Five timely readings for the day

I have nothing to say, but it’s okay (Good morning!).  Actually, duck duties in the pouring rain (yes, I got soaked, but in a good cause), combined with overdue grocery shopping, has put a crimp in my day. But, mirabile dictu, I have five—count them, five—pieces that are worth your time to read. I’ll give a link to all of them in screenshots, though the second piece, from The Economist, is behind a paywall (judicious inquiry might yield a copy). And the indented bits are quotes from the article.

In this interview with Steve Pinker (published, in all places, at the Templeton-funded Nautilus), he discusses why Americans continue to defy social distancing and abjure masks despite the palpable health risks.  It’s largely about tribalism, but part of that involves not just solidarity with the group, but distrust of “elitist” experts.

A few bits:

We turned to Steven Pinker for help with an answer. The professor of psychology at Harvard, author of widely discussed books, including How the Mind Works and most recently, Enlightenment Now, sees the deep-seated mindset, tribalism, at work in people’s defiance of health recommendations. But it’s more than a tribalism of being with your crowd. “There’s a moralistic component to this kind of tribalism, mainly that people tend to see their own tribes as victims of some kind of oppression or harm by some rival coalition,” Pinker says, his distinctive mass of gray hair filling the Zoom screen. “They believe their actions on behalf of the group, even if symbolic, are a kind of justice, a kind of settling the score, making a statement, advancing a moral cause—as strange as that may be to those of us who are not part of that coalition, and might even have contempt for that cause. But from the inside, it always feels as if your group has been victimized, has been a longstanding victim of a series of affronts and harms for which you seek redress. And that’s common in the invented histories and myths and narratives of many peoples.”

Pinker says it can be easier to understand the effect of tribalism by putting the shoe on the other foot. “Some of the people on the political right could, indeed, ask that question of the people showing up at Black Lives Matter rallies. They’re crowded together. They’re shouting. They’re chanting. A lot of them are not wearing masks. If we imagine answering that person’s question from the point of view of our buddies on the street protesting that Black Lives Matter, we can get probably some insight, even if we have our loyalties as to which is a legitimate cause and which is the not-so-legitimate cause. But you’re asking about psychology, about what people could possibly be thinking. Well, what could they be thinking in the street, shouting slogans without a mask? What could the public health experts be thinking, telling people it’s OK to do that?”

. . .Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, heads the Cultural Cognition Project at the university, which explores how cultural values shape public risk perceptions. He has shown, time and again, that the need to belong to a group, usually political or religious, overrides the facts of science. Kahan, who was unable to be interviewed, has written in Nature: “People find it disconcerting to believe that behavior that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behavior that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.”

Pinker agrees, but stresses that doing the right thing is never easy for anybody. “With coronavirus, it’s genuinely hard to know whether surfaces are potential vectors, whether six feet is enough or not enough, whether masks help or don’t help,” Pinker says. “From a scientist’s point of view, it’s not surprising the information would shift. That’s because our natural state is ignorance. We can only learn from data, and as the data comes in, our state of knowledge and best practices will change. But, partly because people think of experts as oracles, as opposed to experimenters and exploiters of trial and error, there’s a presumption that either the experts know what is the best policy from the get-go, or else they are incompetent and ought to be replaced. That’s opposed to what we know to be the correct situation in science—namely, no one knows anything, and you have to learn.”

 

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A piece in The Economist describes the differences between justified complaints about racism and the view of those who, on both the Right and Left, “exploit racial divisions as a political tool.” One of the cures proposed by the anonymous author is free speech and a curbing of identity politics, as well as a list of tangible governmental policies that will reduce inequality.

A few excerpts:

This ideology also has some valid insights. Racism is sustained by unjust institutions and practices. Sometimes, as in policing, this is overt. More often, in countless small put-downs and biases, it is subtle but widespread and harmful.

But then the ideology takes a wrong turn, by seeking to impose itself through intimidation and power. Not the power that comes from persuasion and elections, but from silencing your critics, insisting that those who are not with you are against you, and shutting out those who are deemed privileged or disloyal to their race. It is a worldview where everything and everyone is seen through the prism of ideology—who is published, who gets jobs, who can say what to whom; one in which in-groups obsess over orthodoxy in education, culture and heritage; one that enforces absolute equality of outcome, policy by policy, paragraph by paragraph, if society is to count as just.

. . . The pity is that these ideas will not solve America’s problems with race. They will not eliminate inequality because they are a poor way to bring about beneficial change. Unless you can freely analyse causes and question orthodoxies you will not be able to solve problems. And unless you can criticise people and practices without fear of being called out, you will not be able to design effective policies and then go on to refine them.

The new race theory blocks progress in another way, too. The barriers to racism can be dismantled only when they are exposed—and so they must be, however painful. But the false idea that ingrained racism will forever block African-Americans at every turn is a barrier in its own right.

And, by focusing on power and division, this ideology only creates more space for some on the right to exploit race as a tool. A fundamental belief in power above persuasion frustrates coalition-building. Essential allies are not carried along, but forced along. When every transaction at work, at home, or at the school gate is seen through a prism of racial power, no encounter between different races can be innocent.

. . . . Liberals can help in America, too. Much of the material gulf between African-Americans and whites can be bridged with economic policies that improve opportunity. You do not need to build a state based on identity. Nor do you need tools like reparations, which come with practical difficulties and have unintended consequences. Economic policies that are race-neutral, which people qualify for because of poverty, not the colour of their skin, can make a big difference. They have a chance of uniting Americans, not dividing them. If the mood now really is for change, they would be politically sellable and socially cohesive.

Our Briefing lays out what some of these policies might look like. Top of the list is tackling the housing segregation that is central to America’s racial economic inequality. The reform of zoning laws and the grant of rent-assistance vouchers are the chief ingredients. That would bring many benefits, improving public services and lessening violence. More integrated housing would integrate schools too and, given America’s locally financed education, mean that more would be spent on black children. Affordable measures, including advice and modest cash grants, have been shown to boost graduation from college. A third tool is the tax system. The earned-income tax credit tops up wages of working adults. A child allowance would cut poverty. A baby bond would help shrink the wealth gap.

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In this piece in Quillette, Lawrence Krauss argues (correctly, I think), that science is not structurally racist: that is, there are no longer built-in barriers to the advancement of ethnic minorities. This doesn’t mean, of course, there aren’t barriers, but that they rear up before minorities even get a chance to do science. That’s why, despite fervent efforts by every biology department I know to hire blacks and Hispanics, as well as procure minority graduate students, we aren’t succeeding. That’s not because there’s discrimination at the hiring and grad-school level, but that the pool of people reaching that stage is tiny. And that’s because there’s a lack of opportunity beginning early on: even before school starts.

Quotes:

During the academic strike called for by the APS [American Physical Society], it was emphasized that the proportion of black physicists in national laboratories such as the Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois (where one #strike4blacklives organizer works) is much smaller than the percentage of blacks in the population at large. It was implied that systematic racism in the profession was responsible for this, although no explicit data supporting this claim was presented.

In fact, there is a simpler explanation. There are fewer tenured black physicists at universities and laboratories because there are fewer black PhD physicists. There are fewer black PhD physicists because there are fewer black physics graduate students. There are fewer black graduate students because there are fewer black undergraduates who major in physics. This latter fact is a cause for concern. But the root cause lies in inequities that arise far earlier in the education process. These cannot be addressed by affirmative action policies at the upper levels of practicing professional scientists.

Well, affirmative action policies could help remedy the problem, but, argues Krauss, one has to abrogate the duty of science to adhere to the policy that “quality alone [is] the final discriminator.” Some will disagree with this, and for this statement Krauss has been demonized widely. I’ve argued that some form of affirmative action is useful here, but science departments throughout the U.S. have failed miserably, simply because the pool of people is so small. We need to adopt the kind of policies that the Economist article describes, and try as hard as we can to ensure equal opportunity for all from the outset. As scientists we can start doing this by doing outreach in minority communities. But that’s not nearly enough because, after we sell our field to others, we go home to our prosperous digs while the targets of our actions return to a life bereft of opportunity.

I do agree with Krauss that our main duty is to do science, and, while we should do our best to give everyone an opportunity to do science if they want to, we are not suited to be social engineers. As Krauss says:

Assistant professors of physics cannot solve racial inequality in our society. The professional responsibility of individual scientists, especially young scientists, is to do the best science they can, and to train their students as best they can. It is not to become part of a social movement, however well-intentioned that movement may be.

To see a better statement of this idea vis-à-vis official stands of universities and their academic departments, read the Kalven Report that, until recently, held sway at the University of Chicago. (Sadly, it’s dissolving as our University is deciding to take ideological stands). No, it’s not our duty to become part of a social movement, but as an evolutionary biologist whose work was funded by the public, I at least feel an onus to give back to the public by showing people how great the study of evolution is. Is that kind of outreach helpful in increasing diversity and equity? Who knows?

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Several readers have sent me a multi-page list of demands, signed by hundreds of Princeton faculty, students, and staff, directed at their school as a cure for the systemic and pervasive racism they see in that institution. Although the motivation is laudable, the execution is poor, with many items almost fascistic in their requirements. This is a true document of Authoritarian Leftism.

There have been two pieces of pushback. One is by Samantha Harris, a Princeton alum writing at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE):


Here she describes two of the demands, one of which is clearly illegal:

The petition includes a long list of “demands,” several of which stand in direct opposition to Princeton students’ and faculty members’ rights to free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of conscience. (Notably, one of them — a demand that faculty of color receive extra pay and sabbatical time compared to white faculty — is simply illegal.) Princeton’s leadership should categorically reject these illiberal demands and make clear that the fundamental rights of its students and faculty are non-negotiable and will not be subordinated to political expediency.

The most chillingly illiberal demand in the petition asks Princeton to:

[c]onstitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

The threat of discipline for speech, research, and publication that is subjectively deemed “racist” by a committee of ideologically motivated Princeton faculty is an anti-intellectual, frontal assault on free speech and academic freedom at Princeton that would shut down entire avenues of inquiry, research, and discussion. How, exactly, would such a committee determine whether faculty expression or research is “racist”? A look at some recent demands for faculty discipline is illustrative.

. . .In a terrific article last month in Inside Higher Ed, University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Zimmerman argued that faculty must rally behind academic freedom in this historic moment — one he compared to 1950s-era efforts to purge universities of Communist-leaning faculty. Zimmerman wrote:

The biggest myth about the McCarthy period is that purges of university faculty were imposed upon an unwilling professoriate. In fact, most American faculty members embraced the campaign to remove Communist or left-leaning colleagues. They took loyalty oaths, condemned “fellow travelers” and did everything else they could to protect the university from its supposed Red enemy.

Noting that universities are “repeating all the same patterns” today, Zimmerman urged his colleagues to stand up for the academic freedom rights of unpopular colleagues:

Our university leaders are busily issuing new loyalty oaths, declaring allegiance to Black Lives Matter, and everyone else is expected to follow along. That can’t be good for our democracy, or for our universities. It’s not even good for Black Lives Matter! Like any other social movement, BLM can only benefit from a full and free discussion of it.

If met, the Princeton faculty’s demand for a committee to police speech, research, and publication for signs of racism would be the end of academic freedom at the Ivy League university. And while one would hope that any free-minded academics at Princeton would simply leave the university under such oppressive circumstances, it is more likely that, given the challenges of the academic job market (particularly for faculty with dissenting views), they would instead opt for self-censorship.

Finally, Joshua Katz, a Princeton professor of Humanities and Classics, has written a “Declaration of Independence” (presumably from the letter of demands), also outlining those parts of the demands that would nearly destroy his school as a high-quality University.

One quote and then I will leave you to your reading. But at least look first at the letter of demands. What’s remarkable about that letter is that these days it is so unremarkable: it’s a boilerplate of every grievance of the offended.

Katz:

Indeed, plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support. It is reasonable to “[g]ive new assistant professors summer move-in allowances on July 1” and to “make [admissions] fee waivers transparent, easy to use, and well-advertised.” “Accord[ing] greater importance to service as part of annual salary reviews” and “[i]mplement[ing] transparent annual reporting of demographic data on hiring, promotion, tenuring, and retention” seem unobjectionable. And I will cheerfully join the push for a “substantial expansion” of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which encourages underrepresented minorities to enter PhD programs and strive to join the professoriate.

But then there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate. Some examples: “Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary” and “Faculty of color hired at the junior level should be guaranteed one additional semester of sabbatical” and “Provide additional human resources for the support of junior faculty of color.” Let’s leave aside who qualifies as “of color,” though this is not a trivial point. It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people—extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors—extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation.

“Establish a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.” There would be wisdom in this time of disunity in suggesting (not, in my view, requiring) that students take courses in American history and constitutionalism, both of which almost inevitably consider slavery and race, but that is not the same thing. Not incidentally, if you believe anti-blackness to be foundational, it is not a stretch to imagine that you will teach the 1619 Project as dogma.

. . . “Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty… Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the [usual] set of rules and procedures.” This scares me more than anything else: For colleagues to police one another’s research and publications in this way would be outrageous. Let me be clear: Racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process. But is there anyone who doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?

As Andrew Sullivan would say, “See you next Friday.” Actually, I’ll see you this afternoon and tomorrow morning.

h/t: Merilee, pyers, Paul

45 Comments

  1. eric
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I’m not entirely sold on Krauss’ argument. It strikes me as bit too much hand washing. I expect that, very much like has been the case with women, undergrad and grad hard science classes (and labs) can sometimes be hostile workplaces for minorities.

    Pointing at the pipeline isn’t, IMO, a sufficient response. I think it really behooves all of us to consider the behavior we see around us in classes, labs, etc. and speak out when we see racism and sexism. Just blaming the pipeline ignores the fact that some people go to University interested in pursuing a scientific degree and career, but abandon it because of the way they are treated by either the students or professors around them.

    • Posted July 10, 2020 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Yes, I agree with you. I was talking about “structural” racism, which is racism built into an institution. In that sense I agree with Krauss, but there are still barriers in the sciences. That said, my own “lived experience” (LOL) indicates that science is a pretty open place and largely free of bigotry. And of course we should speak out when we see it!

      • eric
        Posted July 10, 2020 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        Well I don’t want to get into a potato/pota argument about what counts as “structural”, but I’d say that if the people who do science generally tolerate racism etc. and this has the effect of pushing away good minority candidates, this is a structural problem in science-as-human-activity. The structure in question here being the human interactions of the scientific community.

        So, think of it like a chess club. There’s nothing racist in the rules of chess. The methodology of chess is not in question. But if most people in the club tolerates racism, and even the ones who don’t are unwilling to bring up the behavior of the ones who do as an issue, then I think it’s fair to say that that chess club has a structural racism problem.

        Are we that chess club, pointing out that the rules of chess are just fine while ignoring the systematically bad behavior of many of our chess players? Well, maybe. Obviously there’s going to be huge variation across schools and labs. So we probably shouldn’t generalize. Maybe it’s best just to try an fix such people problems whether we label them ‘systemic’ or not.

        • Mike
          Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

          This is all fine to hypothesize. But there is no evidence that “most people in the club tolerate racism”. At my large university, in the science departments there are relatively few undergraduates, graduate students, or faculty members who are Black. But there are many who come from South Asia, Latin Americ, the Middle East, and elsewhere who would qualify as people of color under at least some definitions. But at the same university, our departments of engineering, business and economics have many Black students as well as other people of color. Is the go-to explanation for such a pattern really that the people in charge of the science departments are racists or more tolerant of racism, but the people in charge of the business and engineering programs are not racists or are less tolerant of racism? I don’t think so. It may be true that there are some racists in all of those programs, but that hardly seems the most likely explanation for why students from different family, cultural, and economic backgrounds choose different subjects to study at university. Reaching for a racist explanation for these kinds of patterns is not helpful in the absence of evidence for such racism.

          • eric
            Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

            When I was in grad school I interacted with too few POC to see if there was an issue in how they were treated (‘too few’ being part of the issue I guess). However, sexism by some of the professors was pretty endemic and somewhat tolerated. I.e., the professors and students who thought it was wrong would help our women grad student friends work around the sexist professors, but nobody went as far as to confront them or bring it up to the department as an issue the department needed to address. That was eons ago, I hope the situation in most of today’s science departments has changed.

            However, this experience leads me to expect that we should take more of a “trust but verify” attitude towards our work environments and whether they are potentially hostile towards minorities, rather than the attitude of “everything is fine unless I hear a complaint.” Because there can be a lot of good people trying to work around a problem rather than complaining about it, and that still means a problem exists.

            Is the go-to explanation for such a pattern really that the people in charge of the science departments are racists or more tolerant of racism, but the people in charge of the business and engineering programs are not racists or are less tolerant of racism?

            Is it really that difficult to believe that different majors/departments can evince different levels of discrimination? Look at the case of computer science, gaming/programming, and women. Or the stories coming out of silicon valley. It seems uncontroversial to me at this point to say that yes, some tech fields and workplaces show vastly more discrimination than many non-tech fields. Why? I don’t know. Does it extend beyond sexism to racism? I don’t know. But I certainly think it’s just cause for serious examination of our own school/work communities, serious engagement with minorities, and lots of thinking about how we can improve. Rather than just toodling along assuming that the moment the pipeline is fixed we’ll see demographically representative numbers of POC in science. It certainly hasn’t worked out that way (yet) with women, so why expect it will work out that way with POCs?

            • Mike
              Posted July 10, 2020 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

              I approach this kind of conjecture about the sociology and behavior of my workplace (which is all it is, absent any evidence) the way I approach conjecture about the work I do. It’s fine as conjecture (that sexism was once rampant, so racism might be currently rampant as well). But because there is no evidence for such racism as the cause of the small numbers of some (not all) racial groups in most science disciplines, that conjecture is not a reason for me or anyone else to devote large amounts of time, energy, thought, and emotional work to “serious examination of our own school/work communities, serious engagement with minorities, and lots of thinking about how we can improve”. I am absolutely keen to engage with individuals in my work, including individuals who come from underrepresented racial groups, but I’m interested in those people as individuals (with their own individual qualities and abilities and contributions to make to science). I’m uninterested in the group identities of any of these individuals. Everyone is of course welcome to identify with whatever group they like, and it’s none of my business what those identities might be. It just doesn’t have anything to do with my research or teaching or mentoring interactions with those individuals. I don’t such an approach is wrong or racist. But perhaps I’m wrong about that.

          • Nicolaas Stempels
            Posted July 10, 2020 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

            White plays the first move in chess: racist!

        • EdwardM
          Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I don’t like the generalization. I’m in that club and have been for almost 40 years now. I have never seen any tolerance for racism, personal or institutional. Just the opposite. I’ve seen (and been involved in) countless attempts at both academic and corporate levels to promote or encourage the inclusion of non white men in the biological sciences (at least). But then, I’m white and by definition, I’m a racist so maybe that’s it? I can’t see the racism?

  2. EdwardM
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    This is a point I think I can only express here at WEIT without shrieking hordes calling for my skin.

    With regards to the lack of physics UGs;
    “But the root cause lies in inequities that arise far earlier in the education process.”

    It is true that there are inequities in early education, but one of the main reasons (IMO) that there are so few black people in STEM is that in Black American culture that kind of educational goal is not a priority. I do not believe they can’t do it; I think their culture does not value STEM as a career choice, so few pursue it. It simply isn’t true Black Americans don’t have the opportunity to follow a STEM career path. Though I agree those opportunities are limited for some, I do not think it explains the near total lack of Black Americans in STEM.

    FTR, I am in the “S” part of that acronym – biomedical research. More than 1/2 my colleagues are women (including managers – the CEO of my company is a woman), many are Asian or Latino, there are people from all over the world in my job but I can count the number of black colleagues on one hand and none of them are American. This has been true for most of my career.

    • EdwardM
      Posted July 10, 2020 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      P.S. – For me the link to Dr Katz goes to his bio and the photo of the letter title doesn’t link to the letter.

    • eric
      Posted July 10, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      I think you’re categorically wrong. I think the problem is much more about poverty, lack of family wealth, and how that impacts early education than ‘culture.’ My kid’s school is about 50% hispanic. I can tell you from firsthand experience that pretty much all the kids like STEM + all the parents like that it’s a focus. The differences in performance have much more to do with which parents have the time and money to do ‘science play’ at home, than they do any cultural valuation of science. For example, when he was little, I took my kid to museums, the zoo, places like that almost every weekend. A parent with no car who has to work weekends just can’t do that, no matter how much they might value it. And saying that if they really really valued it, they’d find a way, is IMO just victim blaming.

      • EdwardM
        Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        Categorically wrong am I? I think you may have made a category error here. Hispanics are not part of Black American culture.

        Anyway, I know I’m not supposed (or allowed) to think this way so I’ll leave it there.

        • eric
          Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          I would welcome a response by you that shows a flaw in my argument that it’s about poverty and opportunity. Or a response where you provide argument, data, heck even just an anecdote or two, to support your notion that blacks just don’t culturally value science careers.

          I think you’re wrong based on what I see in my kids’ school community. Based on evidence and argument. Not out of some ideological wokeness. Frankly, too, you haven’t given any cogent support for your position, you’ve really just stated it and left it at that. But supply a cogent reason, and I’ll consider it.

          Here, want some help?. According to PEW, it looks like blacks distrust science a bit more than whites or hispanics. But the percent difference is relatively small, and if this attitude were the cause, it would lead to about 10% of scientists would being black, rather than the 5% or so we actually observe. So there, I just provided some ammo for you, but it still doesn’t get you to the conclusion you’re trying to draw.

          • EdwardM
            Posted July 10, 2020 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

            No thanks. I am NOT going down this rabbit hole. I said what I think. I could point you to reports which show Black people from the West Indies, on the whole much poorer than Black Americans, are much more successful in STEM fields, which suggests an influence on culture rather than wealth – or skin color. But this is not going to be a productive discussion.

            It is not acceptable to posit that cultural (or gender) differences might manifest themselves in differences in the way people from those groups choose to live their lives. It is most frustrating that the only acceptable answer to why those differences exist is because of the malevolence of another group of people.

            C’est la vie. It is the way of our world and I am thankful that although I use my real name here, I am careful to make sure it can’t be traced back to me in the real world.

          • Posted July 10, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

            That’s enough, please. We are not having one-on-one arguments that persist through the thread, nor do I want individuals to dominate a thread. If you want to argue further, take it to email or chat.

    • Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      There are different reasons for a lack of interest in going into STEM, and these can be applied to each person who does not pursue a STEM program on a case by case basis.
      1. It could be that STEM just does not interest someone. They want something else.
      2. It could be that a person sees, early on, that they don’t have the economic situation and surrounding support to be able to make it thru, so they aren’t interested in trying. Higher education is expensive. And it generally requires one to defer working full time in the meanwhile.
      3. A persons’ primary and secondary education could be inadequate, and so they don’t qualify.

      All of these factors can apply to any person, regardless of skin color.
      But I propose that for the black population, owing to factors from generational poverty, factors 2 and 3 are the most common reasons for not pursuing STEM.

      • Posted July 12, 2020 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        In the case of the science and mathematics part – say Krauss’ physics – there’s a strong pressure, some of which due to degrees of wealth – to do “something practical”.

        I wonder if the numbers are more “in line” if engineering and technology more generally are factored out. There were certainly more minorities in my computing classes than in philosophy. (Women are a different story, at least at McGill back in the day. I think there the fact that Arts was 60%+ women did show in philosophy, though it was one of the rare Arts departments – like economics – that was more men.)

    • savage
      Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      People tend to like what they’re good at.

  3. Boris
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    The argument for extra pay for minority faculty seems to be that they are effectively required to do a bunch of extra “service” (in the “serving on committees of various sorts, outreach, etc, etc” sense), because of a desire that everything be “inclusive” and a shortage of available minority faculty to fill all the slots that need filling.

    I’ve heard a number of professors I know complain about onerous and unequally applied “service” requirements, and there is a real problem here. That said, it would be better addressed by directly tying pay to service commitments. The letter sort of hints at that too, in suggesting that salary be tied to “service”, but it seems to me like it would be better to simply establish a “service” baseline and compensate any “service” above that similarly to the way that overtime work is compensated in other fields.

    Notably, this would be completely legal, since it would be compensation for actual work performed, not compensation for your skin color.

    • Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      The problem with this complaint, which is made often, is that there is no documentation of it; merely an assertion that this or that group of faculty has more or less “service”. It’s always just a claim associated with requests for more remuneration, but, as you imply, there should be records kept of this.

    • Curtis
      Posted July 10, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      If a university is in a financial crisis due to Covid and you make it more expensive to hire blacks, do you think black hiring will go up or down?

  4. savage
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    The blame for the low number of intellectually accomplished African-Americans cannot be shifted indefinitely before someone needs to take it.

    “Do not blame white professors, the problems already occur at high school. – Why, are disparities not already apparent in elementary school? Don’t blame me!”

    The result is that teachers are demonized for failing to accomplish student outcomes that happen to be largely out of their control (school quality is mostly the result of student selection). While we’re at it, how are the efforts to vilify kindergarten staff going?

    Ultimately, it will be hard to argue that physics department should be immune to the hazards of enforcing equal outcomes.

    Krauss exculpates himself by noticing that there are few black physics undergraduates at universities. Yet if their number was greatly increased, physicists sharing his professional ethos would have to reject a greater proportion of them and might thus appear more racist than previously.

    He also describes science as a unifying force since humanity as a whole has benefited from its discoveries. But the low percentage of black scientists diminishes the social status enjoyed by African Americans in favor of other groups. Prestige is too important for humans for that concern to be ignored.

    • Posted July 10, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      I heard a snippet of discussion I think on NPR about how we might equalize school budgets between different communities. I think this meant that the rich suburban school and poor inner city school ‘across the tracks’ would have equal funds for supplies and so on.
      That got my attention!

      • savage
        Posted July 10, 2020 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

        As far as I know, the correlation between educational spending and learning outcomes is weak in general (not just in a US context). Bad students are also more expensive than good ones, because they are more likely to be disabled, violent, tardy etc.

        One might object that school funding is not done right. Yet time and again massive increases in school funding make no difference. Good examples are the Kansas City experiment or the more recent failure of the Gates Foundation.

        Equalizing funding between school districts has been tried, e.g. by the Robin Hood Plan, though such attempts never achieved full equality. If they did, however, there would still be the issue of funding disparities within school districts, which are greater than the differences between districts.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I do not think the scientist can be any more or less the problem than any other area or career in our society. Also, attempting to fix the problem from the top is not going to get the job done. They can provide help/guidance and more to the education system that can make the difference. To attempt otherwise is just an upside down approach. It is what people in a panic do when they suddenly see the problem at their level. The leveling of education for all in the public school system must be fixed first and made fair for all. That is a tall order but a bunch of PhDs in science cannot solve the racism at their level without consideration for all the earlier racism in the society.

    It reminds me of Jefferson about 1820 when the Missouri question hit the fan in the national politics. He became very stressed out about the whole issue and much of his despair was in his own realization that his position on slavery was not going to be good. The founding fathers of 1776 were now dead or dying and the slavery question was front and center. The earliest agreement had been a north south gentlemen’s agreement, that is the boys from the north would allow the boys in the south to resolve it. Suddenly he realized they had not solved anything and it would all be panic. He had no answer but to say it had to move on to the next generation to solve. I think we call it passing the buck. He hoped they would solve it but had no idea how it could be done.

    • eric
      Posted July 10, 2020 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      a bunch of PhDs in science cannot solve the racism at their level without consideration for all the earlier racism in the society

      Yes, we can. Or we can at least work both issues in parallel. For example, my “level” is my workplace. And it’s certainly not the case that I have to wait until society fixes the issue of unequal elementary school STEM opportunity, before I tackle potential issues with my workplace. That would be crazy. I work to improve my workplace while we as a society also work to improve educational opportunities for everyone.

      If people are running around their workplaces going ‘well, we can’t do anything about underrepresentation of minorities in our workforce or the higher attrition rate of minorities in our workforce because the educational pipeline is broken’, then that right there is possibly part of the ‘systemic bias’ that needs changing.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted July 10, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        I in fact, said exactly that if you just read the first paragraph again. You will not solve it in your own bubble and you will not see the minorities reaching your level for assignment without a lot of work down below. But more to the idea that if we wait until we have reached the top to act that is late in the game. That is the point I was making about Jefferson. He was always going to do more, right up to the end.

  6. Jon Gallant
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    The zoomposium announced below should be of interest in connection with this subject.
    I don’t know what is meant by “Disruptive Action”, and I don’t know anything about the organizers or the speakers.

    “Please join us for “Experiences of Black STEM in the Ivory: A Call to Disruptive Action” July 14-15.

    This two-day event will bring together students, staff, faculty and leadership from academic institutions across the country to share their unique perspectives on the current barriers facing Black scholars in STEM fields with the goal of inspiring and challenging participants to take action to address racial inequity in STEM.

    Participating institutions include the University of Washington, University of Chicago, Georgia Tech, the University of Texas at Austin, and Boston University.

    REGISTER HERE: https://forms.gle/uzurRV1dRgtDuDPV6

  7. C.
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    To understand the lack of minorities in the science world, look further back into the lives of the children rather than automatically laying blame upon primary and secondary education. The first 5 years of a child’s life should not be discounted, nor should the family culture. There are almost certainly a wide range of factors at the family level that either dissuade or fail to nurture a child’s early scientific interests, religion being but one of them. An open disgust for and a complete lack of know of the natural world in many families being another. This is something I have witnessed many times in person. An example: elementary aged children who found a fledgling robin on the ground and were shrieking and kicking wildly at it, or the beautiful beetle I found, which one girl was holding to show a group of kids when another boy pushed into the circle, screamed, knocked it out of her hands, stomped it to death and got mad at the girl because “you know I am scared of bugs!” Yes, anecdotal evidence, but just two of many experiences I have had. Try as I might, sharing my love for the natural world and educating kids on a very basic level was almost always met with pushback. Everything was “dirty”, “nasty”, or “poisonous” because mamma said so and who was I to contradict mama? Granted, I had a few successes, too. Girls were much more brave and curious than boys, but why, I couldn’t say. What I can say is that in my 13 years working in schools, I never heard anyone say “ you can’t do that because you are______!” (Insert minority of choice) . While I can’t say it never happens in a school these days, I did hear plenty of “my mama said…” or “my daddy said…” that something was only for boys, or girls, or was gay (or worse) or whatever. Heartbreaking but again, how far can one push back against the family culture before stepping over the line? Not far, but I do what I can because I love science, but I also love children, their curiosity, and their untapped potential. Now, about those pointless state standards and constant testing that wastes valuable class time, takes away educational opportunities and kills the love of learning in children…another time, perhaps.

    • Filippo
      Posted July 10, 2020 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      I empathize with your experiences dealing with certain obstreperous school children. (No one should be deprived of that “privilege,” eh? ;)) I’ve similarly seen the over-the-top, squealing, histrionic reaction to and stomping of bugs (incl. centipedes) in hallways, the sight of their guts even more eliciting the ululation “nasty.” (I contemplated calling 911. Thoughts of distant hominid ancestors’ reactions to snakes came to mind.) I once asked a fine gentleman if he were as motivated to clean up the mess as he was to create it.

      For those students who were cooperative and intellectually curious and academically motivated, I’ve gotten chill bumps and was prepared to do double-backward somersaults to do whatever I could to help them.

      I once substitute taught in a middle school elective called “Career Exploration.” Being in my older age, by that time having tried my hand at several different jobs, and having made some mis-steps, I presumed to think that I might have some real-world, practical experience/wisdom/”Lessons Learned” of use to students.

      I attempted to make some introductory/prefatory remarks, but found that I was not allowed to complete a sentence due to being repeatedly interrupted by a fine fellow, who wanted to make sure that I understood that I didn’t have anything to say that was worth his listening to. I congenially thanked him for his statement and opinion. (A one-on-one teacher assistant in the room witnessed the exchange.)

      We had never met. We knew nothing about each other. We had only briefly laid eyes on each other. So as to Keep The Peace (and not run afoul of the pedagogical Powers That Be), I circumspectly refrained from pressing him to state the basis for his claim.

      As far as getting any K-12 student interested in a STE(A)M career, whatever other factors obtain, it will be a glorious day when non-STEM types, young and old, stop calling STEM types “nerds” and “geeks.”

      (That’s a “reward” STEM types get for creating the technological conveniences the scientifically-illiterate take for granted. I’ve read here and there that “nerd” and “geek” should be taken as compliments. Give me a break!)

      I presume to speculate that many students don’t want to study science and go into STEM fields for that singular reason. Who wants to hear that mouthiness?

      • C.
        Posted July 10, 2020 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        You’re preaching to the choir here! If I can get one kid to grow up and plant flowers or become a bird watcher or help rather than hurt a frog or snake, I’ll be happy. If I give one kid hope that they can try to become a scientist or doctor, I’ll be thrilled. If I can convince one kid to ignore the naysayers and follow their heart, it will make up for me not doing so and I’ll be over the moon with joy. Although how I can do that over zoom I have no idea. There’s no substitute for the real world bug-watching, sighting a red-tail soaring over the school building, or holding a hapless toad who wandered into the playground.

    • Posted July 12, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      I remember an elementary school classmate who brought in a garter snake he had been keeping as a sort of pet to show everyone. He had it in the yard in the play time before the bell rang and the teacher on yard duty made him throw it away into the train ditch near the school (over a high fence no less). What a terrible thing to do to both my classmate and the snake!

  8. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    How do you equalize the career ladder of any field, removing racism and allowing the best to get any level they can. We have tried affirmative action and we have tried busing and maybe other things. But without a standard and fair education system that is applied throughout the country this is hard to see. We do not have that and how you get it in a country where 50 individual states manage and control their states education. Compare us to all the other top education countries of the world who do control and manage their education at the national level. And finally, find one state among 50 were we have achieved this equality in education?

  9. Posted July 10, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    This is not that i am over exaggerating right now but to be honest there is something so powerful in your blogs, they are super informative and amazing at the same time. I love reading all your blogs, hope you keep posting more in the future.

    • Posted July 10, 2020 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      🙂 Of course he will continue to post.
      One of the running jokes around here is that the site is not called a bl*g but is instead a ‘website’. Why is lost to history. Another is that certain words that are deemed objectionable are written with an asterisk. Bl*g, d*g, and there are some names as well.

      • Posted July 10, 2020 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

        I have explained why I don’t use the word “blog” to refer to this site. It’s easy: I find the word “blog” to be incredibly ugly and unpleasant, and thus prefer not to use it.

  10. Posted July 10, 2020 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    This is not that i am over exaggerating right now but to be honest there is something so powerful in your blogs, they are super informative and amazing at the same time. I love reading all your blogs, hope you keep posting more in future.

  11. denise
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I used to have a physicist friend, a Harvard PhD. He once told me that by the time they start college the physics students from the best high schools are so far ahead of the others that catching up is impossible.

    I wonder what other people think about this claim.

    • Posted July 10, 2020 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      I can see it. There are really good high schools that offer chemistry and physics classes with a range of difficulties. Those include courses that go well beyond freshman level courses on those subjects. My middle son took one in chemistry, and honestly I could not help him much as its been a long time for me. Damn it was advanced!

    • Posted July 12, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      I’ve encountered what streaming can do in other fields: I have run into several people who had done highschool in Bulgaria. No idea what it is like now but Warsaw Pact Bulgaria was dirt poor, but math and chess were cheap, so anything to encourage those was done. One person I knew had done basically most of the undergraduate curriculum it seems in high school. Admittedly there was a lot of talent to work with in this person’s case, but still: I cannot imagine except at the most elite of private schools anything like that being anywhere close to possible.

  12. Steve Gerrard
    Posted July 10, 2020 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Regarding Krauss, I would just say that physics is a much more difficult academic subject than any other branch of science. The math alone is insane, and will melt the brain of most aspirants.

    The Princeton letter seemed way over the top to me. I am assuming it will just drift around, and neither be adopted in any major way nor rejected explicitly, until it fades away. If it did get adopted, it would be the end of Princeton as it has been known up till now.

  13. Posted July 11, 2020 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    I’m always happy when what I write in my column echos the Economist. AND KRAUS!

    https://themoderatevoice.com/protest-land-n-y-c-high-level-excitement/

    (in TMV and Democracy Chronicles. org)

    The first part is reportage of the “fun” we’ve been having here in NYC, the 2nd is the issue of institutional vs personal racism.

    I WANT to write an article about Robin DiAngelo, that fraud, but do I dare? Maybe… my editors are behind me and I’ve nothing to lose. But the blowback will be intense.

    I like the comparison (above) with McCarthyism in this recent moral panic.
    D.A., J.D., NYC

  14. Posted July 15, 2020 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    I’m getting intellectual brain freeze. Lot of thinking to do here! A wonderful thing.


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