Myrmecos’ Alex Wild has an interesting recent post that has generated a correspondingly interesting discussion about whether or not the common name for Polyergus ants – “slave-raiding ants” – is acceptable. The commentary focuses on two main questions:
1) Is the slavery analogy apt, and does it have an equal or better alternative?
2) Does the analogy offend certain groups of people, particularly black Americans, thereby adding to the problem of under-representation of minorities in science?
While the first question is also intriguing, and is discussed thoroughly by others and me in the comments, I will instead focus on an implication of the second question.
First, a disclaimer: I am a white Jewish guy, and therefore my ancestors have not experienced slavery in the U.S. of the sort experienced all-too-recently by black Americans. Therefore, my brief comments should be taken with a healthy dose of (kosher?) salt.
Now, to the second question. What interests me about this is the idea that if the metaphor is in fact offensive to some, and discourages a certain group from joining science, then it should not be used, regardless of its precision. For example, in the original post, Alex Wild explains (emphasis mine):
While I still don’t like the piracy metaphor, I’ve come around to Herber’s perspective that the slave-raiding comparison, while apt, is not ideal for those of us trying to introduce myrmecology to its broadest possible audience.
The implication of this, and other similar claims, is problematic for one major reason. It suggests that science should become less precise (in other words less accurate, in other words less scientific) due to a misunderstanding among the general population. Take, for example, the case of genetics. I distinctly remember in an undergraduate class, a very intelligent professor moving outside of his area of expertise (Ancient Studies and Latin) to pontificate on why homosexuality just can’t be partially genetic, because, if it is, then people would try to ‘cure’ individuals who are gay, through things like gene therapy or genetic engineering (paraphrasing). Now, I am not going to discuss this complex topic here. But the important point is that the science of the matter, i.e. the true answer of this scientific question, is not actually influenced at all by what bad actions others might do on the basis of the information. It’s a completely flawed way to address a question. Similarly, what words should be used to best describe a behavior, in a scientific context, should be determined by the meaning of the words, not the potential of those words to be taken out of context, read with bias, and used in a horrible manner. If the behavior of Polyergus ants most resembles slavery, then it’s a form of (ant) slavery. If it most resembles kidnapping (Wild’s proposed alternative), then it’s a form of (ant) kidnapping.
The under-representation of certain social groups is as much of an issue in science as it is in many other areas of society. However, changing the most accurate terminology to be less precise in order to incorporate those groups is only undermining the field that so desperately needs diversification of involvement. There are many good ways to work social change. In science, pandering to biases is not one of them.
UPDATE: I should note that Wild believes that “kidnapping is as accurate as slavery”. He does not claim that slavery is the most accurate yet nevertheless should be replaced, but the use of public perception as a reason to change terminology in science is still interesting.
Polyergus mexicanus, a “slave-raiding” ant, and its ant captives (Alex Wild)