As a battle-scarred veteran of flame wars since the alt-politics newsgroups of the 1990s, I have always been both grateful and surprised to find an almost total absence of conflict in the world I call Flublogia, the online community of people who worry about infectious diseases and the politics of public health.
But Flublogia is learning about the callout. While a troll attacks ideological enemies through online insults, a callout artist attacks those who ought to be friends but aren’t ideologically pure enough.
The callout is far older than the Internet. Religions are full of callouts, with one sect or another denounced as heretics or apostate. Martin Luther’s 95 theses were a callout of the Catholic Church, of which he was still a priest. The French revolutionaries called one another out; Tom Paine, born a British subject, called out the British government. The Nazis and Communists often fell upon one another, with callouts leading directly to purges, executions, and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolutions.
The other day, Donald Trump showed genius as a callout artist, tweeting an attack on his own party’s “Freedom Caucus” of congressional Republicans who opposed his American Health Care Act.
If you support public health, you’re generally on the same page with your fellow-supporters. So, I was startled the other night when some of my followers announced on Twitter they would not be taking part in, or supporting, the April 22 March for Science in Washington, D.C.
If they’d criticized the march, intended to support “robustly funded and publicly communicated science,” as politically pointless, I’d have appreciated their argument. Those who marched against U.S. involvement in Vietnam may have driven Lyndon Johnson out of office but they didn’t stop the war. Those who marched against the Iraq war had even less effect.
But these people were calling out the organizers of the march, their fellow scientists, as lacking in diversity: they were too white, too male, too sexist, and too privileged to be supported.
Science as a boys’ club
I could understand that. My own experience working in a major U.S. physics laboratory had certainly made it seem like a mostly white boys’ club. Women were relegated to support roles, and blacks and Hispanics were seldom seen. The American scientist Hope Jahren has written a brilliant book about the challenges facing women in science today.
The presence of women in science is a testimony to their stubborn persistence, not to the guys suddenly asking one another, “Gee — you think maybe girls have brains too?” So women, non-white people (the majority of the human race), and many others have every reason to call out the white male decision-makers of modern science.
But Trump is now the supreme white male decision-maker of modern science. And the eve of battle is no time to pick a fight with those who should be allies in fighting his anti-science policies.
Calling out a protest’s organizers therefore seemed like a dangerously divisive position to take. So I tweeted back they could sort out their differences after Trump had been dealt with. Hang together or hang separately. Politics is working with people you detest because fighting them is far worse. And so on.
My respondents answered with damnation of white male racists like Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin fighting as allies against Hitler; they never mentioned who might have been better qualified (and virtuous enough) to defeat the Nazis.
The tweets went on and on, and I finally went to bed. An Australian virologist then stepped in to ask what the issue was, and instantly drew fire.
More than just a flame war
Next day I caught up on events and wrote off the exchanges as an old-fashioned flame war. The virologist, however, sent me the link to a very thoughtful 2015 article in Briarpatch on “call-out culture.” I soon understood that this is no mere blip, but a serious issue in modern discourse — not just online, but in politics and the universities.
The March for Science is less than a month away and already in serious disarray thanks to those criticizing its lack of diversity. Even united, U.S. scientists would not have had much impact by marching in the streets. Divided, they might as well be tourists viewing the cherry blossoms.
By all means, let the science community engage in some tough debating; that’s what science does. But let it be a debate based on hard evidence, not on name-calling, moralizing, and threats. Despite Trump’s preference for fake news, evidence-based politics will eventually carry the day, and a wildly diverse science community will do some superb science as a result. A shattered and frightened community will do little science at all.
Note: A Vancouver March for Science is also scheduled for April 22.
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