Earlier today, I joined fellow civil rights supporters in speaking out against Jordan Peterson. I’m one of many writers who has extensively examined the misrepresentations at the heart of Peterson’s political advocacy. But as much digital ink as we’ve spilled saying why Peterson is wrong, we too often fail to say what a progressive alternative to his individual worldview could be, including for the young men who flock to his shows. So I offered one up here for men (and others!) who are interested in advancing justice in society and, well, having a good time doing it.
Video of our speakout below and with my remarks (I skipped over a few bits in the interest of time). We had a lot of good conversations with Peterson fans and folks who were just interested in what he had to say. A lot of people were not familiar with his advocacy in Canada. Two white nationalists hollered at us, one guy in a MAGA hat who spouted some “Proud Boy” rhetoric and another guy with white nationalist tattoos who didn’t like an organizer pointing out his tattoos.
My name is Aaron Huertas and I’m a working class white guy from South Jersey. I grew up on Bruce Springsteen, professional wrestling and American history.
I’m here today because I’ve read my history and Jordan Peterson has not.
I’ve made a career here in DC doing two things:
We’re speaking out today as progressive men to offer an alternative to Jordan Peterson. Because he ignores the great history of civil rights movements. And he misuses his authority as an academic psychologist to distract from civil rights debates.
At his core Jordan Peterson doesn’t understand discrimination. He thinks the only way we exist in the world is as individuals. And if you’re an individual who isn’t discriminated against, yeah, it’s easier to think you’re just an individual!
But I’ve been discriminated against because of my class. When you grow up working class you learn that you’re less than, that you’re gonna be a smoker and a druggie and you’re gonna go to jail if you don’t watch your back. That your labor is worth less than everybody’s elses.
So I understand that. And when I talk to the working class women in my life, I know they face double discrimination because of their gender. And when I talk to working class black women in my life, I know they face triple discrimination because of their race, too. Add to that where you’re from, who you love, what language you speak, you name it. And I don’t think people who aren’t the same as me are trying to threaten me or take anything from me—I see other people who are trying to survive and thrive in this world together.
I have no guilt about what I born into or the advantages I’ve had. But what I do have is a responsibility. And that responsibility is to stand with women and people of color against injustice:
Now Jordan Peterson came to fame complaining about a civil rights law in Canada that would do things like protect transgender people from getting kicked out of their housing for who they are. He said the state was trying to force him to use gender pronouns he didn’t like. That was a conspiracy theory.
Civil rights lawyers told him you’re wrong. Civil rights scholars told him you’re wrong. Trans activists told him you’re wrong. The legislators who wrote the bill told him you’re wrong.
And every time, he said, nope, this debate is actually all about me.
That’s not just misguided and silly—it’s selfish and it’s so narrow-minded.
When journalists ask Jordan Peterson about #MeToo, he says it’s about how women and men aren’t getting along in the workplace.
No. It’s about predatory men attacking and harassing women.
And we have a real civil rights debate in this country about it. Sexual predators are finally being brought to justice. States are expanding the statute of limitation for sex crimes.
But Jordan Peterson doesn’t talk about that. He says you can’t go too far left! The Maoists made everyone dress the same! That’s really what he wants to contribute to the conversation, complaining about how people in China dressed under communism.
Now Jordan Peterson claims he’s not political. But he’s an individualist ideologue who punches left. He says he’s saving young men from becoming right wing reactionaries by teaching them to be individuals. But he doesn’t offer any proof that he’s done that. Meanwhile, dozens of videos a day go up on Youtube from right wing groups promoting Peterson’s views. He shares his platform with people who spread discredited race science and he poses for pictures with white nationalists who use him for propaganda purposes.
Jordan Peterson is an irresponsible academic. He’s an irresponsible advocate. He’s weighing on laws and debates on which he has no expertise. He’s ignoring and misrepresenting the positions of civil rights advocates.
Peterson wants to celebrate individual freedom. But there is no such thing as individual freedom in a world where people still face discrimination over who they are.
Jordan Peterson is here to give his followers excuses to ignore discrimination.
I’m here to say that fighting discrimination together makes a better world for all of us.Continue reading
Update 4/24/18 – Looks like the misinformation about me at Science 2.0 was deleted. Included an updated screenshot below. No one from Science 2.0 or ACSH reached out to let me know that it had been corrected or to offer any explanation as to how this happened. Alex Berezow, a senior fellow at ACSH has some less-than-helpful responses to me on this, though. I hope this exercise is useful to others who may find themselves in similar situations in the future.
I was surprised to see a Google Alert land in my inbox on Saturday letting me know that I got some coverage in Science 2.0, a site founded by Hank Campbell, the president of the American Council on Science and Health, a group that pushes back against criticisms of private-sector science and science policy. Unfortunately, the coverage involves an anonymous “news staff” writer making up a conspiracy theory about me.
The post is about disputes over neonicotinoid pesticides. The writer states that Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists:
…have continued to raise money promising donors they will get [neonicotinoids] banned. They have been using a variety of techniques to reach their target goals. Union of Concerned Scientists even got one of its political strategists, Aaron Huertas, placed on a panel about science communication last week, to help groom young science communicators to their side.
It’s hard to know where to start with what’s wrong with this statement, but here’s a shot:
The most ironic part about this? The panel I spoke on was about dealing with misinformation in science communication!
I’ve contacted Campbell multiple times, but haven’t heard back from him. I tweeted to him on Saturday, sent him a DM earlier today, and left him a voicemail via ACSH’s publicly posted phone number. I’ve also contacted ACHS’s communication lead, Erik Liefe, and Alex Berezow, one of its senior fellows. Neither has responded to me. I DMed Campbell again to let him know I was going to write on this to correct the record and that I’d be happy to include any updates or responses from him or Science 2.0. I sent a similar email to Liefe.
To be clear, I don’t know who does these news updates at Science 2.0 or who has editorial control over them or if the site is formally affiliated with ACSH. What I do know is that they published false information about me and I’m willing to spend some time getting that corrected. At this point, I’d also like to know who actually wrote this update, why they didn’t contact me, and why they felt compelled to invent a conspiracy theory about me and my work.
This is actually the second time this year someone with a presumed position of authority has made something like this up about me and my work. Earlier this year, I asked Roger Pielke Jr. a political scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder to correct unfounded public statements he made that I’ve been paid by the Center for American Progress and NextGen Climate to attack him. He declined to do so, instead inventing a conspiracy theory in which I’m leading a group of senior climate scientists against him. Really.
Anyway, the reality is that there are some odd ducks in the science policy community! Sometimes they make deeply uncharitable assumptions about other people and their work, especially those of us who do advocacy and communication for a living. As I told the panel on Thursday, the best thing to do in response is to publicly ask misinformers to correct the record in a venue you can control, whether that’s a Twitter thread or your own blog or a web property operated by an institution you trust.
And for the record, here’s how the Science 2.0 page looked as of Monday morning. I hope they correct their misrepresentations of me and my work, but given Campbell’s non-responses so far, I’m not gonna hold my breath.
But on the upside, now I know how to spell neonicotinoid!
And here’s an updated screenshot from 4/24, when the sentence about me was finally deleted.
The March for Science went viral last week and the scientific community is trying to figure out what it means. In my mind, it’s a major opportunity for scientists to become more engaged. Those of us who have worked in science policy and science communication for years should welcome new colleagues and friends aboard, share what we know, and help make the marches and associated events a success.
It’s also a good time for us to get real about the relationship between science and politics as well as each of our individual and institutional takes on what engagement, advocacy, and political action really mean.
Here are a few more thoughts:
The marches are part of a growing suite of engagement options for scientists. Scientists are increasingly interested in getting involved in policy and politics. The institutions that serve them have invested a lot of new resources on this front, but many scientists seem to be wondering if that’s enough. Indeed, part of the reason we’re seeing viral responses to efforts like 500 Women Scientists, Indivisible, Rise, the Women’s March, 314 Action, and now the March for Science is that people are looking for answers through new channels. They feel major urgency and they aren’t seeing that reflected wholly by the leaders in their community. Scientific societies and advocacy groups should be excited to see so many new efforts popping up and should find ways to channel some of this great energy into concrete, effective action. At the same time, there’s no singular or perfect way to be a scientist in public life. Some scientists will want to march. Some will want to Tweet. Some will want to meet with members of Congress. Some will want to work to make their universities more welcoming for everyone who wants to do science. Some will run for office. Scientists are human, after all, and importantly, they are also citizens who will interpret what citizenship means differently. The key is being clear about our values and what sort of public engagement we think is effective and why.
Scientists have marched before and it’s been super cool. In 2012, Canadian scientists marched on Parliament to protest cuts and censorship. By all accounts it was a successful event that helped highlight the valuable role science plays in public life. Similarly, when 500 Women Scientists participated in the Women’s March, I think everyone felt great about it, including other marchers who yelled, “Yay science!” when they saw researchers in lab coats. A scientists’ rally outside the American Geophysical Union last year was similarly well-received. Bottom line: this is not unprecedented, though the size and scope of this march may be a new thing for the scientific community.
We can improve the relationship between science and politics, but we can’t wish it away. American politics has radically changed in the past 10 years and the prospect of returning to the post-War, bipartisan political order seems dim. But regardless, when we say we want to “keep politics out of science,” we’re engaging in what I would bluntly call a form of politics-denial. Politicians and ideologues will always try to interfere with and disparage science they don’t like and use science and scientists they do like in service of political arguments. At the same time, political choices influence the types of science that get funded. We should also remember that the politicization of science is not new, at all. Robert Oppenheimer had his security clearance stripped because of his political beliefs, including his skepticism about nuclear weapons policy. Even Einstein found his work attacked by reactionary anti-Semites, writing to a friend in 1920: “This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” Fast forward to today and censorship and immigration bans are having concrete, material effects on science and the scientific community’s ability to serve the public. Of course this is political and therefore “politicized.” As I wrote after the election, scientists have to do a better job grappling with their relationship to power. So many parts of our community have been sheltered from politics, but we’re really in a different spot now. Scientists have also lost a lot of power and getting it back will involve both more effective engagement on the civic, education and policy front as well as direct engagement in the political process. We have to make the case for science and thankfully, we can, because science, done well, fundamentally serves the public interest and makes people lives materially better.
Marches are open and democratic; get creative. Some scientists wonder if a march is effective. Most people who participate in marches wonder the same thing! I would say to them: find a way to participate that’s effective for you and your audience. If you’re coming to DC for the march, do you want to meet with your member of Congress or the folks who represent your field to Congress at a scientific society? If you’re hosting or participating in a sister march, can you marry that with a teach-in on a local issue you care about? That’s the beautiful thing about big, democratic events. They are what we make of them! So let’s get creative and have a good time. This is new and it’s worth figuring out what we want it to be, together.
Given the above, you can see why I view negativity about the march as premature and unhelpful. Dr. Robert Young’s essay in the NYT expressing concerns about the march, for instance, presented it as if it’s a trade-off with doing in-person civic engagement at the local level. It simply isn’t, but those sort of responses are typical of some of the negativity we often see and hear in our community when someone tries something new. Slate’s Eric Holthaus has a good rejoinder, including links to other scientists’ commentary. Bottom line: if you don’t think the march is a good idea, come up with a better one and do that. It’s a big world out there and as Katharine Hayhoe once told me, we need to do a better job building each other up instead of tearing each other down.Continue reading
This is such an exciting time for science communication. In my ten years working in this field, I’ve never seen such an outpouring of interest for engaging with policymakers and taking political action from American scientists.
Last week, I was happy to march with 500 Women Scientists and was even happier to hear other marchers yell, “Yay science!” as they saw fellow marchers in lab coats walking by.
I also wrote an op-ed for ArsTechnia about why more scientists should run for public office. 314 Action, which is taking the lead on this work, has more than 400 researchers who say they’re ready to take the ultimate public engagement step and run. (I’ve pointed my site RunForScience.org their way and look forward to working with them!)
It’s also interesting to think back to my time working in science policy during the George W. Bush administration. It’s slightly hard to remember, but that was before Twitter became such an important conduit for the science and political press. Back then, leaks and alternative means of speaking out were a bit more cumbersome. Today, in response to the Trump administration putting a freeze on agency Twitter accounts, more than 40 “alternative” science agency accounts have popped up. And memos about new agency policies are showing up on sites as far-ranging as Gizmodo and the Washington Post.
You can delete a Tweet, but you can’t delete the truth.
As disappointing as the election results surely were for many of us in the scientific community, it’s heartening to see researchers respond with grace, humor, and a deeper commitment to public service.
Of course, some scientists will say that political advocacy or action aren’t warranted or that scientists should stay out of politics. They’re free to think that, of course, but politics has way of failing to stay out of science and scientists’ attitudes toward advocacy are on a spectrum, from scientists that keep their heads down all the way to researchers like Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who run for public office.
What we’re seeing right now is massive growth in the number of scientists who are finding that advocacy and political action aren’t just optional – they’re necessary to ensure that science and democracy continue to flourish.Continue reading
I have been thinking these past few months of Dr. Carl Sagan. In his last interview, conducted with Charlie Rose in 1996, Dr. Sagan said the following:
We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?
This was Dr. Sagan, with all his clear-eyed skepticism brought to bear on our world. But his appeal – his moral courage, really – came from his deeper, unwavering optimism for our species. These are the first two quotes from The Demon-Haunted World, his user’s guide to scientific thinking:
Of course, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump didn’t talk much about science during their campaigns. This was not an election based on issues. But this was the first election in U.S. history where the role of expertise itself – be it scientific, academic or security-related – actually divided the candidates.
During her acceptance speech after the primaries, Clinton said she believed in science, citing climate change, in particular. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has called climate change a hoax. That statement, along with Trump’s pending withdrawal of the United States from an international climate agreement, drew unprecedented criticism from more than 375 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Further, more than 1,200 members of the scientific community echoed these concerns in another letter, citing Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories and the alacrity with which he and his running mate made discredited claims about vaccines, evolution, and the link between smoking and lung disease. They joined many other experts in making similar statements condemning Trump and praising Clinton, including Nobel Prize winners, historians, economists and nuclear launch officers.
Trump’s rise — and his narrow victory — should make us question the degree to which expertise will continue to matter in politics. We know that it does when it’s time to make policy, but on the politics, its salience is simply low and will probably remain so. Repeated warnings from experts across disciplines and across the political spectrum fell not on deaf ears, but on deeply disengaged and distracted ones. It is tempting to blame others for this problem, including politicians who abandoned their Constitutional principles to support Trump as well as media coverage that too often balanced bigotry, threats of violence, repeated falsehoods, attacks on the democratic process itself and sexual assault with email servers. But such complaints will not change anything, certainly not history.
It is therefore up to the scientific and academic community itself to become a more powerful political constituency. As Dr. Sagan once said about our planet, help will not come from somewhere else.
What lessons do we take away from this as science communicators who care about public policy? Here are a few, which broadly apply to other experts, too.
Of course, many scientists and science communicators are already doing all this. What I am saying is that we need more. Scientists who think this is someone else’s problem need to come off the sidelines. And scientific leaders have a further responsibility to foster more leadership in our community, through mentorships, fellowship programs and the simple grace of building each other up instead of tearing each other down.
Finally, we must care for each other. We need to face great difficulty with great creativity and drive. Dr. Sagan is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on in all of us who have dedicated our careers to the sciences. As Sarah Myhre and Tessa Hill put it last year: “Be brave. There has never been a more important time to be a well-spoken member of the scientific community.
Update, 11/11 at 4PM: The American Physical Society just retracted a fawning statement about Trump’s win after members pushed back. Scientists and scientific organizations will have to choose between appeasement and opposition and it’s going to be about way more than funding.
In the Guardian, Jack Stilgore and Roger Pielke Jr. argue that scientists have to work with a Trump administration to “remain relevant” or risk jeopardizing “the constructive role that we should play in policy and politics.” This is a false choice. Scientists are already relevant to policymaking at all levels of government and opposing a Trump Administrations’ attempts to gut politically inconvenient federal science would be both a constructive and moral choice. Australian scientists faced a similar choice and they stood up for themselves and their colleagues, prompting a reversal of anti-climate-science policies from their new government.Continue reading