STEPHANIE XU/THE VARSITY

Recently, popular educational YouTube channel Crash Course deleted their videos on the topic of human geography. The issue was their commentary on a scientific approach known as ‘environmental determinism,’ which states that human cultures and fates are determined by their surrounding physical environments; Crash Course claimed this approach was racist. The original face of the channel, John Green, has since apologized for the scientific exclusion.

Although science has been abused throughout history to support colonialism and racism, I do not believe that scientific results are intended to be racist. Indeed, people may use or respond to science in ways that support marginalization, but scientific observations cannot be inherently marginalizing.

Reality has no feelings: our world doesn’t pick and choose who to affect. When it is done well with strong evidence, science explains why reality behaves the way it does.

Sometimes science can seem marginalizing on the surface — for example, climate change disproportionately affects poorer communities. However, we don’t claim climate change itself is a tool of marginalization; this would be like claiming that Hurricane Matthew was marginalizing Haitians.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop some people from attempting to silence scientific results. A lurking spectre of criticism continually colours scientific communities and writes off many scientific studies due to claims of prejudice targeted at the observations themselves.

Take, for example, a study published by Scientific Reports in 2013. The study was presented by one of the researchers, Dr. Hannah Fry, to an audience in Berlin and provided a mathematical model of the spatio-temporal development of the 2011 England riots — a five-day long series of riots that largely took place in England’s big cities, resulting in five deaths and an estimated $400 million CAD in property damage — by simulating the patterns and behaviours of the rioters involved.

In general, this research has helped us understand how riots develop through mathematical models, which provide a more accurate understanding of the spatio-temporal behaviour of riots that social sciences cannot fulfill. This research can prove to be of great benefit to society, as it can help prevent riots by indicating which areas should invest in greater education to locally increase higher paying jobs and informing police on how to act appropriately during riots to prevent further instigation.

Yet, the audience responded to Fry’s presentation by claiming it supported the marginalization of poorer communities. People claimed that the study was authoritarian; allegations included that predictive policing grants the government too much control, which can result in the police suppressing dissent in poorer communities. Because the model is based on the arrests of the England riots, critics argued that the mathematical model justifies the marginalization of minorities and poorer communities by labelling them as disorderly.

The Crash Course YouTube channel exhibited the same behaviour as Fry’s audience — completely discrediting environmental determinism by claiming that it promoted prejudice, in this case racism. This probably stemmed from the fact that many colonial governments used environmental determinism as a mechanism to justify oppressive colonial practices. Despite these mishandlings, we cannot denounce the credibility to the modern scientific approach on environmental determinism — so-called neo-environmental determinism. The merit of this information is overshadowed by its past uses.

Writing off science simply because it has been used to enforce marginalization would be concerning for social justice as well, as we often use science as baseline evidence for justice advocacy. For example, we raise awareness about global warming to promote change and prevent the increased suffering of poorer communities from environmental destruction.

A world in which scientific studies could be dismissed due to the way they might be utilized politically would be a world lacking in the most impressive scientific developments. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution would not exist today, as it has formerly been twisted to justify white supremacy. Alfred Nobel would have never founded the Nobel Prize, as it could be said that his work on dynamite can more easily enable violence and thus enforce government control.

Fry puts it best: “It’s incredibly important that people… really understand what [science] can offer and what it can’t offer.” Perhaps we are too afraid to admit unfortunate realities or too eager to change injustice and act rashly. But if we are going to better our world and create a more civil society, we must learn to accept and grow from the realities of our situation.

It is admirable that Green, as the face of Crash Course, has owned up to his mistake of removing a piece of science from his channel. In turn, we must take scientific silencing seriously, considering the potential repercussions of bringing scientific progress to a halt.

Shane Tingting is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Neuroscience and Biology. 

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