Confronting Denial


“This is the kind of thing that happens in Asia and not here”. Like many in the last few days, I was following the news broadcast about the recent flash floods in parts of Western Europe and this particular bit said by a resident of a heavily damaged German village to the BBC newswoman stayed with me. Earlier in the day, I had heard something similar about how such incidents are almost alien to European life. In early 2020, the same tune had been played about it being unthinkable for an infectious disease to crack our borders and a few months after that, with protests around the world, someone declared to me that the Netherlands is devoid of institutional racism and therefore need not deal with it.

In such moments, I often found myself laughing or scoffing it off, not as a joke but out of absolute disbelief. Yes, natural disasters in poorer bits of the world tend to make our newsfeeds from time to time but several parts of Europe annually register severe weather events. Yes, health insecurity is a part of everyday life in many places but if the last couple of years have exposed anything, it is that the fragility of health systems and the associated social inequities extends well beyond those places. And yes, bias and the misuse of authority are brutally visible elsewhere, but it can’t possibly be that the Netherlands is the only country in the world to have figured out a way against racism. It seems that in many such cases – social inequity, political corruption, discrimination – the reality is quite far from the idyllic popular belief.

More recently, this allure for willful repudiation has haunted us (and pretty much every other government) repeatedly when handling COVID-19 but it has proven to be too seductive a feeling to overcome. It has earned many of us the opportunity to avoid making moral choices – masking, gathering, testing, quarantining – and instead being comfortably cowered under governments’ deflection, defensiveness, or outright denial.

In that respect, science is having to confront its own problems with denial. An old debate, for instance, was recently rejiggled by a series of back-and-forth articles regarding the (a)political nature of the profession and how it reflects in the conduct of institutions and people involved. In his most recent input to this discussion, science writer Philip Ball points out the many examples from history of ideology and value systems pervading the objectivity of research and education, moving the needle in one way or another. “It is far preferable to lay out our values on the table where they can be discussed and challenged than to pretend or insist that the scientific community is engaged in some rarefied pursuit free from all social, political and ideological influence”, he concludes.

Looking back at the series of Cursor articles from June, at least at first glance the TU/e seems to acknowledge a few institutional problems that undermine workplace safety and eventually the quality of research done. Whether there is an actual reckoning in the offing is a different question but the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that one exists. And as an experimentalist, my mantra is try and hope that it works this time.

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