Culture Science

To read or not a bad man’s book

The Life of Science team uploaded the video of their webinar on July 10, about the construct of the genius in science, on YouTube on July 14. Please watch it if you haven’t already. I had also blogged about it. During the webinar, Gita Chadha – a sociologist of science and one of the two guests – answered a question I had posed, which in turn had arisen from contemplating whether I should read a soon to be published book authored by Lawrence M. Krauss.

Specifically, Krauss has been accused of being a predator and is also tainted by his association with and defence of Jeffrey Epstein. He will soon have a book published about the physics of climate change. I was and am inclined to boycott the book but this is an emotional response. More objectively speaking I didn’t/don’t know if my decision was/is as a matter of principle the right one. (More detailed deliberation, taking recourse through the stories of Geoffrey Marcy, Georges Lemaître, Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman as well, here.)

So at the time of registering for the webinar, I had recorded this question: “How can we separate scholarship from the scholar when the latter are ‘geniuses’ who have been removed from pedestals for abusing power?” Chadha’s reply follows (from 36:45):

I got the question as – how can you separate scholarship from the scholar? This is an extremely complex question.

I find it extremely difficult to argue for the non-separation. For example, after the #MeToo movement, a lot of us faced the following situation. Suppose I know that some scientist or social scientist has been named a predator. What do I do with their work? Do I stop using or teaching the work, or something else? These are dilemmas. I would argue saying that it is impossible to keep the work away. But when we know they are capable of unethical or non-inclusive practices, it becomes inevitable to call them out. Because in calling them out, you will also call out the culture to which they belong, which will help you to restore the balance of justice, if I may say so.

But I would push the question further and say that we need to critically start engaging with how the social location of a scholar impacts the kind of work that they do. It’s very important, the kind of things Shalini Mahadev [the other panellist] has been talking about. Why do we privilege a certain kind of abstract work? Why do we privilege a certain kind of abstract testing of intellect? Why do we [pursue] work in [some areas over others]? Why is ‘glorified work’ in mathematics in number theory? How is knowledge constructed by the social location of caste in India, for example?

This question about the knowledge and the knowledge-maker is a deeper question. I would think it’s important to keep the connection between the two alive. Them being on pedestals is a different question. This is exactly what I was trying to say: There is no talent, there is only the struggle for eminence, awards… [these are] ways of wielding power. And that power you wield, because you are an eminent scientist, will always give you the clean chit: “He’s a genius, so it’s okay if he’s a wife-beater”, “it’s okay if he’s a predator,” etc. His genius and his work needs to be preserved. That is where the problem arises.

This is all insightful, and partly helpful. For example, a lot of people have called out Krauss and he also ‘retired’ shortly after. The effects of the #MeToo movement have prompted some reforms – or at least reformatory tendencies – in a variety of fields, as a result of which more than a few scientists have been ‘outed’ thus. More importantly, abusing the power imbalance between teachers and students is today widely understood to be an implicit bad, at least in quarters from which other scientists have been already removed. We have not restored the balance of justice but we have surely, even if imperfectly, started on this path.

However, Krauss continues to stand his ground, and soon he will have a book. If in this context I’m intent on keeping the connection between knowledge and the knowledge-maker alive, I can read his book. At the same time the act of purchasing his book will make this predator-in-denial richer, financially more powerful, and as a scholar more relevant and therefore more employable. Considering Chadha only said we must call out the culture to which such scientists belong, and nothing about whether the scientist in question should repent, I’m still confused.

If I’m wrong or have lost my train of thought in some obvious way even as I mull Chadha’s words, just as well. But if you know the way out of these woods, please don’t keep it to yourself!

Culture Op-eds

Why we need *some* borders between us

Borders are often a bad thing because they create separation that is unconducive for what are generally considered to be socially desirable outcomes. And they’re often instituted to maximise political outcomes, especially of the electoral variety. However, as electoral politics – and the decisions politicians make leading up to elections – become increasingly divisive, the people’s perception of politics, especially among those belonging to the middle classes, simultaneously becomes more cynical. At one point, those engaged in less political activities could even begin to see politics as a meaningless enterprise engaged solely in furthering the interests of the powerful.

This is a wholly justified conclusion given the circumstances but it’s also saddening since this cynicism is almost always paid for by writing off all political endeavours, and all the borders they maintain – and it is even more saddening now, in this time of protests, riots, apathy and deaths among the poor of hunger, of all things. This particular point is worth highlighting more now because space, especially human spaceflight, is in the news. Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently launched two astronauts to the International Space Station in history’s first crewed mission by a non-governmental company (that still subsists mostly on government funds).

For many decades, creators, engineers and officials alike have billed space as an escape, particularly in two ways. First, as a material volume of the universe that humanity is yet to occupy in any meaningful way, space is a frontier – a place other than Earth where there are some opportunities to survive but more importantly which could present a fresh start, a new way to do things that apparently benefits from millennia of civilisation on Earth that has only left us with great inequality and prejudice. Second, as a vast emptiness composed of literally nothing for billions of kilometres at a time, space imposes a ‘loneliness tax’ on Earth that – as many spaceflight entrepreneurs are fond of saying – should prompt us to remember that “we’re all in this together”.

However, the problem with both perspectives is that they gloss over borders, and when some borders disappear, our awareness of inequality disappears while inequality itself doesn’t. A common refrain aspiring spacefarers like to pitch is of the view of Earth from the Moon, accompanied by a gruff but nonetheless well-intentioned reminder that borders are of our own making, and that if we got rid of them and worked in humanity’s best-interests as a whole, we’d be able to achieve great things.

I call bullshit because without borders to constantly remind ourselves that invisible lines exist in the ground as well as in our minds that a Dalit or a black person can’t cross, no Dalit or black person – or even many women for that matter – can enter the spaceflight programme, leave alone get to the Moon.

More broadly, what many of those engaged in less-political work see as “unnecessary borders” are really discomfiting borders, a fact that became immutably apparent during India’s #MeToo uprising on Twitter in October-November 2018. Then, the mass of allegations and complaints pouring in every day indicated, among other things, that when inequality and discrimination have become ubiquitous, affording men and women equal opportunities by way of redressal can’t make the inequality and discrimination go away. Instead, women, and indeed all underprivileged groups, need affirmative action: to give more women, more Dalits, more black people, more transgender people, etc. access to more opportunities for a time until both the previously privileged groups and the newly privileged groups are on equal footing. It’s only then that they can really become equals.

A popular argument against this course of action has been that it will only create a new asymmetry instead of eradicating the old one. No; it’s important to recognise that we don’t need to eradicate privileges by eradicating opportunities, but to render privileges meaningless by ensuring all people have equal access to every new opportunity that we develop.

Another contention, though it doesn’t dress like a contention, is that we should also discuss why it’s important to have people of diverse identities around the table. But to me, this view is awfully close to the expectation of people from underprivileged groups to justify themselves, often more than those from privileged groups ever have for the same or equal positions. Instead, to quote Tarun Menon, of the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru: “Deliberative democracy” – “a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision-making” (source) – “is key to any well-ordered democratic society, both because it helps ensure that a variety of concerns are taken into account in democratic decision-making, and because it grants legitimacy to decision-making by making it participatory.”

This is why borders are important – to define groups that need to be elevated, so to speak; without them, our economic and political structures will continue to benefit who they always have. And this is also why borders not used to achieve socially desirable outcomes are nothing but divides.

More importantly from the spaceflight bros’ point of view, when the borders we do need are erased, space will mostly be filled with white men, and a proportionately fewer number of people of other racial, ethnic, gender and caste identities – if at all.

Featured image: Daria Shevtsova/Pexels.


Another exit from MIT Media Lab

J. Nathan Matias, a newly minted faculty member at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, has announced that he will cut all ties with the latter at the end of the academic year over the lab director’s, i.e. Joi Ito’s, association with Jeffrey Epstein. His announcement comes on the heels of one by Ethan Zuckerman, a philosopher and director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, who also said he’d leave at the end of the academic year despite not having any job offers. Matias wrote on Medium on August 21:

During my last two years as a visiting scholar, the Media Lab has continued to provide desk space, organizational support, and technical infrastructure to CivilServant, a project I founded to advance a safer, fairer, more understanding internet. As part of our work, CivilServant does research on protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment. I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple.

Zuckerman had alluded to a similar problem with a different group of people:

I also wrote notes of apology to the recipients of the Media Lab Disobedience Prize, three women who were recognized for their work on the #MeToo in STEM movement. It struck me as a terrible irony that their work on combatting sexual harassment and assault in science and tech might be damaged by their association with the Media Lab.

On the other hand, Ito’s note of apology on August 15, which precipitated these high-profile resignations and put the future of the lab in jeopardy, didn’t at all mention any regret over what Ito’s fraternising with Epstein could mean for its employees, many of whom are working on sensitive projects. Instead, Ito has only said that he would return the money Epstein donated to the lab, a sum of $200,000 (Rs 143.09 crore) according to the Boston Globe, while pleading ignorance to Epstein’s crimes.