Fuck Neutral, In Case I Haven’t Said It Before: A book review, and a bad old man

CN: sexual predators, the most recent time i was sexually harassed in academia, Tamir Rice’s murder, racism, trashing our idols, including Eli “Predatory” Weisel

In case you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting me, or the misfortune of sitting next to me in any kind of professional situation where it would be so much better if I could just fucking keep my head down, I don’t believe in neutral.  I never have.  I never will.  As some old white dude once said, referencing the holocaust, i think, maybe, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.  And recently deceased holocaust survivor and serial sexual predator Eli Wiesel agrees, in his oft-quoted statement about neutrality in situations of injustice helping the oppressor*.  So, you can’t be neutral on a moving train or whatever, but really we can’t be neutral while standing on stolen land. And so we are clear, science is stolen land.

Science is stolen land, like the very literal theft of Rosalind Franklin’s data by the white men credited with discovering DNA and the series of nameless (in the sense that im not crediting them with anything) mediocre white dudes stealing knowledge from midwives, who were mostly people of color, and synthesizing it into “breakthrough” obstetric medications (i.e. ergot fungus became methergine because midwives knew it stops heavy bleeding) and techniques, uninvited. (The colonialist harms of obstetrics is a whole ‘nother post, and I’m already distracted with the bravery of the survivor who outed Eli Weisel as a sexual predator, so stay tuned to my long list of shit I need to write for details, but now back to our topic). But science is also stolen land in the sense it became an academic discipline by stealing from femme, Indigenous, Black, Brown, neurodivergent and disabled resisters, taking what we had always done and calling it new, different and better.  Scientific.

And not content to simply take and brand, science’s professionalism made it exclusive, a tool that only mediocre white men in positions of unearned power could wield.  And then that very professionalism was used to establish harmful-assed nonsense as credible, believable and neutral.  The “fact” that people of color have smaller brains (established when some fuckstain stuffed marbles in stolen skulls, defended by a big chunk of the scientific establishment in 2011) is scientific, and thus neutral. Margaret Mead was a scientist when she spied on and de-humanized the T’ua, in quintessential white feminismEugenist Frances Galton was a scientist (a statistician!) when he cautioned rich white folks that they were in danger of dying out if people of color made autonomous decisions about their own reproduction, in a safe context (because yes, reproductive justice had already been invented, and denied). Samuel Cartwright was a scientist when he scientifically determined that enslaved Black people suffered from a mental illness (Dysaesthesia Aethiopica) that made them fatally non-compliant; dysaesthesia aethiopica was the 19th century pre-cursor to our modern casting of schizophrenia as a Black disease of non-compliance.  The Willowbrook State School was a scientist when it injected forcibly institutionalized disabled children with hepatitis.  Tamir Rice will never be a scientist, but science sure has been used to justify his murder by police. Science itself is stolen land.

So that’s our context, and now its time for a book review, specifically a review of Damned Lies and Statistics, published in 2001 by sociologist Joel Best, another mediocre white man with tenure and a following.  At first glance, this is the book that I should have written, that I would have written if I had access to the unearned benefits of mediocre white dude-ship, or if anyone had given my queer, disabled, wary of white feminism despite my whiteness, which apparently makes people uncomfortable, insurrectionist, non-compliant ass a book advance.  Dr. Best the Mediocre-est writes about statistics, and how they are presented in the media and in our culture, and how they are “manipulated” by “politicians and activists”.  According to Dr. Mediocre, statistics are inherently neutral, as is science, but are understood and presented inaccurately by people with axes to grind.  I’m right on board with Dr. Mediocre that statistics are often presented inaccurately, and used to make a case that covers up the truth (see the science used to justify the lethal shots fired at a 12 year old at a family barbeque, above, as just one example, and may you rest in power, Tamir, while we fight like hell for the living).

But Dr. Mediocre’s central thesis is that manipulation of statistics is bad, because it interferes with the beauty of objective, neutral science.  We should strive to overcome “innumeracy”, which is what he calls the fact that science’s colonizers made it excessively complex, as a way of fencing it in, away from the revolution, and closing ranks to maintain an oppressive status quo.  If we just understood math better, he says, statistics would again be neutral. Science is stolen land, and Dr. Mediocre wants us to be neutral about it, to stop politicizing it, and focus on the purity of the math.  Much like the purity of the white race espoused by past and current scientists, this is a fiction.  Sure, we could get the math more right, but we could also ask better, less colonized research questions.  We could stop viewing science as neutral when it re-enforces the status quo, and instead root out the status quo’s entanglement with science.  Because status quo science is sure as fuck not neutral.  It’s just siding with the oppressor in a situation of injustice. So save some time on buying his book.  Or borrow and lose my copy, in true communitarian fashion. Upcycle it when you’re out of toilet paper.

Dr. Mediocre actually reminds me of another really gross mediocre white dude I had the misfortune of having to listen to in a class where I really should have tried to keep my head down.  The mediocre dude is Dr. Stuart Altman, a self-proclaimed trailblazing genuis who routinely writes about himself in the third person. As in “the story begins with Dr. Stuart Altman watching TV. The [respectability-driven whitespeak for uppity negro] president was introducing a new health care reform package.  Dr. Stuart Altman, who had previously invented the idea of health care reform when he was an assistant assistant under-secretary to President Richard Nixon, shook his head.  Dr. Stuart Altman knew better” (lightly paraphrased from the douchefucker’s latest book). As a side note, Dr. Stuart is inordinately proud of having worked for Nixon, which is not usually the stuff of incessant bragging.

Anyway, Dr. Stuart Douchecanoe was lecturing to my mandatory graduate student seminar, and his lecture topic was about ending advocacy in research, which he described as a growing trend that’s even more disturbing than this asshat’s excitement at having once sat in the same auditorium as Nixon.  “Advocates are ruining science,” he began.  According to Dr. Douchecanoe, activists come in with their own agendas, like, for example, equity, and challenge the institutionalized oppression of the research establishment.  They might have some good points, he conceded, but they are soooooo unprofessionalllllllll.  And the wild unprofessionalism of asserting justice as an imperative in science makes any work done by anyone but mediocre white men less neutral, and therefore less scientific.  It’s a self-perpetuating spiral, really.  But we all must join together and fight for pure and neutral science, by which he means science that supports and anything but neutral status quo.

Full disclosure, two weeks prior I had asked to test out of Dr. Douchecanoe’s lecture class about the structure of the health care system, a request he initially denied because “it is impossible to learn this content in any other way.  No one teaches like me.”  When I emailed him a copy of the university’s policy stating that grad students who can demonstrate expertise in the topic area (my years as a midwife helping people navigate a health care system that was explicitly designed to oppress and exclude them came to mind in this case) may demonstrate their knowledge through a test and be excused from the class.  So he grudgingly arranged for me to take last year’s test, alone in a small room down an out of the way hall.  And when I was midway through the test, he came into the room and blocked the only door with his body, making sure that if anyone walked by, all they could see was his back, and not me.  He put his hand on my shoulder, and informed me that I would be really missing out if I missed his class, because he had a lot to offer young women like me, and this was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.  I’m well schooled in femme survivorship, and so I shut down and mumbled something about a conflicting commitment.  He stared directly down my ratty old t-shirt, and curled his hands around my clavicle, pressing tight.  I want to point out that the last time someone curled their hand around my clavicle and pressed tight, I was in the middle of having hot, consensual sex with her. “Well, we could always do an independent study”, he said, his fingers pressing deeper down into the soft skin around my neck.  “You would really benefit from an independent study with me.”

And that, friends, is neutral, non-activist driven science.  That is science categorized as neutral because it supports the status quo, a status quo where predators know exactly how far they can go without crossing a line into something reportable, and thus continue looking down our ratty t-shirts and getting book deals. If the activist science full of manipulative math that Dr. Douchecanoe and Dr. Mediocre rail against was actually taking over, I would have been able to kick Dr. Douchecanoe in the balls, with full institutional support.  And non-neutral science, a science focused on reclaiming stolen land, a science premised on ending oppression, not justifying it, well, that’s the kind of science in which researchers like me could thrive.  Professionalism taught Dr. Douchecanoe to block the view through the door with his body, and to make sure his hand didn’t follow his eyes down past my clavicle. Professionalism stopped me from stabbing him, but also from reporting him, because I know science will be on his well-practiced, carefully calculated side. Activists and advocates are ruining the purity of science by making it less professional. And here is where neutrality and professionalism block the view from the door with their bodies, attempting to control what we can see through the thin glass.  The view through the door is anything but neutral, and so yeah, i’m very much in favor of activists taking over science.  We’ll get more done when the stolen land under our feet is replaced with justice.

I finished my test and walked to the train, didn’t even name what had happened as predatory until my friend Finn texted me to ask how the test had gone and I burst into tears.  “It was business as usual,” I texted back, and Finn lovingly pointed out that Dr. Douchecanoe’s behavior demonstrates expertise in approaching the line but never crossing it into something that would have consequences.  What happened in that small room was pure statistics. It’s branded as neutral, but it never, ever was, and the mask of neutrality needs to come off.  Goodbye, neutrality. And hello to my friends, activist-scientists who reject science’s neutrality, who are blazing actual trails through the unknown territory of a more just world. F is one of them, and I so admire his work.  Elyan, who got me thinking about professionalism in science with a thoughtful post is another.  And all my activist-first, middle and last-researcher mentors and colleagues and friends, Jo-Anna, Lydia, Shain, Allegra, Laura, Nashira, Sanam, Lana, Jen, Christian, Dana, Kimberlynn, Diane, and so many others, thank you for never being neutral.  There is no neutral on stolen land, and your activist-science is reparations and reclaiming. Our science is real and better science, because good science depends on justice.

So here’s to the never-neutral science we’ll do when the predators are all gone.  Here’s to our completely unprofessional brilliance.  Here’s to no longer standing on stolen land, or the shoulders of abusers, and here’s to kicking predators in the wrinkled old balls on their way out.  Here’s to us.

Love & Solidarity,

Nechama

*  And, note to Eli, who my mother revered, this quote of yours might have been a good thing to keep in mind when grabbing at women and girls. Particularly when grabbing at women and girls who live in a culture of silence, a culture that demands a neutral face while old men dig their old hands into your 14 year old ass, or at least that was my experience of Orthodox Judaism when I was a child who had seen too much and been asked to hold my face in neutral… In other words, Weisel, like so many other predators, knew what he was doing.  He knew who to target to avoid getting caught and being held accountable (Orthodox femmes who have been trained in silence, and, while we’re at it, are often systematically denied access to resources that support survivors, like literacy). But anyway, he’s dead now and may other predators follow in his footsteps and also die.  And before anyone says this man was a treasure, I’m gonna pre-empt the conversation and shut down dialogue by saying that real treasures practice consent.   They use their brilliance for something other than figuring out who they can get away with assaulting.  Hard stop.  Bye, Eli. I’m sorry for what the Nazis did to you, and I’m sorry for everyone who survived your abuses of power.  Another hero down.  Burn all your idols. To the motherfucking ground.  Love, N

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