The following are a list of webinars and readings to complement the discussion of “The Science We Have and The Science We Need: Internationalism in the Pandemic,” our own webinar, co-hosted by Ciencia para el Pueblo.
Science Education and the pandemic of human/sciences
From an Indian Researcher trying to make sense of Science and Society
Original screenplay and Illustrations by the author
Departing spring. Light, unsettling breeze of the cruelest April bellows the curtains. It is some hour late in the afternoon. A room in an unnamed urban metropolis of India.
Unsettling it is too for the ‘image’ of India, which has been undergoing debilitating body blows in recent times. A pandemic scare, yes (with its effects to be felt more in the socioeconomic realm rather than perhaps medical) but not just that. The country’s Muslim communities, its largest religious minority population, are faced with the possibility of mass disenfranchisement and en masse lockup in detention centers. The national capital and a global cosmopolitan centre — New Delhi — saw in February one of the most brutal Muslim genocides the country has ever seen. It was designed to act as a crackdown on the ongoing Occupy Movement in the country against the National Register of Citizens and the mass disenfranchisement it promises. The threats of losing citizenship are so real that several protest sites initially refused to discontinue their protests even under the threat of pandemic, but gave in to brute force of police and state and an imposition of public medico-morality. Politico-religious leaders who have been consistently describing Muslims in the country as ‘virus’ and ‘termites’, are now to negotiate with a microorganism, against whom vilification does not work. Though they are trying desperately for a convergence. The rulers who claimed that border fences and armed forces will ‘protect’ their nations from ‘outsiders’ are now doubling down on their racist monologues in a desperate attempt to hide their incapability of dealing with an actual crisis like this. A nation state which prepared itself with elaborate arrangements to lock down its religious minority population inside detention centers, suddenly finds itself having to lock itself down. It is a cruel season, and a crueler irony.
But this play cannot possibly travel to the nooks and corners of the disheveled nation. Not just any nook or corner, it can not even visit the burnt mosques in the capital city itself, or such multiple minor inconveniences. Surely there are troubles in our modern societies and we are not allowed to digress. Else we won’t be doing science. Stick we must, to objectivity and hard-lipped lack of ‘sentiments’. The play chooses, instead, to show the mundane normal. Something which is without the vile, crass and paranoia. A stage is thus constructed. Beyond it lies troubled times which it will allude to, but not show. We close down on specifics.
This is the makeshift working space of the middle-aged man we find, who seemed to be dozing in his daydreams. Stacked on various pieces of furniture around him are students’ notebooks and unchecked examination scripts – there are heaps of them. There are teaching materials, charts showing the parts of the human digestive system and types of ores on earth; diagrams of molecules and the oscillating pendulum, students’ paper models of various forms and types. Curricular textbooks, exam guides and assessment worksheets strewn haywire. He is in the middle of preparations for an online lockdown class for the following day, for his high school Science students. Clearly, he is waddling in a sea of pedagogic burden.
His face reads as if bemused, his body wrought with inaction at the desk. His eyes are shut tight.
A stagnant silence pervades.
VOICE.[at a distance, from a yet-to-be visible form] Hey there, working from the confines of home—cozy, isn’t it?
MAN.[undisturbed, faintly murmurs] Um-hmm.
VOICE. Prepping for the upcoming pandemic session with students, sir? What are you going to teach — health, environment, microorganisms, plants, balanced diet? You plan to cover your biology syllabus through studying the pandemic?
TEACHER.[Continues dozing with his eyes shut, but keeps murmuring to himself] Yeah—who knows—all these seem— [yawns] so irrelevant—we just—need to—curb this—save lives—
VOICE. Sheesh, predictable! Isn’t it the right time to reassess the lesson plans for teaching science?
TEACHER. Huh, what? [Jolts up in his chair and adjusts his glasses. His dozing has missed a beat, and squints his eyes. He turns his head around to look suspiciously] Whose voice… was it my fever dream?
VOICES. Not really!
A big blob drops centerstage from the space above. It has a greyish greasy appearance, and some bright protruding red spikes. Like bright decorations. It lands gently, rolling and tumbling, with no care in the world.
TEACHER.[Stands up alert] What the — who are you?!
BLOB. Oh you need some ID? Do I look like a docile body that will submit to surveillance? Geez, you haven’t paid heed to the news lately!
Another blob drops from above, but quite sharply. It bounces off its bum, ricochets and then comes to a halt. The first blob helps to pull it up. And then drops in a third. They all look identical in their greasy dull greys and bright reds.
TEACHER.[stupent] Crap! That’s it! [shoots across the room towards the drawers]
Where are my masks, oh dear, my ol’ sanitizer! [haphazardly moving about in the further corner of the room]
BLOB 2.[In a suave tone] Easy mister, easy. That ain’t very rational of you — that isn’t social — [sniggers]
TEACHER.[Shell-shocked] Please come no near — please —
BLOB 3.[chuckling to his colleagues] Funny how they behave! [Turns to the teacher] We are supposed to distance ourselves physically [gesturing the space between them] — like we are doing — but not aggravate it to such panic!
TEACHER.[with mortified, bulged out eyes] But you are a vicious threat, a havoc, a global catastrophe, the great plague of many centuries — you have not only caused a planetary crisis affecting every single person, but also wrecked such havoc on the most vulnerable amongst us! Look at the number of people of colour, people without proper nutrition, that are dying – look at the impact on the people who are still having to go out to work on the frontlines –
BLOB 1. Aww, did I do all that? [Mimics a tone of self-pity] Poor, poor you. It surely must’ve been my folks who told you to ditch the notions of [throws up fingers as if to enumerate] universal public health, and economic equality, and unstratified class-less society, and anti-racist politics and a humane science —
The blobs have now positioned themselves comfortably in the space around. They surround the teacher on all sides, but maintain a cordial distance, as is socially sanctioned these days.
TEACHER.[regaining] But, how come science isn’t huma—
BLOB 3.[Swiftly raising a pointed finger in excitement] Knew you would jump the gun at it — so predictable! Of all the other things I mentioned, you so instantly opted to defend science.
TEACHER. Well our science has helped save lives, improved longevity, dispelled harmful superstitions — our drugs have resisted against germs and diseases, except for — till now [gives an accusative look] you nasty buggers—
BLOB 2. — who brings a curtain down on the world order, right? [chortily lets out a full belly laughter, blobs 1 and 2 join him] Am I the vice-incarnate? The reason for all mayhem on earth currently? Am I also responsible for your rampant Islamophobia, class hatred, untouchability, your shameless racism? Funny how Science is the all do-gooder neutral God, but is so ready to collapse its high tower gates and feign ignorance and culpability when responsibility or crisis comes knocking!
TEACHER. It surely is powerful, and there are reasons for it. But [now, after regaining composure] why should I explain that you? You are an enemy, the major one that we can’t get our hands on — not that we would like to — virulent enemies. I can’t believe we are even having a conversation —
BLOB 1. But you must, my dear teacher of science — because I think — rather a hell lot of us in the nature thinks — that humans can actually do a lot better with some dollops of sane advice and reality check.
TEACHER. Ahh. [Recoiling back now and slightly more steady] Then open up your secrets! Tell us how we can tackle the pandemic — How to create a vaccine in no time — or [his face lights up with possibility] at least tell us how to trigger a mutiny amongst your ranks — is it possible to engineer a mutant that will neutralize you –
All the blobs break into splitting laughter. The teacher is dumbfounded.
BLOB 3.[Recovering from the dose of humour] Funny you are, with your sense of entitlement! I promise you that we intend nothing of that sorts. And as for mutinies and infighting, I trust the humans to be doing it sooner and killing themselves off than we do! [Another bout of laughter ensues]
TEACHER.[Quite crossed] That is insensitive!
BLOB 2.[Addressing Blob 1 and 3, in a hushed voice] Hey, isn’t this fun! Give me some silence. [Then sushes everyone up loudly. They all stop laughing]. [Turns to address the Teacher] Hey! You know what’s sensitive?
You can teach them mathematics of graphs and simulations through the body counts. You know, someone observed—a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. [They all burst into laughter again]
TEACHER.[His frustration now changes into a lack of proper words] Oh you’re dark!
BLOB 2. Not quite as dark as the smoked mosques of your cities!
The teacher goes silent at this, presumably out of shame. The blobs exchange smirks and glances with each other.
BLOB 1.[Still smirking] Relax Mr. Science Teacher, my friends are just being mischievous. [Gesturing the teacher to take a seat, without fear] Actually we thought we can also partake in a bit of the sciences that you teach, you know, for ourselves. It’s a nice, productive way to spend time working from home — right? [Allows the Teacher to cool himself down]. Maybe we can at least help you prepare for your online session tomorrow.
TEACHER.[Sitting down on his chair, looking drained, resigning to a conversation he now realizes he can not escape] How?
BLOB 2. Let’s see – you mind starting with your official texts? [gestures to a particular book lying on the desk]. As you were so quick to relegate us to your micro-foes, might you just help us read up from the textbook and say why exactly are we foes? We were quite curious, you see.
TEACHER. Is it so?
BLOB 1. Yes, absolutely.
TEACHER.[Slowly relaxes himself on the chair] Umm, well [looks for a particular book from the pile] I don’t think we need a textbook reference for this. But still, since you insist. I remember the chapter talking about some, erm, I don’t remember the exact words — but what the book says are ‘harmful’ bacteria and protozoa — [searching for the appropriate pages] can’t see any mention of any ‘beneficial’ virus! Yeah, right here – chapter titled “MICROORGANISMS: FRIEND AND FOE” – it says —
“common ailments like cold, influenza (flu)
and most coughs are caused by viruses.
Serious diseases like polio and
chickenpox are also caused by viruses.”
There you go!
BLOB 3. Hahahaha! Demonization spares not even the tiniest of organisms! Funny how you guys have the same categorization for microorganisms that you use for your fellow humans! Why the sharp divide? I understand viruses are your foes, but who actually are your micro-friends?
TEACHER. Those would be the ones used in the preparation of medicines such as antibiotics, in fixing nitrogen for agriculture. Those that ‘are used in the preparation of curd, bread and cake,’ and also ‘for the production of alcohol’. And those that
“are also used in cleaning up the environment.
For example, the organic wastes (vegetable peels,
remains of animals, faeces, etc.) are broken down
into harmless and usable substances by bacteria.”
BLOB 2. Oh hold there a bit. Folks [turning to his colleagues] I am a bit confused, what he just described are a series of unidirectional benefits. It isn’t friendship – maybe leeching? [Turns to the teacher] Don’t you think ‘collaborators’ is a better word?
TEACHER.[Only half resigned to it] Call whatever, what’s there in semantics?
BLOB 2. A hell lot! Semantics reflect world-views. [Stands up and paces down the carpet] Your ascribed friendliness is specifically meant for those microbes that help you make stuff that you consume — food, alcohol, medicines, crops — or kill other microbes that you don’t like. Friends are those that serve you benefits, easy gifts. What about those microbes that have got nothing to do with human productive activities? Or those types of bacteria that are the one of the world’s most numerous and crucial constituents of any living matter? Do your science texts even consider their existence in nature? For example, cyanobacteria — the blue-green algae?
TEACHER. Yes, they are the nitrogen fixing ones that help us produce crops—
BLOB 3. Look at the association that you just made, my Einstein! [Slaps its own forehead] Oh lord — I bet the chapter does not mention that it is the same blue-green algae that produced the first oxygen for the Earth’s atmosphere? That, over time, most of the oxygen produced in the planet’s history has been done by this family of bacteria? That they can change oceans? The fact that these are responsible for the earliest photosynthesis? Hell, humans would not even exist if there were no cyanobacteria. Do you reveal this aspect of the natural world to the readers of the text, at least to be grateful about it?
TEACHER. No, erm, it doesn’t. But see, ultimately this is a book written by humans, for other humans. You should expect it to be human-centric, talking about things they can relate to.
BLOB 1.[In a more earnest, imploring voice] But science is about nature, right? It squarely rests on the locus of viewpoint. You can be at the center and grab and derive things from nature’s reserve; or place yourself at the periphery and gather what nature lets you have. Truth is, humans don’t think they are a part of, or a product of, nature. You think you own nature. [Picks up a textbook and casually flickers through the pages] Your Science textbook chapters can’t think beyond terms such as ‘resource’ or ‘management’ or ‘production’ or ‘conservation’ in the chapter headings. Semantics, you see!
TEACHER. Are you angry because viruses have not been emphasized much in the textbooks?
BLOB 2. Yes, but not in the way you think. We are angry not because ‘we’ haven’t been given the kind of attention that we deserve, but because how glaring these omissions are in totality. [Blob 1 and 3 nod in unison] Did you mention the cowpox virus? The one used to make vaccines for your kids against smallpox – the virus sequence that regulates the amylase gene cluster, enabling humans and other primates to eat starchy foods you otherwise couldn’t? Your immune system is in large parts a gift of microorganisms — the ones you inherit through your mother’s milk, the ones that you find in your gut. By the way, good luck explaining that to your formula foods industry and the ‘scientists’ who work there! But anyway, these should have made it to your list of ‘friendly’ microbes, even by your own standards.
TEACHER. So you would be okay if this missing piece of information gets added, right? To perhaps paint a more true and balanced description of microorganisms —
BLOB 3.[In a deep angry tone] You precisely miss the point. Textbook science must work to reveal Nature, not place value judgments on its functional outcomes! Why don’t you trust the young minds to do it for themselves? They’ll make their own judgment by relating to what they experience in the world around them. [Earnestly] I mean, they’re reflective, right? Or would you rather not have them exercise that rationality — dictating bluntly what they must infer and think out of facts? [It is for the blob a clear moment of terrible realization] Or — is it — that you do not trust them — Maybe that’s why your species is this messed up? Because you don’t trust your young ones intellectually? [The more it goes on, the more furious it gets with the indignation] Or — is it that — you are scared that they might ask too many uncomfortable questions? About your Science, about your Society — your project of using the mask of Science for hiding the scandal you call Social will be torn off you think —
At this point, Blob 1 rushes to pacify Blob 3, who is clearly taken aback by its own afterthought. Blob 1 lets out a deep exhalation and turns towards the teacher with a what-have-you-done gesture. The teacher is lost.
BLOB 2.[Clears his throat and recomposes himself] Well, keep that as something for later — you’ll surely understand. [Pauses and breathes deeply] But, what we were saying is, erm — what must be revealed in science books — is that transmitting foreign genomes into your cells, which causes the disease in you — is exactly what we are supposed to do! Reveal the true nature, that’s it. You may hate us for it currently because it serves you in no productive way. But did you consider thinking of us as just biological ferries that carry genes between different organisms and even different species? Tch tch! Do you realize that viruses keep doing this all the time between species, contributing to the creation of this wonderfully complex body called Nature that you are ultimately a tiny part of? In such contexts, do your theories really matter then, whether we came from fish, or from bats, or snakes, or all of these through multiple transfers and such —
BLOB 3.[Chuckles half-heartedly to Blob 2] I think it matters for them to keep alive tales. Not like stories meant for young kids in junior classes, not like that. But tales which are juvenile. Juvenile ideas which short-change biodiversity as if some kind of pristine alchemy, magic — and proceeds casually to criminalize diversity based on use-value. No wonder their kids trained with such ‘Science’ education grow up to become such believers!
BLOB 1. And what was supposed to be the fundamental difference between them (humans) and other constituent beings of nature has now fueled the runaway system that is beyond attainable control – even for themselves!
TEACHER. Err, what would that be — arms race, unsustainable growth, technology?
BLOB 1. Yes, the building instinct — to make and manufacture — the constant drive to engineer and produce — generate and layer on top of the other and keep on making.
But this itself [pauses for a bit] is fundamentally driven by something more crucial to you guys — a much more primal act of making and manufacturing, as ancient as your first spoken languages.
TEACHER. And what’s that?
BLOB 2. — your making of myths and stories! Your manufacturing of consent! Layers upon layers of them, like an onion. Layers of myths that are frozen through time, till they begin to look like hard truths. God-given in some cases, Science-given in others.
TEACHER. Ah — [Pondering] So you are not just referring to human religions, cultural myths –
BLOB 1. No we’re not. We are not just talking about beasts and demons, all-powerful Gods and their miracles, heavens and the netherworld. We are basically talking about everything that you do — everything that is ‘human’ – what you call the ‘society’ or ‘law’ or ‘economy’ — or even ‘science.’
TEACHER. But myths help us survive, don’t they? Stories that rock us to sleep while containing us safe in the imaginaries. They aren’t necessarily a problem.
BLOB 3.[Chuckling at this point] Hey, don’t tell your academic bosses that you discussed science and society issues with a ‘microbe’! They will cancel your pay-check and you will have to “stay back at home”, rather than “working from home”! Not that you are an “Essential service provider” in any case.
TEACHER.[With a half grin] Huh. It’s not even clear anymore if they would need jobs such as mine anymore, even when all this is over – if at all. You go on –
BLOB 2. Hmmmm. [Trying to pick up the conversation from where it got paused] So we were talking about – erm – yeah, necessary myths. Yes, quite rightly so. You probably do need myths to survive. But you see, the problem is elsewhere. The problem is when you forget so easily that myths are myths, and start believing in them as the ‘objective reality’. For example, Nature’s other societies — migrating birds, hardworking ants, patient bees — do not create myths about themselves or others. There exists laws, like natural selection, prey-predator relations, division of labour in bee colonies. These exist as phenomena. But humans, who can create stories, picked up selectively from what they observed. And to what end? To use, for example, something like the system of queen, worker and drone bees as a model to justify your brutally oppressive construct of the caste system — and that’s a shame.
BLOB 1. There are the million minute balancing acts, and rope tricks, that keep Nature in furtive motion. Symbiosis which exists in Nature, or mutualisms — are fine lessons to be ingrained in your society — to make no distinction between the weakest and fragile and those that have. You would have worshiped diversity instead of morally panicking about it. You would have learned to celebrate differences within your own species, instead of using my excuse to pour out racist venom against specific biological features or religious identities.
BLOB 3. You failed to interpret the detailed notes that your scientists gathered in their field visits. You failed to interpret them as social commentaries. And therefore, my friend, you failed to interpret them as even scientific commentaries. Else you would’ve noticed how other fishes treat the ‘cleaner fish’ — the ones that clean other predators by feeding off their dead cells. Not only do the predators respect and protect the cleaner fish, but they are also known to reduce their aggression towards even other prey species, while at the cleaning stations. Is there something to be noted? [advances menacingly towards the Teacher] How does your society treat those people who clean your wastes?
Well, this is a crucial juncture. The play did warn, when it started, that troubled times outside of what is visible on the stage would be referred to — here and there. Who would have thought that it would make mention of all things mundane, picking up things from the streets. Should the daily commonplace be the focus of the quarantine? Surely that was not meant to be. When it took a sharp turn towards the dingy by-lanes of wastes and sanitations, it was probably the time that footnotes could only do so much.
As required, the audience would be, for cogency, shuffling through the handouts to find the relevant subtexts, or would google furiously on their smartphones for brief summaries. They might buy time for more thoughts, and embarrassingly excuse themselves. Or they might choose to sit back, they would like to see an end to this — with clenched jaws and slitted eyes resonating with the Teacher — they would make their own questions the Teacher’s questions, own doubts the Teacher’s doubts. We think the latter possibility is ripe, though the reasons are feeble. The play continues with its tattered set pieces. The confines of discussion have opened up. The world outside has moved within.
TEACHER. It feels we humans are too detached today for any contemplation. We are so torn between our biological, or perhaps ‘natural’ existence, and our economic existence. Tell me, does Nature also have an ‘economy’ of sorts, that it has to manage?
BLOB 2. What do you think? What is the etymological origin of the word ‘economy’?
TEACHER. I think it means management of household resources. But I have my doubts — can nature at all be likened to a household — and is there any need to manage its ‘household’? What would be the finances — is it not more like regulation of biotic substances — exchanges of sorts —
BLOB 1.[Imploring] Oh you mean — like money? Like bartering of commodities?
TEACHER. Umm — yes, I think so.
BLOB 1. Ah — [throwing up his arms] that’s again one of the myths humans have created for themselves.
TEACHER. What do you mean?
BLOB 3. I mean the myth of equating the idea of ‘economy’ with ‘money’, or ‘market economy’. [A gentle smile plays on its lips] Money was only created to manage your debts. But you have lived inside the money-driven market economy for so long now that you yourselves have forgotten all that it ever was [clicks his fingers] — just a myth!
BLOB 2. Well, only if you need some recap, the first currencies—in the form of sea shells and other stuff — were constructed in order to keep track of IOUs. Now does nature have IOUs? Yes! Just look at the mutualism between different species in a niche — a household, as nature sees it — like say the one between the clown-fish and the sea-anemone. If this feels too basic and not-so-complex as human monetary exchange relations, look at entire ecosystems. All that different organisms are doing there is a complex interconnected net of IOUs. There are complex practices of saving for the future as well – just peep into an ants’ colony, or a termites’ fortress. Everyone is putting in their labor all the time, and at the same time, no one appropriates anyone else’s labor. That’s an entire complex economy in action — yes economy, in the ‘household management’ sense of the term. But there is no ‘money’ or currency of exchange! There is no private property, there is no accumulation of ‘resources’, there is no ‘owning’ of Nature by anyone, there are no Wall Streets, there is no class war.
TEACHER. But there are parasites in Nature, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you say they are examples of appropriating the host’s labor?
BLOB 2.[Snaps fingers] Parasites? [Shares quick glances with its colleagues] I suppose you mean things like us? [Menacing look threatening to make a comeback]
TEACHER.[Embarrassed, apprehensive of the reactions] No no, didn’t specifically have you all in mind.
BLOB 1. But that’s how your books classify us, don’t they? Parasites! Tell me, if on the one hand you have us as agents in the ‘Natural economy’ let’s say, on the other hand you have your capitalist class who can’t be accused of putting in any labour in your mythical ‘Money economy’ – which of these are ‘parasites’ in the true sense you think?
BLOB 3. And to talk about how fragile your myths about money are. The myth lost its clothes for instance, when the populace of your own country was told overnight that your five hundred rupee paper notes had no value any more! It just took a strongman at the center of power, backed up by a xenophobic populist mass politics to create a myth to supercede from earlier. That is amazing by all standards! An entire country’s currencies gets invalid overnight, or gets blown up, like what happened in Venezuela, and that kind of seems okay with all!
BLOB 2. Tomorrow if everyone in your country starts believing that for whatever reason, the currency notes lying right now in your wallets is of no value, it will actually lose all its value. You will then realise that all that note really is – a piece of printed paper with someone’s face on it. It is a fabulous construct that shifts shapes, and assumes value, as required. Like now, in South Korea, where it is deemed useless — because they think that the cash reserves are infected and will carry the pandemic. So they burn it — poof!
BLOB 1. Like [turning to the other two blobs while trying to hide his laughter] like — pfft — believing in the myth that the pandemic can be tackled ‘scientifically’ while maintaining the dominant economic model — hahahaha! [All the blobs burst out into laughter] And your governments — they are conducting triages to determine whose life is more important, whose to save, and whose to let go! Such is the glorious dawn over your mass graves — that you, you treat not the older people — because your health set-up and economics would not be able to afford it!
BLOB 2. Well, they do conduct triages in ordinary times as well. Till now, the pandemic deaths cumulatively in the country are lesser than the number of children who died in Bihar last year from Acute Encephalitis Syndrome. They were all malnourished, belonging to working class families. Within a month’s time hundreds of them died! What was your nation’s response? Zilch! What happened to the doctor who blew the whistle on the state of public health infrastructure, in the state that was responsible for the children just allowed to die like that? Is he out of prison yet?.
There have been abrupt sequences of entries and exits — mostly curious entries — of similar looking blobs in the stage, through various wings, orifices, vents of the hall. They have dropped and rolled in the scene, scrawled and squealed across the stage floor. They have been taking up space around — sitting on top of racks, the steel wardrobe, behind the refrigerator. When we began, we thought the play could very well be in a closed contained space, undisturbed. But not quite so. These movements of these blobs have been too random — they have been in a flurry, in packs, in pairs, at random. We could not follow up with that. Do we know who orchestrated such movements, or was it meant to happen? Their invasion in this play is sudden, the outbreak is blurry. Nothing is quite clear.
TEACHER.[Sheepishly in a tone of admission] Yes, I understand the fallacy, but why would you conflate science thus? Isn’t it a pursuit of facts — truth — isn’t it more than just being convincing stories and believable fables —
BLOB 2.[Hits back with a defiant tone] Yet it maintains a garb of nonchalance. Of being a noncommittal bystander. Surely, if textbooks can relegate viruses to being the perennial foe, science can do something to annihilate it completely? [Flips through a few pages of the textbook at hand] Pray tell me, why do your school-level science textbooks not discuss the possibilities of designing a Universal anti-Influenza vaccine?
TEACHER. From my experience, well, I can tell that it might be — erm, because it is too complicated to explain such things to school students.
BLOB 2. Oh, really? [Zeroing in on one particular page of the textbook] Is it more complicated than, say, explaining the design of a universally non-biodegradable building material? The one that you call ‘plastics’ — which merits a dedicated chapter in the textbook. Let me read out what it says:
“Plastic is also a polymer like the synthetic fibre.
All plastics do not have the same type of arrangement
of units. In some it is linear, whereas in others
it is cross-linked...
Plastic articles are available in all
possible shapes and sizes as you can see in Fig....
Have you ever wondered how this is possible?”
Jeez, it doesn’t look very simple to me! Does it to you guys? [Other blobs shake their heads in denial] Look at the emphasis it creates and the optics it produces — it comes as the 3rd chapter in the book, whereas something as vital as pollution in the study of nature is relegated to the 18th chapter slot. You also know most of your classrooms may not even make it to the end of the book in an academic year.
BLOB 3.[Turning to Blob 2] I think I know what it is. The narrative of highlighting pollution and downgrading plastics do not quite make a good saleable myth, do they? Public discussions about anti-Influenza vaccines either through textbooks or medical journals are perhaps a threat to the future profits of the patent-based medicine industry? On the other hand, it seems much more economically profitable to motivate children to work for industries, which unquestioningly manufacture and use plastics, one form or the other.
[Turns towards the Teacher] And you would still say the myth of your money economy is not connected with your science? There is no attempt to raise such questions in your Science education, and thus the ‘scientists’ you produce are far less likely to think of concerns about a universal vaccine as concerns of Science. [Moves closer to the Teacher and leans forward with a sharp whisper] The body of science research you collectively construct is skewed, cherry-picked, filled with half-truths, and therefore — a myth.
TEACHER.[Trying to put up one last desperate wall of defence] But scientists are curious about Nature. [Paces down the room, troubled, bruised — more with self-doubts, than from the Blobs] There are sincere biologists who consider science as the literature of Nature; and Nature as something more real than Science. They do work hard to reveal its wonders I think —
BLOB 1. It matters not what a few good-willed researchers do, my dear. Because sporadic efforts fall far short of the global rhizome of the industrial complex trying to rein in and govern ecological networks, with evidenced scientific knowledge in its hands. Particularly when the salaries of your scientists come from this very industrial complex! Look how the lungs of the Earth — the Amazonian rainforests — are being devoured in sustained spurts of fire — snatching away swathes of Brazil, parts of Peru, gnawing down Paraguay and Bolivia. From outer space, they are such ghastly perforations on the body of the globe. Years of weakened environmental protection, human profit-making and prolonged arid seasons from human-engineered global warming did it! Is your global science — the entirety of it from various disciplines — sincere in this cause? Does it rally otherwise, washing up the wounds? No. The respiratory ecological network of the earth is being injured and inflamed, cut up in pieces, and sold off. It is going up in the air in bloody smoke! I heard the current pneumonic attacks on human lungs do the same — create hazy patches on the outer edges of the lungs. Can’t help but comment that it is perhaps a tremendously sad poetic justice?
TEACHER.[Taken aback] Oh — this is — devastating. This is – oh – a very sharp stab in the heart. But I am sure — there will be — [stutters] there are ongoing — efforts — from the governments — agencies — people —
BLOB 1. Sorry, who? If the forest fires were a distant event, look what your governments are doing to the forests right now, when entire countries are shut down — giving approvals to wildlife clearance for strings of developmental project proposals, lifting already ritual limits on carbon emissions, bailing out fossil fuel industries – all under the excuse of ‘turbo charging’ an economy that is right now collapsing like a house of cards. This is nothing short of ecocide! What is the fate of the environment when such guile pervades human systems throughout?
TEACHER. Oh the sheer audacity! [Clenches his head and bows down in despair]
BLOB 3. And even those who wish to do good are silenced so easily by authorities. Even a human health tragedy falls short of the pride of a nation. In any case your Government and Scientific community have outsourced the responsibility and costs of the pandemic to the most vulnerable people in your midst, through locking them down instead of spending on testing, and health services. They used the technologies of your ‘value neutral’ Mathematics and Science to formulate and justify these policy decisions. Not to mention the kind of all-pervasive surveillance technologies your Governments are institutionalizing, taking this opportunity. Like we said before, more than the virus itself, harm would be due to panic, xenophobia, authoritarianism and lies that humans will bring upon themselves. You need Science not because you are in love with Nature. But because you need to control and govern Nature—which is a blasphemy for me, because the same humans are only a tiny part of the same Nature. How can you guys ever dream of governing it? You are not even capable of governing yourselves!
TEACHER. I get it, I realize it now. [A blank stare in the wide open] This is all a cyclic loop — Science feeds the myth which then sustains the nations and their ploys —
BLOB 3. That is true.
TEACHER.[In a long drawn pause of contemplation] I think I can see the craftily built myth that you are referring to — in science education as well. [With a deep breath] Stories that crumble — because we are detached from Nature — we treat Nature with a certain fear, of staying away, staying put, replete with metaphors of containment. Oh yes — [Hurriedly returns back to his desk] I remember this [Pulls out a textbook page]
“We live in an environment that is full of
many other creatures apart from us.
It is inevitable that many diseases
will be transmitted by other animals.”
This is a fallout of the project of colonising the Nature, isn’t it?
BLOB 2. Yes. [Solemnly] Colonialism, with the classical mix of deep fear of the ‘wild other’. This fear necessitates your need to create myths for yourself to feel safe – you had begun with simple myths about Gods and Demons, and now over thousand years, you have graduated to more complex ones such as your economic measures, your quarantine measures, your border walls and transport bans, your insurance policies, for-profit medicine industry and private health-care, your detention centers and prisons, your corporate bail-outs, your army and surveillance-capitalism, your biopolitics, your governmentality, your “work from home”s and your pathetic “social distancing”, your medico-social population registers, your “War on Viruses”.
BLOB 1. Look for yourself if you can make out this ‘othering’ of Nature from the chapter titled ‘OUR ENVIRONMENT’ here. [Sifts through the textbook again] It attributes increased amounts of waste material to “improvements in our life-style” and “changes in attitude”, such as the use of “more disposable” things and increased “packaging”. And the one on ‘POLLUTION’ tells an untrue fact when Delhi is shared as a “success story” in the “fight against pollution”. Neither does not mention that New Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world, nor the fact that twenty-one Indian cities are among the world’s most polluted. Hell, we have done more in just a few months to clean up the air of your cities than all the glorious efforts you mention in your propaganda material here! [throws away the book in disgust]
BLOB 2.[Makes a gesture towards BLOB 1 to calm down. Then addresses the teacher] Point is, this is the integrity with which substantial facts about our immediate Nature and anthropogenic presence is being reported in your textbooks. What attitude does it demand from the users of such text? Look at the recommendations it lists! Switching over from fossil fuels to alternative fuels such as “solar energy, hydropower and wind energy”, without any serious discussion about how to effect such a change in the current global economy, without any critical analysis of really how environmentally ‘friendly’ these sources of energy are after all. There is no mention of the need to cut down on human energy consumption. Or a shift in the entire premise of the human activity and political economy. Statements like “small contributions [that] can make a huge difference”, such as planting trees and nurturing “the ones already present in the neighbourhood” fails to address the massive elephants in the room — global MNCs, hand-in-gloves governments, crony think-tanks. Yet somehow places the individual man as the likely saviour — in whose hand the salvation of the planet rests! It fails to comment that the natural forests on this planet didn’t come into being because humans planted those trees. Majority of science texts talk about pollution in Nature, while keeping Nature completely out of the picture. It feels like a doctor talking about a disease while keeping the body itself out of the discussion. Doesn’t work that way — that is patronising and colonising attitude — of looking down beneath —
And people in the audience, among those who stayed back, are looking all around. Why are they hovering and closing in with one another with each passing minute. Why are they disobeying the unsaid rule to maintain silence and distance — as always? They must sit at their designated places, do as they are commanded to — as always. There are murmurs of the actors being too provocative. What, these monologues are unscripted? Who said so? Who allowed them? Who conducted the auditions for these roles? Various possibilities are ripe, but the play barely notices any such trivialities.
BLOB 3.[Trying to pacify the Teacher] Look, as we said before, we do not consider ourselves to be friends of humans. You are not an enemy either, you are just another host on whom we can latch on to. And we learn from our pasts, unlike you do. The past gene transfers, through cats, bats, camels and others, resulting in Ebola, SARS, MERS, H1N1, and the ongoing one. We are a far smoother and benign foreign body for humans than our earlier versions which were more destructive on your bodies — therefore in turn more self-destructive and less successful. But we navigated and produced more virulent genotypes. We did not create myths to fool ourselves, we just became more successful. Don’t you think you have something to learn from us?
TEACHER. I am not even sure anymore about our learning capabilities –
BLOB 1. Touche! Not just us, even History itself seems to have failed on you and your learning abilities. Host immune systems and foreign bodies like viruses have always co-evolved as long as life has existed, following the mechanism of evolution by natural selection. But the time and the nature of such unfolding must be questioned. 1918’s Spanish Flu eradicated anywhere between 50 to 100 million humans from the world, approximately 18 million were from your own country. How could it kill so many people? Because your rulers were busy fighting a global war, and thought of accepting the reality of the pandemic as an inconvenience to their war-time ‘national interests’! What has led to the gigantic scales of the current one? Heady mix of chemical and biological production processes, your industrial scale food industry, never-seen-before environmental destruction. hyper-connections within human societies due to economies of scale, and to top it off – yet again – the reluctance of your political rulers to accept the reality. You have essentially no public health infrastructure, no creation of healthy jobs, no way to provide adequate food for most of your species members, and a broken society where no one is equal to anyone else, where healthcare is a business, and doctors’ jobs are being done by the police force. Be sure that gene transfers from across the diverse ecosystems are going to keep happening, and COVIDs-20, 21 and 22s would keep manifesting because of cumulative human faults. Be ready my friend!
BLOB 2.[Steps in to chilling whisper] And just to add — we have no idea what kind of micro-organisms lie latent inside those ice sheets in the melting poles. I don’t think anyone in the past several generations has met them — but what I hear the stories — they sure are scary as hell!
TEACHER.[Quite visibly slipping into a bout of depression at this point] We’ve messed up!
BLOB 2. Pretty much. Look at what you have done to the climate! You are at war not with any so-called virus, you are at war with the planet itself. You have converted the entire planet into a furnace because of your greed. Your inane words like ‘Friends’ and ‘Foes’ are going to be fried when those microorganisms wake up!
Eerie. Something quite eerie has happened over the past stretches of time. One cannot be certain what is being said, and being said by whom. Words are echoing off from the theatre floor to the stage and back, from the parapets onto the heavy curtains. It is a miscellany of voices. There are ruptures from the darkness and silhouettes. Words are indistinguishable from the porous light. Who is it that speaks and who listens? The phrases distant and utterances are incoherent — they recede and overlap among multitudes. Can we really sift through what is happening around? The play has now recruited its themes from those who gather around to see (and read). Some of them are crawling from the margins, others from the streets below the hall, some from wide, some far. The cast has multiplied and faces may not have names. Yet the play proceeds, and follows convention — of assigning words to known accomplices.
BLOB 3. But you know what, the script is already known. Humans will again take refuge in yet another favorite myth of theirs — that everything’s gonna be alright. That they somehow own the almighty Time as well, that they can buy and sell time, while taking refuge in ‘flattening the curve’ — the war cry, the savior slogan! You will quarantine yourself and shut down all economic activities in such crisis times thinking that you are ‘buying’ time, hoping that that you will earn ‘herd immunity’ for free, at the dirt-cheap cost of working-class bodybags. When things get better you will come out of your caves, get back onto the floors of your Stock Exchanges and factories, start selling and betting on time again — like a bull on steroids — and think that you will make up for the losses. You will be faced with relentless waves of health epidemics, economic epidemics — like you have been having since 2008 — climate epidemics and refugee epidemics. But remember brother, Time is on our side – not yours!
[A grandfather clock chimes its bell at a distance at this point, and then another, and another – as if to announce their unanimous agreement with the Blob. It’s midnight. The sound of the bell echoes across the stage. The eeriness has never been so loud, yet so freezing silent]
BLOB 1.[Once the echoing bells fade out] What a tragedy you guys are! Look at the irony of the situation now: those very hands that were the evolutionary miracle that made you who you are today from your primate stages – have now turned into your biggest enemies. If you are to survive the epidemic, you essentially need to treat your own hands—your building instinct—as your nemesis! A small micro-organism was enough to wreck the myths of the liberal establishment that you have built with those hands over the ages—all your Gods, social customs, priests, economies, medicines, leaders, everything and everyone has either left you in the middle of this crisis, or are useless, or worse, are out there making profits off the crisis. Your rulers are using this opportunity to map you to the minutest of details. Your Government’s public health advisories read as if everyone in your society belong to your arrogant urban ivory towers. You guys don’t even have an idea of how to compensate the daily-wage earners in your economy in the midst of a global shutdown—this after being an economy-driven species for 3000 years! You say ‘social distancing’ but you are not willing to provide unconditional basic income and ration to every citizen irrespective of what work they do. ‘Social distancing’ has been your social organising principle even when there were no ‘virus attacks’!
BLOB 2. There is no one or no object that you can really trust anymore. Your investors can not trust your economy anymore. Your citizens don’t really trust your Governments anymore. Your neighbors can’t trust each other anymore. Your students can not trust your school systems anymore. You thought schools and colleges were next to your temples; but the pandemic has proved that you don’t really need any of those institutions when it comes to the question of basic survival. All your own manufactured products have become potential careers of infection for you. Humans are such a tragedy! Can your ‘Science Education’ handle these truths? Does it even come into cognizance with these as truths? Both you and me know the answer to that!
The teacher at this point has given up all attempts to even answer back at anything.
BLOB 1.[Realizes the drain on the poor human body in front of them, and perhaps as an act of pity, says – ] Ok, maybe one last question, before we leave. What is the definition of a ‘VIRUS’, what do you mean by a ‘PANDEMIC’, and what is the meaning of ‘DISEASE’?
TEACHER.[His throat is dry from exhaustion at this point. Gulps some water, either to wet it, or to buy some time to gather the strength to speak, we will never know] Well, I can give you the definitions from Science text books, but I know that is not what you are looking for…
BLOB 1. Yes, I mean the literal, etymological definition. The word ‘VIRUS’ in Latin literally means “poisonous substance”. ‘PANDEMIC’ means “pertaining to all people; public, common”. ‘DISEASE’ is derived from the old French word ‘desaise’ which means “lack, want; discomfort, distress; trouble, misfortune; disease, sickness”. In your textbook chapter on health and diseases, there is no talk about the health of Nature itself – the point that your health is inseparable from the health of Nature and Environment as a whole. The only context in which the ‘Environment’ is even mentioned in that chapter is when it is portrayed as a Petri dish of health hazards that humans should be wary of:
"The health of all organisms will depend on their
surroundings or their environment.
The environment includes the physical environment.
So, for example, health is at risk in a cyclone
in many ways ... For vector-borne infections,
we can provide clean environments. This would not,
for example, allow mosquito breeding. In other words,
public hygiene is one basic key to the prevention of
But what about the health of the Environment? What if it is fatally sick, suffering from several ‘DISEASES’? Not just that it is sick, what our Nature is faced with today is nothing less than a grave ‘PANDEMIC’—a disease that pertains to all constituents in Nature, across the globe and across all ecosystems. One million species of plants and animals are at the brink of the greatest ever mass extinction in the history of the planet, and it’s all due to human activity. One million species!! YOU are the poison as far as Nature is concerned! What if YOU, my brother, are the VIRUS for all of us? If anything, if me or my successors and other family members are successful in either wiping you guys out, or at least in putting you in your place, then shouldn’t we be treated as the ‘ANTI-VIRUS’ for mother Nature? I am not the villain you are looking for, just get a mirror for yourselves!
BLOB 3: But you know what? I think we are going to fail in this. Even we are not capable of leveling the kind of hierarchies you have built over the ages!Your own constructed family of Race, Caste, Capitalism viruses are possibly still going to win this time. In all likelihood, it is in fact going to become a much more unequal world of humans, post this pandemic. But we can also tell you that this is not the end my friend. The battle, if at all, has only just begun.
Eerie silence at this point. A sense of all pervasive failure droops down on the stage like a thick mushroom cloud. The teacher is seen stooping down on his desk, covering his face with his hands, clearly with no energy to pay heed to the non-stop advisories of “avoid touching your face”.
Finally he lifts his face. A look of utter helplessness and plea in his eyes.
TEACHER. But we must think of some refuge, for the kids at least — for the learners — they have not played any role in any of this isn’t it – they should not have to inherit this catastrophe –
BLOB 2. Begin with apologizing to them! Overhaul the attitudes of your education — first teach yourselves to acknowledge the truths as they are, before you go on the preaching mode. When you meet your students the next time , ask them to physically distance themselves from each other, but also remind them the difference between physical distancing and social distancing. Teach them to talk to each other, to differ with each other, to ask questions. Teach them that the only truth is that which is meant for the good of every human being on earth. You can’t give up the locus of the human subject. You must strengthen it — through sense and empathy —
BLOB 1. — and solidarity against oppression. Teach them to rally against colonization of other humans, and colonization of Nature! Teach them about those who fought such struggles. Teach them the history of common people. Remember Chief Seattle’s letter to the US President? Why not start with that – Remember that he wrote without a shred of doubt –
“The President in Washington sends word that
he wishes to buy our land.
But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land?
The idea is strange to us.
If we do not own the freshness of the air and
the sparkle of the water, how can you sell them?
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.
Every shining pine needle, every humming insect.
All are holy in the memory
and experience of my people.”
He also talked about Education of children —
“Will you teach your children what we have
taught our children?
That the earth is our Mother?
What befalls the earth befalls all
the sons of the earth.”
How about realizing a science curriculum that The Chief envisioned so long back —
“This we know: The earth does not belong to man,
man belongs to the earth.
All things are connected like the blood
that unites us all.
Man did not weave the web of life;
he is merely a strand of it.
Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Teach them, teach them to teach themselves. Teach them to free up knowledge for all. Can your science, your science education reconstruct itself like that? Can you humans adapt to it?
Maybe time will tell.
[Takes a long pause]
Perhaps, only time will tell.
Curtains, as if there were any.
*The author is a Mathematician and Education Researcher and can be reached at tathagataletters[at]riseup[dot]net
The COVID-19 Pandemic has generated multiple crises across healthcare, economic, and social systems in the U.S. and across the world.
Progressive and radical organizations must rise to meet the immediate challenges of these crises, while also working to replace the failing systems that gave rise to them. We must practice solidarity by aiding impacted communities and by marshaling scientists and scientific resources in these efforts. We demand accountability for the effects of these crises from government, financial, and social institutions. We must support institutions conducting, supporting, and applying scientific research related to the pandemic.
The pandemic is causing great harm not only due to direct effects of COVID-19 on health, but also through economic devastation affecting livelihoods, housing, transportation, medical care, education, access to nutrition, and all systems necessary for our health and well-being. Physical distancing and anxieties regarding the pandemic will have negative impacts on mental health and social relationships, with even greater impacts on working people laid off amidst financial collapse. Meanwhile, the absence of adequate resources for healthcare, combined with the focus on protecting the financial sector, lay bare the priorities of the capitalist system.
People in low income and marginalized populations, often with compromised health and denied adequate healthcare long before the pandemic, are the hardest hit. Current government assistance plans proposed during this crisis have been woefully inadequate and leave out major sections of the population: the unemployed, the houseless, the disabled, people who are imprisoned, and the vast majority of people with no wealth and much debt, who are disproportionately people of color. We demand that their needs are put first in public assistance programs dealing with the pandemic.
It is crucial that we grow and amplify scientific knowledge amidst this pandemic through responsible transparent research and technological development. Building knowledge about the virus and the disease, including publicly available resources for genomics, epidemiology, infection control and vaccine development will improve containment and medical treatment. Centering vulnerable populations in our priorities will help protect them and build the best overall public health strategy; when vulnerable populations have good healthcare, care is better for everyone. Projections of the extent and severity of COVID-19 are crucial for planning strategic deployment of resources; testing must be universally available and implemented. We demand that any science and technology developed to respond to the pandemic are available for all, without profit or patent.
Nurses and other healthcare workers are on the front lines of fighting the pandemic and face great risks delivering care. Supporting these workers is critical for public health. They must have access to the personal protective equipment, adequate testing resources, and training programs needed to stay safe while providing care. Additionally, we must support the right of these workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining to support their interests. Public funds must be allocated to greatly increase the number of healthcare professionals and to adequately compensate them. We demand that all public and private healthcare institutions listen to and meet the needs of nurses and healthcare workers.
The workers who are ensuring adequate supplies of food, transportation, and other essential supplies by continuing to go to their jobs through the pandemic, are mostly underpaid and lack the resources to choose to not show up. Farmworkers, many of whom are migrants in precarious situations, are continuing to work in the fields. We demand that these workers be given adequate pay, benefits, and protection immediately, not only during the pandemic but permanently.
Production of masks, protective clothing, ventilation systems, isolation rooms, and other protective equipment must become a top economic priority, to be provided free wherever needed. Universities, research institutions, government agencies, the military, and private enterprises that have personal protective equipment in their inventories must offer these resources to support medical response to the pandemic. We demand that healthcare and essential service workers be given proper personal protective equipment for their safety.
This pandemic shows us the impact of neoliberal defunding of public health institutions and attacks on science, education and public media. Stopping and reversing this trend is critical for our survival. The exorbitant funds allocated for the military and state security apparatuses should be immediately reallocated to public health and social support systems. Professionals with expertise and experience in infection control must be given the opportunity to provide honest communication to the public. We demand truth in reporting and accurate data about the pandemic.
Local efforts to support these needs and control the pandemic should be supported. However, there is a pressing need for more adequate infrastructure and leadership from the federal government. We must support, politically and financially, institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, while at the same time greatly increasing the funding and political support for community health organizations and State and local health departments. We must develop and implement strategies for increasing the cooperation and collaboration of local health departments with the national institutions such as CDC. Combined, these measures help lay the groundwork for implementing the necessary programs for combating the pandemic and ensuring public health. We demand adequate funding and support for public research institutions.
The pandemic is a global phenomenon. It cannot be addressed by isolationist, xenophobic and nationalistic “America First” policies. Internationalism and anticolonialism must guide collaborations across the world, for sharing research and resources, and for learning from best practices wherever they are occurring. In particular, sanctions that prevent countries such as Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela from accessing needed medical equipment and supplies must be suspended or cancelled.We demand a global and peaceful response to the pandemic.
Science for the People stands in solidarity with all people across the world as we work together to end the pandemic. We ask that scientists uplift these demands and provide aid where they can.
From 1969 to 1989, Science for the People served as the forceful voice for a generation of scientists seeking to build justice within science and with science. Now, with scientists again under attack and science once again used to prop up the power structures that have failed us, we’re returning with new urgency to regular publication. Last year, we kicked off our publishing with a special collection on geoengineering and the dangerous claim that technology – rather than radically reshaping our society – will save us from climate disaster.
Our spring 2019 issue has the theme “The Return of Radical Science.” It’s not just about fighting fossil fueled capitalism – we’re wresting control of scientific inquiry from militarism and the surveillance state, we’re examining how to organize science workers to share the fruits of discovery within and outside of academia, and we’re confronting the colonial and patriarchal power structures within science to make sure that science truly is for the people. But we need your help.
If we meet our goal of $20,000, we’ll produce a special print run of our relaunch issue, alongside our geoengineering collection, and deliver it to our backers, and be able to continue digital publication of the new magazine indefinitely. If we meet our stretch goal of $30,000, we’ll return immediately to print publication, distributing two more issues this summer and fall on themes too be announced.
The fundraiser starts this Monday, March 18. We hope you can join us for a special teleconference call this Thursday, March 21, at 9 p.m. Eastern time, to discuss what you can do to help spread the news of Science for the People’s return far and wide. Instructions for calling in are below. If you can’t make the launch call, please keep an eye on our Facebook, Twitter,Instagram, or website for when the campaign goes live!
The teleconference will be held at 9pm Eastern Time on Thursday, March 21 over Zoom, a teleconferencing service you can join over your phone or on your computer.
ON YOUR PHONE: call one of the following numbers, then enter meeting ID 584 76 1970:
– For a faster connection in the Eastern US: +1 (646) 876-9923
– For a faster connection in the Western US +1 (669) 900-6833
– Callers in Mexico can call +52 229 910 0061 or +52 554 161 4288
– Those in other countries can click here for a list of local numbers (https://zoom.us/u/ad9TFnO5Cw)
You can read more about how different editorial collectives will gather perspectives for each issue of Science for the People on the magazine’s website, or explore the archives that countless volunteers have been working to digitize over the last year. Learn about the amazing work our chapters are doing to build power on the organization’s website, or learn how to get involved or start your own chapter by emailing email@example.com.
We’re so inspired by the work that the revitalized Science for the People is doing. Will you join us in sharing this work with the world?
In Colombia, the herbicide glyphosate is once again making headlines after right-wing President Iván Duque urged Congress to overturn a 2015 ban on aerial fumigations intended to eradicate coca cultivations. This comes as the Duque administration seeks to back-out of the 2016 Peace Agreement by objecting to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a central component of the Agreements. While there is no scientific consensus on the health effects of glyphosate fumigations, contradictory results in major studies must lead us to employ the cautionary principle. By arguing that glyphosate is safe and effective, Duque and his allies are further justifying their de-facto annulment of the historic 2016 Peace Agreement, specifically points I and IV on land reform and illicit crop substitution respectively. It is important to engage with the health-based debate while maintaining sight of the larger structural issues, namely land reform.
Glyphosate in Colombia
Since 1978, Colombia has used glyphosate in its aerial fumigations. Between 1999 and 2015 over 1,800,000 hectares were sprayed with the herbicide to kill illicit crops, beginning with marihuana and transitioning to coca and poppy. Glyphosate fumigations of coca cultivations were domestically framed as a means of eliminating an important revenue stream for the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). For years, campesino communities protested the criminalization of coca and the use of glyphosate, linking the latter to damaging health effects, spoiled agricultural crops, and contaminated water sources. After decades of organized strikes and mobilizations, the Colombian government finally announced in 2015, during the Peace Negotiations, that it would at last ban the use of glyphosate for aerial spraying, citing health concerns. Following pressure from the US, in 2016 it resumed the use of glyphosate, this time using drones rather than helicopters and planes.
Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, was patented by Monsanto in 1970 and is the active ingredient in Roundup. International regulatory bodies have published conflicting results regarding its health impacts. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has described glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” pointing to ““convincing evidence that glyphosate (…) can cause cancer in laboratory animals.” Specifically, recent studies have shown a compelling link between exposures to Glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) and increased risk for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL, a cancer of the lymphatic tissue). Alejandro Gaviria, a former Minister of Health, has linked the fumigations to “a high probability of infant mortality increases, dermatological and respiratory problems, and possible interference with embryonic development”.
Ineffective and Counterproductive Policy
Even if glyphosate were safe, fumigations in Colombia and beyond are ineffective and counterproductive. From Afghanistan to Vietnam, aerial fumigations have more often been used as commercial opportunities or chemical and agricultural warfare than effective policy. In Colombia’s Valle del Guamuez, rural areas were founded with names like Arenosa (“The Sandy”) after fumigations dried up the land. Communities learn to adapt their coca farming to fumigations but they give up on agricultural crops. Fumigations further aggravate internal displacement in a country with the second highest IDP (internally displaced persons) population in the world. Fumigations eradicate farming communities, not coca cultivation.
We do not yet know the results of the Congressional debate on the use of glyphosate. While there were more speakers in favor of upholding the current glyphosate ban, we know that the administration of Iván Duque is under significant pressure from the US.
The Trump administration has been “seriously considered designating Colombia as a country that has failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements” unless coca cultivations change their course. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had testified to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations regarding Colombia, stating, “what we’ve said is you have to get back to allowing the spraying of these fields, the destruction of the fields.” Earlier, in 2014, the State Department had complained about protests against fumigations: “National level protests blocking access roads and inhibiting movement were a major hindrance to manual eradication’s ability to operate in major coca growing regions, and also bedeviled aerial eradication operations.” But perhaps the bluntest explanation came from former US Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, a top counternarcotics official at the State Department for the Trump administration. Collective action and road-blocking, he observed, were not a problem during aerial fumigations. “You cannot protest from the ground an airplane that is flying over a coca field and killing the coca from the air”…
The renewed debate around glyphosate is particularly disturbing because Colombia has tested, proven, and agreed-upon alternatives. The 2016 Peace Agreement’s points I and IV address Land Reform and Crop Substitution respectively. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that voluntary crop substitution programs, the basis of the Fourth Point, are overwhelmingly more effective than fumigations and other forms of forced eradication. Their report affirms that just 0.6% of coca cultivations are re-planted under voluntary crop substitution programs while, under forced eradication programs, 30% of crops are re-planted in the first three months and over 50% of crops are re-planted within the year. The high rates of re-cultivation are the result of a policy that does not address the basic need for a stable sustenance– the reason families cultivate coca.
Beyond crop substitution, Colombia needs land reform. Nearly seventy percent of the country’s productive land is concentrated in 0.4 percent of agricultural landholdings, Oxfam reports. As long as this reality holds, no form of coca eradication has a chance of succeeding. We can and should debate about glyphosate without losing sight of the more central, historic debate in Colombia.
A look back at the archives of Science for the People and its writings on the occupational health and safety movement in the United States.
Gail Robson & Taylor Lampe, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health
Science for the People’s publication began in 1969, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (also known as OSHA) passed in the United States in 1970. The radical science movement in the US developed alongside the workers’ movement for occupational health and safety, and these early 20 years of collaboration are documented throughout the pages of the Science for the People magazine.
1980, Vol 12 No. 2
OSHA’s establishment in 1971 marked the first US federal legislative protection for workers’ safety, but many on the Left felt that the regulations were vastly insufficient. As argued in OSHA Inspectors, published in 1975, OSHA was merely “a capitalist reform program administered in the interests of the ruling class”, with no power, including money, staff, or enforcement, to force corporations to take the steps necessary to improve safety and health. In a 1974 speech, Midwest Workers Fight for Health and Safety, Carl Carlson detailed how corporations could work around OSHA to avoid providing protections for their workers. Dave Kotelchuck, in 1972 in Industrial Health and the Chemical Worker, called it a law “overwhelmingly biased in favor of management”.
RAISING LEFT CONSCIOUSNESS
The passing of OSHA, combined with increased workers’ calls for safety, coincided with the New Left’s increasing “desire…to relate to workers”, further claimed Kotelchuck. Although workers and unions had a rich history of organizing around occupational health and job safety, the early 1970’s critiques from the American Left marked the beginning of this issues as a ‘hot topic’ for the Left, he claimed. In his 1972 article, Kotelchuck hypothesized that the delay was influenced by the “tired old American myth” that workers were only concerned with wages and fringe benefits, rather than safety and health conditions. This, of course, was never true. As argued by Kotelchuck’s 1975 article, Asbestos: Science for Sale, workers have always been forced into the impossible choice between their jobs and their health. Many continued to choose work to support their families, at the literal costs of their mental health, physical health, and in many cases, lives, after daily exposure to harmful chemicals and unsafe environments.
Frank Mirer, in a 1972 article titled Occupational Health: Time for Us to Get to Work, indicated that the Left saw this issue as one with the “potential for setting people, [especially industrial workers] into motion in a progressive direction”. Occupational health struggles, Kotelchuck also agreed, could serve as “the seed of worker control over the entire work process… and an important transitional step toward restructuring our society”. It was envisioned, in the face of weak legislative protections, that collaborations between radical scientists, workers, and unions could be used to improve objective working conditions, and also aid the entire Left movement in the process. The workers rights avenues created by OSHA could be strategically employed, as explored in Using OSHA, written by Chip Hughes & Len Stanley in 1977.
1972, Vol 4 No. 6
MOBILIZING SCIENCE WORKERS
Until the Left became more engaged with this specific worker’s fight, as Kotelchuck articulated, “previously, [radical scientists] had been no more aware [of occupational health issues]…than most people of similar middle-class background”. Science for the People membership in the 1970s consisted mostly of educated and technically trained, middle class scientists and engineers working in academia and industry. Many coming out of the American scientific education had little formal training on the socio-economic considerations of their technical work, as explored in a 1977 article Brown Lung Blues by Michael Freemark. In 1971, a union-organized gathering of 50 workers and scientists brought these scientists to a chemical plant, which for most, was the first time they came face-to-face with industrial working conditions. It was written that “the conference was an eye-opener”.
This disconnect, between the class and educational experiences of workers and radical scientists, posed challenges and opportunities going forward. Scientists were clearly, according to Mirer, “Outside the class or cultural background of the constituency they hope to serve”. They needed to, first and foremost, educate themselves. Few had specific training in occupational health. And many of the professional occupational health workers, like those hired by OSHA, were not primarily interested in the well-being of workers, and were not organizing with SFTP.
SFTP & UNION COLLABORATIONS
The SFTP magazine called for radical scientists to educate themselves, then use their technical skills to address this important issue. Scientists could engage in “service projects in this area” or “technical assistance projects” on top of their paid, daily work. A 1975 introduction to a special issue on Occupational Health and Safety made this statement:
“We are aware that as long as capitalism exists workers will be exploited by those who wish to maximize profits, and workplaces will remain unsafe… We urge more of our readers to… participate in the difficult task of finding ways to employ science to serve the health and safety needs of workers.”
The foundation of this work for radical scientists would come from contacts with local unions and workers, both for educational reasons, and for organizing strategic reasons. Kotelchuck, in his 1972 article, claimed that “companies frown on contact between science workers and production workers” because they wanted to keep workers unaware of their health and safety risks. A pamphlet published in 1974, How to Look at Your Plant, empowered workers to cite violations and take action. Then, in collaboration, scientists could provide workshops on physiology, chemical exposures, and safety protections. They could train workers to perform air and temperature tests, set up health clinics, or perform epidemiological studies if little was known about the exposure. Unions and workers could then use this information, and the small workers’ rights offered through OSHA, to document and hold more management accountable to safety and health violations.
1974, Vol. 6 No. 4
As these alliances turned into more formalized coalitions, the COSH movement, or regional coalitions or committees for occupational safety and health, was born in the US. The primary role of COSH groups were for scientists, labor unions, health, and legal professionals to support worker struggles concerning health and safety issues through technical assistance and empowering forms of education. Organizing for Job Safety by Dan Berman in 1980 detailed the history of the movement starting in 1972; Education and Research in Occupational Health in 1982 described the connections of these groups to academics and scientists; Knowing about workplace risk, by Dorothy Nelkin & Michael Brown in 1984, acknowledged the essential role played by COSH groups in knowledge dissemination and education to workers.
OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH OF WOMEN
A theme that emerged throughout the decades of publishing within the realm of occupational health and safety was a focus on the occupational health of women, and the critique of US policies enacted ostensibly to help women workers. Generally, these policies were not enacted to protect the needs of women themselves, rather they protected, or claimed to protect, their reproductive capacity and the babies they could potentially be carrying. For example, the 1980 article Danger: Women’s Workdescribed factories with high levels of toxic exposure banning women of reproductive age from working there at all, rather than insisting on an environment that was safe for everyone. As a result of these policies, many women felt forced to go through sterilization to keep their jobs.
In 1980, Your Body or Your Job, by John and Barbara Beckwith, argued that sexual harassment in the workplace was an essential occupational health issue, and one neglected by the feminist movement. The term “sexual harassment” itself did not exist until 1975 and at the time of publishing this article, the only legal precedents were at district court levels, including a ruling in 1976 that sexual harassment was violation of title VII sex discrimination clause of Civil Right Act. This article acknowledged that Black women were the most vulnerable to sexual harassment, while simultaneously these women often took on leadership positions on the issue and brought forward the greatest number of lawsuits around the US. The writers called for the struggle against capitalism and patriarchy to carry on side by side, since anti-capitalist work alone would not be sufficient to also tackle patriarchal oppression in the workplace.
1980, Vol. 12 No. 2
Another major advocacy activity by SFTP was for workers’ right to know the hazards of substances with which they were working, and pushing for the enactment of state-level right-to-know legislation. In Knowing about Workplace Risks, Dorothy Nelkin and Michael Brown described the complex barriers preventing workers from information around their own safety, and how some workers effectively obtained information in their own workplaces. Mandy Hawes, in Dying for a Job in 1980 documented trends in chronic Benzene exposure and leukemia and put forward suggestions for organizing by documenting health effects in the workplace, and the protection measures that exist, while calling for hazard evaluations and standard-setting at a federal level along with state-level legislation. Asbestos and the chemical sterilizer DBCP were also key issues in right-to-know advocacy in the 80s, as described in the 1982 articles, Keeping Workers in Line, and Asbestos in the Classroom.
Chris Anne Raymond in the 1984 article, Whose Health and Welfare, critiqued the mainstream press as treating disease revelations “like natural disasters, a sudden and unforeseeable accident, to which the industry and government responded wisely and forthrightly” while in reality these risks were embedded in the system of production, and industry and government had no incentive to protect workers without strong union opposition.
Science for the People publications ended in 1989, and since then, many of these themes are ongoing today. Work environments and hazards continue to change as industries and technologies develop, and as the labor movement changes, there is a continued need for sustainable collaborations between radical scientists, workers, and unions. Future articles and publications can further engage with the gendered and racialized aspects of occupational health and safety, and reflect on how the field has changed over the past decades.
Authors: Gail Robson and Taylor Lampe, MPH Students at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health
Over the previous months, technology workers have demonstrated remarkable courage and solidarity by raising their voices and organizing to stop the use of their technology to support the malicious operations of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). We salute the organizers of these efforts and seek to offer encouragement, analysis, and continued solidarity in this ongoing struggle.
As reports of family separation, child abuse, racist policing, and inhumane detention by ICE circulated, these workers investigated the contracts between their employers and the agency to understand how technology companies were facilitating these harmful activities. Workers at Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce took to action by writing open letters in the press to the executives of these companies asking them to do the right thing and drop multimillion dollar contracts with ICE that provide technological support for the agency. Of particularly alarming concern are the deployment of Microsoft’s Azure and Amazon’s Rekognition platforms for facial recognition and identification to enable ICE to target individuals for detention and deportation.
In response, executives at these companies have taken a predictable route of denying culpability in ICE’s reprehensible and inhumane behavior, with Amazon doubling down on its support of the agency. At present, none of these executives have signaled that they will move to end these contracts or commit their enterprises to humane practices. These executives’ inhumanity is pronounced by their calculated, contradictory behavior regarding immigration, by paying lip-service to supporting immigration reform, while simultaneously profiting from the oppression of immigrants. While these workers appealed to their boss’s humanity, morality, and knowledge of history, the executives in turn demonstrated that they have none. Their power relies on profits taking precedence over all else.
We hope that workers at these companies and beyond understand that their struggle for justice is only beginning and that they do not struggle alone. Science for the People stands in full support of all efforts by technology workers to organize their labor and to demand that their work not be used as tools of oppression.
The capacity of companies to sell products and make profits relies entirely on the labor of the technology workers who create the hardware and software. Whether that labor looks like writing thousands of lines of code, maintaining a clean office space, or building integrated circuits on the assembly line, all of these efforts combine to create the technology that envelopes the modern world. However, the way this technology is deployed and its purpose is presently outside of workers’ control. It does not have to be this way.
The very same labor power used to create this technology can be slowed or withheld entirely to make incontestable demands for justice, born out of solidarity with everyday people. Doing so requires the organization, collective decision-making processes, and legal representation that only building a labor union with rank-and-file leadership can offer. The inspiring actions to get hundreds of technology workers to raise their collective voice against tech-enabled injustice is a crucial step towards building an organized workforce that can win the fight for justice.
For science workers, it is necessary that we watch closely and learn from these pioneering efforts of technology workers, while providing support and showing solidarity for their struggle. As Science for the People has documented extensively, our labor as science workers has been used to enable injustice and create profits from misery throughout history. Our struggle to ensure that science serves the needs of everyday people, rather than supporting the interests of the powerful few, faces similar challenges on the road ahead. Together, we can build our power to win these struggles, and become a strong link in a long-running historical chain of workers striking out against oppression.
Science for the People’s Science for Puerto Rico Working Group is leading a solidarity brigade to the island, July 19-29, 2018. While a new hurricane season has begun, Puerto Ricans still face many frontline struggles in infrastructure, food, and housing in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The volunteers in this brigade will contribute to ongoing community projects while cultivating relationships with existing groups, including Casa Pueblo Puerto Rico, to help the people of Puerto Rico build resilient, community-owned infrastructure.
Beyond assisting current projects, Science for Puerto Rico will expand our network through participation in meetings with members of the community, local organizations, and international climate justice groups. The brigade will also conduct interviews and dedicated political education events to learn from Puerto Rican community members and activists and find areas where we can continue to contribute beyond our initial July brigade. While we express our solidarity through volunteering, we are also working to expand a sociopolitical analysis of the causes and consequences of the disaster in Puerto Rico.
There are many local organizations in Puerto Rico that need financial support. Consider donating to Güakiá Colectivo Agroecológico.
The Science for Puerto Rico brigade is possible because volunteers are covering their own airfare and food. You can support Science for the People’s direct action, volunteering, and organizing costs by becoming a patron for just $5 a month.
This Monday, June 25, 3-4 p.m. EDT, join Science for the People and other radical and progressive scientists and activists during the #ScienceRising Twitter Chat: Science Should Support Equity and Justice.
The following two speeches were presented by members of Science for the People’s Atlanta chapter, Lauren Wiggins and Rebekah Ward, at their local March for Science on April 14, 2018. Click here to see photos and read reports on Science for the People organizing at the March for Science in the U.S. and Mexico.
Good Afternoon! My name is Lauren, and I am here representing the Atlanta Chapter of Science for the People at the 2018 Rally for Science and I’m excited to be here with you all today! And today I’m going to talk about climate change, big business, and social justice.
My first introduction to climate change was in 2014. I was an intern for Greenpeace–you may have heard of it. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the influence they’d had on society since the 1970s, nor was I aware of their current status as the largest global environmental organization. Truth be told, I’d just heard of the idea of climate change a few months prior to getting the internship. I’d heard of climate change from a friend in my junior year of college. I read a few articles, joined a sustainability group, and attended a conference or two on climate science and activism, and at that point I really thought I’d found my passion…but while I was interning at the Greenpeace USA headquarters, I stumbled upon an article about people who are trafficked into forced labor in the fishing industry. I was absolutely blown away, and wondered why this aspect of sustainability wasn’t more widely publicized along with the “save the whales” marketing Greenpeace had used for decades.
But I’m not here to talk about what lead me to my passion, I’m here to open your minds to what wasn’t taught to me as a school-aged child: climate change and social responsibility.
Most of us here have heard plenty about the environmental movement. We all support it and I’m sure I don’t need to stand here and convince you all that climate change is real, but what I will do is convince you that there’s a neglected narrative in the green movement. While we focus on campaigns to save the polar bears, the Sumatran tigers, the green sea turtles and other species that are undoubtedly worth saving: We often leave the most under-resourced and marginalized communities behind in this movement. It always baffles me to see large environmental campaigns driven by the concern of species far outside our own, but when we think about the human beings–you know, our neighbors, our community members, those who look like and reflect us–who in this instance, live less than ten miles from us, we often have no remorse for their circumstances or surroundings, or concern for their well-being.
In the midst of these changes in climate, the world often forgets to acknowledge that those who are producing most of the pollutants that are harmful to our health and our atmosphere are those farthest away from enduring the consequences of climate change. I cannot stress enough that the poor, and people of color, have always been and will continue to be the first affected and worst affected by natural disasters that are fueled by climate change. An example of this has been widely noted with Hurricane Katrina, a tragedy that displaced almost half a million people. I must emphasize that there are powers who are benefitting from these natural disasters. Naomi Klein, a Canadian journalist, author, and social activist, termed this consequence perfectly as “disaster capitalism.” She says, “some stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters, [while others] stockpile free-market ideas,” such as privatizing public services and corporate buyouts of low-income housing.
So those of us here probably aren’t looking for the next opportunity to build a beachside resort the next time a typhoon hits (which, by the way, is what happened in the Philippines following the Typhoon Haiyan disaster–and if you’ve been following the news, a similar cycle of exploitation is happening in Puerto Rico), but do consider this: When another natural disaster hits our world, the people who possess the means to do so will simply evacuate and reconstruct it without concern for those whose lives have been uprooted and whose families have been torn apart. However, the communities that were disenfranchised way before a disaster comes along will not have that option, and there are capitalists who bank on that occurrence (pun intended).
In one of my favorite books, Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement, author Robert Hunter writes, “A small group of people, acting imaginatively and nonviolently, can affect the course of events in our global village.” And this is true! Small groups are the seed of any movement! And if that small group is determined to change society to everyone’s benefit, it can make the largest impact!
I am an activist by trade, and by recreation. I volunteer with a group called Science for the People. We’re a group of scientists who, in 1969, were key in debunking the myths surrounding race and genes. Well-known figures like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin started our organization! Our pamphlet’s title, “The Dual Nature of Science,” which you can find at our booth is inspired by yet another influential scientist, Richard Levins.
We are revamping Science for the People now, in the 21st century, because we believe that Science IS for the People, not for profit! We believe that Science IS for the People, not for war! We work on demilitarizing science, we work on making science accessible, and we work with communities because science is key for policy-making and transparency!
Science for the People works with the Atlanta community to make sure that our city is fueled by 100% clean energy, as the city council has promised in their recent resolution. Our vision for a 100% clean city, and ultimately a carbon-neutral world, is where clean energy develops alongside increased equity. So I urge you all to join us or join another organization that actively helps with this ambitious plan that can make our future more equitable, more sustainable, and more harmonious!
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “it really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”
My life’s work is centered around justice for the environment and primarily the marginalized communities that have been oppressed, exploited, and constantly overlooked by the structures that, if they chose to, could “save” these communities. But I’ve come to a powerful realization in my years of organizing: we can’t wait around for anything to save us. One of my favorite idioms is, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” To be clear, I don’t intend to save the world by myself, nor would I suggest that the task be taken on by a single organization, because history has shown us that no movement reaches success by uniform assembly, but rather a diverse collective of shared power and respected values. We have to work alongside our communities, and at the same time, provide them with the tools and support to liberate themselves, as Science for the People is poised to do in this nation and eventually around the world.
After my first Black Lives Matter action and other environmental justice engagements at the United Nations climate talks, I declared to myself–and now to all of you–that I would spark a fire in each person I have the pleasure of meeting; so I want to spark the fire of empowerment in you, and you, and you…I want you all to join a movement and uplift a cause that is outside of yourself, your culture, and your upbringing. Like I said earlier, we all share this earth, and each of you in this audience possesses an invincible power to change the way humans live in it and among each other.
Thanks for listening, y’all.
There is a context to the current attack on science, and science education specifically. The first year Congress actually made specific appropriations for science education was 1958, one year after Sputnik was launched. What’s of note here is that it took the Cold War to motivate our government to take science education seriously. Previously, and historically, science had been the domain of the few and privileged. But that began to change during the 1960s and ‘70s as quality science education became much more accessible and new fields opened up prospects of quality jobs. Then, in the 1990s, the U.S. responded to changes in the global economy by moving toward neoliberalism. Briefly defined, this is a structural readjustment in funding that moves toward privatization of public services in order to bolster the free market. Here’s where you begin to see the push to change the nature of education. In grades K through 12, funding was cut and charters and vouchers were incentivized. In the academy, fewer secure well-paying tenure track positions were available. The academy moved toward adjuncts to bear the teaching load and post-doctoral fellows to crank out data. This data was then used to get grants that could pay for the staff that was needed to get more grants.
Fast forward to the 2008 crisis. Governments of the world bailed out the banks, and the source of that money came from the social safety net. Funding for things like unemployment, infrastructure, and education were all cut. This was austerity, and it only accelerated the attacks on quality public education. According to the American Association of University Professors, the share of adjuncts teaching across higher ed has increased 66 percent in the past four decades. Adjuncts now make up 40 percent of the academic labor force at institutions surveyed, more than all other types of faculty combined. This majority of the academic labor force makes an average of around $20,000 a year. This is one of the ways that universities have coped with historic decreases in funding: a supplementary low wage labor force. And K-12 is even worse. The teacher pay penalty is bigger than ever. In 1994, public school teachers’ weekly wages were 1.8 percent lower than those of comparable workers; now it is approaching 20% lower than other workers. Education, including most types of science education, has been systematically devalued.
Locally, we see this play out in the University System of Georgia in several ways. State funding for public two- and four-year colleges is, nation wide, nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation. These kinds of cuts increase tuition, impact the Hope education tax credit, increase the adjunct to tenure track ratio, and decrease the support staff for students. This trend underlies the recent mergers between campuses. Georgia Perimeter and Georgia State University, along with many other physically proximal colleges and universities in the state, were combined into a single institution. Part of the stated purpose was to “reduce redundancy.” Why have two Human Resources departments, two Financial Aid departments, when you could have one that works twice as hard? Also, there are examples of science faculty in particular, who have been subject to paying for the underfunding of the USG.
At one local college, faculty who teach labs have recently been informed that they must teach an additional class next year for no additional pay. This amounts to around a 20% wage cut. In the labor movement, this is sometimes called a speed up. This allows the institution to hire fewer adjuncts without reducing incoming tuition. The trend is clear: education in general, and science education, with its equipment and reagents costs, in particular, are a target for the ongoing budget cuts.
Science for the People relies on donations to fuel our activism. You can help support Science for the People’s mission and the relaunch of our publication in the coming months. Become a Patreon patron today.
Why do we “March for Science”? A central impulse is to fight the exercise of power for private gain at the expense of broad interest; oil companies ought not determine the quality of climate science!
However, if we generalize this impulse we risk making science into a neutral counter-power to be deployed merely through Evidence-Based Policy. But defense of science is not enough. We need to transform the role of science in our world.
Science for the People engages with what ecologist Richard Levins called the dual nature of science. That is science as “an episode in the growth of human knowledge in general, and as the class-, gender-, and culture-bound product of Euro-North American capitalism in particular.” Levins noted that two common reactions to the intersection of science and politics, scientism (the ideology that science is always correct and just) and antiscience, fail to grasp this dual nature:
Both scientism and modem antiscience are one-sided. This is not the same as “extreme,” the ultimate reproach of liberal criticism. “Extreme” implies as its preferred opposite “moderate,” a solution with the implication that the truth is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, or “not all black or white, but some shade of grey,” an optimal middle ground defined by the extremes that are rejected.”
Both scientism and antiscience fail to address the real challenges facing scientists, society, and the planet today. A few examples show that a sensitivity to the dual nature of science is the necessary backbone of our movement.
Science tends to satisfy capitalism’s need to constantly innovate in the pursuit of profit, and as a result becomes the center of a misleading progressivist ideology. But progress for whom? More than half of American government science funding is channeled through the military. The invasion and occupation of Iraq killed over half a million Iraqis and cost $2.3 trillion. The total budget of the National Institutes of Health over the same period was about $225 billion. The US spent ten times more killing over 500,000 people than it did on research to improve healthcare!
Science is often integrated into profoundly anti-democratic policy. Writing in Science for the People magazine in 1977, Linda Gordon noted that the birth control movement started with an emphasis on women’s liberation, but the entry of doctors and other professionals infused the movement with elitist values such as population control, often due to openly eugenicist views. The fight for reproductive justice continues today. Black women die at a rate four times higher than white women in childbirth and abortion access has been declining for decades. Our movement must not repeat these errors of technocracy and elitism, but must join broad democratic struggles.
Eugenics and Biological Determinism
Too often, scientific acceptance promotes injustice. The Eugenics Movement reached mainstream scientific status in the early 20th century (with many universities hosting Eugenics Departments), justifying tens of thousands of sterilizations of black, poor, and disabled people up through the 1960s.
Ideas that later are deemed reprehensible can exist as accepted science for decades; this happens even today. Eugenics is a cruder version of the general science of biological determinism–the justification of social violence and inequity through their naturalization as biologically inevitable–which is alive and well.
How should scientists organize politically?
The discrediting of biological determinism was the joint victory of the women’s movement, the Black freedom struggle, and the radical science movement. Radical scientists contributed by publicly exposing ideological motivations through careful, sustained, confrontational argument. And the fight continues. So long as structural injustices persist, so too will their naturalization, from Charles Murray’s “color-blind” notion of biological class, to James Damore’s claims that women are underrepresented in tech because they are innately inept.
Science is not an abstraction removed from society. Science is produced by our labor. But the conditions of this production and the use of science are controlled by the wealthy and powerful. We must fight for a science that serves all people, organizing wherever science is produced or applied alongside all those fighting for justice.
Against any tendency to antiscience, we should remember: knowledge is won with our labor and can be used to advance common goals. Against any tendency to scientism: our movement lives and dies with the broader left; technical knowledge alone never delivers justice.