I am complicit


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.

On the shrinkage of polar ice caps


When I was a senior in college, I was in a seminar dedicated to a new book, written by a US senator who had just been elected Vice President. The book was Earth in the Balance. It explained the science of carbon pollution, the greenhouse effect, and global climate change. To me, it was a revelation. I was aware of the greenhouse effect, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem and the massive global effort it would require, until Gore explained it. Continue reading

Ant science: Thieving ants know how to be sneaky

Ectatomma ruidum. Image by Alex Wild

Ectatomma ruidum. Image by Alex Wild

The most recent paper from my lab is a fun one. We show that thieving ants have a suite of sneaky behaviors, to help them avoid being caught in the possession of stolen goods. These differences are dramatic enough to classify thieves as a distinct and new caste of ant.

Continue reading

Ants With Superhero Powers and Real Ant-People


As an ant man, I’m psyched for the release of Ant-Man.

There are so many ants with real superpowers, that we know about because of amazing Real Ant People, genuine ant savants. Let me tell you about some ants with amazing superpowers.

Two classic superhero powers of ants are flight and invisibility. Continue reading

Scientists know how to communicate with the public


I bet that most of us are steady consumers of science designed for the public. Books, magazines, newspaper, museum exhibits, radio, the occasional movie. The people who bring science to the masses are “science communicators.” (The phrase “science communication” is a newish one, and arguably better than “science writing,” as a variety of media involve more than just writing.)

Nearly everything I’ve seen in science communication shares a common denominator: scientists. Science communication doesn’t amount to much without researchers. Science is a human endeavor, and it’s rarely possible to tell a compelling story without directly involving the people who did the science. As restaurant servers bring food to the table and cooks typically stay in the kitchen, science communicators bring the work of scientists to the public while scientists typically focus on publishing scientific papers.

I interact with practitioners of this craft on the uncommon occasions when my research gets notice beyond the scientific community. (My university doesn’t send out press releases when my cooler papers come out, so the communicators need to find me.)

When I listen to what science communicators have said to us scientists, there are two items that are a heavy and steady drumbeat:

  1. It the duty of scientists to some of our time doing science communication, and it’s also in our interests.

  2. Most scientists don’t yet know how to communicate with the public.

I’m not so sure about #1. I have decided the second one is off mark, or at least so overgeneralized that it’s either wrong or useless.

It may or may not be our duty to share science with the public. (Yes, I know the arguments, reviewed here, for example.) Regardless, the last interest group that I’d look to for impartial advice on this matter would be science communicators. This would be like learning about the need for propane grilling from a propane grilling salesperson. It would be like learning about K-12 energy education from a workshop funded by a petroleum company (sadly, this is happening this week in my city). Of course science communicators think that science communication is important!

For most scientists, the division of labor between cooks and servers is just fine. (Of course there is nothing about being a technical scientist that disqualifies someone from being an effective public communicator.) There are many important things in this world, and some of us choose other things. (This next month, for what it’s worth, I’m talking to three community organizations, volunteering for an all-day science non-fair, and writing a blog post about my lab’s latest paper.) My funding agency places science communication as one potential component of broader effects, and I’m definitely listening to them. Scientists, if we want to engage the broader public, that’s great! But it would be disingenuous to tell you that it’s your duty. We all owe many things to society, and I’m cool with it if you choose, or don’t choose, to put science communication on your plate. I’m not going to be that person who is telling you what your duties are with respect to your own career. It’s up to us to forge our own trajectories and priorities.

So we all agree that scientists that don’t spend time on science communication either are, or are not, selfish bastards.

But, is it really true that most of us scientists aren’t capable of sharing our science effectively? I call BS on this canard.

If there happens to be a stray professional science communicator reading this, I imagine that I just induced a few chuckles and a shake of the head. Let me write some more to clarify.

Most of us are wholly capable of sharing our science with the public in an understandable and even interesting fashion. However, that doesn’t mean that, when interacting with the media, that we are always willing to play along. We might not want to provide the sound bite you’re looking for. We might be resisting a brief interpretation because we don’t have enough confidence that the science would end up correct in the final product. Nearly every time some scientific finding is presented to the public, it happens along with some form of a generalization. If you’re familiar with the genre of peer reviewing, you’ll know that scientists typically disdain generalizations.

How is it that we can resist the digestion of our work for public consumption? When someone claims that one of us “doesn’t know how to communicate with the public,” I propose that this overgeneralized diagnosis can almost always be broken down into two distinct categories which might apply.

  1. We don’t want to discuss our science in broad terms for the public because we feel that we are unqualified for the task. While the popular image of the arrogant know-it-all scientist plays well, most of us are driven by the fact that we don’t understand enough about our fields of expertise. We are resistant to analogies or general statements of findings in lay terminology because it involves a generalization from our very specific findings that may be unwarranted. And, if it is warranted, then it falls outside our expertise to comment on such a broad topic. While our experiments were designed to advance knowledge on some general topic, we feel that it is not up to us to make the decision that our findings are informative on that general topic in a way to be digested outside the scientific community.
  2. We actually aren’t doing an experiment that has any general relevance to the public at large. We actually are working on minutia that will not have any broad relationship to the scientific endeavor at large. We are having trouble making a generalization about its scientific importance because it lacks a broad scientific importance.

The prescription for diagnosis #1 is for us to become more arrogant and think that we are qualified to speak with the media about broader issues in science. For us to think that, as scientists sensu lato, we are able to speak broadly about scientific issues. Just as we teach about all kinds of scientific topics in the university classroom, we can interact with the media in the same way. And this is the kind of stuff that scientists who communicate with the public do all the time. They often talk about things outside the realm of their research training and expertise and get away with it. If we’re going to be doing science communication as practicing scientists, then we need to own the fact that we can talk about a whole bunch of scientific topics even though we’re not top experts in a subfield. For example, Richard Feynman once wrote a book chapter about ants. (I thought it was horrible way to illustrate his main point about doing amateur science, actually.)

The prescription for diagnosis #2 is to be a better scientist. If you’re conducting an experiment that, at its roots, lacks a purpose that can be explained to a general audience, then what is the science really work? I can explain that I work on really obscure stuff (the community ecology of litter-dwelling ants, how odors affect nest movements of ants, and how is it that some colonies of ants control the production of different kinds of ants, and how much sunlight and leaf litter ants like, for starters). But I’m working on this obscure stuff to build to a generalized understanding of biodiversity, the role of predators in the evolution of defensive behavior, how ecology and evolution result in optimized allocation patterns, and responses to climate change. I am sometimes reluctant to claim that my results can be generalized to entire fields (I need to get more arrogant in that respect), but I recognize the fact that my work is designed to ask these broad questions. If you don’t have these broad questions in mind while running the experiment, I recommend a sabbatical and a visit to the drawing board. I don’t know how often this phenomenon happens, but I have met some scientists who, when asked for the broadest possible application of their work, can only talk about the effect on a subfield of a subfield that would only influence a few people. If a project, at its greatest success, can only influence a few other scientists in the whole world, then, well, you get the idea.

Yes, scientists are good communicators. And we know how to talk to the public. We just might not think we’re the right people for the job, or that our science isn’t built for the task.