A letter to my colleagues

Dear colleagues,

It is well known that there are certain things that one doesn’t talk about in professional contexts, and since social media has pretty much become a professional context for many of us, that includes Facebook, Twitter, and the like.  One of the foremost of those things about which one is taught not to talk is politics.  Nevertheless: as some of you may have noticed—and as I hope that all of you will notice as you read this message—since the results of the last presidential election in the United States, I have not been quiet in my publicly visible postings on Facebook, Twitter, or this blog about my position regarding Trump.  I will state that position briefly here: I am opposed to him.  When I say “him,” I am referring to the policies that he has espoused; to the actions that he has taken; to his dishonesty; to his tolerance of white supremacists; to his attacks on the judiciary and the press; to his actions towards women, specific ethnic groups, and most of all, his actions against Muslims.  This list is not meant to be exhaustive—I mention here only the things that have gotten the most public attention.

As I pointed out above, talking about politics in a professional setting is something that we are taught not to do—in most of our cases, from the beginning of our careers.  There is a reason for this: one does not want to alienate colleagues in an intellectual context over issues that don’t relate directly to one’s position on professionally relevant topic.  Consequently, my twofold purpose in writing this message to you will probably strike you as counter-intuitive, and therefore, I’d like to explain it to you, my colleagues—and to persuade you to act on it.

My first purpose in writing this letter is to make my position known, as widely as possible, and specifically, as widely as possible within my professional world.  My second purpose is to encourage my professional colleagues to do the same.  I’ll argue that making my position known is a responsibility, and a moral responsibility at that; then I’ll present data that suggests that specifically in your position as a scientist, you have a responsibility here as well; a responsibility, and a stake, and a unique platform from which you have the capacity to act—or not.

As a scientist, you like data—so, I’ll give you some.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germany was one of the scientific powerhouses of the world.  Even after a boycott of German scientists in the post-WWI period, German science—and German-language scientific publishing—continued to be dominant in some fields (chemistry in particular), and strong in many others.

On April 7th, 1933, the Reichstag passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.  It made three categories of people ineligible for employment in academia: (1) non-Aryans, (2) members of the Socialist and Communist parties, and (3) political appointees of the preceding (non-Nazi) government.  According to Michael Gordin’s excellent Scientific Babel: How science was done before and after global English, as many as 25% of all German physicists were let go; “at certain centers, most prominently Göttingen, almost the entire department of physics and mathematics was gutted…about one in five, or 20%, of scientists had been driven from their jobs by 1935, followed by another wave when Austria was annexed in 1938…” Travel into and out of Germany became difficult, and to some extent less desirable, since many of the best scientists could no longer be worked with, whether because they had fled Germany or because they no longer had academic posts.

The consequences for German science were pretty devastating.  As Gordin tells it:

…the most immediate and perhaps the one with the longest-lasting consequences [was] the rupture of the graduate student and postdoctoral exchange networks….One of the most salient indications of the importance of German science [before the war] was the centrality of German universities as the destination of choice for foreign students….

What happened next?  Gordin again:

These networks [of collaboration and exchange of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows] did not reassemble until after the war, and they reassembled with the United States as the hub.

We have responsibilities here.  They are of three kinds: our responsibilities as human beings, as Americans, and as scientists.  Our responsibilities as human beings have been discussed extensively by far better writers than me since pretty much as soon as the ashes of WWII started cooling, and I will take them as a given.  Our responsibilities as Americans are related to Trump’s profoundly un-American actions; I have written about those, from my specific perspective as a veteran of the American armed forces, elsewhere (https://goo.gl/XvmuV7).  Instead, I will emphasize here your responsibilities as a scientist.  Your responsibilities as a scientist are of two kinds: your responsibility towards others in your capacity as a scientist, and your responsibility towards science itself.

As the philosopher Alan Chalmers has pointed out, we lay claim to science, and to being a scientist, for a reason: being a scientist confers a certain kind of credibility that people who do things similar to science do not have.  That means that you can speak out against Trump from a position that is founded on data and supported by logic; that at least tries (hopefully better than this letter) to eschew emotion in favor of evidence and reason; that takes advantage of the intellectual capital that our predecessors have been building up for us since Aristotle.  You can speak out over beers with your colleagues.  And, yes: you can speak out in your classrooms—all that it takes is not avoiding the many times that the actions of the current administration are relevant to questions of ethics, of the role of science in society—and its suppression with respect to topics like climate change and vaccinations.  (For those of us who work on language processing and social media data, it’s difficult NOT to talk about Trump.)  You can speak out in your faculty meetings.  Are you skeptical about this?  I suggest to you this thought experiment: pick your favorite social-political horror of the past century, and ask yourself this: would scientists, professors, government employees have been justified in speaking out against it in their professional capacities?  I think that you’ll arrive at a “yes” on this.

Those responsibilities towards other people, as a scientist, are the most important.  But, you have another responsibility, too: toward science.  I began my argumentation in this letter with data on what happened to German science in and after 1933.  The time is ripe for the same thing to happen to American science today—and while American science does not constitute the entirety of science, it constitutes a hell of a lot of it.  There’s some sense in which protecting science is everyone’s duty.  But, not everyone is really qualified to do so.  You, however, are.  And if you want to do that, the most effective way to do it is not to argue with your friends about the causal factors involved in climate change (although I certainly don’t want to discourage you from doing so)—the most effective way to do this is by getting at the root of the problem.  Speak out about Trump and his administration, and do it as a professional.

There is a potential counter-argument to my point in this letter.  It is commonly held that science should not be politicized.  Certainly we can point to cases in which the overt politicization of science has had bad consequences both for science, and for society—consider the effects of Lysenko on Soviet biology, and Nicholas Marr’s on linguistics.  (Lysenko is probably familiar to most of my colleagues, but Marr less so.  You can find a marvelous discussion of his work, of how Stalin used it to justify Russification, and of the consequences that it had for non-Russian speakers in Marina Yaguello’s book, whose unfortunately poorly titled translation was published in English as “Lunatic lovers of language.”)

To this potential counter-argument, I respond: it’s too late—science has already been politicized.  Science has been getting politicized in the US since at least 1975 and the Proxmire Golden Fleece Awards.  (I’ll point out here that Proxmire was a Democrat, not a Republican.)  Khan et al. describe politically-motivated attempts to stop vaccination in Nigeria and in Pakistan.   In 2016, three major candidates for the Republican nomination (Trump, Cruz, and Rubio) all used environmental science as a target.  Science has been politicized—by the bad guys.  Staying out of the fight over science means letting those bad guys win.

There’s an implicit assumption in my encouraging you to speak up about your take on the current situation: an assumption that you share my position.  I actually do, in fact, assume that. I also assume that there is some small number of my colleagues that are Trump supporters—it doesn’t seem very probable that a scientist would support Trump, but variability is a fact of being human, and it’s certainly possible.  If that describes you: I do want you to express your opinion, and I will guarantee you one thing, and ask the corresponding of you.  I guarantee you that I will listen respectfully to what you have to say, and that I will think about it before I respond.  I will then ask you to do the same—to listen to what I have to say, and to think about it before you respond.  I encourage this precisely because I am a scientist: being a scientist (or at least being a good one) requires being open to the possibility that you are wrong, and if you are, in fact, wrong, wanting to find out about it sooner rather than later.  I would be pretty surprised if you, as a scientist, didn’t come to see things my way, and I’m pretty sure that if you didn’t, it would not be because of the facts or your inability to interpret them, but rather because of a failure on my part to present them cogently.  But: as a scientist, I remain open to the possibility that I’m wrong, and if you disagree with me on things Trumpian, I will listen to you—respectfully, and giving due consideration to your reasoning.

I’m writing you this letter with the purpose of speaking out, as loudly and as clearly as I can; and I’m writing you this letter to ask that you do the same.  If my appeal to your conscience is not enough to convince you: let me appeal to your grandchildren.  Personally, I have enormous faith in America’s ability to right itself; we have never, ever been a perfect country, but we have always striven to improve our country.  Someday, we will end the current surreal situation.  What happens then?  As Jonathan Safran Foer put it in his novel Everything is illuminated (incidentally the most compelling illustration of the importance of collocations and of statistical language modelling that I’ve ever seen), in Europe the question that everyone asks themselves today is: what did Grandpa do during the war?  Someday your grandchildren will ask what you did during the Trump administration.  You can choose for the answer to be “I kept my head down and hoped that they wouldn’t come for me;” you can choose for the answer to be “I figured out what I could do, and I did it.”


Kevin Bretonnel Cohen

Khan et al. on vaccination: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4635542/

3 thoughts on “A letter to my colleagues”

  1. Dear Kevin,
    I am no scientist, nor an American, but I a human being so will respond on that basis. Also as an adopted citizen of France, a country that knows all too well the cost of collaboration and the force of resistance, I applaud your letter. Science should be free of politics, but when politics threatens that very freedom, it is time to act.
    Kudos to you for taking a stand!
    P.S. I shall be re-reading ‘Everything is illuminated.’

    Liked by 3 people

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