Systems for Change

Systems for Change - SOMA Reading Group Fall 2020

By Raisa A. Rahim


As a continuation to our debut reading group series over the summer, we discussed several pervasive themes in academia and other institutions affecting historically excluded communities (HECs). The following is a summary of these conversations and additional resources to inspire readers to continue taking informed actions for a brighter and more equitable future.


Money rules the modern world. How can economic structures be designed to benefit everyone? 


In “Why Socialism?”, Albert Einstein speculated on the social impacts of economic governance styles and the role of non-social scientists in taking stances on such issues. Highlighting the power and financial asymmetry between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (which often follows racial lines), Einstein argues that the socialist style has been villainized for political and economic purposes. While there are definite drawbacks to a purely socialist state, a purely capitalist mode isn’t equitable either. It promotes a financial snowball effect that was tainted centuries ago and persists to this day, resulting in a deep-rooted financial gap. Integrating some aspects of socialism would level the playing field between these two classes, allowing for the “redistribution of wealth”. Ultimately, scientists are cogs in the Social Machine just as much as the next person. Armed with the humility of a non-expert, the ethos for validated facts of a scientist, the adherence to logic and reason, and the ability to perspective-take, there is no reason why we cannot throw our two-cents in the ring in both opinion and action.


In general, the masses must be vocal, engaged and vigilant about instances and systems of corruption. For example, we can support anti-trust legislation - learn why this is important for ensuring worker welfare. Further, we can push legislators to adopt initiatives that aim to level wages for the working class. One possible method is to pay workers at a level commensurate to their holistic labor experience, keeping “social externalities” in mind. Just as environmental externalities obfuscate the true prices of consumer goods, current wages do not reflect workers’ circumstances (i.e. underpaying essential workers). American power structures have not allowed for this nuanced view to be integrated into the economic infrastructure, painting in broad strokes the “socialist” (read: bad) label. This illustrates the deep influences of semantics on public perceptions - but if this is the only obstacle to creating a more equitable financial system, perhaps a rebranding of the term is in order.


The affluent class and the government are just two instances of powerful institutions. How can we bring about structural change in academia?


In response to the article “Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom”, we outlined some of the implications of the recent rise of the pejoratively termed “cancel culture”. This movement seeks to both hold people in power accountable and oust them from their positions when they fail to uphold principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The piece was written by an academic highlighting several anecdotes relayed from other colleagues. These academics voiced concerns about suffering negative career consequences after saying subjectively insensitive comments. Citing infringement of First Amendment rights, the author argues that academics are being unjustly tarred-and-feathered by the vocal Left. However, disciplinary measures are rarely meted out at the institutional level. Moreover, freedom of speech is not the right to be above reproach. Still, it remains true that some of the movement’s amplified voice runs the risk of drowning out healthy debate, focusing on symbolic band-aid solutions to the underlying disease. That said, simply sparing the feelings of those in power does not justify maintaining the status quo of propagating socially insensitive discourse. 


So how can we balance these opposing views? As a society, we need to make space for a constructive dialogue, scrutinizing our own ideas as rigorously as others’. Explore this series of talks highlighting the merits, motivations, and methods of engaging in conversation with ideologically incongruent people. It is widely known that the potential for a positive outcome is a stronger driver of adaptive action than the threat of a negative one. Perhaps a solution to this perceived “witch hunt” is to create an institutional infrastructure which incentivizes faculty members to implement their students’ comments as a means to gain promotion, but failing to do so does not carry the threat of career ramifications (within reason). Simultaneously, students should balance their efforts between targeting individual players and the systems maintaining their power, so that actions taken have more of a far-reaching effect.


Once we have identified individuals who have wronged a HEC member, how can we move forward with them?


We then discussed the potential utility and implementation of restorative justice techniques for remediating difficult interpersonal situations in “This Is the Casual Racism That I Face at My Elite High School”. In this first-person account, a Black student recounts instances of overt racism and microaggressions that were resolved through structured restorative justice conversations. While campus resources such as the Ombuds Office have a very strict and high threshold for the magnitude of the offense, restorative justice techniques can be very effective for officially airing differences that do not meet this conservative criterion in a forum more proximate to the situation at hand. These methods have potential applications in academia, but the logistics of its implementation are much less clear. While the logistics of these meetings is clear in peer-to-peer situations, it is greatly complicated in the context of the inherent power differential of trainee-mentor (or other faculty member) situations. Such a venture bears potential for several negative outcomes for trainees that breed reluctance to come forward: 1) loss of career opportunities, 2) gain of a reputation as a “difficult”, whistle-blowing co-worker, 3) lack of hope that such a meeting would have any meaningful effect, or 4) an interaction between these factors.


As stated above, inspiring change in unjust systems is more likely to be effective if the narrative is switched from doling out punishment to wrong-doers to incurring justice on behalf of people who have been wronged. One thing is clear though: generating initial inertia has the highest activation energy for change to occur. Once the movement has momentum, it will become easier to propagate the signal. Forums such as this reading group will hopefully lower this threshold by normalizing these conversations. Explore these resources to learn more about how academic systems can be altered to narrow the racial gap in higher education.


Given that we speak to a wide range of people (with a wide range of ideas), how can we get our ideas across?


To round out the quarter, we discussed the important topic of how we can effectively communicate science to the broader community in “Why Do People Fall for Fake Science News?”. This work highlighted several factors that drive people into their silos, ranging from individual- to society-level pressures. With the holidays fast-approaching amid COVID-19, racial tension, and political dysfunction fueling misinformation campaigns, it is especially important that critical thinking be employed and distributed. Historical abuses by scientists and governments, as well as poor scientific knowledge, have sowed the seeds of mistrust for decades in the general public, but especially communities of color. Modern scientists should work to re-fertilize these fields with the transferable skills of logic and reasoning, whether our reach is our immediate social circle or a broader base.


This is certainly no small feat. But we should remember that our academic status often holds great weight with the public, so we must strive to communicate effectively. Clear science communication is aware of the context in which the science is being discussed and employs perspective-taking techniques, in order to appreciate their audience’s line of reasoning. By building this cognitive bridge, one can empathetically tease apart the misinformation into component parts and identify the gaps in logic. We can work with our audience to create a narrative stringing together linear stepping stones (but see Dahlstrom, 2013 for why this translation is not perfectly transmutable). They are more likely to be receptive to this endogenously-derived conclusion (see Scheufele & Krause, 2018 for a discussion of the interaction between media literacy and strategies for adapting to cognitive dissonance). These talking points should be tangible and not value-based, as this is likely to spur people back to their camps. Importantly, we are trained to be highly specialized. We should not feel pressured to know everything about everything - be humble, transparent, and point people to credible resources when you are not knowledgeable about a topic. 


As always, you can find out about upcoming events, assorted media, and other resources on the SOMA website. Please also email us to be added to the reading group and/ or the general SOMA listserv.


Thank you for your participation and we hope to see you next quarter! 




Cobalt Communications (2019, December 17). The Psychology of Slogans: What They Are & How They Work. Martech Health Directory.,attention%20and%20are%20more%20effective.'


Dahlstrom, M. F. (2014). Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. PNAS, 111 (Supplement 4). 13614-13620. 10.1073/pnas.1320645111


Einstein, A. (1949, May). Why Socialism? The Monthly Review (reprinted 2009, May 1).


Flaherty, C. (2019, March 24). The Case for Disciplining Faculty Harassers. Inside Higher Ed.


Harris, R. (2020, September 24). This Is the Casual Racism That I Face at My Elite High School. The New York Times. Editors (2017, June 16). MK-Ultra. History.


Imani, M. (2019, August 12). African Americans underserved by U.S. banks: study. Reuters.


Insaaf Blog (2014, January 20). Martin Luther King, Jr. on Income Inequality and Redistribution of Wealth + James Baldwin. [Video] Youtube.


Kennedy, B. & Hefferon, M. (2019, March 28). What Americans Know About Science. Pew Research Center.


Kim, E. K. (2020, November). Labor’s Antitrust Problem: A Case for Worker Welfare. The Yale Law Journal, 130.


Lowrey, A. (2020, May 13). Don’t Blame Econ 101 for the Plight of Essential Workers. The Atlantic.


Levey, S. (2018, October 18). The Four Horsemen: criticism, blame and defensiveness in the workplace. Target Training.


McQuade Library (2020, December 1). Antiracism resources.


McWhorter, J. (2020, September 1). Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom. The Atlantic.


Scheufele, D. & Krause, N. (2019). Science audiences, misinformation, and fake news. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116. 10.1073/pnas.1805871115.


Stea, J. N. (2020, February 4). Why Do People Fall for Fake Science News?. Psychology Today.


Stephenson, P. (2013, February 19). Living Language: Faculty Q&A With Linguist John McWhorter. Columbia News.


TED. Talks to support a healthy debate. [Video series].


Vedantam, S., Shah, P., Boyle, T. & Cohen, R. (2019, October 17). Screaming Into The Void: How Outrage Is Hijacking Our Culture, And Our Minds [Audio podcast].