Science is Intersectional. Our Activism Should Be, Too.

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

The week after the world ended, but before I wrote five posts in a row about how the world is ending but how you can stop it, I attended a professional conference for my engineering field. Regular listeners of the podcast will know that I am a chemical engineering graduate student, and part of being a student is actually attending conferences. If your department can cover your expenses, it’s almost like a paid vacation. It’s like a paid vacation where you still have to watch forty PowerPoint presentations, but graduate students aren’t usually allowed to have fun anyway.

I was interested in seeing a lot of the things at this conference that some of the less social-justice minded atheists would have cringed at. There was a harassment policy that was far more comprehensive than Reason Rally 2016, yet the conference somehow


Image: A sign with details for an LGBT+ reception at my conference. There are also details for a disabled engineer convocation at the bottom.

lasted over a week without some kind of meltdown or without people getting unnecessarily upset about a woman not wanting to be approached alone in an elevator. There was a safe zone workshop for queer and trans engineers (see picture), yet there was no whining about having to respect trans people by having to undergo the odious task of using the correct goddamn pronouns. There were also social events celebrating LGBT+ and disabled engineers. I also thoroughly enjoyed the diversity at the event. Of the thirty-five talks I attended, over half were by people of color, and I’m pretty sure only a minority spoke English as a first language. At the same time, my peers and I were still able to learn lots of new things, present new ideas, go back and forth and rigorously discuss novel research techniques, and critically examine each others’ work. The days we weren’t presenting were filled with practicing our slides and worrying about what questions people would ask. Yes, this conference somehow managed to accommodate minorities and enforce policies that made everyone behave in a safe manner, but somehow we were able to engage in critical thinking at the same time for the progress of science. Somehow those two concepts aren’t in conflict!

There’s a couple of simple explanations for the difference between this and the atheist movement, of course. I have to be honest and can’t compare apples to oranges, and the disseminations of research findings within academia serve a vastly different purpose than rallying cries for a social movement. The speakers and attendees at this conference are often looking to network or learn new techniques, and these research results are borne of many late hours of tedious and difficult work or long nights tweaking sentences so that a paper will be accepted into a good journal. Speeches at an atheist conference, on the other hand, are filled with pathos, and are presented at a far more basic level, because we don’t have to have an academic specialization to campaign for Separation of Church And State. Even the most sophisticated of secular conventions are set up for friendly, personal connections, while a science meeting is almost entirely for professional purposes (even if grad students like myself take the opportunity to hit the bars around the city after getting out of our suits later). Besides this point, my professional organization has been around for over a century, and has had a longer time to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

I could make a long post about things that social justice detractors in atheist communities complain about, and why they aren’t really problems if you look outside the lens of secular activism. I don’t see a need for that for now, but I would like to focus on one aspect of scientific dissemination that highlights the importance of social justice focused activism within the secular movement. And that is the aspect of intersectionality.

As a refresher of the term, intersectionality in a social justice context is a term that focuses on how certain forms of oppression and ways the combat those forms of oppression are interrelated and often related to each other. For example, there are certain ways that black people are oppressed in America, and black Americans disproportionately feel the effects of this oppression. Due to cultural and religious differences between black and white Americans, however, black women or female-presenting people often experience oppression at an elevated level due to sexism. This sexism also ties into traditional gender roles, which oppress queer and trans people of all stripes. Many of the aforementioned problems tie into harm done with the hands of religion. In many ways, unraveling the problems with one form of oppression undoes the harms of other forms of oppression.

This has affected me on a practical level, and in fact, directly led to me becoming a secular activist. My best friend in high school was gay, and even though I was a Christian I always supported gay rights. It should come as a surprise to nobody that when I critically examined what prevented gay people from achieving equality in my country I found that religion was at the root of the problem. This led to a thorough re-examination of my beliefs, a deconversion, and a subsequent rebuilding of my values. Now I fight for the separation of church and state, as well as trying to eliminate religious ideology on a social level.

What does this have to do with my conference, though? To my knowledge, nobody tends to refer to anything outside the context of social studies as intersectional, and that’s fine. But there are a lot of aspects that parallel intersectional activism with how we go about communicating research findings.

For one thing, people outside of academia may not realize how incredibly specialized any given scientific field is. At my university, chemical engineering is only one of sixty-five programs in which someone can earn a degree. If I’m going to focus on something for my career, I have to pick a program that represents roughly 1.5% of available knowledge at my campus (and of course, not everything can be learned at a university, obviously). When I attended my conference and submitted and abstract for my presentation, I had to choose from one of thirty-five topics to present in. After choosing which topic to present in (Nanoscale Science and Engineering), there were thirty-five sessions at the conference that I could present in, ranging from topics like “self-assembly”, “nanomaterials manufacturing”, and “carbon nanomaterials”. Yes, there was a 2-hour session dedicated entirely to research about carbon nanotechnology. Hopefully this gives an idea of just how specialized this research can become. For a period of time at my conference, there was a specialized room of people within a particular topic within a particular focus within a broad research area within an academic field that focused intensely on a very specific topic.

It’s a useful strategy to focus on something very specific when trying to solve certain problems. A typical scientist will often pick an incredibly narrow research topic and focus on that for the rest of their lives. While it’s true that a given scientist may be a biologist or a physicist, they often become an expert in a very specific system. I’ve known professors who have labs that study one specific biochemical. Similarly, I’ve attended a one-day conference that focused entirely on the environmental breakdown of a single molecule. If you want to know a specific technique or process, it’s not uncommon to find maybe two or three groups that have a bunch of papers on it. If you want to have groundbreaking research, you’re not going to become one by being a jack-of-all-trades. You have to find a good niche that nobody else has explored, and explore what you can little-by-little. Your specialization will keep you at the boundary between what we know and what we don’t know, and it’s simply impractical to try and hold a specialty within more than a few specific areas.

It is for this reason that “identity politics” (or at least some non-strawman version of it) exists. We need people focusing on a very specific cause. While it’s a noble thing to be concerned about many things, we are limited beings with finite time, energy, and resources to carry out specific tasks. It’s also very difficult to mobilize large groups of people when interests become broader and broader. If you don’t believe me, try and hold a discussion on what specific actions humanists should focus on, and you will immediately start a shitstorm. This is the reason that advocacy groups exist for a certain purpose. There are humanist groups that specifically work to help the homeless, there are humanist groups that fight legal battles, and there are humanist groups that simply exist for community. The fruits of their labor are clear, tangible, and effective.

It’s for this reason that making the argument that “everyone should have equal treatment” doesn’t get us very far. It’s a valid sentiment, but not everyone has equal problems, and certain problems have not made as many progress as others. If you want LGBTQ people to have equal rights, then telling your conservative representative that doesn’t get you anywhere. To him, gay people always had equal marriage rights (since everyone has the equal freedom to marry someone of the opposite sex anyway). When advocating for LGBTQ rights, you need to engage on the specific needs of queer and trans people, lay out why they are marginalized, and why they should care. If those specific needs or grievances are not laid out specifically, than nobody outside of that group is even going to be aware that there is a problem in the first place. So yes, we need to engage with the needs of specific identities based on how they are perceived and treated.

What does that have to do with intersectionality? Haven’t I just made the case that we need to do our own thing and focus on our own very specific projects?

There’s a bit more nuance to the story. It’s true that on an individual level we may want to focus our attention on maybe one or two things at a time. In my lab, it’d be very difficult for any student to get anything done if they had more than a couple of projects they were working on. At the same time, while each researcher does their own thing, it’d be a mistake for someone to only interact within their own focus. A technique that helps one researcher may easily help another one, especially if they have similar work. One investigator may have a question about their focus that can be solved by another investigator’s technique.

Not to mention, there’s really no solid line that divides one discipline from another. I mentioned earlier that my program is one of sixty-five programs I could choose from. This is true, but what makes an area of study in my program (chemical engineering) different from another isn’t always clear. Lots of chemical engineers work with catalysis, which crosses over with chemistry and materials science. The same could be said of people in my program who study nanoelectronics, which are also studied by mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and physicists. I also have peers who work with cells, which cross over into work like genetics, molecular and cellular biology, and medicine. What helps me in one field could easily help someone else in another.

When I went to my conference, I saw a lot of talks that superficially didn’t have much to do with what I specifically study. I focus on the chemical kinetics and physical forces that cause DNA to hybridize and dissociate at a solid-liquid interface (or in layman terms,  how DNA sticks together on a surface). It’s a fairly unique project, and I didn’t see a lot of talks that did many similar things. But I saw a talk on nanoparticle coatings which may inform the way I design my experiments in the future. I saw a talk on data organization that could inform the way I perform analysis in the future. Their scientific techniques were different from mine and we studied different things, but we are both operating on the same fundamental physical laws and on the same scientific principles to figuring them out. Temperature still means the same thing if you’re trying to measure it on a star or a cell. A chemical reaction is still the rearrangement of molecular structure, and it doesn’t matter the reaction is being studied by a chemist or a biologist.

While I am far and away not an expert on intersectionality, this makes sense as a parallel in how I look at it. Many social justice causes are focused on fighting privilege and bigotry, and both are linked towards pushing people to recognize their implicit biases. Certain problems in one “area” of social justice affect another. I could make a causal web tying different forms of inequality to each other in a web detailing systems of oppression (though, as a non-expert, I’d rather someone else with more knowledge and better aesthetic taste do it, lest it turn out like a kindergarten macaroni project).

It’s okay to make a focus of activism, as long as you recognize that what you do will affect other peoples’ focuses. When atheists campaign merely for separation of church and state, they don’t just affect prayer in public schools or religious imagery in courtrooms. The justifications for “traditional marriage” stop holding up in legislation, and we stop treating queer and trans people as second-class citizens. We also stop allowing people to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” for denying healthcare for women and people assigned female at birth. We allow more death with dignity without unjustified supernatural belief get in the way. And when we shift the laws, this puts a little more pressure on the culture to become more accepting. When people complain about the secular movement engaging in too many things that aren’t related to atheism I am baffled, because the actions of movement atheists have never exclusively affected atheists.

As another quirky parallel to my conference, I also think of the utility of people having certain focuses. I attended a variety of sessions that week, and some of them had almost nothing to do with my research. My roommate had a presentation on hydrogen fuel cells, which is not very similar to my work which is focused on biophysics. I understood some of the various thermodynamic and chemical kinetic principles of the talk since they are fundamentals of my college major, but I missed a lot of the details. I didn’t understand enough to understand the context or the significance of the work during that session. Had I asked something about the catalytic property of platinum during the session, for example, I would have likely wasted everyone else’s time who already had learned that years ago. Afterwards, I was able to ask my roommate about the material properties of his fuel cells and how they worked. Everyone should be encouraged to ask questions, but keeping context in mind and waiting for the opportune time to ask it does nothing to curtail critical inquiry. In fact, it just makes it more efficient. Such is often the case when asking people of privilege to keep silent. When addressing the needs of the marginalized, we should pay attention and listen to the people of that group who need help. Given that many secularists routinely misunderstand or misconstrue basic concepts like privilege, trigger warnings, microaggressions, etc., it’s difficult to imaging they would get the larger point when discussing higher-level concepts. The difference between me in that situation and some punk being asked to remain silent is that I was thoroughly aware of my ignorance on the subject, and acted appropriately.

For me, I’m happy to recognize that secularism doesn’t just affect me and other atheists. It affects everyone. A lot of my detractors fail to recognize this, and often paint social justice minded atheists as immature or uncritical. In fact, a lot


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