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Stick to the Science! Or, Why I am Deeply Annoyed at Some Fellow Astronomers

All too often when a public (or semi-public) discourse involves many facets of a problem, someone is going to make a point to tell scientists to “stick to the science!” And all too often, this is used as a way to shut down someone saying something rather uncomfortable.

Here’s why I’m not going to abide by that statement.

Over the past several weeks, there has been much debate in the astronomy community about issues of race and racism, particularly in response to some strongly worded opinions about reactions to the planned Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to go on Mauna Kea. (If you’d like an introduction, here’s an excellent Storify from a month ago by Janet Stemwedel, aka @docfreeride.) Some of that has happened in a large but closed Facebook group that has been specifically set up for professional astronomers. I’ve been a long-time lurker of the group, picking up interesting tidbits and links here and there, as well as seeing what my friends have found interesting and relevant to the field and to the practitioners of that field.

The situation has, however, gotten noticeably nasty, even to a casual observer, as rather unsavory statements by professional astronomers about the TMT’s detractors have been made public. The conversation is rather complex, but one note keeps sticking out for me, particularly in the last day or so in light of another upheaval. That note is, “Let’s get back to astronomy! Let’s get back to the science…”

On the one hand, yes, it is incredibly optimistic to think, “oh yes, the sky will bring us together!” I, for one, have been shocked out of my disillusion that astronomy was a fairly happy, friendly community where people were rather progressive and forward-thinking. The level of hostility directed at some astronomers who are attempting to speak in favor of equity and inclusion by other astronomers has quickly disabused me of that notion, but I’m not expecting to go after the big hitters here.

Rather, I’d like to make something clear to those who, standing on the sidelines are confused or even, as one commenter put it, “bored,” by the ongoing discussions.

Boo frakking hoo.

Isn’t it nice that YOU can go through your daily work life and not feel marginalized? Isn’t it grand that YOU don’t see what the big deal is? Wouldn’t it be ever so pleasant if we could just argue over spectra and Monte Carlo simulations instead of deep and difficult issues of our very humanity just so we can do our jobs?

But we don’t live in that world. We just don’t. I learned that somewhere along the line and I’m pretty ashamed that I’ve said, “Let’s stick to the science,” myself in the past. Many of your colleagues cannot ignore it. Many of your would-be colleagues left the field because it was too great a burden, as if science, research, and academia weren’t already difficult enough.

Some of us are listening, trying to be allies, hoping to make a positive change, because we can’t just “stick to the science” anymore. Maybe you could take a few minutes to see what is going on and join us?

Okay I probably should have opened with an invitation instead of snark. But honestly? I’m not sure I give a frell anymore. Think about the insensitivity of what you are saying. No, it’s not happening because “people like drama.” It’s incredibly privileged to see it that way. And I know, I know, it’s uncomfortable to recognize your own privilege, but you may just become a better colleague and a better scientist for it.

Nicole

Nicole

Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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9 Comments

  1. May 29, 2015 at 9:54 pm —

    Thank you.

    I’ve been following the public side of this since it broke (I’m not an astronomer, just a fan of our universe), and I, too, am incredibly disappointed in some astronomers. What’s happening is a pretty sad thing and, frankly, as much of a science fanatic and proselytizer as I am (and believe me… I’ve annoyed other scientists with it!), the concerns of the people actually living in Hawaii are at least as important, if not more important, than the telescope.

    I have actually entertained the idea that the TMT maybe just shouldn’t be built on Mauna Kea. They really… really… can’t find another, less contentious, still-as-good spot for it?

    Really?

    And then, instead of trying to work with the citizens, they instead get racist…

    Just… *sigh*

    • May 29, 2015 at 10:18 pm —

      You know, I was thinking, “there are plenty of places on Earth good for telescopes. Chile is great!” and then I read this: http://mahalonottrash.blogspot.com/2015/05/on-chilean-astronomy-and-observatory.html

      So yeah, there are issues in lots of places. It’s looking more and more like we can all do better. And like you, as much as I LOVE the Universe, how we treat each other first really matters.

      • May 30, 2015 at 5:25 pm —

        Well there’s always La Palma in the Canary Islands. It’s already got the biggest optical telescope in the world (GTC). But it’s a long trek for US astronomers.

      • June 1, 2015 at 4:32 pm —

        Yeah, these days, indigenous solidarity has gone global. So, for instance, China might tu quoque America over Tibet, but really, we hate being used as pawns like that.

        Lulziest moment: Posting an article about West Papua, an article about Tibet, an article about the Kayapo, an article about the Rohingya, an article about the Kurds, and an article about Cherokee freedmen, then being accused of only caring about my own ethnic group.

  2. May 29, 2015 at 10:15 pm —

    Thank you, Nicole.

    I’ve been watching the stream of posts on the Professional Astronomers FB page requesting we “stick to the science” or that diversity issues are discussed in a separate group. This is very disappointing as:

    (a) There’s really nothing to stop these people posting a science topic!

    (b) We all need to understand the diversity issues, not just the people prepared to join a group devoted to such conversation.

    Regarding (b), a year ago I would not have joined such a group. I don’t consider myself racist, so why would I need to read posts on this topic? It has only been after following conversations about these areas that I’ve realised the small and regular things I do that can exclude minorities (including women, even though I am a woman) from my field.

    Nor did I previously understand my own privileged background. I’ve worked hard for where I am, don’t I deserve it? Well, yes! But there are other people who worked just as hard or harder and who weren’t as successful. That isn’t helping anyone. It certainly isn’t helping the science.

    This is what I learned from those posts and I wouldn’t want to have missed a single one. I too, want to get back to the science. But I want to do it with the best scientists in the world.

  3. May 29, 2015 at 11:06 pm —

    Thank you for writing this, Nicole.

  4. May 30, 2015 at 1:05 am —

    Some pretty striking parallels here to the ongoing “Keep your Feminism out of my Atheism” wars.

    “But intersectionality is haaaaaaaaarrrd”

    • June 1, 2015 at 4:35 pm —

      Truth be told, most people don’t understand what intersectionality means. Half the time when I hear the word, the next thing out of that person’s mouth reminds me why solidarity is for white women, or some variant of that phrase.

  5. May 30, 2015 at 1:12 pm —

    I immediately thought of this quote:

    “When people say they have no politics, it means that their politics aligns with the status quo. None of us are unbiased, none removed from the question of power. We are social creatures who absorb the outlook and opinions of those with whom we associate, and unconsciously echo them. Objectivity is impossible.”
    —George Monbiot

    Those who want to keep politics, or feminism, or racial issues or any other component of intersectionality out of something are really saying that they are comfortable with the politics (or whatever) that are currently underpinning it.

    It doesn’t matter if they know it or not, but they are injecting politics into the situation themselves. And the situation was already political. (I’m using the term politics to describe the interests and concerns of all people and all levels of power.) Essentially, they are agreeing and supporting those who already have the power.

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