Storify is closing and over the coming weeks, I will be migrating my posts to my blog. This is an archive of my article first published on Storify on 13 March 2017.
The March for Science is a global movement to increase science advocacy in the face of the Trump Administration and its international impact. There will be 360 marches internationally. One stands out for the wrong reasons: Los Angeles and its attempt to generate a moral panic about minorities.
From the central committee based in Washington, the March for Science has risen in response to the Trump Government’s various anti-science policies that include a gag order on federal science agencies; scaling back funding and scope for important research and regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency; and other threats to science operations, including the peer review process. Trump’s policies have already had global ramifications, with hundreds of science agencies responding to the now-revised Executive Order that temporarily bans visas and immigration, targeting selected Muslim-majority nations.
Given online discussions with committee members in different American cities and in other parts of the world such as Australia and New Zealand, it seems the “satellite marches” are taking divergent approaches to planning and logistics. This seems especially the case when it comes to issues of diversity. This is unsurprising, given that the central committee has been creating colossal problems in equity, accessibility and inclusion. With many underrepresented scientists having been turned away after volunteering their expertise, and other minority scholars pointing out various flaws in communications, March for Science has been alienating many researchers who value diversity.
From January to early March, the central organisers had been taken to task for ongoing equity and access issues and its general mismanagement of diversity. Most recently, there had been a series of back to back problems and push-back on diversity. Amidst this sensitive context, March for Science Los Angeles took a stand. It’s too bad that it decided to side with exclusionary elements of the central march.
What follows is a classic case of a moral panic: it began with testing the boundaries of acceptable xenophobia, followed by denial after the scientific community called out the scaremongering. Before we get to the events in early March 2017, let’s get some context. What is a moral panic?
Sociologists have been studying moral panics in one way or another since our discipline started. A moral panic traditionally refers to social fear that becomes attached to everyday behaviour. Moral panics can emerge from seemingly mundane behaviour. For example, migrant-background youth hanging out in a public place like a shopping centre, even when they are doing nothing wrong, can give rise to a moral panic about “ethnic gangs.” Despite its unscientific origins, this perception is then in turn used to justify over policing of migrant youth. Moral panics can also be linked to social stigma about so-called “deviant” people (like those with drug dependencies), minorities (such as ethnic, racial or religious groups), or disadvantaged people (such as single mothers or people who are homeless).
Moral panics about the “deviance” of marginalised or vulnerable groups actually justify existing power relations and they maintain the dominance of some groups over others.
Moral panics centre on “folk devils” – a group that is seen to be responsible for an undesirable outcome. For example, there are several moral panics about poor people, such as the perception that they are more likely to be bad parents who are on drugs. Sociology shows that moral panics are often wrong, but still have negative consequences on social policies and responses for stigmatised groups.
Research shows, for example, that middle class parents actually engage in substance abuse at higher levels than poor people. Yet poor people are more likely to be policed and to have their children removed as a consequence. Similarly, moral panics about Indigenous people are historical. The idea that Indigenous people are unfit parents is not reflected in research. Yet in 2007, the Australian government sent the military to restrict the autonomy of Indigenous communities in remote areas of the Northern Territory. To this day, Indigenous children are removed from their families at over nine times the rate of non-Indigenous children. All of this is the outcome of historical moral panics about Indigenous people. Non-Indigenous responses to Indigenous people are based on racist and irrational fear of difference.
So you see, moral panics are not founded in fact; but their consequences are often catastrophic. Moral panics justify the use of state violence against minority groups. Moral panics deny marginalised groups their rights and push the most vulnerable into a no-win situation. Restricting the presence of minority groups in public places is one of the most common tactics deployed in a moral panic.
Let’s take a look at how a scientific event could give in so readily to fear of minorities. These discussions perfectly illustrate why underrepresented minorities have been calling for better diversity knowledge and training for organisers since the March for Science made its debut.
Science March politics
Since the march was announced in January 2017, the organisers in the central committee of Washington DC have struggled to respond to issues of diversity. From inadequately addressing inclusion and accessibility, to reproducing discourses of inequality, March for Science has problematically promoted the idea that the march is not a political protest. (It has only been in recent days that the organisers have attempted to address this; but it had not happened at the time of the events with the Los Angeles march.)
The discourse that a march is “not political” is, in fact, very much the outcome of political dynamics. Only people from dominant groups, especially White people, can claim that science is free from politics. It isn’t – as I show with research, further below.
This narrative that science is not political has impacted dialogue about the march: what it stands for (interests of White, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied people); who it doesn’t stand for (everyone else, especially people of colour and disabled scientists); and who is erased from the conversation altogether (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual LGBTQIA people).
The idea that science is not political has embedded within it a value judgement: that politics is a bad thing. It is also an historical fallacy: science has always been political. As a human activity, science and everything it represents is political. This includes the production of knowledge, training, practices, stories, awards, and more.
Politics is a term that describes processes of power and governance: organisations, voting, membership, influence, authority and participation in decision-making.
You’ll notice science has all of these elements: professional bodies and their processes for election and belonging; hierarchies from junior scholars to professorships; various mechanisms by which some experts and particular fields of study are recognised through funding, awards, citations and promotions; mechanisms though which some voices and interests win out over others.
So we come to an example of how “science is not political” can give rise to racist “dog whistling” and moral panics.
Myth of the apolitical march
In a now-deleted tweet published on 2 February 2017, the March for Science LA Twitter account indulged in a thinly veiled attempt to test the waters of racism. The tweet read: “Some scientists are concerned with the march turning into political event and losing its focus. What do YOU pledge to do to keep it peaceful.”
As you can see in the screenshot below, saved on 3 March, the tweet didn’t receive a lot of direct engagement (no retweets at that stage and only four “likes”), though there were a few comments. One of these was by Dr David Shiffman, marine conservation biologist, who used an image of the “Clipppy” meme to say: “You seem to be suggesting that letting minority scientists voice concerns means ‘violence.’ Would you like to rephrase?”
A colleague alerted me to the tweet on 2 March, which I retweeted. Another colleague, data science student Paulette V-R then questioned the Los Angeles organisers: “So political = violence?”
March for Science LA promptly dismissed the conflict. They argued they hadn’t made the connection between politics and violence. Yet, in effect, they had—by implying that politics leads to non-peace.
March for Science LA quibbled, placing emphasis on the “critics of our march” who had made the connection between politics and peace.
By 3 March, March for Science LA had already deleted its tweet, so I retweeted a screen grab.
The idea that science and politics can be separated is a political idea; it is the outcome of historical dynamics in science.
White men’s dominance in science is so deeply entrenched that their identities, experiences and status have become established as the norm. In other words, White male politics in science is not questioned. Instead, everyone else’s identities are the Other: the point of difference, the “identity politics” that are threatening to White men’s interests in science.
Moreover, March for Science LA decided to elevate the racist views of “some scientists,” thereby normalising this moral panic by challenging their followers to maintain peace. This follows weeks of vocal opponents arguing that diversity undermines the goals of the march.
By elevating diversity dissenters, the LA organisers have chosen to make “folk devils” of minority groups. This is an especially vexing position to take in Los Angeles, where half the population are Latin.
Like all moral panics, the phrase “some scientists” becomes the hyperbole catalyst for saying something that would otherwise be frowned upon (racism), and to introduce a folk devil: unnamed Others who may disrupt the peace.
As I’ve said elsewhere, tweets can be deleted, particularly when there’s been a great offence, but there should still be a public record: an apology, a reflection on the key lesson, and hopefully a way to avoid the same mistake in future. We don’t have this here with March for Science LA.
The central organisers had been criticised only a week before for deleting a tweet without acknowledgement. This doesn’t work well for large public accounts that have a broader responsibility.
Response from March for Science LA
Unfortunately, March for Science LA responded defensively, instead of taking the opportunity to reflect. The problem wasn’t the moral panic lacing their communication; the issue in their eyes was our “finger pointing” and our misunderstanding.
March for Science LA tried to descale the critique to defend their perception of “racist undertones.” Diminishing the impact of racism is part of how racism is enforced. Rather than being a set of structural dynamics that are reinforced in daily interactions, deflecting racism to a “misunderstanding” is a tactic meant to minimise the impact of racism. The problem becomes not racism (something that was said or done) but rather the offence taken by minorities.
Whether someone is being consciously or maliciously racist is not the issue. Racism is so pervasive that it happens in routine interactions that people do not always recognise. Intent does not dictate the impact of racism. The consequences of racism are real, not imagined, and certainly not subjectively judged by White people.
March for Science LA had inverted the logic of their original tweet (“you misunderstood our meaning”). Yet in trying to defend their tweet, they go on to suggest that the concern was actually about “any minorities or certain groups” being violent. This is different: here they admit that there was concern about violence, but that this violence could come from anywhere.
It was clear, however, that the LA march did not have in mind the safety of minorities, who face various forms of violence daily.
That’s the simple but seductive appeal of moral panics: the imagined threat to the majority seems overwhelming, when the reality is that the “deviants” being singled out as folk devils are actually in the precarious position. Undocumented migrants, especially those from Central America; as well as Muslim and Black people – these are the groups vulnerable to police violence, and other hate crimes. They need protection. Not “some scientists” who perceive people of colour as a threat to peace.
Response from scientists
Other scientists were clear of March for Science’s dog whistling.
Scientists understood that the March for Science LA posts were unfairly targeting underrepresented groups.
The Los Angeles organisers were only adding fuel to the existing fire created by the central march.
Science is political
Many scientists recognised that science is, indeed, political because humans are political in their interactions, including scientists.
Scientists noted that the Los Angeles organisers would benefit with working with organisations that were more comfortable and practised in the reality of social justice.
It was clear to these scientists that racial politics were influencing the communications by the Los Angeles march.
Mammalogist, Dr Danielle N. Lee, has been one of the many scientists from minority backgrounds who have led discussions on diversity and the March for Science. She shows that the Los Angeles organisers should not acquiesce to racist groups. She also discusses the high toll of this and other similarly racist science discussions.
Educator and naturalist Crystal points out that the Los Angeles organisers need anti-racism and diversity training. She notes that being informed about one’s audience, their needs, and how to reach members that are different is part of the job of science communication.
Biological anthropologist Erin Kane was amongst the scientists who noted that the dynamics of “peaceful” protests were driven by racial relations.
Other scientists wanted information about how underrepresented groups would be involved in leadership and decision-making, as well as amongst the speakers at the march.
A few scientists pointed out the racist logic of March for Science LA, who tried to defend their communications by saying that they have a Latina (“Hispanic female scientist”) on their diversity committee. It would appear that the communications team might benefit from working more closely with their diversity team.
Defence from Los Angeles supporters
Science enthusiasts rushed to the defence of March for Science LA. I present only one of the more “civil” exchanges to illustrate how the central march has unwittingly encouraged unhealthy racial dynamics.
Gif of the day: animal planet
Regular readers would know that I started sharing a “gif of the day” as part of this series on March for Science. This has helped bring a little comic relief to a highly time-consuming and emotionally laborious task of calling out the problems of the march.
Today’s gif of the day is not one but several!
Like all the other underrepresented scientists discussing problems with March for Science, I received endless abusive messages. Certain individuals tried to engage me in racist arguments, and then moved onto my colleagues, days after I had blocked them for trolling.
Divya M. Persaud asked what I might like as payment for my work providing feedback on diversity to the march organisers. I asked for funny gifs, especially zebras and animals hugging. I received monkeys, beavers, goats, lizards and more. Enjoy!
Here are the previous posts in this series about diversity and the March for Science.
March for Science Diversity Statements: early communications on the planning and administration of the march from the beginning of March for Science, in late January 2017, to mid-February, when criticism about diversity intensified even furthher. Only 14 tweets (out of 1,500) speak to diversity issues, mostly responding to critiques by scientists; and only two Facebook posts address the same (out of 78 posts).
Diversity Themed Social Media: review of the first three weeks of social media posts by March for Science (Twitter N=1,500 plus Facebook N=78). Around a dozen focus on diversity in general (such as the visa and immigration ban); around 50 focus on women in science; and few of these specifically on people of colour. There were no posts on disability and LGBTQIA inclusion. My article also includes a summary of the media reports that the march promotes about itself, which do not include any of the articles critiquing issues of equity and diversity.
Gender Equity and Diversity: analysis of the March for Science misguided posts on the gender pay gap for Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day (“Girl Day”). My article includes scientific literature and solutions to improve diversity of the march. I also put a special focus on the contributions of disabled women scientists, who are being ignored by the march organisers.
Women in Engineering: critical discussion of the damaging attempt by March for Science to address the reasons why women are pushed out of science careers. This was also in celebration of Girl Day. My post discusses the problems with leaving social media discussions un-moderated, as is the case with March for Science posts to date, and the toll of equity and diversity work on minorities, especially on women of colour. I also include some of the considerations from the global discussions for the March for Science in Australia.
Reproducing Inequality: case study of sexism by the central march, which reproduced the infamous case of Watson and Crick, who stole the research of Rosalind Franklin. Includes a summary of previous issues as well as discussion of how to better organise a science communications project. I note that the March for Science organisers continued to make “mistakes” that alienate underrepresented scientists and that it was time to break this cycle.