Saturday evening, John Vandermeer spoke for an hour as the keynote speaker of the SftP conference. He was introduced by Katherine Yih, an epidemiologist in Boston and member of the Ann Arbor SftP. Yih offered a wonderful introduction, speaking of Vandermeer’s wonderful characteristics that led to his contributions, including his work in Nicaragua.
Vandermeer gave an incredibly moving speech. He spoke first of two great influences on him, Dick Levins and a former student of his.
The heart of the speech focused on the Science for the People mentality that science is inherently political and that “indifference to human suffering is immoral”. He used many quotes to enforce these ideas. He stated that “good science cannot be neutral” and that humans are not neutral by nature, and pretending to be so can only be detrimental. He stated that not only is neutrality in science impossible, but it is not desirable.
He also spoke of his work with the group New World Agriculture Group, NWAG, in Nicaragua to assist them with their agricultural issues.
Vandermeer left us with the message that teaching must stimulate the desire for understanding. He emphasized this with the analogy of Noah’s Ark and the 17th century question of truth — the flood, or the fossil? Hundreds of years later, we know the truth to be in the fossil, but the truth is much harder to see when you are close to it. Science must focus and work to “Find the fossil. Don’t keep pointing out the flood.”
At the end of the keynote speech, John Lamperti stood up to acknowledge a former Science for the People comrade who is no longer with us, Bill Davidon, who organized the 1971 Media, Pennsylvania FBI office break-in. This event has inspired a book, The Burglary, by Betty Medsger.