Nuclear Fusion And Safe Spaces

January 2019

For me, the first sign of trouble appeared in a journal article. I was on a sabbatical leave and finally had time to read a few articles in The Physics Teacher, which always had been a great educational journal published by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). The article that caught my eye was titled “Perspectives on the indigenous Worldviews in informal Science Education Conference.”

 (Link available in the web version.)

As the title indicates, the authors had written a summary of a conference they attended in 2015, and their introduction caught my attention: “We share what we learned on the commonalities and differences in perspectives between indigenous knowledge (IK) and Western science; summarize the role that IK is already playing in the scientific fields, ranging from astrophysics to medicine to climate change, and describe how IK can help science education and research be more sustainable, inclusive, and respectful of all people.”

This was one of the first times I recalled hearing the term indigenous knowledge, and almost certainly the first time where I paused to recognize that IK was being presented, it seemed to me, as an alternate method – equal in importance yet in some way different from how Western science is performed – to acquire factual knowledge about the Universe. I also wondered about the last four words: “respectful of other people.” Is there a claim being made that the objectiveness at the heart of good science be conditional on whether certain discovers are offensive to certain people?

So, I was curious and read on. As it is an interest of mine, I was particularly keen to read about the IK contribution to astrophysics. After reading the article once I paused, read it a second time, and then a third; puzzlement seemed to dominate my thoughts. Astrophysics came up just once and involved fundamentally the appropriateness of building astronomical observatories on scared indigenous lands. Though I fully concede that a discussion on such an issue is fine, where my puzzlement arose is the contention that the non-building of an astronomical observatory, in some way, stands as a contribution to our body of knowledge in the field of astrophysics. Would it be rational to conclude that the non-building of an automobile in some way adds to our transportation infrastructure? I don’t think so.

I began to pay closer attention to this idea of indigenous knowledge (also often referred to as indigenous ways of knowing) and soon began to hear about the related topic of indigenization of the University campus. Frances Widdowson speaks on this by providing critical analysis of the challenges such a course of action poses to a university. Out of a sense of curiosity, I began paying closer attention to activities on my own university as they related to indigenization. And did I discover anything odd? I did.

In the fall of 2018, I attended a meeting, known as faculty council, that included members from many departments within the faculty of science, applied science, and engineering on the Saint John campus of the University of New Brunswick. During that meeting, a professor distributed a project summary about, and commented on, a new program in the works for the Saint John campus. “Ally and Safe Space Program for Indigenous and First Nations Peoples” was the title, and it would become “an innovative project intended to develop a campus community that affirms, welcomes and supports Indigenous peoples who work, study and visit UNB Saint John.” Additional print information expanded the intent further, “The goal of this program is to prepare volunteer students, staff, and faculty members of the UNB Saint John community with knowledge and skills to gain an understanding of the impact of colonialization on Indigenous peoples and in the role of being an ally.” To hurry the indoctrination along, “The program will consist of two levels of training, each approximately 3 – 3.5 hours duration, and participants will receive a certificate of completion after attending both sessions.”

I was seeing this for the first time; only by way of subsequent questions and answers did the program’s full malevolence surface.

An early question from the audience asked about the wording contained on the project summary document. The wording of interest read, “Through raising awareness and establishing a cadre of allies, we envision that UNB Saint John will become an inclusive environment and safe space for all Indigenous peoples.” The point of concern was whether the wording, “….will become…,” is accurate. Is our campus currently not safe? In response to that question, and in defense of the claim that our campus is not currently safe, the presenting professor offered the example of an individual, in the not so distant past, observed walking through campus wearing a Donald Trump “Make America Great Again (MAGA)” red baseball cap. An amazing answer. The first thought to arise in this man’s mind in defense of his proposal singled out the tyranny of the politically expressive ball cap! What should we conclude? That certain personal political beliefs, if made public, will endanger the indigenous members of this campus community. If that conclusion is correct, then further questions need asking (but were not asked at that time). Will members of this new program establish, within the mandate of a campus wide “safe space,” a list of permitted political inclinations allowed by students and employees at this institution? In addition, if a political position deemed “unsafe” for the indigenous population is recognized, what repercussions – in the view of members of this new program – will befall an individual who openly supports such a political position? Further, and of grave importance, will a broom closet be set aside for Trump supporters?

Later in the question period, I pressed further on the use of the word “Safe” in the program title, wondering why was it needed. I do not recall the exact trajectory of the answer, but I recall vividly that it included mention of the word “targeted” and referred back to a public presentation, made last August, by a candidate for the position of Piluwitahasuwin – also known as the position of Assistant Vice-President (AVP) for Indigenous Engagement. The claim being that a question or comment directed at the AVP candidate was of such a nature that the exchange qualified for this special labelling of “targeted”. When a person is “Targeted” – the word was never clearly defined – it, apparently, renders the UNB Saint John campus unsafe.

Fortunately, I was at that AVP candidate presentation (the first of two) and recall both the question and comment (one of which was from me) that, almost with certainty, contributed to the “targeted” exchange. (At no point during the AVP presentation do I recall being informed that a transition had occurred – no longer did I occupy a “safe space”.)

Regarding the first question asked at the AVP presentations, I would like to share with you a partial email exchange that occurred between a member of the hiring committee for AVP of Indigenous Engagement and myself. The initiation of this email exchange came from the hiring committee member (who was in the room during the AVP presentation), and it was in specific response to the question I posed to the candidate. As I mentioned earlier, my question centered on the concept of indigenous ways of knowing and the concept of “Two-Eyed Seeing.” I had come across the term “Two-Eyed Seeing” for the first time in a covering letter for one of the AVP candidates – was curious – and completed a quick search on its meaning.

“Two-Eyed Seeing” appears to be about science, and how science is best done by combining indigenous ways of knowing with western ways of knowing. My understanding was shaky, but I detected a bold claim: that some aspects of the physical reality of nature could only be discovered through indigenous ways of knowing (and never accessible by western ways of knowing) while other facts could only be found through western ways of knowing (and never accessible by indigenous ways of knowing). This is different from the claim of whether indigenous people know things that others don’t – it’s a claim that other, non-indigenous people can never know it. As my understanding was shaky, I looked for clarification from the AVP candidate. In my question I used the example of nuclear fusion in the sun: was there a discovery like that, waiting out there, that would reveal itself only if investigated by one – and not the other – of the two ways of knowing? The AVP candidate answered the question by talking about oral transmission of knowledge from one generation to another. That was not an answer to my question. Many in the audience added comment; much of which centered on Smudging, the lived experience, and basket weaving. Eventually they moved on from me and others asked questions. Two days later I received the email. It begins by challenging a claim I made within my question, the claim that I am a physicist. I then asked for clarification.

Here is the email exchange:

1st: Phil, FYI: teaching undergraduates physics no more makes anyone a physicist than teaching undergraduate students makes me a historian. Please be more accurate in prefacing your questions to the candidate for Piluwitahasuwin today as questions are supposed to generate a thoughtful exchange rather than establish hierarchy. If I am mistaken on your bona fides (that is, physicist = grant money, research program, publications) then accept my apologies. If not, please be more specific when framing your question.

The candidate you quizzed yesterday has the same level of academic credentialing as you and, equally important, she has been recognized by the Indigenous community for work both in and beyond the academy.

My comment is not to be construed in any way as a damper on questioning; rather, it is a request that you be more accurate in framing the context in which you present your question.

2nd: from the author: Hi, Beyond your challenge that I am not a real physicist, could you please be specific and explain how my questions where not thoughtful?

3rd: Phil, They reflected an absence of context. For example, the notion of objective truth or facts is a philosophical position well debated in the literature. This is not to say that science is subjective or constructed. Rather, that science changes over time and there is much in physics that is speculative and unproven (i.e. not factual) and this needs to be recognized. Also, there is much in physics derived from ancient philosophy. Nothing wrong with that; however, the Indigenous philosophy mirrors that of the Greeks and so to assume there is only one way of seeing physics is ahistorical. I have no quibbles with questions about how Indigenous views inform what we do-or how we are to integrate. Maybe there are cases where doing so is actually counterproductive–to everyone involved.

My comment had to do with the intrinsic nature of hierarchy at the U and how that crept into the question. Compare your approach to Rebecca’s question on math.

My question was not liked, or approved of, and contacting me was this person’s attempt to force me into silence by casting doubt on my own skill as a physicist, and doubt about the entire field of physics. And it worked, momentarily: at the presentation given by the second candidate for AVP Indigenous Engagement – which occurred a few hours after receiving the first of the above emails – I found myself feeling extremely self-conscience as I prepared to ask a question of the candidate. I felt, specifically, verbally paralyzed as I scrutinized my questions in search of the context needed for their legitimacy; it was a mental torture I should not have had to endure. In this instance it was clear to me that pressure was applied in an attempt to sway the direction of sincere and good faith questioning.

What does all of this say? Is there a problem here and is it metastasizing? It does seem obvious, to me, that there is an extreme reaction to what is fair and sincere questioning and commenting. I certainly have reached my own personal conclusion about the new “Ally and Safe Space Program”: it is not a program at all, really, but the formation of a malevolent police force. I see it no other way. In addition, I do not see how it will play any role in improving the relationship between indigenous peoples and the descendants of European settlers; it can only serve to divide those two groups yet further. I wonder also about the label given to any person who declines becoming an “Ally,” though I certainly will not become one. I will not support my own self-immolation, nor the immolation of the University of New Brunswick.