Scientific American (and math) go full woke

August 29, 2021 • 12:15 pm

As we all know, Scientific American is changing from a popular-science magazine into a social-justice-in-science magazine, having hardly anything the science-hungry reader wants to see any more. I urge you to peruse its website and look for the kind of article that would have inspired me when I was younger: articles about pure science.  Now the rag is all about inequities and human diseases.

In the past couple of months, there have been some dire op-eds, and here’s another one—not as bad as some others, but (especially for a science magazine) riddled with unexamined assumptions. Click on the screenshot to read it. Apparently the “racial reckoning” that began last year has now crept into mathematics.

After reading it, I have two questions: Is mathematics structurally racist? And why has Scientific American changed its mission from publishing decent science pieces to flawed bits of ideology?

The article, of course, claims that mathematics is a hotbed of racism and misogyny, which explains why there are so few women and blacks in academic mathematics.

The article begins with stories of thee women mathematicians, all of whom report that they felt discriminated against or at least looked down upon. All of them have academic jobs, two as professors and one as a postdoc. I don’t doubt their stories, but what we have are three anecdotes. At face value, they show that there is some racism or sexism in academic math, but these are cherry-picked anecdotes that demonstrate little except that, like all fields, math is not entirely free of bigotry. I also procured two anecdotes with no effort. First, I asked one of my female math-y friends, Professor Anna Krylov,  a theoretical and computational quantum chemist at USC, who deals extensively with mathematicians, if that had been her experience, and she said what’s indented below. (I quote her with permission; we’ve met Anna before.)

 I was often a single women in a room — but so what? It did not turn me away from the subject I was passionate about.  I experienced some forms of discrimination throughout my career and can tell stories… But — as McWhorter often says — “there was then and there is now”! These anecdotes [from Sci. Am.] are blown out of proportion and completely misrepresent the current climate.

She also worried that these narratives, which don’t resemble her own, cultivate a victim mentality in women. (Anna is no anti-feminist, either: she helped initiate a protest against an all-male speaker agenda at a chemistry conference.)

Anna also mentioned another female math professor in the U.S. who agrees with her own experience. So we have two anecdotes on one side, and three on the other. (I have to add that, as I’ve said before, I myself felt inferior and suffered from “imposter syndrome” for several years in graduate school, constantly thinking about dropping out. But I finally realized that I could find my own niche.)

Author Crowell also gives two examples of undeniable racial discrimination against black mathematicians, but those took place in the early 20th century and in the Fifties, and it’s undeniable that at that time there was academic racism. But, as Anna said, “there was then and there is now”. If we’re to accept that mathematics is now structurally racist and misogynist, with an endemic culture of bigotry that leads to inequities, we need to do better than that.

So beyond the academic data, the article adds this:

Racism, sexism and other forms of systematic oppression are not unique to mathematics, and they certainly are not new, yet many in the field still deny their existence. “One of the biggest challenges is how hard it can be to start a conversation” about the problem, Sawyer says, “because mathematicians are so convinced that math is the purest of all of the sciences.” Yet statistics on the mathematics profession are difficult to ignore. In 2019 a New York Times profile of Edray Herber Goins, a Black mathematics professor at Pomona College, reported that “fewer than 1 percent of doctorates in math are awarded to African-Americans.” A 2020 NSF survey revealed that out of a total of 2,012 doctorates awarded in mathematics and statistics in the U.S. in 2019, only 585 (29.1 percent) were awarded to women. That percentage is slightly lower than in 2010, when 29.4 percent of doctorates in those areas (467 out of 1,590) were awarded to women. (Because these numbers are grouped based on sex rather than gender, that survey did not report how many of those individuals identify as a gender other than male or female.)

This is the Kendi-an idea that inequities in achievement are prima facie evidence of bias. But if you think about it for both women and African-Americans, that need not be true. This is a true case of begging the question: assuming that there is structural racism and misogyny in math and thus the lower representation is simply its result.

The problem with this, as we’ve discussed before, is that there are reasons for these inequities beyond structural racism, so you can’t just assume its existence. (As I said, nobody with any sense would deny that there are racist or sexist mathematicians; the claim is that the field is permeated with bigotry._

Regarding women, we’ve learned that the sexes differ in interests and preferences, with men being “thing people” and women being “people people” (these are of course average differences, not diagnostic traits!). As Lee Jussim points out in a Psychology Today op-ed, on the advanced high school level, men and women do about the same in math, but women do better than men in demonstrating verbal and reading skills.  In other words, women are better than men at everything, but many choose areas that are more word-heavy than math-heavy. That itself, combined with different preferences, causes inequities. As Jussim writes,

This same issue of differing interests was approached in a different way by Wang, Eccles, and Kenny (2013). Disclosure: Eccles was my dissertation advisor and longterm collaborator; I am pretty sure she identifies as a feminist, has long been committed to combating barriers to women, and is one of the most objective, balanced social scientists I have ever had the pleasure to know.

In a national study of over 1,000 high school students, they found that:

1. 70 percent more girls than boys had strong math and verbal skills;

2. Boys were more than twice as likely as girls to have strong math skills but not strong verbal skills;

3. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) who had only strong math skills as students were more likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were other students;

4. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) with strong math and verbal skills as students were less likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were those with only strong math skills.

Thus inequities in academic math may be a matter of differential preferences or other factors not reflecting bigotry. And this may be one explanation for why, although Sci. Am. notes that only 29.1% of doctorates in math were awarded to women in 2019, it looks from Jussim’s bar graph that about 35% of first time graduate enrollees in math and computer science are women. That bespeaks only a slightly higher attrition rate among women than men—something that needs to be addressed. But again, the go-to answer is not automatically “misogyny.”

As for African-Americans, yes, there’s way too few doctorates awarded in mathematics. To me this does bespeak racism, but racism in the past, not necessarily now. The situation is that due to inequality of opportunity, blacks almost certainly lack easy entry now into mathematics studies. This is a narrowing of the pipeline from the outset that needs to be rectified. But again, the figures do not show that the low output at the pipeline’s terminus is due to racism.

As to what happened to Scientific American, well, it’s gone the way of all the science journals. It is doing performative wokeness.

One more item: Have a look at MathSafe, an organization hired by the American Mathematical Society to police meetings like beagles sniffing out impurities. It’s as if we are no longer adults who can police our own behavior at meetings, and need to pay others to do it for us.

h/t: Anna

72 thoughts on “Scientific American (and math) go full woke

  1. The truth is that, in the physical sciences in English-speaking academia today, there is strong bias and discrimination in favour of advancing women and blacks.

    And, on a similar theme to this article, this week’s Nature has a woke article: “too many scientists still say Caucasian”, arguing the usual “race is entirely a social construct”.

      1. Also, AI can detect race in medical X-rays.

        Also, of course, if we consider people descended from typical multi-generational families resident in, say, Iceland, Japan, and Ethiopia, none of us would have the slightest difficulty in telling which was which.

        (Apart from the woke, of course, who would pretend they couldn’t tell and would deliberately get it wrong to try to make a point, just as they’re now pretending that they cannot tell men from women except by asking about pronouns.)

      2. Against that claim is the fact that whole groups of people have changed race in the 20th century (e.g. Mediterranean communities), and the fact that racial categories in the U.S. are not the same as racial categories in other countries.

        There may also be some misunderstanding of the concept of “social construction.” Since we are not born with full, complete, and accurate knowledge and understanding of biology, among other fields of knowledge — we have to learn the current state of the science, discover new things, etc, all of that involving social processes — it seems reasonable to suggest that virtually all knowledge and understanding is at least also socially constructed. Regarding race, it certainly appears that the attributes assigned to members of this or that race are learned or discovered, to take only the simplest example, and so to that extent race is also socially constructed.

        I see a rock. You see quartz. A geochemist sees SiO2. A native community in Central America sees a source of magic. The rock exists independently of any specialized understanding of it, but the identification of the rock as quartz, and the further understanding of quartz as a form of silica, require a social process — the social construction — of education, learning, etc. As does the understanding of this type of rock as a source of magic.

        Sorry to ramble so early.

        1. Very true.
          There is the reality of the thing identified (be it rock or skin color) and then there is the ‘socially constructed’ name and meaning of that identified thing within any given society/culture.

          The distinction, to your point, is key…but the fact that there is such an distinction does not change the equivalent fact that there are two distinct things identified, not one.

          Race IS a social construct. But race (the perception of different skin colors/ethnicities) is also a true thing: a recognizable reality which carries with it different meanings.

          The problem is that the Progessive assertion, “Race is a social construct” becomes through implication the assertion that race is ONLY a social construct. Which, of course, is wrong.

          1. In a sense, it’s like color. Color is a measurable physical phenomenon, but the words for different parts of the spectrum are different in different cultures. It’s not just a simple matter of translation; their color names may have no corresponding words in English because they draw the lines between the colors differently. So colors can be a “social construct” while also having an underlying physical reality…

            1. Exactly.
              Or, in a different sense, we are all — each one of us — social constructs: our name, our address, our jobs, our families…they were all constructed socially. But that does not mean that we are not real. It does not even mean that all those constructed things are not real. The fact that socially constructed things have different names & meanings in different societies and cultures does not make that thing unreal.

              Like saying money is a social construct; does that mean we’re indifferent to a condition of more or less socially constructed money?

          2. “The problem is that the Progessive assertion, “Race is a social construct” becomes through implication the assertion that race is ONLY a social construct. Which, of course, is wrong.”

            Perhaps. One difficulty with the suggestion that “race” exists independently of its social and cultural construction is that the referent is a bit ambiguous: what do you mean by “race”? Coyne’s point seemed to be simply that any in-breeding population will eventually possess genetic traits that distinguish it from other in-breeding populations of the same species, but if that is a “race” there are arguably hundreds of races on earth, not simply the American 4 or 5 races, and the concept is not very useful. You cite “the perception of different skin colors”, which reminded me of the classic scene in Fawlty Towers in which the old colonel explains to Basil the difference between the ….. let’s just say two derogatory terms for Africans and people from India — who are both Black, but are not considered to members of the same “race” despite the same skin colors.

            I have worked in west Africa for almost 50 years as an anthropologist and lawyer specializing in international human rights issues, and have always found that even in sub-Saharan Africa Black Africans identify several different “races” to which they belong, distinguishing Bantu peoples from Xhosan peoples in the south, for example. Just as “Asian” seems to be more of a geographical identifier than a race, since it includes something like 36 distinct peoples, from North Indian to Japan, etc.

      3. It needs to be said that this “social construction” argument is quickly becoming the humanities departments’ “god of the gaps” argument: any fact, process, argument they don’t like is dismisses as a “social construct” without realizing for one second that all social processes are reducible to physical/mathematical processes in the first place, further vitiating their efforts. It would be funny if it weren’t so destructive and embarassing.

    1. It’s not just in the scientific, nor academia in general. In the business world, if you are a middle-aged European-American male and have not already reached director or VP level; your chances of ever getting promoted again are far less likely than your female and/or African-American or Latino peers. Corporations today will never admit bias against white males. However, more often than not, if there are two finalists for a job posting and one of them is a “diversity candidate”, they will be selected for the job even if slightly less qualified than the white male candidate. “Good enough and diverse” has replaced “best qualified” as the new norm in hiring and retention criteria.

  2. The whiteness of mathematics would come as a surprise to some Islamic mathematicians: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematics_in_medieval_Islam
    Of course, they built on Greek maths (which in turn was likely inspired by the Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations) and Indian mathematics, too. I suppose by focusing on “modern mathematics” and ignoring that it was built on these earlier foundations the article hopes to avoid that particular minefield?

    Sexism in mathematics indeed has ancient roots, although some notable contributions were nevertheless made by women in the field – even in antiquity.

    1. For the vast majority of people in Western European civilisation, the most important innovations in mathematics are place value notation and zero as a number. These are the innovations that allow ordinary people to do arithmetic. Both, I think, originate in India (that’s just an educated guess).

      When you’re at school (or as Americans call it “high school”), algebra rears its not so ugly head. This is an Arabic innovation, although the notation we use is European.

      However, most of the mathematics you encounter in the advanced levels at school and for a first degree was discovered or invented by white male Europeans. This is just a fact.

  3. The key to contemporary, woke discourse is in one phrase: these narratives “cultivate a victim mentality”. Victimania. is obvious in the now commonplace, boilerplate usage of the words “harm” and “healing” in comically inappropriate contexts, applied to micro-discomforts that are often imaginary. We lack social-psychiatric insight into why the cultivation and sanctification of victimhood is so attractive to the rising generation. Jon Haidt’s steps in this direction strike me as too superficial. This cultural shift into incessant hand-wringing and hypochondria must have deeper causes, but what are they? Could they be only part of a generalized untergang des abendlandes?

    1. There’s a field of study called Cliodynamics which argues that history moves through phases (not the same as cyclic history apparently) when the number of ‘elite’ people increases beyond the availability of elite jobs or positions. The ‘surplus’ elite people scramble for jobs, displacing ordinary people and building social pressure until something pops and there’s a social reset. Around every 70 years or so.

      Arguably if you can’t find a safe position as an elite, or find yourself displaced by those above you, then a survival strategy is to blame others, claim the ‘system’ is against you, and pursue your ‘victim’ status. Seeing yourself as a victim may not be easy, but it might be better for you than being ‘surplus’. Currently ‘race’ is to blame, previously it was ‘class’.

      1. Interesting.
        Really just classic econ…. At any given point in time there is a recognized need/reward system for elite talents. We pay a premium price for that limited supply of a premium good. That rising demand (and premium price) inevitably prompts supply increases. More people seek to make of themselves that ‘premium good’ to earn the premium price.

        Equally it prompts an equivalent increase in the supply of premium ‘certifications’. Sure, you can go to Harvard to become PhD’d mathematician (but that’s HARD!). Why bother with Harvard, if you can get a nominally identical certification from PolyTech State U? Inevitably this dilutes the ‘premium’ nature of the good…which lowers the price as buyers struggle to distinguish ‘real’ elites from ‘nominal’ elites. This becomes that much more difficult when Harvard itself lowers standards to generate an appropriately ‘diverse’ class of PhD’s.

        What happens then is a market shake-out as substandard ‘elites’ compete with real ‘elites’ for a finite number of opportunities. And then, to your point, the assertion of Systemic Bias by those who lose those competitions.

        Today, what we are discovering, belatedly, is that a college degree and a dollar won’t even get you a good cup of coffee as employers discover that their new college grads can’t read, write, or do ‘rithmetic. But hey, what’s really important here?!

  4. That’s a very interesting result, that women tend to be more likely than men to have [good math skills AND good verbal skills]. So maybe the reason there are more male pure math people is that they have nowhere else to go…

    In my experience, my friends who were pure mathematicians in college and grad school had more unusual and perhaps less socially well adjusted personalities than those of any other fields (with physics, my own field at the time, a close second). Most of them (myself included) would not do well in any field that involved extensive interaction with random people.

  5. First, on Scientific American — I stopped subscribing decades ago, because there was too little of interest to the avid scientist. The retirement of Martin Gardner was probably the trigger. My guideline used to be that if there is one good article, plus the Martin Gardner column, then it was worth the cost. Gardner’s retirement changed the equation.

    On racism in mathematics — there isn’t any, as far as I can tell. Yes, there are some racists, as in any other field. But their number is too small to matter.

    It’s true that there are few black mathematicians. But that’s a different problem entirely. The best mathematicians start out young, with nurturing at home. In our culture, there is enormous economic discrimination against blacks, and most black families do not have the economic where-with-all to support that early nurturing.

    1. To my shame, I only know Martin Gardner from the foreword he wrote for a book on mathematical magic tricks (Magical Mathematics: The mathematical ideas that animate great magic tricks by Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham – highly recommended if you like that kind of thing).

        1. Second that, though my copy is titled, “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener.” Anyway, I have for years recommended this to my library patrons as “the best book you never read.”

    2. You are right that economic disadvantage is likely important, but it cannot be the whole story since there are plenty of kids born into relatively poor circumstances in India and China (which are still poor countries compared to the US or Europe) who turn out good at maths.

      1. In my experience (Southern US), math education is lagging several years behind that of e.g. France, and even worse compared to Singapore or China. 80% of elementary school teachers seem to be lacking the motivation to teach math. Initiatives such as Eureka Math (completely free textbooks and videos) are a step in the right direction, but still require competent teachers to introduce the concepts. By the time students reach high school, they have lost all interest in the topic.

    3. It is true that there are few Black mathematicians. But why is that a problem? Equally there are few male pre-school teachers and few female lumberjacks and very few White guys playing professional BBall. Are all those situations problems?

      It would only be a problem if one of two conditions existed: either we have a shortage (as in the Lakers don’t have enough guys to make a team….or there are lots of Professorships in mathematics going vacant) … or…. highly qualified White guys and highly qualified Black mathematicians are being turned down for jobs.

      But if neither of those situations is true, how a lack of any demographic category in any given field (male pre-school teachers) be a problem?

      You note that there is “enormous economic discrimination against Blacks”. No there isn’t. No one is refusing to sell to Blacks…nor is anyone refusing to buy from Blacks. No one is refusing to hire Blacks (as a matter of fact, for the last 50 years it’s been the exact opposite); no one is refusing to promote Blacks. There are no businesses which refuse Blacks. No industries which are anti-Black. And the Black individual who has the same academic background, the same work background, the same on-the-job performance, working for the same manager, in the same company, in the same position who’s getting paid significantly less than his or her White counterpart is simply a unicorn who does not exist.

      Certainly, economically, there is a significant wealth differential between Black and White population groups but again, as noted elsewhere, the evidence of an imbalance is not evidence of any discrimination. If I beat you 7/10 times in a race, that is not evidence that the race is fixed.

      1. You started ok but then got into some bad conclusions. Races do have different cultures and, therefore, different preferences. Some of them were shaped by past racism. But I’ve seen studies that show that Black people are discriminated against in hiring situations. Researchers have put out identical resumes, changing only the picture or the name so the hiring manager might conclude that the applicant is Black, and they don’t get called in whereas the white version does. We all know this happens. You’d have to be blind not to see it.

        1. I’ve seen the same study. The results have not been reproducible. Nor could such a study actually work. You’d have to send the identical resumes (minus the name & address change) to the same managers at the same time to control for all other possible variables. Obviously that approach would fail. Any other approach would be invalidated by varying local hiring conditions at the time the resume was received (in comparison to other resumes).

          And no, my friend, we don’t “all know this happens”. On the contrary, we all know this doesn’t happen. You’d have to be blind not to see that. (See how that works!).

          On a personal level, have you actually been part of hiring decisions in which a Black candidate has been passed-by because of his or her race? (Because my experience over hundreds of occasions has been the exact opposite)

          The truth is every Fortune 500 company…every major corporation & hiring institution is desperate to increase diversity headcount via hiring & promotion. No one wants to be highlighted on the Nightly News as the object of a multi-million dollar racism lawsuit.

          In the end, we need to recognize that, in fact, way more often than not, the resumes are not identical (Black to White, on average). Grade point….standardized test scores….degree of difficulty of courses taken….writing ability….quantitative ability….etc. There is a distinct difference (on average) which shows consistently. Highly qualified Black candidates are not being passed over for lesser qualified White candidates. That’s simply not happening.

          1. “Highly qualified Black candidates are not being passed over for lesser qualified White candidates.”

            This shows you have a fundamental misunderstanding of how this works, or are just gaslighting. Let me rewrite your sentence:

            “Qualified Black candidates are failing to get interviews while equally qualified white candidates are receiving them. If the Black candidate happens to get an interview because the interviewer didn’t realize they were Black, they still lose out to the equally qualified white candidate.”

            1. My guess is that it depends on whom you’re sending the resumes to. As someone who works to interview new employees in my company, I can say for sure that there is significant discrimination in favor of blacks and against whites. Hiring a white person is not allowed for any position unless you first interview at least two non-whites, and in their interviews they are allowed two failures whereas whites are only allowed one failure. For example, on a colleague’s team they’ve been trying to hire new people; they were told they’d be given the budget for up to six new hires on the condition that none were white. Managers’ bonus pay is directly tied to the proportion of non-whites hired. Etc. And our competitors are even more discriminatory in this way.

              My impression, based on limited data, is that companies run by liberal whites and companies run by blacks both discriminate in favor of blacks. Companies run by other non-whites (e.g. East Asians) often discriminate against blacks. There may also be certain industries where blacks are discriminated against, but I don’t know of any.

            2. If you have some evidence of that, I’d love to see it. Absent such proof we have every reason to believe the truth as I’ve stated it: every Fortune 500 company …every major corporation & hiring institution is (and has been) desperate to increase diversity headcount via hiring & promotion.

              Your experience perhaps is different from my own, but in the hundreds of hiring/promotion discussions that I’ve been in, being Black, or a Woman is a MAJOR plus (this is unfortunate, in my view, because skin color & gender should never be a factor in such discussions…but very clearly it is such a factor (and has been for quite some time).

              As far as the resume study goes (which isn’t very far at all), it’s interesting that they chose what the authors believed to be stereotypical ‘Black’ names. Unfortunately what they end-up measuring (no matter how sloppy the method) is the hiring manager’s reaction to the name, not the skin color. If given a choice between a Laqueesha or a Susan and you had to choose one, which would you choose — everything else being equal?

              Are you saying that you would deliberately choose Laqueesha because it sounds like a Black name and you prefer to make your hires based on skin color? Me, I’d choose Susan….for the same reason I’d choose David over Kevin (never liked the name Kevin for some reason)….and Michael over Biff.

              It’s a silly dilemma, for all the reasons already listed.

              If anyone truly wished to measure racial bias, then should not stereotype the resumes with stereotypical ‘Black’ names which muddy the response. Rather they should use identical resumes and identical names and simply specify White or Black somewhere in the body of resume. You’d still have all the other problems with the study, but at least you’d be measuring (sort of) the reaction to race (and not name).

              In the United States today there is no systemic hiring bias against Black candidates, all other things being equal. There is a bias against lower education credentials, lesser work experience, poorer performance reviews, incorrect grammar, bad personal hygiene, and lousy interviews…but all of that is race-independent.

        2. ” We all know this happens. You’d have to be blind not to see it.”

          I am very leery of statements like this. I am not saying that what you are claiming does not happen, but, if studies do indeed exist, I’d like citations so I can see what they say rather than relying on a third party’s interpretation.

          Also, you need to have context. What industries, what year, what part of the Country (or what country)? The closest you are likely to get to a defendable study would be two (or more) hiring managers in the same company each looking at a significant number of the same resumes with equal numbers of apparent applicants for each race but where the races are reversed between the two (or more) hiring managers.

          Finally, what do the numbers look like? Is there a statistically significant difference (what does the confidence level look like)?

          Thanks.

          1. I’d like to give you numbers, and perhaps they exist, but I’m not interested in spending a lot of time on this. Perhaps I can make the argument a different way. Trump has shown the country, if there was any doubt, racism is still strong. The idea that all those who are in a position of judgement as to hiring, membership, etc. are playing the politically correct game of hiring for inclusion is just hard to believe. While big corporations with HR departments are trying to hire more Black people, they have a long way to go. Perhaps more importantly, much hiring occurs in smaller companies that don’t have HR departments and really aren’t subject to the PC police.

            I also agree with our host and many other commenters that the solution to racism has to start with the young. By the time we get to the job market, the damage has already been done. Hiring unqualified people to fill quotas is just not going to fix everything. This fact also leads to hiring managers wanting to do whatever they can to avoid the quotas that are imposed by HR departments and management. It is a meritocracy after all.

            I understand that you want proper statistical studies but I don’t have them. If you find my argument unpersuasive, that’s certainly your choice.

            1. So basically, you’re telling me what you imagine the actual situation to be.

              That’s fine, as long as you state that clearly. Then, depending on what I know of you, I will either pay attention to what you say or dismiss it, as far as facts and data go. I still may pay attention as I am interested to know what people feel as well, but I will not base decisions on it.

              The point of criticizing the wokeness of the Scientific American as well as other publications is that they are doing precisely what you are doing. You are stating your beliefs as fact (“we all know this happens”, “you’d be blind not to see it”, “everyone knows”, “I know it’s there but I don’t have time to produce it”, “scientific consensus”, etc.) and expecting the reader simply to accept them and go on to your argument.

              You tell me you’ve seen studies, but then tell me you can’t produce them. There are people who tell me they’ve seen aliens and the Loch Ness Monster, too. Am I obliged to believe them? I’ve met some of them in person and I’ve never met you. You see the problem?

              If you are going to base an argument on a premise, you need to establish the premise as factual. You have not. It may well be true. From personal experience, I can say it was at one time. It was not in any of the companies I worked at as a professional, but it was at several where I worked as a laborer while in high school and college. I don’t know if it still is. I suspect it may be in certain places. But, I am highly wary of using anecdotes to try to establish facts, as you should be. My own personal experience makes me doubt that racism exists (at least to the extent the SA article suggests) materially at the professional level. I have not seen it in 40+ years of professional life (although I have seem some sexism and certainly ageism).

              I will say that I have seen some concern about hiring highly qualified minority (as well as female) candidates in an entry level professional setting mainly because there is a worry that if they perform well, they will quickly be hired away. Why make that investment? That may apply in academia as well, although I don’t know that from personal experience.

              Not sure how your reference to Trump is relevant. I was unaware that any of the alleged racists who Trump was allegedly appealing to were PhD Mathematicians responsible for hiring college faculty (which the original posting dealt with), but perhaps you know differently. You may be falling into a conflation trap here. Not sure that this makes any stronger argument than you just stating your beliefs and hoping I’ll accept them as fact.

              1. “It may well be true. From personal experience, I can say it was at one time. … I suspect it may be in certain places”

                I’m fine with that. Let’s leave it there.

            2. “Trump has shown the country, if there was any doubt, racism is still strong. ”

              This one statement casts doubt on all your others. Pray explain.

    4. I too abandoned my subscription to Scientific American, as well as National Geographic, both of which have strayed from their originally intended purpose. They are now woke politico-sociology journals.

  6. “why has Scientific American changed its mission from publishing decent science pieces to flawed bits of ideology?” — clicks! Soon they’ll have a centerfold nude.

  7. I wonder if the under-representation of African-Americans in STEM is a class thing. People who experience poverty as children are perhaps more inclined to choose a career which offers good remuneration like medicine or law, rather than the more risky pathways of an academic career.

    1. The % of academic degrees awarded to underrepresented minorities has been steadily trending upward in all fields, with behavioral sciences, social sciences, education, and business tracks being the strongest fields for underrepresented minorities. I think some of these are doing reasonably well when one takes into account their % of the population overall.
      https://www.amacad.org/humanities-indicators/higher-education/racialethnic-distribution-advanced-degrees-humanities
      One should expect that there are cultural (aligning with racial) differences in what fields are favored by different groups. As there are also different preferences in what fields men and women tend to favor.

  8. I’ve long had a saying about politics today – “Losing is winning” – which is how the so-called Left proves discrimination. The worse the outcomes (statistical) then it has to be discrimination, so compensate us or privilege us in some way. At best, the statistical argument as presented is tautological. That it has so much purchase today is alarming and disheartening. And, I note that the call seems not to be for Affirmative Action or more care to nurture Black and female math majors, but somehow that the math itself is “male” and answers or solutions would be different if it were not for being “male.” As Coyne wrote not long ago, this really hearkens to the Nazi idea that “Jewish physics” was wrong and would be different if non-Jews did the science.

    On a grammatical point: Prof. Coyne uses “prima facie” (at first glance, but perhaps subject to further review) in a way that most people do, but I think what is usually meant is “ex facie,” which can more easily be translated as (immediately seen as wrong, and we need not look further). Ex facie is a term usually seen in the law, but which has a deeper meaning than prima facie. Kendi’s tautological arguments are ex facie wrong

    Abe Aamidor
    gnawbone.substack.com.

  9. It won’t be long before they start kvetching about the disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners.

    1. Beside that fearful disproportion, there is also the well-known Islamophobia of the Nobel Prize
      award committees. And, worse still, the systemic microaggression and implicit bias which has
      prevented Womxn, Latinx, Blackx, and other minoritized groups from receiving Nobel prizes in science exactly in proportion to their frequency in the populations of London and New York City. See:
      https://theconversation.com/nobel-prizes-have-a-diversity-problem-even-worse-than-the-scientific-fields-they-honor-145799

  10. The ‘racial reckoning’ thing is interesting. It’s a phrase that started popping up in left wing media after the Floyd protests. I’ve often wondered what it exactly means (it’s never made clear) but it seems to only show up in articles about some sort of organization toeing the woke line. It’s trying to paint some sort of narrative that the Floyd protests last summer completely reshuffled society (‘reckoning’) and that something happened there’s no coming back from. What that something is I have no clue.

    1. The “racial reckoning” is the CRT term for a complete teardown of the racist structure built by white male colonists. Right now, only the teardown part has had much thought put into it. I suspect they think that whatever comes after can only be better than what came before. I’m doubtful. So far, all they have is Kendi’s call for a “Department of Anti-Racism” to tell us when we’re being bad.

  11. How about this for discussion:
    If the STEM fields are rife with structural racism against certain races, like those of African descent, then they must also be oppositely biased to give preference to Asians in hiring and promoting.

  12. I just checked the general practitioners (doctors) in my local (UK NHS) medical centre. There’s 8 females and 2 males. That’s becoming fairly typical in the UK.
    It’s a while since I’ve taken a pet to see a male vet. Around 80 % of students now training as veterinary practitioners are female.

    I don’t see the preponderance of females in these professions as a problem.

  13. on the advanced high school level [= still children with incompletely developed brains], men and women [actually boys and girls] do about the same in math, but women do better than men in demonstrating verbal and reading skills. In other words, women are better than men at everything,

    Here’s a report on a recent study (full text online) of 4,751 “young adults”, rather than children, which shows that men are better than women at everything except finding missing letters (which has low g-loading), where men and women are the same.

  14. I know it’s a cliche that The Simpsons predicts the future, but I’m reminded of the episode wherein Lisa Simpson’s school separated the classes by sex, and her feminist math teacher would ask questions like: “Is the number seven odd, or just different?”

  15. I am waiting for the Scientific American article complaining about how math and the hard sciences are biased in favor of those of Asian and Jewish heritage. I wonder how they will work up their outrage over that? Also, at one time, there seemed to be a lot of German surnamed folks as compared to say Spanish perhaps.

    If you start looking at the demographics of any professional group, you are highly unlikely to find that they exactly match the demographics of society at large, so the opportunity for outrage is essentially unlimited.

    Possibly the worst effect of this Scientific American article (aside from removing any remaining vestige of logical and critical thought from its editorial policy) is that it essentially discourages women and members of other groups who are purportedly discriminated against from pursuing fields where they are being told the deck is stacked against them.

    I dropped my subscription long ago when SA went to advocacy journalism. Same thing with the Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines. The latter two had the excuse of having a cultural rather than a scientific orientation, but it was still too much for me.

  16. Maybe we should adopt national legislation banning discrimination on the basis of sex or race, create a number of federal bureaucracies to enforce the laws, encourage positive discrimination in favor of women and minorities, fund programs to help women and minorities develop interests and careers in STEM, ban all speech questioning whether disparities are caused by something other than racism, fire people from companies for even asking those kinds of questions and do that for 50+ years and see if the problem is solved. If not, lets just try it again for another 50 years, but harder this time. As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and again and expecting different results, but who cares, he is just another dead white male.

    1. God is pure idea which gets instantiated in matter. All these ideas form matter, and so when bad racist, sexist ideals inform matter, the matter doesn’t function as well. Thus, all you need to do is police the bad ideas, remove them from circulation, and then allow the good ideas to inform matter, and the matter will conform to the good ideas. Its like magic.

      Rather than a material universe with physical laws, and culture, language and thought being derivative from material beings, the opposite is true. So much for evolution and those silly genes BTW.

  17. Ridiculouser and ridiculousest!

    Scientists? Mathematicians? These are the ‘smarties’ confusing outcome imbalance — which in every field and every human endeavor is a constant — with process bias? How badly have they bonked their heads, tumbling down rabbit holes? How many one-pill-makes-you-smaller’s have they snarfed?

    Outcome imbalance in a purposefully filtered population sub-group group proves exactly nothing. It does, on the other hand, quite clearly demonstrate that any particular filtering mechanism applied at any given point in time, will inevitably yield demographically uneven results, given natural human variation in talents, interests, abilities, and ambitions..

    If we go to your local WalMart this afternoon, will we find 2% redheads, 42% obese, 50% male, 13.3% Black, 3.5% gay, and 42% with college degrees? If we survey the LA Lakers will we find that same demographic breakdown? How ’bout if we look at murder rates? or brain surgeons? or nurses? or kindergarten / preschool teachers? or lumberjacks? or members of neighborhood book clubs?

    Where on earth did the idiot assumption come from which declares that every snapshot of every group on all occasions yields demographic equivalencies?

    As for human bias? It too is a given. There is no perfect world. There will never be a perfect world. The author notes, speaking of the 3 SAmerican anecdotes, that “math is not entirely free of bigotry”. Of course not. Nothing ever is. Equally we can say that the 3 Complainers are themselves ‘not entirely free of bigotry’, as Aesop first demonstrated with his Fox and Sour Grapes.

    Nor should we have to point out that there is a vast & chasmic difference between individual bias and systemic bigotry. Certainly we would never be surprised to discover — in any given population — people who hate irrationally…people who dislike irrationally….people who have preferences (even the 3 Complainers). But to assert that an entire SYSTEM is biased, we’d have to be able to point towards objectively identifiable system-barriers that drive that demographic bias. Do colleges refuse to allow women or Blacks to major in math? Do grad schools refuse admittance to doctoral programs because of sex or race? How many policies or procedures specify either sex or race as a qualifier/disqualifier (other than Affirmative Action)? In fact, do we not find the exact opposite: a strong preference for UnderRepresentedMinorities (be they Women or Blacks or Hispanics or ???)

    Finally, unfortunately, the author who is otherwise very much on point tells us, “As for African-Americans, yes, there’s way too few doctorates awarded in mathematics.” No there aren’t. There is no “should be” in such measures (let alone a “must be”). There is no DESERVES; there is only what is. Would we equally say there are “too few White guys on the Lakers”? It is in the best interest of both Mathematics and Basketball that the best people with the most talent rise through the various filtering mechanisms (be they HS/College BBall tryouts & team play…..or HS/College/Grad School performance) to success at the highest levels. Why would they want anything less?

    Mathematics is not concerned with how many Black or Female mathematicians there are…nor should it be. The only real concern in both is HOW GOOD YOU ARE…HOW GOOD YOU CAN BE. So if you’re interested in either playing point guard or teaching Topography at Harvard, go for it! Work your ass off. See how good you can become. And then see what happens. Once you win the Fields Medal, come tell us about bias.

    1. My point about there being too few doctorates awarded to blacks in mathematics is this: SURELY there are African-Americans who, given the opportunity, could become good mathematicians. They don’t even get the chance to try because of various factors that don’t allow them equal opportunity. Were those factors to disappear, I’m pretty damn sure that more than 1% of doctorates in math would be given to blacks. We need to eliminate whatever stands in the way of equality of opportunity.

      1. The point is: how do you know? If you know, then you can define metrics, that is measurable variables that predict the capabilities of a person to obtain a Doctorate in Mathematics. You can look at IQ, mathematical aptitude, personality characteristics, etc. of actual applicants, graduate students, and doctorates, and see which are predictive of success. Then you can look at the relevant populations and make a prediction as to whether a group is under-represented or over-represented.

        But this evades the sleight of hand: we know the answer in advance, we know it is too low and to even ask the question is evidence that you are a cretin. On the other hand, cretin or not, aren’t these questions empirical, and why should society erect taboos against certain kinds of empirical questions, especially when it claims to care about certain kinds of outcomes, while insisting on not understanding how those outcomes emerge.

        If you compare cancer to racism, no one is trying to stigmatize cancer researchers for trying to understand the empirical causes of cancer. However, with social disparities between groups, not one is trying to find empirical causes for the sources of discrepancies, they assume the cause and assume the solution which is some kind of mass propaganda and hire another diversity dean or something. Imagine if we did that for cancer. . .

        1. Imagine a society, isolated, maybe in North Africa, convinced that cancer is caused by dogs, and so they pass a law against dogs and kill all the dogs. People continue to die of cancer, so they claim that people are secretly or maybe even unconsciously harboring dogs, and they need to try harder to stop implicitly helping/supporting dog populations. Also, anyone researching cancer or questioning whether cancer is solely caused by dogs is ostracized from the community, and treated as if they wanted people to die from cancer because they questioned the narrative. People just keep dying anyways, and the anti-dog fight becomes more and more contentious, as people are accused of “micro” dog harboring, and purges increase.

          I think people would say what a bizarre and silly superstition those people have.

        2. Very true.
          Some questions are impossible to ask…and if asked, absolutely impossible to answer.

          Unless, of course, you’re Glenn Loury, who answered them this way: “The 21st-century failures of too many African-Americans to take advantage of the opportunities created
          by the civil rights revolution are palpable, yet they are denied at every turn. This position is untenable.The end of Jim Crow segregation and the advent of equal rights for blacks were game changers. A half-century later, the deep disparities that remain are shameful and are due in large part to the behaviors of black people.”

          Glenn, of course, is Black. He is also a highly distinguished elder statesman, a professor of economics (Harvard & Brown) & world-renowned author (perhaps the only combination of bonafides that would allow anyone to say something like that)

      2. But the point is the same. There is no such thing as “too few”. Would you equally say that there are “too few” men teaching pre-school? too few men working as dental hygienists? Would you equally speculate that there must be bias (“various factors that don’t allow them equal opportunity”) to generate such an imbalance?

        Too few implies a standard, a quota, a target, a should-be — and there is none.

        As for “equal opportunity” it already exists. There are no systemic racial barriers to the study of mathematics….just as there are no systemic racial barriers to the playing of basketball. It just so happens that at this particular point in time there are vastly more top-quality players who are Black than White…..just as there are vastly more top-quality mathematicians who are White than Black. I had the same ‘equal opportunity’ as LeBron to play championship BBall, in the abstract…but in reality, our significant differences meant that I did not receive the same ‘real’ opportunities…nor should I have. I did not earn them.

        Certainly there are any number of social, and cultural hurdles to be cleared….but that is true of most of us. We’re all severely unequal in that regard. We have different talents, abilities, ambitions….different family backgrounds….we grow-up in different neighborhoods with different schools and different teachers…we hear different messages as children. We are motivated to do different things.

        The question is not, ‘do we all have the same genetic/familial/neighborhood advantages and disadvantages — for of course we don’t (none of us does). Rather the question is what we will do with what we are given. And that is up to us….as it was to Ramanujan who bootstrapped himself all the way to Hardy.

        You want to start winning 100m dashes? You better start working at getting faster.

      3. This assumes that there are plenty of blacks who want to have a mathematics doctorate and are denied access (one way or another.) Why must this assumption — that blacks want to be doctorate mathematicians — be true? Perhaps “culturally” many blacks are encouraged to go into more practical endeavours, e.g. becoming a lawyer is a more assured way to make money than being an academic. The very notion that a lack of black candidates *must* be evidence of ongoing present day racism is very woke of you, and frankly, completely stupid.

  18. At ten years old I wanted to be an astronomer. I asked for and received a small telescope for my birthday. The ridicule from my fellow 5th graders was tough in my blue collar suberb of Detroit. My dream was ended In 1968 by a high school physics class. Part of the natural weaning out process. Fortunately my scores on the verbal side of college entrance exams were in the high 90th percentiles so I attended a liberal arts college with scholarships. I enjoyed a rewarding career in investment banking. My love of science continued. Years past I always looked forward to reading the next thick copy of the ‘Scientific American’. I quit reading it as it became thin,slick and social.

    It was good for science and for me personally that high school physics cleaned my clock when I was seventeen years old. I was not a victim. I also discovered playing 5th grade football with all those tough sons of factory workers that I would never play for the Detroit Lions. I still thoroughly read scientific news and and enjoy being an amateur astronomer, although with a much nicer telescope.

    On the other side. My boss and mentor in my banking career was a brilliant banker who managed the bank’s investment portfolio. He happened to be a Black American. He was a fellow alum of my college. Class of 1958 I believe. He once told me he wanted to be a medical doctor. He was told that he should apply only to black medical schools in the south. That angered him and so he chose banking. That was sixty three years ago. There have been needed changes in the system.
    With a level playing field let meritocracy work with it’s sometimes personally disappointing efficiency.

  19. Personally, I’d like to see the data analysis on input / output (how many black / female mathematicians apply for jobs and how many end up getting them), particularly with reference to prestige (even if black mathematicians get lecturing / analysis jobs, they’re maybe less prestigious?) AND whether race really does cause the issue. For the latter, you’d want a sizeable sample of black people who grew up elsewhere and then migrated to the US / UK / France / wherever and then track their success – then compare this to the trajectory of African-AMericans / Black British, etc. This would isolate whether it’s purely about being black or being a black American.

    Finally, is living in bad neighbourhoods causing the issue? For this you’d have to take a cross section of bad neighbourhoods’ kids: white, black, Indian, etc. and then map out their trajectory. This would help answer the question of whether class OR race or class AND race are is/are the real problem. Also, e.g. if only 20% of Indians are working class but 80% of black people are working class and being working class holds people back, this would appear to hold black people back as a group but not Indians.

    I’m sure various different papers have done the research individually, but it would be good have a summary / user-friendly explainer. Otherwise there’s just a lot of guesstimation and armchair-punditry about this issue.

Leave a Reply