Science March Los Angeles: Moral Panic

The March for Science is a global movement to increase science advocacy in the face of the Trump Administration and its international impact. There will be 360 marches internationally. One stands out for the wrong reasons: Los Angeles and its attempt to generate a moral panic about minorities.

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  1. From the central committee based in Washington, the March for Science has risen in response to the Trump Government's various anti-science policies that include a gag order on federal science agencies; scaling back funding and scope for important research and regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency; and other threats to science operations, including the peer review process. Trump's policies have already had global ramifications, with hundreds of science agencies responding to the now-revised Executive Order that temporarily bans visas and immigration, targeting selected Muslim-majority nations.
  2. Given online discussions with committee members in different American cities and in other parts of the world such as Australia and New Zealand, it seems the "satellite marches" are taking divergent approaches to planning and logistics. This seems especially the case when it comes to issues of diversity. This is unsurprising, given that the central committee has been creating colossal problems in equity, accessibility and inclusion. With many underrepresented scientists having been turned away after volunteering their expertise, and other minority scholars pointing out various flaws in communications, March for Science has been alienating many researchers who value diversity.
  3. From January to early March, the central organisers had been taken to task for ongoing equity and access issues and its general mismanagement of diversity. Most recently, there had been a series of back to back problems and push-back on diversity. Amidst this sensitive context, March for Science Los Angeles took a stand. It's too bad that it decided to side with exclusionary elements of the central march.
  4. What follows is a classic case of a moral panic: it began with testing the boundaries of acceptable xenophobia, followed by denial after the scientific community called out the scaremongering. Before we get to the events in early March 2017, let's get some context. What is a moral panic?
  5. Panic on

  6. Sociologists have been studying moral panics in one way or another since our discipline started. A moral panic traditionally refers to social fear that becomes attached to everyday behaviour. Moral panics can emerge from seemingly mundane behaviour. For example, migrant-background youth hanging out in a public place like a shopping centre, even when they are doing nothing wrong, can give rise to a moral panic about "ethnic gangs." Despite its unscientific origins, this perception is then in turn used to justify over policing of migrant youth. Moral panics can also be linked to social stigma about so-called "deviant" people (like those with drug dependencies), minorities (such as ethnic, racial or religious groups), or disadvantaged people (such as single mothers or people who are homeless).
  7. Moral panics about the "deviance" of marginalised or vulnerable groups actually justify existing power relations and they maintain the dominance of some groups over others.
  8. Moral panics centre on "folk devils" - a group that is seen to be responsible for an undesirable outcome. For example, there are several moral panics about poor people, such as the perception that they are more likely to be bad parents who are on drugs. Sociology shows that moral panics are often wrong, but still have negative consequences on social policies and responses for stigmatised groups.
  9. Research shows, for example, that middle class parents actually engage in substance abuse at higher levels than poor people. Yet poor people are more likely to be policed and to have their children removed as a consequence. Similarly, moral panics about Indigenous people are historical. The idea that Indigenous people are unfit parents is not reflected in research. Yet in 2007, the Australian government sent the military to restrict the autonomy of Indigenous communities in remote areas of the Northern Territory. To this day, Indigenous children are removed from their families at over nine times the rate of non-Indigenous children. All of this is the outcome of historical moral panics about Indigenous people. Non-Indigenous responses to Indigenous people are based on racist and irrational fear of difference.
  10. So you see, moral panics are not founded in fact; but their consequences are often catastrophic. Moral panics justify the use of state violence against minority groups. Moral panics deny marginalised groups their rights and push the most vulnerable into a no-win situation. Restricting the presence of minority groups in public places is one of the most common tactics deployed in a moral panic.
  11. Let's take a look at how a scientific event could give in so readily to fear of minorities. These discussions perfectly illustrate why underrepresented minorities have been calling for better diversity knowledge and training for organisers since the March for Science made its debut.
  12. Science March politics

  13. Since the march was announced in January 2017, the organisers in the central committee of Washington DC have struggled to respond to issues of diversity. From inadequately addressing inclusion and accessibility, to reproducing discourses of inequality, March for Science has problematically promoted the idea that the march is not a political protest. (It has only been in recent days that the organisers have attempted to address this; but it had not happened at the time of the events with the Los Angeles march.)
  14. The discourse that a march is "not political" is, in fact, very much the outcome of political dynamics. Only people from dominant groups, especially White people, can claim that science is free from politics. It isn't - as I show with research, further below.
  15. This narrative that science is not political has impacted dialogue about the march: what it stands for (interests of White, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied people); who it doesn't stand for (everyone else, especially people of colour and disabled scientists); and who is erased from the conversation altogether (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual LGBTQIA people).
  16. The idea that science is not political has embedded within it a value judgement: that politics is a bad thing. It is also an historical fallacy: science has always been political. As a human activity, science and everything it represents is political. This includes the production of knowledge, training, practices, stories, awards, and more.
  17. Politics is a term that describes processes of power and governance: organisations, voting, membership, influence, authority and participation in decision-making.
  18. You'll notice science has all of these elements: professional bodies and their processes for election and belonging; hierarchies from junior scholars to professorships; various mechanisms by which some experts and particular fields of study are recognised through funding, awards, citations and promotions; mechanisms though which some voices and interests win out over others.
  19. So we come to an example of how "science is not political" can give rise to racist "dog whistling" and moral panics.
  20. Myth of the apolitical march

  21. In a now-deleted tweet published on 2 February 2017, the March for Science LA Twitter account indulged in a thinly veiled attempt to test the waters of racism. The tweet read: "Some scientists are concerned with the march turning into political event and losing its focus. What do YOU pledge to do to keep it peaceful."
  22. As you can see in the screenshot below, saved on 3 March, the tweet didn't receive a lot of direct engagement (no retweets at that stage and only four "likes"), though there were a few comments. One of these was by Dr David Shiffman, marine conservation biologist, who used an image of the "Clipppy" meme to say: "You seem to be suggesting that letting minority scientists voice concerns means 'violence.' Would you like to rephrase?"
  23. A colleague alerted me to the tweet on 2 March, which I retweeted. Another colleague, data science student Paulette V-R then questioned the Los Angeles organisers: "So political = violence?"
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