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.