Monday, March 20, 2006

Avoiding South Dakota

Because the state recently banned nearly all abortions, there is a call to boycott South Dakota, coincidentally where my family vacationed last summer.

Suppose there was an interesting conference being held in South Dakota. Would you go? There is some precedence—I knew some computer scientists who refused to attend meetings in South Carolina a few years ago when they flew the Confederate flag over their State House.

By avoiding the conference you are mostly hurting the researchers in that state, who likely do not share the government's viewpoints and cannot easily move. Many scientists worldwide don't like much of current US foreign policy but I would hope they wouldn't avoid American conferences for that reason.


  1. As I have a preteen daughter, I would certainly avoid living in South Dakota (assuming there were some reason I wanted to do so in the first place � my wife's family still does have relatives there). As for whether forcing rapists' victims to bear their children is enough of a reason to avoid visiting there myself, I'm less sure; it's hardly the only place in the world with barbaric laws.

  2. I probably would not refuse to visit South Dakota for that reason. I would seriously consider not taking a position that would require me to move there.

    There are, unfortunately, more direct reasons to avoid having conferences in the United States. Visa issues are the most recent problem. Xiaoyun Wang, for example, was a co-author of the best paper in CRYPTO but could not get a visa in time to attend the conference.

    Another issue is the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which establishes criminal penalties for circumventing copy control devices. The law does have a research exemption, but it's not always applicable. In any case, Dimity Sklyarov found out that it is quite possible to be arrested for presenting your work in the U.S.
    (He was presenting at a "hacker" conference instead of at FOCS or CRYPTO, but this is really just a matter of degree.)

    I don't really mean to hijack the discussion - the South Dakota issue is important - but just to point out that there are sometimes much more direct reasons to not visit a certain place.

  3. the tone of this blog seems to be that scientists and researchers should be above such petty things as boycotts (like this one) or boycotting a journal and such.

    i don't think that is the right stance at all. many people don't have the freedom to say no at all. tenured professors can say no whenever they want. it is your responsibility to act as the guardians of what is reasonable and right in cases like this, since other people don't necessarily have the ability.

    Go read Feynman's story about the nude dance club he frequented so much if you need a refresher on the attitude you should be thinking about.

  4. it is your responsibility to act as the guardians of what is reasonable and right in cases like this, since other people don't necessarily have the ability.

    Sure, but the responsability must be exercised judiciously. It would be wrong for a referee to reject the papers of an author simply because their political views don't agree---and in fact in some fields and sciences this happens altogether too regularly. This is a bad thing.

    I would hope that scientific decisions are driven first and foremost by scientific goals.

  5. um yeah we aren't talking about personal attacks here, that isn't very responsible now is it.

    personally i think the scientific behavior is one thing and the political behavior is another. fields where politics plays a lot of influence are probably not that scientific to begin with.

    but still the point remains, don't think scientists and professors should be 'above' moral responsibility.

  6. America is too large of a player to ignore outright, and most people understand it's mostly the Bush administration, and not America as a whole, that is doing so many distasteful things. (Obviously there are extremists who are anti-American no matter who is president, but lets ignore the obvious exceptions.)

    As for South Dakota? It's too small of a player. I don't think a single career would be harmed by people not attending a conference there. So, somewhat unfortunately, it's a rather token "sacrifice" at best. It would almost be like speaking of the moral virtue of never killing elephants, even though you never even happen to come into contact with one. Were the boycott in a more significant state, it would be a much stronger statement for those who abstain from attending.

  7. This question is by no means restricted to abortion law.
    As "consumers" (of goods and services, of laws, etc.) we have very little recourse if we disapprove of some act. The best way (arguably) to enact change is to provide incentives to abolish that which we don't like. Any failure to provide said incentives equates to implicit approval (in practice if not in spirit) of said act.

    On the other hand, how does one effectively focus one's power as a consumer on the intended target (the undesirable act) without creating collateral damage?

    Certainly, a referee who rejects papers written by researchers in S. Dakota is not making effective use of his/her power as a consumer (as pointed out by anonymous).
    Similarly, skipping out on conferences in S. Dakota probably won't do anything to change abortion law, but probably will hurt innocent researchers in that state (as pointed out by Lance).

    Moreover, if we are to be consistent in our boycotts then there are many other places in the world that we must also boycott (as pointed out by d. eppstein).

    For these reasons, it seems almost silly to boycott. But let's assume for the sake of argument that that's the only weapon we have. Then by not boycotting we implicitly approve (again, in practice if not in spirit) of anti-abortion laws (or, in general, any undesirable act) by failing to do anything about it.

    What's a researcher to do?


  8. I have friends in France who have told me that they won't go and visit me in the US, because they don't like George Bush! I have a lot of difficulty understanding the connection...

  9. Maybe a little bit off topic, but why don't more theorists publish mathematical/computational models of proposed legislation? Great computer scientists like Chomsky and Levin love to voice their political views, but they rarely publish models backing up their viewpoint.

    An example of this is Peter Norvig's recent model of hiring practices at Google.

    An exercise to the reader: Come up with a model M,
    that fits known abortion data.

  10. But Scott, SD has so many fun things to do:

    Mt. Rushmore



  11. I think that one point with this hypothetical is that here the political and professional spheres collide. To separate them is artificial, but usually pragmatic. Outside of the hypo, this is actually the case here as there seems to be a dearth of TCS convergences in South Dakota. However, to answer the question by separating them is absurd. You must find harmony.

    I love being able to write to this BLOG saying that personally, I think that South Dakotans should enact which ever laws they please (they are still to be controlled by the courts, of course). Who are you to say how they should live and which laws they should like? Be glad that you don�t live there (I am sure you are) and content yourself in your indisputable �moral� high ground (it seems you already have).

    So there is my harmony. Very easy for me to find on this one. I refuse to visit any of the other 49 states though, so that is tough for me. Damn heathens.

    If you really want to change it, why don�t you move to South Dakota and vote :)

  12. One could take the question to an extreme, and ask whether you should have visited conferences in Nazi Germany, for instance. In fact, not too long ago a group of British researchers decided to boycott Israel, and later partially limited their decision. In boycott they also meant not accepting publications from Israeli scholars, and more.
    As a rule of thumb, I'd say one should only boycott conferences where people aren't allowed to come and go as they please, or to speak freely. This makes the conference related to the issue - is science being handled OK, and seems to take care of some of the worse places (in Nazi Germany, for instance, I'm sure many scientists couldn't come and go).

  13. Scott said... I, for one, will not be visiting South Dakota anytime soon. Not so much because it bans abortions, as because it's South Dakota.


    You really don't know what you are missing. On our driving trip from Boston to Seattle, nothing beat South Dakota for moments when we simply couldn't help ourselves laughing out loud:

    Sioux Falls: finally finding the barely-running namesake 10-15 foot falls in the heart of the local 'park' after a dinner during which our Ontario-educated ears required several tries to comprehend the waitress' offer of 'og rotten' instead of 'baked'.

    Listening to the staple guns attaching the decorative corn to the exterior of the largely concrete 'Mitchell Corn Palace'.

    Wall Drug every mile on the highway.

    That mecca of old-fashioned tacky signs, Rapid City, with Reptile Gardens, Rushmore Waterslide Park, Presidential Wax Museum, and many more attractions. It really is a shame that the Rapid City Sea World had to close a number of years ago.

    Finally, that funniest of attractions, Mt. Rushmore itself. We were all prepared for a great 'North by Northwest' moment heading out there from Rapid City in the morning, only to turn a corner and see George Washington's white schnozz in profile sticking out in glorious splendor against the grey stone and dark green trees of the Black Hills. Even from the visitors' center the whole thing seemed completely absurd and out of place (except that, much to my chagrin, the photos I took of it turned out to be annoyingly impressive).

    South Dakota does have things worth visiting. It was the first place west of Niagara Falls on our trip that had real natural beauty: the view from the top of an isoluted butte in the middle of the badlands was breathtaking. The views along the twisting roads in the Black Hills south of Mt Rushmore, when you can no longer see any presidents, were as good as any in the Appalachians. Even the rounded hills around the Missouri River valley had a beauty of their own.

    The recent abortion mess only re-inforces: it's a great place to visit but I woudn't want to live there.

  14. Let turn the question upside down:

    What would you say about a conservative scientist (there are many!) who wishes to ban conferences in France due to their outright anti-American policy and their overall appeasing approach toward world-terror and their objection to President Bush administration?

  15. What would you say about a conservative scientist (there are many!)

    Hey, that's an oxymoron!!!

  16. France!? What about California, Nevada, and Massachusetts?

  17. "Hey, that's an oxymoron!!!"

    Not only this is a ridiculously narrow minded (and even conservative in itself) statement, it is an empirical mistake.

    I won't start naming now well known and brilliant contemporary scientists who are zealous Bush supporters.

    Political stance is more a matter of subjective-psychological interests than an objective-cognitive decision.

  18. I feel, political views and political conditions are two different things. There are poeple who do not go to a place because their political views do not match with the majority of the people in that place. And there is more to it. Some of us have lived comparitively smooth life where a certain political view hasn't changed our lives. But for a father whose daughter recently had a abortion it will be difficult to step into a place like South Dakota, may he be a renowned scientist or otherwise. About political conditions, well, there most of us can't help. It is physically and logistically impossible to reach or live there. So I feel, these two things should be treated separately and the prior should be left for a person to decide and understand that it may depend on that person's history and life.

  19. "I won't start naming now well known and brilliant contemporary scientists who are zealous Bush supporters."

    You won't start naming them because it would be like naming the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. They don't exist.

  20. Please--name a "brilliant" scientist who is a Bush supporter!??

  21. And besides, you can't be a "conservative" and a "Bush supporter" at the same time. No true conservative even likes Bush. It's only 34% of the population now, and we all know those types.

  22. This blog shows exactly why science and politics shouldn't mix.

    Some people actually hold the view that there are no smart conservatives, and I'm guessing some would probably be against hiring(/ giving tenure to) Bush supporters regardless of their scientific accomplishments.

    When I was an undergraduate, after I was accepted to phd programs, I was surprised at how openly people bashed conservatives on admit weekends at some schools, making me feel I wouldn't be welcome just because of whom I voted for.

    Did you ever consider that there are more conservatives in academia than you think, but they are afraid to express their beliefs because of the types of statements in the comments to this blog? It's so much easier to take the "moral high ground" and go boycotting places when you're in the majority (as liberals are in academia). Just remember - the wheel keeps on turning.

  23. Because of the doctrine of many supporters of socially conservative causes, 'conservative' has become synonymous with being anti-intellectual about the results of scientific inquiry. Conservatives who do know better regularly have exploited this anti-intellectual streak for political gain (e.g. Bush senior in the 1988 election). More recently, it has become unclear whether or not those in power do know any better and the effort to control and muzzle scientists has become more pronounced. Is it any wonder then that a majority of scientists are repelled?

    This was not always the case - there were the 'liberal' movements begun in the late 1960's and 1970's that tried to denigrate large swaths of hard science as completely biased because it was practiced by white males or supported the elites. (There obviously were things that deserved to be challenged such as the pseudo-science on racial differences but some of the challenges to hard science verged on Lysenkoism - the value of science is based on who practices it.) It was, after all, during the Nixon administration that we may have seen the biggest impact of scientists on U.S. public policy. At the time, science was viewed as basically 'conservative', not 'liberal'.

    There is no fundamental reason for scientists to be on either side of the 'conservative' or 'liberal' fence. There are times when scientific or engineering disciplines need to take public stands well-supported by the scientific evidence (e.g. global warming). The current alignment of these stands with 'liberal' or 'conservative' positions is not an immediate corollary of this involvement. However, given the anti-intellectual baggage of the 'conservative' side right now, it is unsurprising how this has turned out.

  24. "you won't start naming them because it would be like naming the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. They don't exist."

    "Please--name a "brilliant" scientist who is a Bush supporter!??"

    Try, for instance, at Ohio state university. (There are, of course, many other places).

  25. As David Molnar pointed out, the US is not a place where you can 'freely come and go'. Were also not some Chinese scientists in the US sent away a couple of years ago?

    People say that this does not matter: if you work say in Berkeley then you are surrounded by left-wingers and can basically ignore the rest of the country. I do not share this viewpoint and I would not like to live in the US.

    What concerns visiting then this is another topic. There are countries however that I only visit either once or at least as rarely as possible.

  26. Using a similar ethic, one should boycott conferences in China because of their censorship of 'subversive' ideas on the internet and jailing of dissidents. What other places/countries can we boycott? Japan over extensive 'research' whaling, etc.

  27. As David Molnar pointed out, the US is not a place where you can 'freely come and go'. Were also not some Chinese scientists in the US sent away a couple of years ago?

    Not to claim that the US visa system is anywhere near perfect but, really, is there any place on Earth where one can "freely come and go"?

    People say that this does not matter: if you work say in Berkeley then you are surrounded by left-wingers and can basically ignore the rest of the country. I do not share this viewpoint and I would not like to live in the US.

    I work in Berkeley and am partially surrounded by people who are too far to the left for my taste. I ignore them too.

  28. Actually, if you happened to know about visas, it is much more common to be denied an US Visa than to be denied a Visa for almost any other country.