When physicists go bad

My latest comic with Maki Naro addresses the instances where certain physicists abandon scientific ethics to promote dubious causes: eugenics, climate change denial, and so forth. Since this issue is a bit fraught, I’ve included notes and references at the end of this post. Journalism, y’know?

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When Good Scientists Go Bad

Science doesn’t make you magically objective, and it’s not separate from the rest of human experience.

Albert Einstein wearing a "Black Lives Matter" shirt next to William Shockley carrying a tiki torch

Albert Einstein obviously died many years before the Black Lives Matters movement, but he was a strong anti-lynching advocate. William Shockley similarly never waved a tiki torch at a neofascist rally, but he did hang out with Ku Klux Klan financiers. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

There’s a common myth that scientists are objective participants in the world, applying the same rigorous standards to life outside the lab as they do within it. However, everyone’s biases affect our interactions with the world (and the practice of science itself is less objective than many people would like to believe). In some instances, when scientists leave the world of research, they still pretend that’s not the case, using scientific credentials to make statements beyond their expertise. In this new comic with Maki Naro, we looked at a few cases where right-leaning physicists endorsed outright pseudoscience: eugenics, questionable weaponry, and — most prominently today — climate change “skepticism”.

References for the comic:

  1. Elizabeth Catte. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt, 2018). This book is where I first found out about William Shockley’s attempt to implement IQ-based eugenics in Appalachia, and the original inspiration for this comic. It’s also a well-sourced and -researched antidote to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
  2. For more on the meeting between Shockley, Harry Caudill, and KKK financier J. W. Kirkpatrick, see this excellent report from the Lexington Herald Leader. Kirkpatrick was (among other things) involved in an attempted white supremacist coup to overthrow the government of the Dominican Republic.
  3. Naomi Orekes and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010). Oreskes and Conway provide a detailed exposé of scientists (not just physicists) involved in anti-environmentalist and pro-corporate activities from the mid-20th century up to today. The “Rogues Gallery” in the comic is derived from this book. (There’s also a documentary, but I haven’t watched it.)
  4. The quote from William Happer comparing carbon dioxide to Holocaust victims was widely reported; see this MediaMatters summary and his profile on DeSmog Blog. DeSmog Blog is also the source of the information about Willie Soon.
  5. I wrote about Einstein’s antiracist and anti-lynching work for Smithsonian, which contains its own sources and notes. (I also wrote in Forbes about Einstein’s own racism about Asian people.)
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Asteroids, Mars, and a vision for space beyond colonialism

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Who owns an asteroid?

Celestial bodies like Bennu could help us tell Earth’s origin story. Or they could be strip-mined for resources

Panel from “Who Owns an Asteroid?” with words by me and art by Maki Naro. Click for the whole comic.

Discussions around space travel are saturated in colonialist language and narratives, from “space colonies” on Mars to multiple proposals for mining asteroids. These concepts are often treated as inevitable, with conversations about when and how, rather than if we should do any of this in the first place. In The Nib, artist extraordinaire Maki Naro and I look at how colonialist attitudes have colored our dialog on asteroids and Mars, with a focus on the ethical and — dare we say — the spiritual component of conservation on other worlds.

To know if there are aliens, we need to ask the right questions

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Are We Alone in the Universe?

Panel from “Are we alone?”, a comic written by me with art by Maki Naro. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

How can we know if life exists elsewhere in the cosmos? To answer that question, we have to place Earth — and Earth life — in the context of other worlds in the Solar System and beyond. In my latest comic for The Nib with Maki Naro, we look at the science of planetary chemistry and the conditions of habitability as we know them, with the help of Johns Hopkins astrochemist Sarah Hörst and American Astronomical Society Public Policy Fellow Ashlee Wilkins.

Elon Musk’s plan for humanity’s survival lacks vision

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Elon Musk Isn’t All He’s Cracked Up to Be

Elon Musk cares about humanity’s survival, but his stated vision about how that survival should be achieved is not exactly inclusive or practical. My latest comic for The Nib with Maki Naro discusses why a white tech billionaire may not be the best source for such a plan, and features wisdom from DN Lee.

The first known interstellar visitor to the Solar System

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Cosmic Driftwood

What a floating rock can tell us about life in the rest of the universe

Panel from “Cosmic Driftwood”. [Credit: Maki Naro (art) and moi (words)]

Last October, we had the first known interstellar visitor to the Solar System: an asteroid named ʻOumuamua. In our latest comic for The Nib, Maki Naro and I explain how we know the building-sized rock isn’t from around here, what we know about it, and what it might tell us about life elsewhere in the galaxy.

Star Trek, quantum mechanics, and the meaning of being human (kinda)

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The trouble with teleportation

A panel from “The trouble with teleportation”, featuring me as a science officer. [Credit: Maki Naro (art), moi (words)]

Quantum teleportation is a really fascinating area of research, but it’s hampered by the name, which evokes Star Trek. The reality is trickier, and why a Star Trek-style transporter may never be possible is an interesting question in and of itself. Comics genius Maki Naro and I created a comics explainer going into what teleportation is and isn’t, with plenty of Star Trek to keep us all going.

The many challenges to science in the Age of Trump

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Panel from “Science Is Political: Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Otherwise”. Words by me, art by Maki Naro.

Science is Political

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

One of the big problems with privilege is the way it insulates the privileged from issues that are blatantly obvious to others. The political nature of science is one of those issues: privileged scientists (especially white male scientists in the United States) can pretend science is a meritocracy, and they got where they are according to their own personal merits, without any deck-stacking in their favor.

Donald J. Trump doesn’t want you to read this comic. Words by me, art by Maki Naro.

However, since the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, there has been a growing recognition even among the privileged that science is under threat. In my new comics collaboration with science comics artist extraordinaire Maki “Totoro” Naro, we looked at a large number of ways science is already being impacted in the Age of Trump. Those ways include the obvious—climate change—to the less-obvious for the privilege-insulated, such as anti-trans “bathroom bills” and attacks on health care. To this end, we spoke with a number of scientists from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. Thanks to Raychelle Burks, Amanda Grennell, Lisa Manglass, Mika McKinnon, Nancy Parmalee, David Shiffman, and Emily Willingham for talking to us. Read the comic here.

Oh yes, and if you have a few spare dollars, please throw them Maki’s way.