Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Case for Restraint

Three viral stories this summer followed a vaguely similar narrative arc: Tim Hunt's crucifixion for his misogynist comments, the hunting of Cecil the Lion by Walter Palmer, and more recently, Ahmed Muhammad's arrest for bringing a homemade clock to school. The initial and visceral outrage, was gradually replaced by a more nuanced, if reluctant, understanding.

The original versions of the stories exemplified beliefs that are strongly held for good reason. I subscribe to these beliefs myself:

1. Women in science have a harder time than they should
2. Hunting animals for sport is inhumane
3. Muslims suffer discrimination; police brutality exists.

In Tim Hunt's witch hunt, the initial invective was amazing. Confirmation bias was in full deployment mode. This doddering old out-of-touch fool spewing his anti-women views at a women's forum.  A reputation built over a lifetime, was summarily shattered over a few short days.

Only weeks later, did a clearer picture emerge; one that paints Hunt in a completely benign light. The original story, and much of the surrounding commentary, misrepresented the context in which Hunt made his comments.

Then, we heard about how a rich American dentist paid a large sum of money to hunt a beloved African lion. It reinforced many stereotypes: the rich exploiting the poor, the American fetish for guns and violence, etc. The story made me sick.

Until I listened to Radiolab episode on The Rhino Hunter. If you have not, you should give it a listen. The relationship between hunting and conservation is more symbiotic than I had imagined - in many cases populations of endangered species have rebounded due to legal hunting. In the big "population-level" picture, perhaps, hunters and conservationists are on the same side, even though they are seen as natural adversaries.

Then finally, we heard about Ahmed, the 14-year old teen. What happened to him was wrong. Arresting and intimidating him in the absence of his parents was wrong! Was Islamophobia at play? Possibly!

So was the teacher who went to the principal wrong? I don't think so. If a teacher in my kids' class suspects a student has a gun or a bomb, I would like her to do something preemptively about it. Can't a science teacher tell the difference between a clock and a bomb? I am a chemical engineering and a scientist by training, I'd couldn't tell the two damn things apart. Most of us haven't seen a real bomb, and the ones in movies do look like clocks removed from their casing. Isn't the assumption that the teacher was anti-Muslim a little hasty?

Which adds another wrinkle to the story. We've learned that Ahmed did not really "build" the clock; he disassembled the casing from a fully-functional clock and stuck it in a box. So perhaps, the science teacher, who perhaps had a history with him, was right to be suspicious of his claim. (PS: I think disassembling and reassembling things is a great sign of curiosity)

Was the principal wrong? Again, I think a charitable interpretation suggests clearly not. She did the logically correct thing by getting the police involved. Now, did the police screw up? Right now, I think they botched it big-time. But who knows; perhaps more will be revealed to us.

The world is complicated. Most narratives don't confirm comfortably with our beliefs. We should just accept that.

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