Sunday, January 26, 2020

I Believe in Scientists, I Just Don't Trust Them

I recently read Eileen Pollack's The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club (Beacon Press, 2015), which is mostly a memoir of the author's struggle to become a physicist -- she
got as far as a BS, summa cum laude, at Yale before she switched to the humanities -- but also discusses the exclusionary tactics that still keep women out of the sciences.  I didn't know what to expect when I picked it up, expecting a less personal book like Julie Des Jardins's The Madame Curie Complex (Feminist Press, 2010) or Margaret Wertheim's Pythagoras' Trousers (Norton, 1997), but I ended up enjoying and respecting Pollack's work.  For one thing, she was able to contact and interview most of her high-school science teachers and college professors, which provides an interesting perspective on how the field has changed -- or not.

But this anecdote, from her account of a summer job at Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee while she was in college in the late 1970s, cast a valuable light on the culture of scientists:
I also grew disillusioned with the us-versus-them mentality of the lab’s employees. “We” were solving the energy problem; “they” didn’t have a clue what a neutron cross-section was. “We” knew nuclear power plants were safe; “they” staged emotional protests, holding up the construction of new facilities. I grew tired of hearing the engineers ridicule the “morons” who thought it possible that a reactor might go critical (this, a year before Three Mile Island), even as they told stories about the janitor whose rubber boot had slipped off and gotten sucked into a pipe that fed a cooling tank, or the guys who had shielded a new reactor, only to run a Geiger counter along the road and find a spot so hot they scratched their heads in bewilderment—until someone pointed out they had neglected to shield the roof.

Our first week, we were required to attend a safety session where someone from Health Physics demonstrated how to detect radiation spills. As he passed his Geiger counter over the “suspected surface,” the machine chattered a warning. But the demonstration was far from over. “Several radiation sources have purposely been hidden around this room,” the man told us. “I want each of you to take a counter and see how many spills you can locate.”

I said I would rather not play the game.

“Why?” he asked. “Are you afraid of the radiation? You don’t honestly think we would expose you to harmful levels, do you?”

As a child, I had undergone a lot of unnecessary X-rays, and I didn’t want to absorb even one millirem more than needed. But with everyone watching, I gave in and agreed to play the Huckle Buckle Beanstalk Radiation Game. I am sure the exercise added little to the level of radiation I received that summer. But I am equally sure it added little to my ability to detect a spill.
This reminded me of the biologist and Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, who dismissed concerns about genetic engineering in very similar terms.  He assumed that critics of the field feared 'mad scientists' driven by a lust for power and a fondness for destruction, and assured his readers that scientists were sane - quite sane - and only sought knowledge in order to serve humanity.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that sane scientists might also fuck up through ignorance (which is always greater than knowledge) or carelessness.  I mean, "Oops, we forgot to shield the roof? Sorry 'bout that"?

Some of that arrogant carelessness seems related to Boy Culture, fortified by youthful fantasies of invulnerability, though I'm also reminded of the stories Dave Barry likes to pass along, of guys who do stupid things on dares, usually under the influence of many beers, and end up impaled on various implements of destruction.  Famous Last Words: "Hey - Watch this!"

If you want to focus on scientists, remember the male nuclear physicists at Los Alamos who let off steam while building atomic bombs by playing with conventional explosives, a pastime that continues to the present day.
This is not the first time that Los Alamos has fallen short when it comes to safety and security matters. In early 2009, it emerged that the nation’s major nuclear weapons lab had misplaced at least 67 computers sensitive information, and others had been stolen from a lab employee. The facility has also come under fire in recent years for, among other things, failing to properly protect nuclear materials and shipping a deadly radioactive package by Fedex.
'You don't honestly think we would expose you to harmful levels, do you?"  Why, yes, I honestly do.  Not deliberately or maliciously, maybe, but just for shits and giggles, out of sheer boyish high spirits. And bear in mind that I'm not writing about cranks here but about credentialed professionals with advanced degrees, who know so much more than we excitable proles.  The philosopher (and physicist by training) Paul Feyerabend argued for scientific democracy, more input and supervision of scientists by the public.  (Whose tax dollars, remember, pay for these diversions.)  This of course infuriated his critics, and I admit I sometimes thought myself that his recommendations were more theoretical and principled than real.  But he knew firsthand what he was talking about.  I would rather not play the game either.