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The work that you do

February 6, 2012

Blacks in America do not have the luxury of your intellectual talents being wasted on astrophysics

The above is a quote from a very nice profile on Neil de Grasse Tyson

I have heard the same basic sentiment spoken and written elsewhere. Blacks do not have the luxury to pursue the ideas interest them. Astrophysics. Chemistry. Math. They have a special responsibility to work of direct relevance to the community. This goes beyond doing outreach work on the side. It means that if you’re interested in bashirology, you should make sure that it’s somehow “black bashirology” or “bashirology of the African-American experience” or something like that. Doing work like astrophysics is frivolous.

Given the historical situation of African-Americans that opinion is understandable. It’s kind of a talented tenth type of thing. The intellectually well-to-do ought to put their intellectual capital directly back into the community. It’s a nice idea if taken in moderation, but is self defeating if taken to the extreme (which some folks do).

Obviously I don’t quite agree. Not just because I do a lot of frivolous theoretical work. That attitude hampers black scientists into limiting their engagement with the scientific community. If certain topics are off limits that only makes the work of representation (and outreach) harder. The sentiment I describe  is related to more general ideas about justifying scientific work that doesn’t have obvious immediate applications (e.g. curing cancer; see my prior post).

Thankfully, Neil got past that, went into astrophysics and still found time to do a lot of great outreach, particularly with NOVA. As someone who watched a lot of science programing on PBS as a kid, having a black scientist as that person is quite a coup and I think a pretty good use of his intellectual talents.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 12:16 pm

    Huh. Now that you mention it, of the handful of female zwitterioniqueologists, more of them than would be expected by chance do seem to package their work as gestation/lactation/baby-related biological systems. I’ve yet to meet another queer zwitterionique-ologist, but of the out queer-scientists I know, there seems to be a small bias towards work on HIV/AIDS.

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