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.