The killing of George Floyd has triggered a global lament over the racism that pervades and persists throughout the world, resisting every effort to expunge it. What’s most damning? That very persistence testifies we’re not trying very hard. Whether here in the United States or abroad, our individual and corporate efforts to cleanse ourselves and society of this evil have been and continue to be halfhearted, lackadaisical. We can and should do more.
Yesterday, June 10, thousands of scientists took time from their work to reflect on all this, and focus on an ugly reality, close to home: that scientists and the institutions and ways of doing science and research are part of the problem. This day of soul searching was loosely organized under #shutdownSTEM and other labels. Any bit of probing the internet will provide the specifics and uncover a massive amount of evidence supporting this broad indictment – much more than can be assimilated in any single day, or even a lifetime.
One thought expressed during the run-up was that white scientists shouldn’t weigh in on June 10. Instead they might better maintain a respectful silence; at most they should limit their presence on social media to, say, retweeting messages originating from scientists of color. (The #shutdownSTEM organizers had seen enough of vaguely supportive pronouncements from whites that were never followed by action.)
A harsh accusation – but makes sense. That should hold particularly true for me and other more senior white scientists. We’ve not only been complacent at best, and passively or even actively racist at worst; we’ve also persisted in this sorry state the longest. We witnessed, and were drawn into, and recall the racial conflicts of the 1950’s and 60’s personally. We remember the agony as well as the hope of that time, and we’ve lived through, and therefore have been part of the problem, during the decades of failure and inaction since.
So, silence for 24 hours makes good sense. But that can’t go on indefinitely. So here, on the day after, some takeaways from personal reflection of recent days (more stream of consciousness than any logical framing).
(The headwaters of that stream) started with the idea of “equal,” as captured to some extent by a dictionary definition: as great as; the same as; like or alike in quantity, degree, value, etc.; of the same rank, ability, merit, etc.; evenly proportioned or balanced. A Google search of almost any other idea yields a satisfying set of quotes or notions that help bring the abstraction to life, make it tangible, give it some sparkle. But “equal?” Not so much. Perhaps it’s the solemn – more accurately the sacred – nature of this moment in history. But the “equal” quotes you’ll find don’t even come close to what’s needed today. At best they nibble around the outermost fringes of the concept. (Please let me know if you have one you like.)
(Further downstream),“equal” holds a special place in mathematics and physical science. It’s the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega.
To scientists, therefore, equality should matter a lot. But here’s the deal. Even in physics and mathematics, equality is all about relationship. Equality tells us how force is related to mass and acceleration; how energy is related to mass and the speed of light, and so on.
What’s more, despite claims of “objectivity,” all science and mathematics is a human construct, and every bit of that construct comes out of human relationship. Scientists can’t (and haven’t) accomplished their work alone, but only in concert, or conversation, or debate with one another, and/or by building on the insights of predecessors. So for scientists to struggle to get equality right is especially disappointing.
Which brings us (further downstream, through cascading rapids) to the social sciences, and to the application of any branch of science to human benefit. Again, relationships hold the key. Suppose a band of us see climate change or some other challenge as existential. Suppose we take shortcuts and attempt to gain a momentary political advantage in order to impose a corrective fix on others, with the idea that we will have time and opportunity to repair any broken relationships later, after we have solved the physical problem. However meritorious that solution, we’ll likely find ourselves thwarted, struggling in a morass of polarized argument or worse. Now, suppose instead that as individuals and society we make fairness and building trusted relationships our starting point. Then we can meet any and all human challenges (not just climate change, but also poverty, education, healthcare, and much more). Relationships are either equitable, built on mutual agreement among equals, in which case they’re sustainable; or abusive, or exploitative – in which event they tend to fail disruptively, sometimes explosively so. A special branch of science known as game theory provides example after example.
Finally, as the stream of consciousness (now a river) empties into the larger context (the ocean), we might consider how much equality, especially racial equality, matters in any “larger scheme of things.”
It’s possible to arrive at the right answer here by human insight alone, but throughout much of the past and today it helps many of us to see this on a spiritual plane: to know that each of us, regardless of gender or skin color or sexual orientation or any other genetic or acquired trait, is made in the image of God (So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen1:27). And this is true whether we see this as actual fact or as metaphor.
The reality? Nothing matters any more than this. We get this right, and everything else necessarily falls into place; it’s smooth sailing. Mess up – and we deserve the grief that’s coming.