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What makes a Good Scientist? What makes a Thug? Reflections on how young men like Mike Brown are perceived by the public

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


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The other weekend I attended SciFoo Camp at Google in Palo Alto, California. It was a real treat to meet and mingle with nearly 200 other scientists, innovators, science communicators and science facilitators. After a robust welcome from Tim O’Reilly himself, each camper introduced him/herself in turn. Near the end of queue, Professor Keivan Stassun introduced himself and boldly asked why there were only 4 people of color at the invite-only event. He earned some very well-deserved applause from several in the audience.

It’s no secret that diversity and inclusion are still major issues that science, tech, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are still tackling.  Some efforts are more effective than others. So we (Dr. Stassun, @AstroKatie, @DrRubidium, @KateClancy, and I) decided to tackle the topic. What makes a good scientist? (It’s not the packaging that counts.)

We wanted to emphasize how bias – both explicit and especially implicit – shapes who we (as gatekeepers, as learners, as teachers, the public, etc) consider to be a ‘good scientist’.  Before the introduction of the panel was concluded a couple of men chimed in wanting to know if we would discuss the intellectual and abstract qualities of what makes a good scientist. We were certainly prepared to include mentions of those intellectual traits, soft skills and other oft-overlook personal traits of what many of us would call the essence of latent science genius. But the truth is, that discussion would hardly have been interesting or new.  When it comes to diversity and inclusion into science or STEM, a whole lot of people are completely overlooked and without a second thought of the latent science genius that may lie within.

Many are rejected because of poor grades or performance on standardized tests. Or rejected because of where they were previously trained or how they look. For many women, persons of color, international or immigrant students, and those from poorer working class communities, the experience of being presumed incompetent is not new. We’re tasked with demonstrating our smarts or capability and are often (read repeatedly) greeted with pure surprise whenever we actually achieve the things that are considered normal everyday science tasks.  And let’s not even say how some colleagues respond if we earned an achievement that’s ‘really’ hard to get like a career award or dissertation grant; then you can brace yourself for the “how did you get that” queries.

Sigh.

From where I (and many other STEMers from under represented groups) sit, for many people the criteria for judging a good scientist comes down to some superficial characters – glam school or professional affiliation, personal appearance, poise, and behavior.  How often are any of us dared to confront our internal biases? Have you internalized a specific aesthetic and image of who a scientist is and how much credibility we give to someone who looks and speaks a certain way and/or who comes from a specific type of school or program or social status? See this.

As scientists we brag about objectivity, but in that room many folks admitted to “taking short cuts”. We all agreed that it shouldn’t matter, but the hard truth is that sometimes we do pay more attention to the packaging and look and see what’s on the inside later – after we’ve already made some major decisions about who has access to science in the first place. And these biases aren’t just about who we see as good scientists, but who we see as other roles, too. For example:

click to embiggen

This came across my Facebook timeline. The person who posted it believes that the policeman (Capt. Ron Johnson) and the young man with him in the picture are both throwing up gang signs. It signals both a lack of exposure to individuals from diverse backgrounds and hasty assumptions that led the poster to make this error. The fact is, they are displaying hand signals of their fraternity – Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. which has over a hundred years of leadership, service, and familiarity within African-American communities.

There has been so much unrest in Ferguson and I have been especially concerned about it. I lived in St. Louis while in graduate school. When I first moved to St. Louis, I lived in the next town to Ferguson. I actually lived on Chambers near West Florissant where all of the protest and police confrontations have been occurring. The QT gas station that was destroyed on the first night of unrest was my routine gas stop on the way to the university. This hits close to home to me because it was my home.  And I interacted with and taught young men exactly like Mike Brown. He recently graduated from Normandy High School (2014). I taught at Normandy High School (2004-2006).

Seeing the pictures of his slain body in the street disturbed me, as it did many. I saw the young life of a son and friend gone in an instant. And as I read the autopsy report, I saw a series of faces in the place of Mike’s. My brother’s. My cousins’. My students’. And my heart ached so much I could hardly breathe. I see Mike and I see a person. A fully human, complicated person worthy of love and attention and second chances.  But there are many, many people who something else.

As a retired officer I have run into thugs like Mike Brown also.

~ from the Support Officer Darren Wilson Fundraiser campaign.

Thug

We’ve seen this script before. Suspicious, large, young Black and Brown males. Why so quick to criminalize?

Thinking back on the panel from SciFoo, I began to wonder: What makes a Thug? Is it the packaging?

Are thugs the type of people to intimidate others, brandish weapons, interfere with people’s ability to mind their business, forcibly control resources and deny individuals the right to peacefully walk about their neighborhoods and conduct businesses, like this?

Or is it the brown or black skin or the scowling, non smiling faces of inner city men and boys that signals a thug? Is it dressing in over-sized T-shirts, ball caps? Does it include tattoos and playing loud rap music. Is it anyone who cops say it is? Is it demonstrating an aesthetic that’s not all too quick to placate traditional authority figures?

I don’t know. But I challenge everyone reading this to examine both of these questions: – What makes a good scientist/What makes a thug? Examine deeply the judgements you make in your own lives, the things you unconsciously say in front of your children or students.

Because when I see pictures of Mike Brown I see the sweet face of a young man, not some thug – whatever that is. I think of the life he could have had, and I see promise and positivity. I can clearly imagine him as an inventor, a scientist, an engineer, or a business man – which is what he aspired to be. Another future innovator gone before he cultivated his genius.

Rest in Peace to all of my brothers and sisters, victims of police brutality

 

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

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





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  1. 1. tweetotaler 8:55 pm 08/18/2014

    DNLee, thank you so much for sharing this heartbreaking and beautiful essay with us. What an incredible piece of writing. Shame on commenters 1 and 2.

    Link to this
  2. 2. boby49 5:09 pm 08/22/2014

    I have been a scientist and engineer for 40 years. I feel I can judge a scientist by their technical publications quite well– by the accuracy of what is said, by the between-the-lines interest in trying to understand and communicate understanding, by the exposition of issues and competing view points, etc.. I can also tell when the writer is too eager to do a sales pitch. This sense of good scientist, could start even at the high school graduation level, but would evolve as a budding scientist becomes a more senior and experienced scientist. Note that technical articles usually do not give away race, gender, or schooling so such biases would be relatively unpresent in evaluating a scientist this way.

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  3. 3. Edgod1 9:28 pm 08/22/2014

    One thing I’ve noticed about some males is that they claim to be logical. I think this would go especially for scientists. But when they choose a career path, it is motive that is behind it all. That motivation may be wealth, prestige etc., usually something selfish. But what is motive is emotive. Machines don’t have motive except what is programmed into them. It is the programmer who has motive. Killing machines are an example. Unlike Terminator movies, machines will not take over the world unless some deranged individual programs them to do that. So the first step in avoiding biases is recognising and acknowledging your motives and emotives, don’t assume you are being purely logical.

    Link to this
  4. 4. enrico 6:40 am 08/25/2014

    A small part of the solution involves adopting a vocabulary that does not reinforce the perception of dichotomies. See http://uvachemistry.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/the-coarse-language-of-wine-and-skin-colors/

    Link to this
  5. 5. hkraznodar 6:04 pm 09/2/2014

    Every morning I see the same surly looking goon visage staring back at me out of the mirror. What strikes me as weird is that I don’t trust that face. Many of the monsters of human history were actually quite pleasant and attractive looking. For some reason we tend to demonize those that look different than ourselves. (I don’t look as I somehow expect myself to look although that just doesn’t make any sense)

    My personal hypothesis is that it has to do with breeding and resource competition. A person that looks attractive and competent is much more likely to be viewed as an enemy or “thug” than someone that appears less attractive or less competent.

    This is purely subjective but I think a lot of people find the darker skin colors more pleasant to look at so they categorize people with darker skin as more attractive. More attractive people don’t have to compete as hard to succeed so they tend to be lumped into the enemy category. This causes them to be subject to extra scrutiny and minor flags get exaggerated.

    There is a reason that our prison population is mostly minorities and it has nothing to do with justice. It is mostly a fear of inability to compete on a level playing field. A silly fear in a modern civilized society with safety nets but painfully common. If we admit that skin color has nothing to do with value to society we end up with a lot more competition and those in power are afraid of that. Sadly, so are those with little power or we would not be so easily controlled by fear mongers.

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