Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Word cloud

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Beltway advocacy groups gonna Beltway

Something making the rounds among physicists right now is the following press release, which was posted by the American Physical Society but soon taken down after many physicists called it inappropriate:
Press release pulled from APS website

(Click on the image too enlarge it)

The American Physical Society is a DC-area advocacy group.  Yes, it exists to serve its members rather than the federal government, but most of its members are scientists who work or study in institutions that get federal money for research and educational purposes.  In recognition of that reality, the American Physical Society has its headquarters in College Park, Maryland, just outside DC.

Professional Societies that want the federal government to spend money on science invariably articulate that goal in language that will be pleasing to the people in power.  Donald Trump has used "Make America Great Again" as his slogan, and while that slogan carries quite a bit of baggage (e.g. it is historically uninformed, and carries an embedded assumption about certain demographic changes representing changes for the worse) it is clearly something that he likes to say and hear.  In fact, there's already an official government website devoted to the concept.  Moreover, we've been hearing for decades about an alleged "STEM crisis" threatening America's scientific pre-eminence and global leadership, so Trump's catch-phrase is (on the surface) tailor-made for the neuroses of academic scientists.

Seen on that level, the press release put out by APS was completely reasonable and squarely within their charge.

However, Donald Trump is also a bigot who threatens peace, prosperity, and freedom, and in light of his complaints about Mexicans and Muslims there's a clear implication that America will be great when we have sent certain people away.  Seen on that level, no decent person should invoke his catch-phrase in anything except a critical (or perhaps ironic) manner.  To the extent that the American Physical Society exists to serve its members as more than just an advocate for federal spending on science, they should pay attention to how the members will read and process their statements.

Here's the thing:  Barring some unexpected change in direction, the American Physical Society will, one way or another, engage with the Trump Administration.  It pains me to type "Trump Administration", but that is the reality that we live in, at least in this sector of the multiverse.  Most APS members are dependent on federal research funding, and the APS will almost certainly pursue an agenda that is cognizant of that fact.

There are two possible responses to the reality I just identified:  One is to ask something more substantial of the APS than slightly more sensitive phrasing of press releases while they continue to advocate for federal funding of science.  It means operating as an opposition group rather than a group that seeks a piece of the pie within the existing system. There have always been proud dissidents in the physics community (e.g. some great anti-Soviet dissidents) and perhaps the American Physical Society should rally us in that spirit of dissent.  But this is a radical path.  It means retaliation both on the large scale (reduced funding for physics) and the individual level (professional consequences for federal employees who resist their employer).  It is noble to choose that, and we can have that conversation, but it comes at a cost that people will have to weigh.

The other option is a practical one:  Accept the reality that the American Physical Society will serve primarily as a DC-area advocacy group, and just ask that press releases be sensitive to the fact that most (but not all) APS members don't want to be reminded that this means engagement with the Trump Administration.

I'm not writing here to promote one path over the other.  Resistance is hard.  Physicists have mortgages and kids and medical conditions that necessitate keeping jobs with health insurance.  Maybe it's better if the APS sticks to advocacy and lets physicists who choose the path of dissent do so in some other venue. On the other side of the coin, dissent is virtuous and the world may someday applaud those who took risks to dissent.  Maybe the APS should do that.  We can argue it either way and I'm not going to reach and defend a considered conclusion in this post.

What I am suggesting in this post is that we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the second path is all that virtuous or sensitive.  It is practical and seemly, but it is NOT making a stand in any meaningful sense.  It is NOT a stride for social justice.  It's just what people do when they have mortgages to pay.  The reality is that--barring some substantial change in direction at the behest of the membership--professional societies will engage with the Trump Administration, and that engagement will mean speaking in the catch-phrases of the Administration.  Now, I've written curmudgeonly articles on eschewing buzzwords and catch-phrases, so I'm fine with doing so, but I also choose not to chase large sums of money.  Advocacy groups advocating for large federal research budgets will not make my choice.  At best they will cloak their choices in seemly appearances.

Finally, remember that the physics community engages in hero worship of people who built nuclear bombs.  Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that using a new President's catch-phrase is the worst thing we've ever done.  Moral outrage over pure appearances is shallow.


Steven said...

Looks like the instigator of the APS retraction wants the professional societies to go fully down the socially justice activism route:

Alex Small said...

That is an ethically defensible route. If professional societies are going to take that route they need to make sure that their members are on board and understand the consequences. It can't be decided by a small cadre for everyone else.