"Gravity is a mysterious carriage of the body invented to cover the defects of the mind."
"Don't be enamored of power."
One of my aims in writing about harassment in astronomy is to encourage astronomers to be more critical about the things social science is telling them. You might say I'm teaching intellectual self defense.
This is especially important when natural scientists listen to social scientists since there may be a presumption that both are "scientific" in the same way. Astronomers might assume that sociologists have the same sort of basis for talking about the structure of society as they themselves have for talking about the structure of the universe. Many years ago, Friedrich Hayek offered an analogy in an attempt to correct this misunderstanding. He said that, when thinking about social "science", physicists should imagine having first-hand knowledge of the inside of an atom but no opportunity to observe interactions between them, nor any way to experiment on them. I'm sure the aptness of that analogy is debatable but it suggests another one that I want to elaborate here.
Power is to sociology as gravity is to astronomy. In a certain sense, it explains everything. It certainly affects everything and you can't understand the relevant phenomena without taking it into account. But as a phenomenon in its own right it's not very well understood. Already Newton had to treat it as an essentially "occult" force, only observable through its effects on other things. Today, to be sure, there are very smart people working on it, but what gravity is, the ontology of gravity, if you will, is still one of the great mysteries. While light "particles", i.e., photons, have been demonstrated to exist, the corresponding particle of weight, if you will, the graviton, remains a hypothesis.
And yet gravity obviously "works". It not only determines the passage of our Earth around the Sun. It structures space across billions of light years. As one astronomer put it to me recently, many of these structures were "baked in" at the creation of the universe. Very slowly (from our point view) they also change. Today, the Milky Way is one structure and Andromeda is another, two spiral formations, each consisting of billions and billions of stars circling an enormous well of gravity. But in about 4 billion years this will change. The two structures will collide and produce a single new structure. Here, again, gravity will be doing most of the work.
Like I say, it may be useful for astronomers to think of power as a kind of "social gravity". This will avoid misunderstandings that I think pervade the pursuit of social justice in the STEM fields, and perhaps actually the concept of justice as it is understood in many of the social sciences today. (One point at which the analogy breaks down, after all, is that sociologists are much less "on the same page" about power than astronomers are about gravity.) It is natural to think of power as a primarily oppressive or "marginalizing" force. Indeed, this is the sense I get when listening to Sarah Ballard explain her vision of scientific "humanity". But this, I want to suggest, is a bit like thinking of gravity as something that is only "keeping us down", only holding us back. To be sure, it does that too. But do we really want to say that photons are more "liberated" than, say, rocks? Does that make sense?
We would not want a universe without gravity. It does limit how high we can jump, but at the same time, by the very same force, it makes jumping a meaningful activity. While it determines how difficult it is to get from point A to point B, it also, in an important sense, creates the "here" of A and B, whether that be two different places on our planet, or two different planets around two different suns. We don't resent gravity, because we know that it works for us as often as it works against us. Why are we so inclined to resent power?
Activists do sometimes demonstrate an understanding of this. When they talk about "empowerment" they are using the concept of power in the positive, creative sense. But the end game of empowerment too often seems to be an equal distribution of power. Astronomers who are trying to get their mind around what this implies need only imagine a universe with a completely uniform distribution of mass, a completely homogeneous gravity "structure". I put that word in quotation marks because, though I'm not an expert, I believe I just described the opposite of structure, namely, total chaos. I'm describing a world in a state of maximum entropy. The fabled heat death of the universe.
When Ballard imagines a scientific culture as "a place in which everyone could thrive" she's actually describing a place that is no place at all. There would be no "there" there, as Gertrude Stein or Martin Heidegger or, if you will, Tristan Tzara might have said. She is forgetting that we actually don't want everyone to thrive in science, we want it to be a place where mainly smart and curious people can thrive, and the less intelligent and less inquisitive among us can run palpably into our limitations. (The sooner the better so that we can quit and find work we are more suited for.) We also want it to be a place where "thriving" means different things to different people at different times. It's a place where the young learn and the elders teach, and where everyone is a little young and a little old at the same time, but not, I dare say, equally young and equally old in every way. We want there to be a tension, a dynamic. We want there to be movement, from falsehood to truth, from darkness towards the light. As individuals and as a society. We want a culture in which difference thrives, in which people thrive differently.
But what social science, too often I'm afraid, is teaching natural scientists is that society—or culture, if you will—is just spinning eternally around a gravity well of oppression. Call it the Toilet Model of social mechanics. There's no joy in their description of science, no hope, only pain and fear and harm. There is no sense of velocity, no possibility of escape. No levity. The only hope they see is that everyone who has power ("privilege") "check" it, i.e., abdicate it, that they lay their heavy burden down on the cold, hard ground. They don't seem to understand that the hard work a young scientist does early in her career, against a host of odds, some of which certainly channel injustices that have been "baked in" to our culture since the time we either came out of the caves or planted our first crops or opened the first bank, can actually, and in some cases literally, put her into orbit.
Ballard doesn't seem to understand this even though it describes her very own experience. The giants may be white and male but you don't end up under their heel. You stand on their shoulders. Sometimes they steady you by holding firmly onto your ankles. It is a tragedy that social science is teaching astronomers to think of this as "physical harassment".