’ll apparently be compelled to understand my motivations. Is it for the environmental protection, for health, for the ethical treatment of animals?

If I mention that I’m concerned about environmental impacts, then it could be readily pointed out to me that some vegetarian foods are worse for the climate than some non-veg foods. (Broiler chickens, for example, allegedly are more C-efficient than cheese, for example). If I point out I’m concerned about animal welfare, then the treatment of dairy cattle may be brought under scrutiny, or it has been mentioned that by not purchasing ethically produced animal products, I’m not using my purchasing dollar to change the marketplace. And folks are quick to point out that a veg diet is by no means necessarily more healthful than an omnivorous diet.

I’m under no illusion that my food choices are any more ethical than anybody else’s choices. Some folks think carefully about where their food comes from, and some folks give it less thought. While I think it’s important that people think about their food critically**** — I know that informed people can make valid choices that are quite different from one another.

As far as I’m concerned, my diet is my choice. How I’ve arrived at this choice, frankly, isn’t anybody else’s business. I usually deflect the conversation, because, well, there are a lot more interesting things to talk about.

I don’t talk about this with other people, but there’s a lot I don’t understand about how some people eat. It seems everybody’s decisions (including my own) can be readily exposed as unethical or inconsistent with one’s values. For example, some folks think it’s wrong to eat a dog or a cat, but it’s okay to eat a cow or a pig. I don’t understand that one at all. One of the reasons I don’t eat meat is because of how most cows are treated in the US, but then again, I buy shoes that have leather coming from the same cows. I have a problem buying food that’s shipped from all over the world (for example, I don’t buy stone fruit grown in Chile during California winters), but on the other hand, I’m sure many of the foods I buy in the grocery store are sourced from a carbon-hideous supply chain.

I can go on about how my choices are unethical or logically inconsistent. And any one of us could do the same for one another. Yet, it doesn’t change what I’m eating. And it doesn’t change what grocery stores are stocking.

Sometimes, choices are more clear-cut than others, at least for me. For example, in the late 1960s, eating grapes in the US was essentially a matter of crossing a union picket line, and supporting horrific working conditions overseen by grape growers.

At the moment, wholesale land conversion in the tropics for the production of palm oil is an important issue for me. Then again, I see how not everybody has my experience, as avoiding products with palm oil would have disproportionate effects on people based on income and access to food. In some food deserts, people literally don’t have an alternative. (By the way, the greenwashing of palm oil here by Nutella is hilarious.) Also, keep in mind that the reason palm oil is in so many processed foods is that the FDA banned trans fats, which made palm oil the go-to choice for food engineers, who wanted to make products that can sit on a shelf for a long time. So we’re cutting down huge swaths of rainforest for palm oil to make the food supply safer. While I think we don’t need these items on our grocery shelves, that’s not a move that’ll take off as long as people are buying food at Costco.

We need a variety of approaches to reduce the production of palm oil. Most movements are benefited by zealots, so it would be helpful if there are some folks who are running a vocal boycott against companies that sell food with palm oil. That approach on its own won’t generate change on its own, but the awareness may provide impetus for listening to folks inside the room who are working to shift the market away from palm oil.

You can organize a massive boycott against palm oil, and be righteous. You can merely abstain from palm oil, and still be righteous. You can not do anything about it and still be righteous, because after all there are only so many hours in the day, and you can’t fight every battle in the world. On the other hand, if you are aware of the palm oil crisis, and you choose to not speak up at the moment someone in your midst is preaching how it’s great we’re using more palm oil, well, then, you’ve passed over a situation to speak up and potentially make a difference.

In the United States, it’s extraordinarily difficult to not be complicit in the destruction of rainforests for palm oil. If you eat seafood, it’s difficult to not be complicit in human trafficking. Nonetheless, these are social systems that we live with, which we are a part of, due to the fact of our existence.

Which brings me to the March for Science.

If you’re a scientist like myself, then you’re a part of science. Science has a majoritarian legacy of discrimination. We have inherited this inequitable system, and it’s up to us to fix it. Science has a diversity and inclusion problem that isn’t going away on its own over time — and any progress that we make comes from intentional effort, against a great amount of resistance from the people who benefit from the status quo. As we march, accounting for this legacy and plans for fixing things must be foundational.

Because the status quo is the status quo, that means some people among us are resistant to change. Some are just ambivalent, others are quietly hoping they’ll get to retain the historic advantages conferred by their identity, and others are nefariously against diversity and inclusion. Regardless, no matter what we do, these people will be among us. Because that’s our legacy. They’re in our midst. No matter what we do, if we have an inclusive March for Science, these folks will be marching. In fact, it seems they’re part of the organizing team for the March — at least it’s clear from the social media team of the main DC March.

The folks at the helm of the March apparently don’t know how to do diversity and inclusion work. They just don’t seem to get it. In this respect, The March for Science reflects our realities inside science and academia in general.

There is systemic inequity throughout our research institutions, student training practices, journal editorial boards, and of course among the people in our government who make policy decisions to fund our science.

Of course the March for Science doesn’t do diversity right! Science itself doesn’t do diversity right.

I want science to do diversity right. How do we do that? This is where, I think, good people can disagree.

Let me give you a couple more quotes that I think are relevant:

“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best” -Otto von Bismarck

“I’m trying to move an aircraft carrier here, I’m not just steering the speedboat.” -Barack Obama

In my opinion, I’m more capable of contributing to change by being alongside the people who disagree with me. The more folks who are marching for diversity and inclusion, stronger the message of diversity and inclusion. Moreover, because the March is an event that hopefully will congeal and motivate supporting organizations for further action, the tenor of the march will set future priorities. These changes are not going to happen overnight.

In other words — at the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation — I think it’s important to be in The Room Where It Happens. Institutions don’t evolve without compromise. In the case of the March, the folks doing the organizing weren’t on board with honestly working for diversity and inclusion — they’re not even prepared to compromise — and they alienated people who are not easy to alienate. It doesn’t look like there was a seat at the table in The Room. What do about this?

This hostility to diversity and inclusion among some of the organizers is also the way that science typically operates. Which leads me to another quote:

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” -Shirley Chisholm

Will there be racists at the march? Yes. Will there be people who are actively against equity? Yes. Will there be people who embody everything that is horrible? Yes. I hadn’t seen this, but on the March for Science facebook page, I heard some people say there were a lot of harmful things that were some racist, sexist, and transphobic. Are some of those folks marching? Yes. At the beginning, the communications from the organizers of the March were hostile to inclusion, and things haven’t improved enough.

Do I want to cede the March to people who aren’t working for progress? No. Do I think that by personally sitting out the march, that I personally will help things change in a positive direction? No. Do I think critiques of the march can help make change? Yes, I do. If I align myself with some of the marchers who are working for positive change, can I help change things in a positive direction? I hope so. Another quote from Chisholm might be relevant here.

What is the March, exactly? Is it a monolith? What and who exactly is The March? The organizers have made a hot mess of things. It’s been one screwup after another. Is it a single organization to be judged on the basis of its obtuse and counterproductive social media campaign? Or, it is a confederation of scientific societies and organizations, united together under common purpose? All of the societies that I’m involved with have endorsed this, I think, and the organization that I look to for leadership on diversity and inclusion is on board in a big way. While you can look at The March as an anti-diversity boondoggle, you also can look at it as flailing volunteer effort with the wrong staff, that’s undermining a valuable endeavor that is endorsed our own organizations. It might be fish-or-cut-bait time at the moment, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to go home without a fish. The only option is to trudge on, even though it might not seem like a good option. At least, that’s how I’m seeing things at the moment.

With respect to the March itself, other than participating in the March and advocating for inclusivity, I haven’t seen any other actionable ideas that won’t serve to perpetuate the unacceptable status quo.

Consider UC Berkeley and the other UC campuses. (I don’t have a particular beef with them, but they’ve been in the news a lot for this lately and serve as a useful example.) Like in all major US universities, there is an epidemic of sexual misconduct. In recent years, a series of events have made it clear that the people running the show have worked to actively hide the misdeeds of the perpetrators of sexual misconduct. News about some perpetrators has come out, but I don’t think anybody imagines that all sexual misconduct cases have seen light of day and that justice has been done. This is damaging the careers of many junior scientists, and it’s hard to disagree that this conduct by UC is reprehensible.

Yet, I have friends and colleagues who are continuing to serve on the faculty of UC Berkeley, and others who are enrolled students. Considering the egregious misconduct of UC Berkeley, should they encourage the state to remove funding for the institution, should they stop recruiting new students, should they quit? If we are invited to give seminars at UC campuses, should we say no because of the actions of the UC? Should we condemn the UC as a whole?

My goal here — on this site, and when I’m using social media — is to change minds. That’s the currency I’m using: is this going to contribute to changing minds in a positive direction? In this context, if I’m wondering whether or not I should support the March for Science, it’s a no-brainer: sitting it out won’t help me change any of the minds that need to be changed. If you’ve read other things on this site, I imagine you have a pretty good idea where my priorities lie. While the folks who have been organizing the march are somewhere between clueless and malevolent when it comes to inclusivity, this endeavor is much, much bigger than the people who have been running their social media team. When I look at the roster of folks they have lined up for the LA event, this looks encouraging. (Meanwhile, as of this writing on Sunday night, it doesn’t even look like the main DC march has announced their speakers, which is consistent with other evidence that their act isn’t as together as it needs to be.)

In addition to my prioritization of equity, if anybody’s curious about my personal motivation for this March — this thing that popped up in my facebook feed puts a pin in it rather nicely.

The web site for the March for Science identifies its first goal is to “Humanize science.” A-fricking-men. When smart folks out there think that the ability to do statistics makes us heartless, it’s clear we’ve got an obstacle-strewn path ahead. Now’s a time for scientists to show — to one another and to the world — that we give a damn about other people, including all people.

So if someone says that I’m complicit, because I’m supporting the march alongside racist people and sexist people, then yeah, I guess I have to own that, and say I’m complicit. Just like I’m complicit in the destruction of the rainforest for the palm-oil snack I had today. Complicit in the mistreatment of the cow who is part of my hiking boots. Complicit in the coverup of sexual assault in the UC system because I collaborate with UC faculty. You got me. Guilty as charged. I’m complicit.

You might catch me at the March for Science, in a folding chair, bearing a sign that says:

Everybody needs science

Science needs everybody

This I believe.


 

 

 

*(For the ecologists and evolutionary biologists, you might choose to humor this metaphor: In the moral landscape, there are many peaks and valleys, and when we’re dealing with an n-dimensional moral hyperspace then ultimately individuals will be selected for moral niches. Or something like that.)

**I don’t eat things from dead animals. I eat dairy and eggs, but don’t eat mammals, birds, arthropods, mollusks, animal broth, and so on. This is a classic definition of “vegetarian” but then again, lots of folks have their own idea about what the term means.

*** Though if you know someone who knew me in the early/mid ‘90s, they might tell you otherwise.

**** For you folks, this is an amazing book.

It’s nice to have administrators you can trust

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Last week, our campus had its back-to-school events. Our administrators talked about their big plans.

There was one Thing that the President talked about for a few minutes.

The Provost talked about the same Thing for a half hour.

My Dean talked about It for about twenty minutes.

When I had lunch next to my Associate Dean, the conversation was about this Thing for about fifteen minutes.

Then when my department met, the Thing was discussed for about another half hour.

So what is this Thing?  Continue reading

The interplay of science and activism

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This is a guest post by Lirael.

I’m a grad student in the sciences. I’m also an activist. I spend most of my time doing one of those two things. So Amy’s recent post got me thinking about science and activism and how they mix. What do you do when needed public attention to some issue in your field turns out to be lacking in scientific literacy (or understanding of the business of science)? How, in general, do science and politics interact? What are the implications of those interactions?

When we talk about making things political, what we typically mean is reducing them to soundbites or partisan battles. But if you think of politics in a broader sense, most things are political, or at least have political implications, including science. Study on the speed and potential effects of climate change is political. Which diseases get prioritized in research funding is political. How diseases are defined is political (look up the controversy around women, the CDC, and AIDS in the early 1990s). Robotics, with its wide variety of applications, including politically charged ones like defense, manufacturing, and agriculture, is political. Politics is about people’s lives, and science affects people’s lives – isn’t that one of the reasons that many of us got into it?

Funding isn’t apolitical either. Within some fields of math and computer science, there’s significant controversy about NSA funding. One reason that I stopped working for defense contractors was my discomfort with how the funding source affected how we were thinking about the potential applications of our own work – for instance, thinking of, and presenting, work on fast pattern classification in terms of its usefulness in missile guidance rather than its usefulness in classifying ventricular arrhythmias or diagnosing retinal disorders. Or thinking of and presenting work on indoor robot navigation in terms of military applications rather than civilian emergency assistance, room cleaning, etc. And concerns about funding and conflicts of interest, especially in a biotech context, leading to bad/biased science aren’t limited to people who are clueless about how science funding works.

The Avaaz campaign pitch has a lot of cluelessness, as we’ve noted. They don’t seem to get how science is done – they think they’re going to change the field by funding a single study? They don’t consider how their funding might be just as likely to introduce bias into the science that they fund as any other funding. They don’t explain how they’re going to find a lab to fund. They don’t appear to know the state of bee research very well, or if they do, they’ve sacrificed that in the name of a more easily accessible funding pitch. So what do scientists do with this? What do activists do with this? What’s a better model than this campaign? What can we do to help ensure that people who are committed to action on the problems that affect their lives understand the science behind it?

I’ve been active in my state’s climate justice movement over the last year, and one of the things that struck me was how many scientists there were at the protests. I’ve participated in a lot of social movements, and let me tell you, that is not something that you usually see. There was a time when I was in a group doing jail support (where you wait outside a jail for arrestees to be released so that you can give them food and water and first aid and emotional support), and a tenured physicist, who was also part of the jail support group, gave an impromptu lecture on introductory thermodynamics to a group of interested fellow protesters to pass the time. I’ve gotten rides to events with people who tell me about their research in geology or atmospheric science. One of the major local organizers is on leave from a math PhD program. I’ve been on a six-day march where one evening, after we got to our camp site, we sat around and had a Q&A with a photovoltaics guy about the current state of solar energy. These people add a lot to the movement. They participate in a variety of ways, and they also educate. The climate justice movement has been bringing scientists to teach-ins, to improve other participants’ scientific literacy, for years.

Another interesting model is the Union of Concerned Scientists , which started as a project of MIT students and faculty in 1969. They produce layperson-friendly issue briefings (including on science funding as well as on relevant science and engineering issues themselves), produce original research and analysis, run scientifically-literate petition campaigns, and much more. Many of their issue briefings contain “What You Can Do” pages for laypeople, and they have an activist toolkit on their site.

Layperson activists can play important roles in the politics of science. In the first example that pops into my head, the often-confrontational AIDS action group, ACT UP, which was not exactly known for its nuance, won lower prices per patient for AIDS treatments, accelerations in FDA review of treatments, and improved NIH guidelines for clinical trials. Were there ACT UP participants who reduced complex issues of funding, safety, and research pace, to simplistic talking points? Yes. Did they sometimes say things that were unfair to well-meaning scientists? Probably. But they got results – working together with scientist-activist mentors like organic chemist Dr. Iris Long.

If you think that a movement is trying to support a worthy cause but is missing important points (or making wrong ones) with their sloganeering, help them come up with better slogans (yes, you need slogans, not just journal articles, in any form of activism) and better talking points.