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Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

On allies.

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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

--George Santayana

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

--a guy who turned out to be a Cylon

Let me start by putting my cards on the table: Jamie Vernon is not someone I count as an ally.

At least, he's not someone I'd consider a reliable ally. I don't have any reason to believe that he really understands my interests, and I don't trust him not to sacrifice them for his own comfort. He travels in some of the same online spaces that I do and considers himself a longstanding member of the SciComm community of which I take myself to be a member, but that doesn't mean I think he has my back. Undoubtedly, there are some issues for which we would find ourselves on the same side of things, but that's not terribly informative; there are some issues (not many, but some) for which Dick Cheney and I are on the same side.

Here, I'm in agreement with Isis that we needn't be friends to be able to work together in pursuit of shared goals. I've made similar observations about the scientific community:

We're not all on the same page about everything. Pretending that we are misrepresents the nature of the tribe of science and of scientific activity. But given that there are some shared commitments that guide scientific methodology, some conditions without which scientific activity in the U.S. cannot flourish, these provide some common ground on which scientists ought to be more or less united … [which] opens the possibility of building coalitions, of finding ways to work together toward the goals we share even if we may not agree about what other goals are worth pursuing.

We probably can't form workable coalitions, though, by showing open contempt for each other's other commitments or interests. We cannot be allies by behaving like enemies. Human nature sucks like that sometimes.

But without coalitions, we have to be ready to go it alone, to work to achieve our goals with much less help. Without coalitions, we may find ourselves working against the effects of those who have chosen to pursue other goals instead. If you can't work with me toward goal A, I may not be inclined to help you work toward goal B. If we made common cause with each other, we might be able to tailor strategies that would get us closer to both goals rather than sacrificing one for the other. But if we decide we're not working on the same team, why on earth should we care about each other's recommendations with respect to strategies?

Ironically, we humans seem sometimes to show more respect to people who are strangers than to people we call our friends. Perhaps it's related to the uncertainty of our interactions going forward -- the possibility that we may need to band together, or to accommodate the other's interests to protect our own -- or to the lack of much shared history to draw upon in guiding our interactions. We begin our interactions with strangers with the slate as blank as it can be. Strangers can't be implored (at least not credibly) to consider our past good acts to excuse our current rotten behavior toward them.

We may recognize strangers as potential allies, but we don't automatically assume that they're allies already. Neither do we assume that they'll view us as their allies.

Thinking about allies is important in the aftermath of Joe Hanson's video that he says was meant to "lampoon" the personalities of famous scientists of yore and to make "a joke to call attention to the sexual harassment that many women still today experience." It's fair to say the joke was not entirely successful given that the scenes of Albert Einstein sexually harassing and assaulting Marie Curie arguably did harm to women in science:

Hanson’s video isn’t funny. It’s painful. It’s painful because 1) it’s such an accurate portrayal of exactly what so many of us have faced, and 2) the fact that Hanson thinks it’s “outrageous” demonstrates how many of our male colleagues don’t realize the fullness of the hostility that women scientists are still facing in the workplace. Furthermore, Hanson’s continued clinging to “can’t you take a joke” and the fact that he was “trying to be comedic” reflects the deeper issue. Not only does he not get it, his statement implies that he has no intention of trying to get it.

Hanson's posted explanation after the negative reactions urges the people who reacted negatively to see him as an ally:

To anyone curious if I am not aware of, or not committed to preventing this kind of treatment (in whatever way my privileged perspective allows me to do so) I would urge you to check out my past writing and videos … This doesn’t excuse us, but I ask that you form your opinion of me, It’s Okay To Be Smart, and PBS Digital Studios from my body of work, and not a piece of it.

Indeed, Jamie Vernon not only vouches for Hanson's ally bona fides but asserts his own while simultaneously suggesting that the negative reactions to Hanson's video are themselves a problem for the SciComm community:

Accusations of discrimination were even pointed in my direction, based on a single ill-advised Tweet. One tweet (that I now regret and apologize for) triggered a tsunami of anger, attacks, taunts, and accusations against me.

Despite many years of speaking out on women’s issues in science, despite being an ardent supporter of women science communicators, despite being a father to two young girls for whom it is one of my supreme goals to create a more gender balanced science community, despite these things and many other examples of my attempts to be an ally to the community of women science communicators, I was now facing down the barrel of a gun determined to make an example out of me. ...

“How could this be happening to me? I’m an ally!” I thought. …

Hanson has worked incredibly hard for several years to create an identity that has proven to inspire young people. He has thousands of loyal readers who share his work thousands of times daily on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. He has championed women’s causes. Just the week prior to the release of the infamous video, he railed against discriminatory practices among the Nobel Prize selection committees. He is a force for good in a sea of apathy and ignorance. Without a doubt, he is an asset to science and science communication. In my opinion, any mention of removing him from his contract with PBS is shortsighted and reflects misdirected anger. He deserves the opportunity to recalibrate and power on in the name of science.

Vernon assures us that he and Hanson are allies to women in science and in the SciComm community. At minimum, I believe that Vernon must have a very different understanding than I of what is involved in being an ally.

Allies are people with whom we make common cause to pursue particular goals or to secure particular interests. Their interests and goals are not identical to ours -- that's what makes them allies.

I do not expect allies to be perfect. They, like me, are human, and I certainly mess up with some regularity. Indeed, I understand full well the difficulty of being a good ally. As Josh Witten observed to me, as a white woman I am "in one of the more privileged classes of the oppressed, arguably the least f@#$ed over of the totally f@#$ed over groups in modern western society." This means when I try to be an ally to people of color, or disabled people, or poor people, for example, there's a good chance I'll step in it. I may not be playing life on the lowest difficulty setting, but I'm pretty damn close.

Happily, many people to whom I try to be an ally are willing to tell me when I step in it and to detail just how I've stepped in it. This gives me valuable feedback to try to do better.

Allies I trust are people who pay attention to the people to whom they're trying to give support because they're imperfect and because their interests and goals are not identical. The point of paying attention is to get some firsthand reports on whether you're helping or hurting from the people you're trying to help.

When good allies mess up, they do their best to respond ethically and do better going forward. Because they want to do better, they want to know when they have messed up -- even though it can be profoundly painful to find out your best efforts to help have not succeeded.

Let's pause for a moment here so I can assure you that I understand it hurts when someone tells you that you messed up. I understand it because I have experienced it. I know all about the feeling of defensiveness that pops right up, as well as the feeling that your character as a human being is being unfairly judged on the basis of limited data -- indeed, in your defensiveness, you might immediately start looking for ways the person suggesting you are not acting like a good ally has messed up (including failing to communicate your mistake in language that is as gentle as possible). These feelings are natural, but being a good ally means not letting these feelings overcome your commitment to actually be helpful to the people you set out to help.

On account of these feelings, you might feel great empathy for someone else who has just stepped in it but who you think it trying to be an ally. You might feel so much empathy that you don't want to make them feel bad by calling out their mistake -- or that you chide others for pointing out that mistake. (You might even start reaching for quotations about people without sin and stones.) Following this impulse undercuts the goal of being a good ally.

As I wrote elsewhere,

If identifying problematic behavior in a community is something that can only be done by perfect people -- people who have never sinned themselves, who have never pissed anyone off, who emerged from the womb incapable of engaging in bad behavior themselves -- then we are screwed.

People mess up. The hope is that by calling attention to the bad behavior, and to the harm it does, we can help each other do better. Focusing on problematic behavior (especially if that behavior is ongoing and needs to be addressed to stop the harm) needn't brand the bad actor as irredeemable, and it shouldn't require that there's a saint on duty to file the complaint.

An ally worth the name recognizes that while good intentions can be helpful in steering his conduct, in the end it's the actions that matter the most. Other people don't have privileged access to our intentions, after all. What they have to go on is how we behave, what we do -- and that outward behavior can have positive or negative effects regardless of whether we intended those effects. It hurts when you step on my toe whether or not you are a good person inside. Telling me it shouldn't hurt because you didn't intend the harm is effectively telling me that my own experience isn't valid, and that your feelings (that you are a good person) trump mine (that my foot hurts).

The allies I trust recognize that the trust they bank from their past good acts is finite. Those past good acts don't make it impossible for their current acts to cause real harm -- in fact, they can make a current act more harmful by shattering the trust built up with the past good acts. As well, they try to understand that harm done by other can make all the banked trust easier to deplete. It may not seem fair, but it is a rational move on the part of the people they are trying to help to protect themselves from harm.

This is, by the way, a good reason for people who want to be effective allies to address the harms done by others rather than maintaining a non-intervention policy.

Being a good ally means trying very hard to understand the positions and experiences of the people with whom you're trying to make common cause by listening carefully, by asking questions, and by refraining from launching into arguments from first principles that those experiences are imaginary or mistaken. While they ask questions, those committed to being allies don't demand to be educated. They make an effort to do their own homework.

I expect allies worth the name not to demand forgiveness, not to insist that the people with whom they say they stand will swallow their feelings or let go of hurt on the so-called ally's schedule. Things hurt as much and as long as they're going to hurt. Ignoring that just adds more hurt to the pile.

The allies I trust are the ones who are focused on doing the right thing, and on helping counter the wrongs, whether or not anyone is watching, not for the street cred as an ally, but because they know they should.

The allies I believe in recognize that every day they are faced with choices about how to act -- about who to be -- and that how they choose can make them better or worse allies regardless of what came before.

I am not ruling out the possibility that Joe Hanson or Jamie Vernon could be reliable allies for women in science and in the SciComm community. But their professions of ally status will not be what makes them allies, nor will such professions be enough to make me trust them as allies. The proof of an ally is in how he acts -- including how he acts in response to criticism that hurts. Being an ally will mean acting like one.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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