Defending Science

There's a long list of things that scientists do that are unpopular. The creation/evolution argument rages on, the stem cell fight still provokes legislative skirmishes, genetic research raises discrimination concerns, neuroscience questions the very sense of self, and that's just the tip of the research iceberg. In broader science culture, there's nuclear energy, Yucca mountain, wind turbine locations, navy sonar, ballistic missile defense, wildlife habitat preservation, the space program, oil exploration, public funding...

But as far as I can tell, there's only one research subject that has a real chance of getting a scientist murdered. From the New York Times:

The police and federal authorities are investigating firebombings at the homes of two researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The attacks, which the university described as "antiscience violence," occurred nearly simultaneously before dawn on Saturday, just days after the police in Santa Cruz discovered pamphlets in a coffee shop warning of attacks against "animal abusers everywhere." The pamphlets included the names, addresses and other personal information of several researchers at the university, according to a news release put out on Friday by the university.

Yep, animal research. Most unpopular research will generate angry letters and the occasional odd threat, but animal research can and does get your lab burned down - or in this case your home burned with you in it.

What's to be done about it? Obviously the police will try to find and prosecute the arsonists, but that doesn't really do much good after the fact. Were I an animal researcher, I might try a few things.

The first would be to avoid animal research if it wasn't strictly necessary. I'm sure most researchers already do this. Scientists are human beings, and they don't want to cause harm to an animal unless it's absolutely unavoidable. While it might not change the minds of radical activists, taking as good care of the animals is both good on its own merit and likely to improve public perception of such research.

The second is to pay attention to security practices at the lab even when there's no obvious risk. Scientists train for many years to master their fields, and so do security professionals. Use some of that grant money to hire a professional and make sure the lab is very secure. I suspect this is already done in high-risk areas like the UC biology department, but security can still be lax elsewhere. My freshman year as an undergraduate saw a massive burglary and vandalism to an animal research lab on campus, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. The place is much better monitored now, but the damage was done.

Finally, and I realize that many people will choose not to make this decision, but consider self-defense.

The university described the attacks as the latest in a series of threats and provocations from those opposed to "biomedical research using animals," including a February incident in which several masked intruders entered a researcher's home. After a confrontation, the intruders fled. That incident followed harassing phone calls and vandalism of researchers' homes, the university said.

To me, this simply isn't acceptable. Either you quit your research and find a less dangerous line of work, or you protect yourself. Any other option just leaves you and your family in danger. California's laws in particular are not ideal from a self-defense perspective, but they are better than nothing. Scientists owe it to their profession to not let such violence stand. Resist with force or get out of the game.

Back to the physics tomorrow morning.

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Actually, my mother works at UC Davis performing animal reasearch, and the security sucks. You could effectively bypass all security with a basic lockpick.

By St Colin Erik … (not verified) on 04 Aug 2008 #permalink

It wasn't that long ago that physicists ended up being a target. (OK, 1970 was before you were born.) Protesters used a truck bomb to destroy the physics building at the University of Wisconsin, killing one physicist and destroying the data of many PhD projects, because the building also contained an Army-funded math research project.

So how would you protect yourself? Would that professor have been justified if he had shot and killed unarmed but masked intruders? (Might be true in your state but not in his, since state laws on that topic vary.)

Would you abandon your dissertation project just because some violent group protested against it? I do know of some campuses that have abandoned animal research (that is, refused to allow faculty research in that area) for this very reason, and others that have embraced it because they profit from the grants that those other campuses turned down.

St Colin, for the most part the same can be said for both of the main animal facilities I've been a part of as well.

Yeah, the animal care facility where I used to work was vandalized by idiots such as this. The mice had cage cards removed or switched around and some of the mice were stolen. I hope none of the thieves had infants at home because the mice were laden with RSV, which can be fatal.

After the fact, the administration decided to revamp the facility. Entry is now via biometric identification.

However, the huge, massive entry door was installed with the hinges on the OUTSIDE. It's like a derivative of Poe's Law come to life.

How would I protect myself? Good question. Usually the law, campus policy, or both prevents students and faculty from carrying weapons of any kind even with a license. That means on campus you have to trust the campus security department and whatever locks or alarms you've installed yourself. But with that, good insurance, and daily offsite backups of data, the risk to the research is probably not too high.

Off campus is harder. While I think the professor would have been ethically justified in shooting the intruders, I don't think he would have been legally justified under California law (under my not-a-lawyer reading of the statute). Deadly force is only justified in California if you're directly being attacked with deadly force. Even with an armed intruder in your home, you're not technically allowed to do anything unless he actually attacks you.

As a state however, California is solidly in the minority with that law. Right now I live in Texas, which despite popular press has very average gun/self-defense laws. The law presumes that a person who has used force to break into your home is automatically a deadly threat. In fact even if the intruder is outside with a Molotov cocktail, the law specifically includes preventing imminent arson as a justification for force.

I would never, never want to be put in that situation. But if I were a researcher under threat I would certainly rather protect myself than give up.


You're mistaken about California law. FYI, I'm a California lawyer.

In California, you are entitled to defend yourself, up to deadly force, to protect yourself from any serious physical crime. The standard is that a "reasonable" person would act accordingly. So, you can't blow somebody away for sneezing in your direction but you were so terrified by the sound that you shot the guy.

In your home, you are entitled to immediately defend yourself against an intruder. Indeed, as in Texas, you are presumed to have acted reasonably, and in self-defense, in dealing with a home-intruder. You absolutely do not have to wait for an armed intruder to attack you.

By ShockedISaid (not verified) on 04 Aug 2008 #permalink

That's better than what I thought it was, though the (non-statutory) document I linked seems to be more restrictive. This could just be the perspective of the department which wrote it:

"A person may defend his or her home against anyone who attempts to enter in a violent manner intending violence to any person in the home. The amount of force that may be used in resisting such entry is limited to that which would appear necessary to a reasonable person in the same or similar circumstances to resist the violent entry. One is not bound to retreat, even though a retreat might safely be made. One may resist force with force, increasing it in proportion to the intruder's persistence and violence, if the circumstances apparent to the occupant would cause a reasonable person in the same or similar situation to fear for his or her safety."

Texas Penal Code 9.41 is considerably more unambiguous:

"A person in lawful possession of land or tangible, movable property is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent or terminate the other's trespass on the land or unlawful interference with the property."

9.42 extends this to deadly force "to prevent the other's imminent commission of arson, burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, theft during the nighttime, or criminal mischief during the nighttime."

Either way, I'd say that this researcher's dropping a few hundred bucks on a Remington 870 and some lessons would be a wise investment.

This talk of guns and self defence is NOT the way to solve the problem, at best it's a sticking plaster.

The best way to combat this terrorism is for supporters of science to rally to the support of the scientists who are threatened by the extremists, and by rally I do mean crowds and speeches. In the UK this was done by Pro-Test in Oxford and was very effective in both showing the terrorists that they would not win and in getting very favourable coverage in the news.

A new organization named Speaking of Research has been founded to combat AR extremism in the USA.

Get involved and stand with David Feldheim and the other scientists threatened by the terrorist thugs!

By Paul Browne (not verified) on 04 Aug 2008 #permalink

Nice. Let's arm all scientists with guns. Maybe military service should be mandatory for a biomedical researcher ?
And the most fun part is of course that the activists have to arm themselves now, so we can have a nice little shootout in the lab.
I always wonder why only Americans come up with such ridiculous ideas.

Elegans, a strawman and an ad hominem don't an argument make.

There's no "let's" do anything. It's a personal choice that a scientist may or may not want to make in his own home - and he's not permitted to be armed on university property regardless.

Remember, these "activists" burned his house with him and his family inside. If it's ridiculously American to be able to protect yourself from that, I'm ridiculously glad to be an American.

It's ridiculous to protect yourself and your family by all necessary means? F*** that jazz! If someone decides it's a good idea to firebomb someone else's house then said person deserves whatever happens to him/her. To me, jail time would be best for such an individual, but if that person were to be stopped by violent means while trying to harm others I see no problem with that.

Remember when you are in danger and seconds count, the authorities are only minutes away...

Our animal facilities have great security. And, they moved the primate work out of the main buildings to 'protect' everyone else. Plus, Im in Oklahoma. PETA folk aint last long here. hehehehehe.

Anyway, if you are concerned about your safety on campus, talk to your campus police. Rules vary, but I can carry some things. They can also point you towards local self-defense courses (we used to do those for the public for free at my martial arts school).

"elegans" might have missed the unstated assumption that my question concerned what you would do if someone broke into your house and threatened you and your children, not on campus. (Our state allows concealed carry with a permit, but that right ends at a campus property line. You can't even carry a long knife legally on our campus.) The act of arson was on the second visit.

But my question went unanswered. It did not concern what that person *could* have done, it concerned what you would do. You own a gun. Would you shoot an intruder, hippie radical (right out of the movie "Joe") or otherwise ("Straw Dogs")?

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 10 Aug 2008 #permalink

Obviously that depends very heavily on the details of the particular situation. Short answer: if I believed it were truly necessary to save my life or the life of someone else, I would do what it took to stop them. If the only way to do that is with a gunshot, yes I would. Otherwise I wouldn't, even if strictly speaking castle doctrine happened justify me.

I don't think these radicals are looking for martyrdom. The simply knowledge that Professor X has a firearm may well be enough of a deterrent.

By Matt Springer (not verified) on 10 Aug 2008 #permalink

In the reported case it was obviously not necessary to shoot anyone to save the lives of the family, since they all survived unharmed. Yet, in your own line of reasoning, you would have shot and killed the intruders, given the chance, to protect nothing more than your property. (perhaps having yourself killed in process).
And yes, I am european. And although there are some fellow countrymen who would agree with your point of view, they tend to not be very educated people, unlike the USA where most everyone, independent of their education, seems to favour violence as a means to subdue violence.

Just to be clear. If masked extremists are attempting to force their way into your house, then I think it's fair enough to take out a gun and blow them away. On the other hand if a group of masked protesters are standing outside your house shooting at them would not be a good idea, better to call the police, and I believe that protesting outside peoples homes should be illegal.

My point is that in this case the extremists sneaked up to the houses and planted the bombs, then left the scene before they went off. I really don't think that the threat that the homeowner might have a gun would have affected their decision, they were probably working under the assumption that the homeowner might be armed. In any case extremists often actively seek martyrdom (for their comrades if not for themselves) so the small additional threat of deadly force is hardly going to dissuade them.

Overall I regard this talk of guns as a bit of a distraction, it won't solve the problem. Lots of people, especially scientists, standing together with those targeted is what will stop this tactic from spreading. Terrorism has to be shown to be counter productive, they'll be a lot less likely to risk their lives and freedom if they think that the action will only set their cause back.

By Paul Browne (not verified) on 11 Aug 2008 #permalink

Actually, scientists have been pretty much attacked by everybody throughout history for a variety of stupid reasons.

One could say there is progress because they don't get burned at the stake anymore, right?