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.

Standing on the edge of a precipice

I will end this year as I began it, with the dream of a wily, confident and adventurous eight year old. I have been one of the fortunate ones. I have always known what I wanted to do for a living. It was not continuously romantic (certainly didn’t feel that way while dissecting a human brain) but it was always there and it was comforting. I, unlike like some others, never found it predictable or boring but felt bolstered by the fact that I was moving in the right direction. But now, placed under extreme stress of being the only person in the world working on a particular project, significant personal changes and new responsibility, I have the current feeling that my clearly defined path has become a bushy wilderness- one out of which a tiger could leap out and take me.

calving-hobbes

I’m sure that this is a common feeling for people approaching the milestone of 30 and probably has more to do with the feeling of mortality and less to do with the piling up of experiments you will never complete. Nevertheless, with 3 years to go to the big 3-0, I am acutely aware that I have particular comforts that I take for granted. As I close in on my final PhD year, I can feel the sense of loss of my eternal student status. I will now have to get a real job. What I do is challenging and often down right impossible but I have some very real perks. Starting the work day really whenever I feel I need to is a blessing. I have also realised, with a surmountable sadness, that at some point I will have to leave my wonderful lab – my scientific home for the last 5 years and 3 degrees. There is an incredible comfort in knowing where the pipettes or the hidden stash of reagents are. Having worked in the States for a couple of months, returning to my lab is nothing short of an epic homecoming.

Ultimately, at our core, scientists are creatures of habit. We need things just so – so that we can trace back to the point of a potential mistake. One needs to be in a routine so that methodically we can work out if that discovery was real or just a slip of the pipette. Life is a series of habits, and now I must shortly break them. The thought horrifies me. Looking forward, I’m sure there is a great amount of exciting new challenges to be had. Really though, all it feels like is a distant haze that is just beyond the steep precipice of doom that has recently presented itself. I have emerged from 2016, a year fraught with its own unique challenges (a Trump, a Brexit, a Zuma, a Gupta or 2) and I can’t see a fully cleared path.december-handover Instead, I catch glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye.

But, ever the optimist, I will keep looking until one reveals itself to me. I might need to use a panga to clear my own path, but this uncertainty too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone; but it will pass. Uncertainty leaves many different doors open and quite excitingly, in science as in life, we can find ourselves on quite a different journey than what we started out on. Openness to a swift change in direction is what leads us to the best discoveries. Life after a PhD is as confusing as life during one, but is just where stuff  gets good. It’s going to be a hell of a journey. Best grab my panga.