Personal politics in science communication

Can science communicators be apolitical and effective?

In mid-February famed evolutionary biologist and science communicator Professor Richard Dawkins was once again the centre of a virtual maelstrom, after tweeting that theoretically selective breeding would work for humans. The tweet was met with both unwavering support for Dawkins’ seemingly factual analysis, and outcries over his supposed endorsement of eugenics. A strong dichotomy in opinion typical of most scientific “hot-takes” on social media that is, as John Nerst breaks down on his blog Everything Studies, largely due to cognitive decoupling.

Decoupling is the process of unpacking a question in isolation. To quote Nerst, this is “a necessary practice in science which works by isolating variables, teasing out causality, and formalising and operationalising claims into carefully delineated hypotheses”. Like Dawkins, Nerst, and many of my fellow scientists, I am a high-decoupler. However, Nerst stresses that rather than a natural behaviour, decoupling is a learned behaviour ingrained in scientist’s training and that society is overwhelmingly comprised of low-decouplers. Nowhere is this more evident to me than amongst my friends.

For context, nearly all of them come from a humanities background. Their interests, ranging from education to legal philosophy, are about as diverse as their thought patterns and I would be lying if I said I completely understood any of them. All of them are political and outspoken. None of them are high-decouplers. How they see they world confuses me, and how they tackle problems frustrates me. Endlessly. Yet the experience of being a high-decoupler so deeply immersed in a group of low-decouplers has profoundly altered how I approach both my science and science communication.

Several years ago if you had asked me if I believe science is apolitical, the answer would have been a confident yes. This is a common viewpoint amongst many of the most prominent science communicators. However, in my own journey of learning and unlearning I have realised that this particular sect of science communicators share a number of traits with me that I believe plays the largest role in our ability to decouple. We are largely white, heterosexual, cisgendered, and male. In other words, the most represented and glorified demographic in science’s history.

To be apolitical is in itself an act of political privilege, and science does not exist in a vacuum. It has, and always will be, a product of the society in which the experimentation occurs. In 2018 National Geographic dedicated their April edition to exploring the concept of race and the historical role the magazine had played in race relations. In her forward, Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg stated “to rise above the racism of the past, we must acknowledge it”. I firmly believe that this applies not just to race, but to all the cogs and levers of the political machinery that shapes our society. This is because it not only has a historical influence on the scientific establishment, but continues to influence science today. A sentiment that is better conveyed in this editorial of the Annals of Human Genetics on topical ethical issues in the publication of human genetics research.

As a biologist, I still agree with Dawkins’ stance that we cannot view ourselves as separate from the animal kingdom when we are another strand in the web of life. However, I must recognise the privilege of my demographic never having been marginalised or seen as sub-human; something my ancestors routinely inflicted on others. Again quoting Nerst, “to a low-decoupler, high-decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened”. I would take this one step further and say it is far easier to decouple a morally deplorable hypothetical, like the question of selectively breeding human beings, if your ancestors weren’t the subjects of such violent and very real experimentation. The language we choose when talking about scientific concepts with a violent history influences how our audience connects and interprets our message. I believe high-decouplers like Dawkins, who fail to acknowledge how their position of both historical and contemporary privilege allows them to perceive science as apolitical, alienate the public.

Science communication can only be effective when we connect with our audience. This is not to say that we can only communicate with those who share a similar political alignment. Rather, when framing our message we must be mindful of how differing political standpoints influence how the message will be received. In order to connect we need to understand the personal politics of ourselves and our audience, and this requires us to introspect the political machinery that has shaped what we believe can be decoupled.

Science and Sustainability

One of the most impactful discoveries in science over the past century is the discovery that the Earth’s climate is changing on a catastrophic scale due to the release of man-made greenhouse gasses. This topic has been on everyone’s mind recently, thanks to the efforts of activist Greta Thunberg and many others. It got me thinking about how science – which helped the world realise there is a major problem – could do a lot better in terms of being environmentally-friendly. I also came across this article, which discussed the issue with plastic waste in certain fields.

Since this is a platform for young scientists, and young people are often open to change and trying out new things, I thought it would be a good place to open up the discussion about what we can do to reduce the environmental impact of our science. I know that most of us, as postgrads and young researchers, don’t necessarily have the power or authority to implement changes on the large scale as needed – and may require participating in some of the more destructive habits like travel to build our careers – but we can start by raising these topics and making suggestions! I’d also like to remind everyone that no-one is perfect when it comes to being carbon-neutral, but it’s important that we all try our best for the sake of the planet!

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polar ice cracking (credit: By Christopher Michel – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmichel67/19626661335/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41618273),

Since I’m an astronomer, I will be drawing from this white paper titled ‘Astronomy in a Low Carbon Future’, which was prepared for Canada’s long-term planning in astronomy. Because of this, not all of this advice will be applicable in other fields. I’m looking forward to reading the comments on how some of these strategies could be adapted to other fields and how other fields have their own challenges and possibilities. 

One of the first, most impactful ways for science to reduce its carbon budget is to reduce travel. Between conferences and fieldwork, travel is an important and valuable part of science. However, air travel produces excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. Travel can be reduced by moving to remote meetings, conferences and even – in some cases – fieldwork. I recently took part in a meeting with and presented my work to some important collaborators in North Carolina without having to leave Cape Town, since the conference organisers wholeheartedly embraced remote participation through Zoom and Google Slides. It also made my participation possible, since I do not have much funding for travel and would not have been able to physically attend the conference otherwise. Although I missed out on the informal discussions, I was still able to confidently present my work and discuss some collaborative research that will form part of my Masters.

Another way that astronomy, in particular, is able to reduce travel is through remote observing. One of my fellow Masters’ students here at the South African Astronomical Observatory regularly controls a telescope in Sutherland from Cape Town and collects her astronomical data without having to travel. Remote observing is slowly becoming more common, which is excellent for reducing the amount of travel that observational astronomers have to do. 

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1.9m telescope in Sutherland which is remotely operable (Credit: SAAO)

An easy substitution that will reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions is through catering at events. Switching to meals that are vegetarian for the most part will help cut down on overall meat consumption. The other plus-side to this is that it will make everyone who already eats vegetarian food a lot happier since their meals won’t be a sad, salad-based afterthought. 

Since the electricity supply in South Africa is currently a coal-based disaster, this is an area that gives me very little hope when it comes to powering scientific equipment and instrumentation. Unfortunately, massive telescopes like MeerKAT and the upcoming SKA require a lot of power. I can only hope that these telescopes will be powered through the abundant Karoo sunshine, rather than more coal. But, with Eskom’s current crisis and the relatively cheap price of coal, that seems less and less likely. As a student, I don’t have any insight into how the climate effects of this might be mitigated, but it is something that I would like to raise when I get the opportunity to do so.

Lastly, I think it’s important that – as scientists – we take part in political processes to counter climate change. Since none of our major political parties seems to take climate change as seriously as they should, we should make our voices heard by supporting activist groups that have the expertise necessary to put climate change on the government’s agenda. On a smaller scale, we can support organisations on our own campuses that advocate for the fight against climate change. Although individual efforts are important, this is a global problem that requires governmental and institutional interventions to prevent the catastrophic effects that will hit countries like South Africa the hardest.