A Reflective Post on Academia and Activism–and Perspective (but that starts with a P).

I’ve given much reflection on Thursday’s class led by Sid. There was concern about how some people are unwilling to believe Flint is getting better although there is data from multiple institutions showing otherwise. My main thought in response was “it is reasonable for people whose trust has been totally violated to not believe in the ‘power in numbers.’” Perhaps for them, they see it as the more scientists/engineers that get involve saying things are getting better, the more people involved in the cover-up. Especially if they feel the injustice was based on racial bias. Others argue that it has more to do with poverty than race, those who claim the white people in Flint are just as poor as the black people. After all, how many agencies were involved in the DC Crisis?

However, this morning I had a conversation that made me reflect on how considerate I was being of other people’s perspective.

The topic of discussion: academia and activism, with a sprinkle of politics (the topic which seems to follow me inside and outside of ethics class). I recalled the topics of a guest speaker, Dr. Emily Satterwhite, in my contemporary pedagogy class. Dr. Satterwhite is an Associate Professor in Appalachian Studies, Department of Religion and Culture.

This is Dr. Satterwhite.

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And this is Dr. Satterwhite being removed from construction equipment by state police after 14 hours. It took two hours to cut through the steel pipe in which her arms are locked. She was arrested, and later released on bond.

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Despite being in liberal arts and human science, even Dr. Satterwhite reaped the negative consequences for her involvement in act of protest. This particular story in her chapter is complex. I do not wish to get the details wrong, so I do encourage you to look into it yourself or reach out to Dr. Satterwhite personally.

The short take-away provided by the other person engage in this conversation: bias. Being too committed to one side of the story. I am not saying that is true for Dr. Satterwhite, but that is the perception and root of said negative consequences.

I asked where does that leave us scientists, engineers, academics in regard to activism? It’s not an easy answer, as you know from numerous class discussions. In this morning’s discussion, this person expressed concern that academics are seen as on the left (of the political spectrum), thus skewing others view of their work. I followed up by asking why it is that the problem is that the work academics are involved in are considered to be on the left in the first place. My example: global climate change. I said that I believe this was an example of an issues seen as an issue on the left, thus anyone who believes in this phenomenon and/or does science supporting this is viewed as “on the left.” I was quickly schooled when my breakfast mate pointed out that the opposing view is not disbelief in the science behind global climate change, perhaps they spent time to do the research and genuinely believe the data—but rather the opposing view is that investing resources to combat this issue is a lower priority than other social issues (think hunger, poverty, illness).

It’s not as if I hadn’t heard this argument before. Yet why is it that because it is not an opinion of my own, I do not readily consider it before contributing to the conversation?

It’s something that takes practice, but acknowledgement is the first step.


9 thoughts on “A Reflective Post on Academia and Activism–and Perspective (but that starts with a P).

  1. I’m excited that you’ve written about Dr. Satterwhite and the issue of can academics be activists? I was just talking with her last week and she’s mentioned to me that other academics had expressed concern to her that, since her now famous display of activisim, some of her research (on topics differing from the Mountain Valley Pipeline mind you) will probably not be taken as seriously by the scientific community.

    A few years ago at the Civil Engineering Career Fair I was talking with a potential employer (a project manager) from the Northern Virginia area, they were from a land development company, and some how the slightly controversial issue of a much debated land development project in the NOVA area came up. They mentioned that one of their engineers at the company who was on the team that would be working on the project had written a letter to their local newspaper arguing against the project and saying they were a Civil Engineer, but not saying they worked for the company, just expressing their opinion as a citizen. The PM said he was really upset at his employee and felt like his employee jeopardized contracts with building firms, by signing his name in the letter to the newspaper- even though the employee never mentioned the company he worked for. I asked if the engineer was fired, and the PM said no, but that he would never promote the engineer and that he made it clear the engineer would not move up in the company and had lost respect. I was shocked! Is this person not allowed to have an opinion as a citizen? I asked the employer why he didnt think the engineer should be allowed to express his opinion, and he basically said, that the engineer can have his opinion but he can’t express it in a public place where consulting companies who work with his company could see his name and feel that the company they had a contract with was being two-faced, or trying to kill their own project.

    Marc was even called out by the Environmental Science and Technology editor for “crossing the line” of academia into activism, which the editor implied was unacceptable.

    So then if professional engineers aren’t allowed to have an opinion in public, and professors and academics aren’t, who is allowed to have an opinion???? And how should people be allowed to express their opinions?

    Don’t we just feed into post modern expert anarchy when we prevent experts from expressing their opinions to the public either as experts or as individuals? In Dr. Satterwhite’s case she did not claim expertise in the scientific realm of effects the pipeline could have, she claimed that as a resident of the effected area she was opposed, and as a professor in Appalachian studies she wanted to prevent Appalachia from being taken advantage of. In the engineer’s case he claimed as a citizen and resident who would live near the proposed developement he was opposed and that his Civil Engineering expertise helped him to decide that the project would too drastically increase population density. In Dr. Edward’s case he claimed that using science as a way to seek the truth was a right the citizens in Flint should have access to. I’ve always struggled to stay silent, even in situations where maybe I don’t need to express my opinion, but I really don’t see why we keep trying to shut experts up, and why we don’t allow “professionals” to have their individual opinions. I get that people are concerned about experts using their power to influence the public, but isn’t the whole point of having experts in our society to learn from them? Obviously experts can be unethical if they present their views as professional opinions rather than individual opinions when they don’t have the expertise necessary in that area to make those claims. But I worry that we’ve created this post- modern science anarchy loving society by silencing professionals. What do you think?


  2. I really like your point about acknowledgment is the first step. Most of the time it is easy to have an individual have his/her judgment and believe what more likely the truth, however; there’s definitely a gap between how a crowd of people or, the person represents the crowd, act and how an individual act.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Biases are going to always effect us, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves of that they are not. Unfortunately, it is one of the downsides of caring about your research on a deeply personal level. At some point, personal and professionalism cross the line and where is that line? Is the line sitting in a tree to protest a pipeline? Is the line inviting citizen scientists to your house for dinner? Is the line having to decide between being a good person who cares deeply for the people being treated unjustly or sitting quietly and just reporting the data?

    I don’t know where the engineering line is.. because it’s not a line in my opinion… it’s a bubble… where you can be both a good person and and activist while still reporting the facts. However, in the world… people draw lines and you can’t be both or you’re an outcast.

    Man okay, now I’m sad… 😦


  4. I really like the humility and wisdom here! I resonate that often we become entrenched and it prevents us from getting to understand why a person may or may not support an issue or a person. I thought the interviewing exercise helped me be reminded of this truth. I interviewed a friend about an issue that seemed pretty straightforward to me and in which I thought I disagreed. In the same way that the climate change debate gained greater meaning after talking to your friend, I also really saw another perspective on this issue in which I felt so sure! I hope more moments like those continue to move all of us towards better solutions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the reflection.

      Do you still disagree on the issue but with better understanding of the other side? Or have you reconsidered your own perspective? Just wondering 🙂


    1. Thanks attaching the link. I thought it was interesting that the disciplines highlighted in this article were economics, history, journalism/communication, law, and psychology. I wonder how those numbers look in STEM.

      I’m actually curious to know what you think the implications are of the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in Academia?


  5. Pingback: Fin. – AAMAYA

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