The “Shut down STEM” initiative

June 12, 2020 • 10:30 am

Several days ago I got an email that yesterday there was going to be a #ShutDownScience and Shut Down STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) initiative, in which the organizers called for “no research, no meetings, no classes, no business as usual in order to challenge and address anti-Black racism. This initiative is a small step towards educating ourselves and working against anti-Black racism in STEM and academia.”

The email provided a couple of links (e.g. here, here, and here) for resources and actions you can take.  I can understand why the organizers want to bring discussions of race and racism into academia, and I can’t bring myself to say that these initiatives are useless or performative, for they might well have salutary consequences if they get conversations going.  What turned me off was the implication that all of us white folks in STEM—as well as POCWAB (people of color who aren’t black)—perpetuate racism, and that, in fact, science is riddled with endemic, structural racism:

The first statement is not only hyperbolic, but palpably false. No, academia and STEM (STEM is the only aspect of academia I know well) do not sustain racist systems, nor do they contribute to the murder of black people. Science, in fact, is about as egalitarian a discipline as you can imagine, and science departments throughout America are fervently trying to increase diversity, attempting to hire black and Hispanic faculty and to recruit students of color. This is a form of affirmative action of which I approve. But any failures here are attributable not to racism, but to a too small pool of candidates. The solution is to increase the pool, and that means giving equal opportunity education to everyone, starting at the very beginning of school—kindergarten on up. This also means working to eliminate poverty and inequality and, yes, racism in American society. But the solution is not to try sniffing out racism lurking in the crannies of science.

Nor do the methods of science sustain racism. In the past some scientists, and some fields, were imbued with racism, but those days are pretty much gone. If you claim that there is “systemic racism” in science, I’d ask you to show me where in the system that racism is built in. Where in the procedure of science, in the “scientific endeavor”, do we see support of racism?

Of course, science is done by humans, and some humans are racist. But I will not assent to the claim that science itself sustains racism, much less contributes to the murder of black people, or creates a “toxic space” for people of color (another claim at the websites above). The reason that people like me might go along with the claims in yellow, when they are such over-the-top exaggerations, is that nobody wants to be called a racist for questioning them.

The second statement, that not only white people, but Asians, people from the Middle East, Hispanics, and other “people of color who are not black”, play key roles in perpetuating systemic racism, is unevidenced, but simply asserted. Given the absence of systemic racism, the argument that, say, Hispanics, Palestinians, Indians, and Asians perpetuate systemic racism in science is foolish.

I’m not alone in this opinion. Below, for instance, is a video discussion of the issue by evolutionary biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, hounded out of The Evergreen State College by accusations of racism (in fact they both had a long history of anti-racism). Their story is well known and you can read about it at the links.

They see #ShutDownSTEM” as “a demonstration of power” rather than as “an honest confusion about whether science is a good thing.” Their previous experience gives them a unique perspective on the call to shut down science. They also assert in greater detail what I said above: the claim that science is structurally racist, and sustains racism, is without evidence. (Again, this does not deny that individual black researchers may have faced bias at times or that science has sustained racism at times in its history.)

The discussion of this issue begins at 10:46 and goes on pretty much for the rest of the hour.


72 thoughts on “The “Shut down STEM” initiative

  1. Ridiculous and counterproductive hyperbole. Indeed, in many fields of science here in the US, whites are in the minority.

  2. This is one more attempt by the intellectually lazy to justify their intellectual laziness.

    Although many have rejected the content of Trumpism, many more have embraced the process of it. Be radical, be stupid, be extremist, don’t compromise, don’t listen, don’t stretch your mind.


  3. The post-Floyd movement for greater racial equality is surely authentic, but when one sees spinoffs like #BurnItAllDown and #ShutDownScience, it’s hard not to suspect Russian or external influences trying to sow discord and collapse (knowing that a gullible subset of protestors will help it go viral).

    1. What a pathetic conspiracy theory. Very convenient for some political ends, but also very unhelpful at addressing actual problems.

    2. ” . . . when one sees spinoffs like #BurnItAllDown and #ShutDownScience, it’s hard not to suspect Russian or external influences trying to sow discord and collapse . . . .”

      Yes, possible. But not a few Americans have their “gifts” for that:

      “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (Hofstadter)

      “The Age of American Unreason” (Jacoby)

      1. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

        From 1963!!

        And nothing has changed – except maybe to get worse.

    3. ” it’s hard not to suspect Russian or external influences..”

      So Americans have no agency?

      1. Americans engage in protests. I’m not sure why some in this thread find it unthinkable that Russia and others might try to influence those protests. I assume the US similarly tries to influence protests that might spring up organically abroad. Perhaps I am a bit cynical about how US and Russian governments work, but the idea that they work in this way does not seem a wild conspiracy theory or a zero-sum denial that organic protests emerge in this or other countries. Of course, we could refer back to Jerry’s “free will” columns and relitigate whether ANYONE has agency, but I prefer not to go down that rabbit hole 😊

  4. “I can’t bring myself to say that these initiatives are useless or performative…”

    I can. These people are sophomoric assholes who deserve nothing but contempt.

    1. I think they are performative, but in a way different than is probably meant. I think the goal is to get another group of people to kow-tow to a particular ideological position, and get them used to thinking about their political standing before anything else. Then come the purges.

    2. I commented on another science blog that I thought striking was mere virtue signalling and that it would be better for the scientists involved to work towards improvements in academia. Sadly my comment disappeared.

  5. Almost all of the major science journals such as Science and Nature kow-towed to this extreme ideology as if they’re the ones on the right side of history….despite the fact they continue pay walling the expensive crap out of hard-working scientists out of their taxpayer dollar-funded research.

  6. Strong claims of racism are asserted but no actual examples are given.

    Is it simply assumed that if black people are underrepresented in a field, that the field is racist?

    Yet, there are many fields where people of Asian descent are ascendant over all groups including whites..does that mean that whites can claim racism is acting against them?

  7. When social and/or political movements gain enough traction to engage widespread public discussion then it seems inevitable that they will spawn extremist elements that try to take them in a direction that the originators had no plans to go. It doesn’t seem to matter if the movements are on the left or the right of the political spectrum. The emergence of the Tea Party Republicans and its morph into Trumpism is an example on the right. Of course, it is well known that major revolutions have devolved into extremist takeovers, such as the French, Russian, and Chinese examples. Here we have an example on the left. What surprises me is how often people seem blindsided by this happening. They should expect it and be prepared to respond to it. For people who believe in change and devote their energies to it, but reject any calls to submit to authoritarian repression, then counterarguments to the extremists must come often and early. This posting is appreciated. We need to see other scientists speaking up as well.

    1. I would like to bring other examples: The MeToo movement, Women’s March or, more recently, see the case with JK Rowling, transgender movements.

      All movements were started for highly honourable and important reasons. However, after they had really got under way, more and more people who were pursuing their own ideological aims began to interfere. Eventually they took the lead and within a short time they managed to turn away more and more moderate supporters, so that the reputation of the groups has suffered badly in the meantime.

    2. I agree completely and it’s why, after studying the French Revolution way too much in school, I came away with, “never lead or participate in an interim government”. I remember saying this was the flaw in the premise of DS9. 🙂

    1. Yep, and I think a lot of the problem with low black participation in STEM is a lack of role models. How many have ever heard of the great natural products chemistPercy Lavon Julian (who sat in a tree beside his house in near-to-jac Oak Park with a shotgun to defend it from firebombing)? Instead, for the great majority I expect that the person regarded as the most learned man in their community is their preacher, who will hardly be expected to tout the virtues of studying biology, anyway.

      1. “How many have ever heard of the great natural products chemistPercy Lavon Julian ”

        Probably a lot – there was a NOVA show on him I saw right when it came out years and years ago.

  8. I think these people organizing such events are just not used to making convincing arguments. It sort of reminds me of the women’s march. Great but what is the point? What real change are you making? What is your goal? Because nothing really happened. And if I say things like this I’m told STFU you are white and shouldn’t talk now. And if I say nothing I’m told being silent and not using my privilege is part of the problem. So you can’t help.

    1. Across the entire political and ideological spectrum, there seem to be many who think that there is no need to formulate or bolster an argument with evidence or logic. And of course taking offense is the main way to signal one’s virtue or confirm the correctness of one’s position. Religion has always led the way in trying to steer people away from evidence-based thinking, but it is not alone in this by any means.

  9. I believe you zero in on the problem as in education itself. Starting in K-12 where the inequalities are profound. All of the whites and others who have escaped into private schools, religious schools, charter schools and on we go. Public education is left in the dust and left in the poor side of town. And the fact that so much of the American school system is state run, leaves us with no way to fix it. Oh well, at least we should be honest and say where the problem really lies. In a state and local government run public school system, America has no chance.

    1. Are you proposing a change from state and local government run public schools? Certainly the underfunding of public schools does contribute to limiting opportunities for kids from lower income families. Are you saying that is inherent in state and local run public schools?

      1. How do you improve or make change in 50 separate systems. Each one reliant on state and county property taxes for financing their public schools. Just as an example, here in Kansas, a very Trump like republican governor damn near destroyed the public schools with his reduced tax plans. The state supreme court finally stepped in to demand funding before schools collapsed. 50 separate state standards with some states as much as two or three years behind others. It is like 50 different state licenses to drive – it makes no sense but it makes lots of jobs.

        1. I seem to recall that one country in Europe abolished private schools. Students had to go to the public school in their area. The effect of this was that richer families would funnel more money into their children’s school to bring the standards up. Also school funding was divided up based on actual need, ie. new schools didn’t need as much as their equipment was all new, while older schools were given more to replace old/damaged equipment. So the school standards all rose.

    2. Need to take equality of opportunity further back to where a life begins: in-utero. In other words: equal access to pre-natal health-care, post natal care, early years of development such as pre-K. So, address poverty in general. Long process, but if not addressed things will not improve, may actually get worse.

      1. As it has been practiced in various forms for decades, Pre-K and similar programs make no noticeable long-term difference. Early gains fade out.

        I’d suggest a novel approach. Let’s call it Pre–270 🙂

    3. School quality is almost entirely the product of student selection. To put it bluntly: There are no good and bad schools, only good and bad students.

      This does of course not invalidate the concerns of parents who do not want their children to suffer daily assaults and the like.

      But it does mean that the only realistic way to make public schools more attractive is to make them more selective. Unfortunately, education policy largely consists of wasting billions on interventions that have been known to fail for decades and shifting the blame for poorly performing students. I have little hope that things will get better 😐

  10. I totally agree. My guess is that STEM is a target merely because it is an institution. The woke logic is that if there’s structural racism, then all structure (institutions) is racist. That’s wrong but they don’t even bother to try and prove it because they can’t prove it and they’re lazy.

    It is laziness combined with frustration. Trying to get rid of racism in the US is a long, long thankless slog. Progress is measured in generations and gained battle by battle. There are no shortcuts. Besides fighting each of the many battles, you basically have to ensure that each generation is less racist than the one before it. I believe that’s the case in my lifetime.

    1. I think, in truth, the same accusations could be leveled at ANY institution in America: law firms, coffee shops, sports, and so on. If you don’t need evidence, you can make these claims about anything.

    2. I DuckDucked a couple of the names on the About page, and they turned out to be STEM students. My guess is they want to “start at home”.

  11. As long as white guilt is seen as the ultimate virtue, this nonsense will continue. Fortunately there’s no such thing as Asian guilt, so while we “decolonize” science, science will still be getting done; just not by us.

  12. Yeah, I always knew these quarks were little racists!
    Not to mention those tectonic plates, they are really big racists.
    And those difficult differential equations, they were designed just for Asians. Racist.

    1. And did I mention that insulin only works in white diabetics? Or that antibiotics do not work in brown and black people? Definitely racist!

  13. Beside the charge of anti-Black racism, the animus against STEM reflects certain other factors. (1) Nothing in the intellectual structure of astronomy, physics, engineering, genetics, biochemistry, and similar fields explicitly sanctifies the Holy Trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and (2) work in these fields is difficult, unlike important subjects like Critical X Theory.

    Finally, STEM subjects will be superfluous in the utopian future, of which Seattle’s
    CHAZ provides a current experiment. In the utopia of full Socialism envisioned by Marx, nobody will have to work other than “to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner”. This prospect is now updated to a system in which nobody need do anything other than take part in street demonstrations morning, afternoon, and evening, for which No STEM knowledge is needed at all.

  14. I absolutely reject the claim that public education is a disastrous failure. Everyone in my family for three generations is a product of public schools and all have gone on to succeed in elite colleges, obtain advanced degrees and and build productive careers in professional fields.

    1. The disaster is in the inequality. Certainly you or I may have received a good public school education. But many do not and if you are not aware of that, please check around. Why do people where I live spend an additional 10-12 thousand a year to send their kids to private schools verses the public ones. What happened to the schools in the inter cities, you know, that part of the city you do not drive through even in the day time. How many schools did you attend where the students were 40 or 50 percent minority.

      1. I teach in a different school district than the one I live in, and I teach in a different province than the one I grew up in. I’ve noticed significant differences in the quality of education in the province I currently live (They seem to keep dumbing down the curriculum), compared to what I experienced. In addition, I wouldn’t want my children attending some of the schools in the school district I work for.

        Socioeconomic background of the neighborhood makes a big difference in the quality of education at the schools in that neighborhood. I think part of this has to do with how much the parents value their children’s education. However the ambitions of their peers has a big effect too. If most of the students have no interest in going to university, or making good career choices, then that will rub off on the other students.

      2. The concept of public education isn’t a disaster but the execution quite often is. However, private education is a completely selfish response to public education’s failures and exacerbates them. It’s everyone for themselves in the battle to educate kids.

        1. “It’s everyone for themselves in the battle to educate kids.”

          There’s also a (perhaps more than) minor battle in dealing with student misbehavior. Why run the halls and wait till the last possible moment to enter class? Why not come on in and get and be ready for class to start? Why loudly and repeatedly interrupt (and make life difficult for other students who somehow have the predisposition and habits and intellectual curiosity needed for academic success)? These misbehaviors are not “carrots” prompting teachers to teach, or students to remain, in schools where this misbehavior much obtains.

  15. Looks like some people think we can’t get back to the dark age fast enough in terms of knowledge and education…sigh. Enough to make me despair

  16. What would actually make sense is for black activists and supporters to ally with scientists to investigate racism. Bret Weinstein mentions around 19:00 in the video that scientists can investigate the history of their own disciplines. Exactly.

    1. …oops, fat finger, you nob 🙃 an easy target when you see very little colour. They talk funny, who cares about the benefits these disciplines bring, damn smart arse tribe, telling US how it is.
      Phew I’m done.

  17. Thank you, PCCE, for this post. I’m a scientist at a major research institution in the US, and I’m white (and hence implicitly racist, according to Critical Race Theory). Of course I have no personal experience with what it would feel like to be black in academia, but based on what I have seen, there are very few black people in academia because there are very few applicants.

    I once helped hire a technician for our lab, and in the stack of CVs I reviewed, the vast majority of names were white or East Asian, with a few Indian names thrown in. Only one name was African (Nigerian, I think), and we didn’t interview that person, because he/she didn’t have the qualifications (tissue culture) we were looking for. There were no typically African-American names. We ended up hiring an Indian woman, because she had the best qualifications and experience. I guess that makes me and my colleagues anti-black.

    I sincerely, deeply want a society that is free from racism, where everyone has equal rights and opportunities. The core flaws in current Critical Race/SJW thoughts are: a) if there is any disparity in outcomes, that means by definition that the system is racist; b) if you disagree with the SJWs on any grounds, you are showing your white privilege, complicity, and fragility, and are creating a violent, oppressive environment that erases and invalidates the lived experience of marginalized people of color. There is no such thing as disagreeing in good faith.

    I find this mindset really disturbing. I grew up in Poland, and my mom has told me about life in the heyday of Communism. Anyone who disagreed with the party line was labeled “zapluty karzel reakcji,” which can be loosely translated as “reactionary drooling dwarf,” and their life was ruined. I used to think this was hilarious. Now I’m afraid that people who disagree with SJW ideology are considered the new reactionary drooling dwarfs of academia.

    Sorry about the long post – I clearly have lots of thoughts about this.

    1. I had a similar experience hiring software engineers. I thought about whether I was making hiring decisions fairly with respect to race but the fact was that there were virtually never any qualified black applicants. It seems obvious that the only solution that has any hope of working is to solve the education problem, starting from preschool.

      1. Although I agree 100% with you, I fear even that might not be enough.
        There is this thing, a culture of learning. I have seen in East-Asian families this overwhelming respect for learning. Not only are teachers highly respected, close to revered, but about everything happening in the household is subordinate to the homework of the children being done and finished.

        1. Yes. It’s sad to see that Critical Race Theory thinks science is for white people, according to James Lindsay:

          “This is because science believes in objectivity, which Critical Race Theory also calls an oppressive myth. Advocates of Critical Race Theory insist that we must ask whose interests are served by science and then falsely asserts that white people’s interests are primarily served by science.”

          It’s as if Critical Race Theory was invented to hold black people back!

  18. “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

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