Troubles at Evergreen


The Evergreen State College (photo: “kelp”)

I’m sure that everyone is familiar with the protests at The Evergreen State College in Washington State, which were triggered when biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to the 2017 version of a college event called “Day of Absence.” This event was described by organisers with the words “We are having people of color stay on campus and we are encouraging white staff, faculty, and students to go off campus in order to make the space at Evergreen more centered around people of color.” Weinstein, who is Jewish, objected to this in an internal email (using what seems to me very polite language), noting that “On a college campus, one’s right to speak – or to be – must never be based on skin color.” No doubt he saw some disturbing historical precedents.

Protests snowballed, however, taking a rather anti-White, anti-Jewish, anti-Asian, and anti-Science turn. One of the activists suggested that “Hopefully, long-term we can just weed out people like Bret.” It’s not clear to me what “people like Bret” means. I do note, however, that protestors vandalised both the college’s natural history museum and its scientific computing facilities, so I suspect that not only Weinstein, but scientists in general, were a target. That seems an unfortunate situation in an educational institution (even one that accepts 98.9% of applicants). No doubt there’s more here than meets the eye.


Gender and glaciers?

There has been some controversy about the 2016 NSF-funded paper “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research” (see here for a detailed analysis). The paper refers, inter alia, to the Forbes/Tyndall debate of the century before last (although I believe it is misinterpreting that saga). But, interesting as that episode was in the history of science, it has little to say about the epistemology of modern glaciology. In the 1800s, observing glaciers required extensive (perhaps even “heroic”) mountain climbing. Today, remote sensing methods and computer models are also important, and we understand glaciers much better than either Forbes or Tyndall did.

I don’t think that the gender studies lens adds anything to our understanding of glaciers. And I suspect that Elisabeth Isaksson, Moira Dunbar, Helen Fricker, Julie Palais, Kumiko Goto-Azuma, or Jemma Wadham would not think so either. Nor are race relations particularly important in studying ice. And as to “alternative ways of knowing,” I would prefer to stick with the scientific method – it’s worked very well so far (didn’t we just have a march against “alternative facts”?). Indeed, to subordinate science to the modern politicised humanities would be to abandon the concept of scientific truth, and to make it impossible to gain widespread agreement on the crises currently facing humanity.


Marching for Science #7

Interesting summary of the Science March from STAT:

  • Yes, it was a partisan anti-Trump event – “critics of the march who worried that it could turn scientists into an interest group to be isolated and ignored will likely feel their concerns validated after the event.”
  • It was mostly white – “There were [speakers] who were immigrants, trans, gay, Native American, black, Latino, young, and old. … But that audience itself was largely white.”
  • Industry science wasn’t there – “companies that are now marketing their ‘bold’ work in scientific discovery and developing new treatments largely lacked an official presence at the marches.”
  • People had fun – “lots of kids, dogs, and people dressed as dinosaurs. … and plenty of off-rhythm dancing to funk bands.”
  • What comes next is uncertain – “Will the march make a difference? Or will it end up as a historical footnote?”

March for Science, Washington, DC (photo: Becker1999)


Misquotes for Science

It’s a tough call, but the award for silliest statement at the March for Science has to go to the line “Dante said that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.” Dante never said anything of the sort, of course – the line is derived from something JFK said (“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality”), derived in turn from a chain of misquotes going back to Theodore Roosevelt. I’ve written before about Dante and Science, but suffice to say that in Dante’s Inferno, the worst regions are actually icy cold, and “neutrals” are not found there:

Please, let’s not have any “alternative facts” about Dante. The climate of the Inferno is important too.


Marching for Science #5

Further to my previous comments on the Science March, the graph below shows the (somewhat dubious) attendance estimates from Wikipedia for various cities (excluding vague counts like “thousands”), compared to the power-law predictor 0.47 D1.49 P0.78, where D is the fraction of the relevant state voting for Clinton last year (from Wikipedia), and P is the city population (also from Wikipedia).

The population P predicts 56% of the variance in turnout (not surprisingly), and D an additional 7%. Both factors were significant (p = 0.000000055 and p = 0.014 respectively). Prediction could probably be improved by using metro area population numbers for the cities, by using metro area election results (rather that state results), and by adding factors indicating the number of other marches in the relevant state (Colorado Springs, for example, was rather overshadowed by Denver) and the presence of universities (Ann Arbor, for example, is a university town). But the basic messages seem to be: Democrat voters do not like Donald Trump and Large cities attract large crowds. It would be interesting to compare the numbers here against other recent political marches which focused on different issues.


Marching for Science #4

Well, we’ve had the long-awaited Science March. It was, as expected, very much an anti-Trump event. Topics on people’s minds included threatened budget cuts, climate change, pesticides, intersectionality, immigration policy, defence policy, and the claim that climate change science had been removed from the EPA web site (it hadn’t).


March for Science, Washington, DC (photo: Becker1999)

Trump’s response to the march was “My administration is committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks. … As we do so, we should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.” I’m not sure if the marchers expected any outcome other than that.


March for Science, Washington, DC (photo: Becker1999)

There was the usual set of signs suggesting that peer-reviewed science is “true.” Which is odd, because cold fusion claims passed peer review, along with much other dubious work. Indeed, peer review has known problems. Perhaps, in public debate, we scientists should put more emphasis on replication.


Marching for Science #3

The March for Science continues to be controversial. Some scientists will attend the march, and others will sit it out. Above is the wordcloud for the march website, as at April 18. The top six words are “science,” “march,” “community,” “scientific,” “policy,” and “diversity.” Combining those results with recent news, I think this indicates that the focus of the march has finally stabilised, and that intersectionality and diversity within science is now the key topic. I wonder how the audience of the march will react?