Scientific American has tendered a news piece in their “Mathematics” section, reporting on a schism in the math community. I’ve followed this schism for a while but haven’t written about it. As I understand it, what happened is that last October the Association for Mathematical Research (AMR) was formed, breaking away from the two older associations, the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the American Mathematical Society (AMS), primarily because the latter two societies were becoming too woke, trying to dilute the mathematical goals of their organization with social-justice considerations, considerations favoring the performative and “progressive” ideology we know too well.
While the article starts off okay, giving the facts above, it quickly devolves into somewhat of a hit piece on the new AMR for being racist and sexist. This is in line with the total lack of objectivity of Scientific American, which, as we all know, has diverted much of its mission to teach science so that it can further social justice, though in a misguided and ineffective way. In this piece, the bias of Sci. Am. is reflected in both the imbalance of quotations from pro- and anti-AMR people (much more from the latter) and in its own commentary and slant.
Now I tend to be opposed to the new direction Sci Am is taking, so I may be biased, but I don’t think I am: I think this article is what’s slanted, not me. But read it for yourself by clicking on the screenshot. The dissing of the AMR starts with the subheading, where critics get their say without any mention of why the AMR was formed.
This bit is pretty accurate, as far as I know, though you can see a bit of pro-woke bias nosing in:
A new organization called the Association for Mathematical Research (AMR) has ignited fierce debates in the math research and education communities since it was launched last October. Its stated mission is “to support mathematical research and scholarship”—a goal similar to that proclaimed by two long-standing groups: the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). In recent years the latter two have initiated projects to address racial, gender and other inequities within the field. The AMR claims to have no position on social justice issues, and critics see its silence on those topics as part of a backlash against inclusivity efforts. Some of the new group’s leaders have also spoken out in the past against certain endeavors to diversify mathematics. The controversy reflects a growing division between researchers who want to keep scientific and mathematical pursuits separate from social issues that they see as irrelevant to research and those who say even pure mathematics cannot be considered separately from the racism and sexism in its culture.
Then, throwing off the mantle of objectivity, the author goes full steam ahead. All quotes from the piece are indented:
Criticism of the AMR (selected bits)
With bias, harassment and exclusion widely acknowledged to exist within the mathematics community, many find it dubious that a professional organization could take no stance on inequity while purporting to serve the needs of mathematicians from all backgrounds. “It’s a hard time to be a mathematician,” says Piper H, a mathematician at the University of Toronto. In 2019 less than 1 percent of doctorates were awarded to Black mathematicians, and just 29 percent were awarded to women.
. . .Louigi Addario-Berry, a mathematician at McGill University in Montreal, wrote about the AMR on his blog. He told Scientific American he is speaking up because “I think this is an organization whose existence, development and flourishing will hurt a lot of members of the mathematical community who I respect. It is being founded by people who have publicly stated views I find harmful—both hurtful to me as an individual and detrimental to the creation of an inclusive and welcoming mathematical community.”
Hass responded in a statement to Scientific American: “The focus of the AMR is on supporting mathematical research and this goal benefits all members of the mathematics community.” But Addario-Berry questions how the AMR can be neutral on social justice issues when some of its leaders have previously taken strong public stances on some of these topics.
This is very strange. It’s like saying that the University of Chicago cannot be organizationally neutral on social-justice issues when many of its faculty have taken strong stands one way or the other. Can the author not conceive of an organization being officially politically neutral even though its members may have strong views? This isn’t rocket science. It’s just the University of Chicago.
There’s some discussion both ways about UC Davis math professor Abigail Thompson’s criticism of requiring diversity statements for faculty jobs (see my post here), and a note that Thompson is secretary of the new AMR. But that’s seems like an attempt to tarnish the AMR by picking out members who themselves opposed wokeness. It says nothing about the organization’s own stance, which is indeed neutrality. Thompson is also listed as one of the “current vice presidents of the American Mathematical Society” in her Wikipedia bio. But none of this really has to do with the issue at hand, except to try to cast aspersions on Thompson and, by extension, the AMR. But wait! There’s more!
Another AMR founding member and a member of its board of directors, Robion “Rob” Kirby, is a mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley. In a post entitled “Sexism in Mathematics???” on his Web site, he wrote, “People who say that women can’t do math as well as men are often called sexist, but it is worth remembering that some evidence exists and the topic is a legimate [sic] one, although Miss Manners might not endorse it.”
In fact, I don’t think that Kirby is right; as far as I knew, men and women in secondary school perform equally well in math, but the women excel in reading. Women like reading more than math, and thus they tend to go on more often to the humanities. Whatever is responsible for inequity between men and women, it’s not skill.
Or course conservatives are going to leave an organization disproportionately if it becomes too woke, for wokeness is the purview of the Left, not the Right. You don’t have to be a conservative to try to keep your discipline pure, but if you’re a liberal like me who doesn’t like performative wokeness, you’re going to have to live being associated with some politically inconvenient bedfellows. At any rate, the statement above doesn’t represent someone supporting the new AMR, it’s Sci Am’s attempt to denigrate it.
Then there’s this:
The AMS and the MAA have publicly acknowledged the need to work toward a more inclusive mathematical community. Last year an AMS task force released a 68-page report that, in the organization’s words, details “the historical role of the AMS in racial discrimination; and recommends actions for the AMS to take to rectify systemic inequities in the mathematics community.” In 2020 an MAA committee stated that the mathematics community must “actively work to become anti-racist” and “hold ourselves and our academic institutions accountable for the continued oppression of Black students, staff, and faculty.” It also addressed Black mathematicians specifically, saying, “We are actively failing you at every turn as a society and as a mathematics community. We kneel together with you. #BlackLivesMatter.”
In contrast, the AMR has not released any official statements about injustice.
Okay, that’s pretty snarky, but is followed by something even snarkier:
“I am supposed to believe, in the year 2021, that this omission is not itself an act of racism?” asks Piper H, who spoke to Scientific American late last year. “How am I, as a 40-year-old Black American mathematician, parent, and person who has paid a bit of attention to American history and American present, supposed to believe that AMR’s refusal to address the actual obstacles that real mathematicians face to doing mathematical research and scholarship is anything other than an insult and a mockery?”
This is pure Kendian mishigass: if your organization doesn’t make an explicitly anti-racist statement, then your organization is racist. Note that they add that Hass denies that the AMR’s silence on diversity is a message (see below).
. . . It’s not just a coincidence that the AMR was founded on the heels of a greater push for diversity within the AMS,” wrote Lee Melvin Peralta, a mathematics education graduate student at Michigan State University, in the November 16, 2021, newsletter of the Global Math Department, an organization of math educators. The AMR, Peralta added, “seems more like a separatist organization for those people who are striving for some kind of ‘purity’ within mathematics away from ‘impure’ considerations of race, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status (among others).”
And, at the end of the article, there’s this parting shot:
Some of the AMR’s founding members have left the organization amid the controversy. “To create an organization to do something positive requires the trust and goodwill of the community that it wants to affect. And this is something that the AMR does not have at this point,” wrote Daniel Krashen, a mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, in a November 14, 2021, Twitter thread. “I have no desire to negatively impact the mathematical community by my actions and words. I see that some people feel less safe and less heard by my actions, and for this I apologize. I have decided to withdraw my membership.”
Less safe? How has Krashen made anybody less safe or less heard? For crying out loud, this whole article is a megaphone handed to the critics of the AMR! Nobody has been silenced and the only harm has come to people’s feelings. (That said, I of course oppose those social conditions that have denied women or minorities entry into the math “pipeline.”)
Defense of the AMR:
Joel Hass, a mathematician at the University of California, Davis, and current president of the AMR, describes the group as “definitely focused on being inclusive.” He adds that the AMR “welcomes all to join us in supporting mathematical research and scholarship. In early 2022 we plan to open membership to anyone in the world who wishes to join us. There will be no fees or dues. By removing financial barriers to entry, we will make it easier to have participation from anyone across the world. Mathematical research is a truly global endeavor that transcends nation, creed and culture.”
. . . Hass denies that the AMR’s founding had anything to do with the antiracism push at the AMS or the MAA. “The changes in the research environment caused by the COVID pandemic revealed new opportunities for the development and communication of mathematical research, allowing for incorporation of new technologies and international activities,” he says. “We felt there was room for a new organization that would explore these.” Hass adds that “the AMS and MAA are wonderful organizations that we hope to work with, along with other organizations such as SIAM [Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics], ACM [Association for Computing Machinery] and many non-U.S.-based groups.”
I think Hass is being disingenuous here, for what I’ve heard is that the AMR is a reaction to the wokeness of the other two organizations. I don’t see that as a sign of racism; I see it as a sign of trying to keep an objective discipline from being diverted into political pursuits.*********
So there we have it: four mathematicians criticizing the AMR for racism/sexism or “harm”, and one defending its mission. That’s not to mention the way that Scientific American has structured the article, providing a critical sub-header for the title and ending with a critical slam.
I’m not by any means a fan of the views of all AMR members: in fact I’ve just criticized two statements of their members. But with this article, Sci. Am. is casting its lot in with the woke, as it always does. There is no rationale, they’re saying, for a mathematics organization that is not explicitly devoted to achieving Social Justice.
This is my view, which of course might be conditioned by my extreme dislike for the direction that Sci. Am. is taking. So read for yourself and let me know if the piece seems objective to you.
28 thoughts on “More bias in Scientific American, this time in a “news” article”
A typo: “though in a misguided and ineffective say” (feel free to delete after fixing).
“Or course conservatives” another one.
“justcriticized” at the end.
Please collect all typos and email them to me instead of puttng each one in a separate comment.. Thanks.
Not one of Isaac Newton’s three Laws of Motion takes an explicit position against power differentials. And his “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” of 1687 contains not a single mention of social justice, no affirmations of anti-racism, nor any sign of work for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The field we call Physics will certainly have to be reformed, or rather rewritten, to remedy these defects. And as
for the differential calculus—well, the very name, which sounds antagonistic to Equity, has been known
to make some students feel unsafe.
Right. One wouldn’t expect stuff like that in a rape manual: https://twitter.com/michaelshermer/status/884779905908486148
“..the differential calculus—well, the very name, which sounds antagonistic to Equity, has been known
to make some students feel unsafe”
I was one of those students, but it had nothing to do with my sense of social justice.
Well, I’ve been lecturing on ‘discrimination’, which in behavioral psych means behaving differently in the presence of different stimuli, for 35 years. And I do occasionally get students upset that I’m ‘advocating discrimination’ … let alone ‘discrimination training’, which might mean training a pigeon to peck red but not green. 🤣
The Sci Am article is not the neutral report you would expect to come under the umbrella of news, as far as I can see.
There’s also the “greater male variability” hypothesis, which says that, even if the means are the same, the variation in male ability is greater (so more at the top end, but also more at the bottom end). This does seem to be true in many instances (both in humans and other species). So, for example, people who have created billion-dollar businesses are usually male, but also homeless people on the streets are overwhelmingly male.
Thus, even if the mean secondary-school performance in maths is the same for boys and girls, it could still be true that, at the level needed to be a maths professor, the sex ratio is skewed.
[And I say that as someone whose ability at maths is not sufficient for an academic career as a mathematician.]
I’ll bet that that MAA committee could not specify actual ways in which they are currently “oppressing” black students and faculty, nor ways in which they are “failing” them. I’d bet that everything that MAA has influence over is currently instantiating marked affirmative action in favour of black students.
It seems strange that the proponents of woke policies don’t seem to understand that their beliefs, translated into policy, are likely to destroy their field.
Perhaps if they pointed out examples of how minorities or women are discriminated against in out university system, instead of just making the claim that the percentage of PHDs awarded, organized by race, is itself proof of discrimination. Such an ideology discounts any other explanation.
They are going to inevitably try to make corrections to fix the perceived problem, which always seem to involve lowering standards. What I think they should do, is focus on elementary school students.
It won’t destroy their field but just make everything tiresome and cause some to lose their jobs. That’s bad enough, of course, but exaggeration doesn’t help.
My intention was not to claim that destruction would happen next week. However, it does seem a downward progression.
First, you need to get the desired ratios of students, by race, orientation, disability, whatever.
The inevitable way this problem gets solved in the short term is by lowering standards and admitting less prepared students.
That is a very short term fix , because less prepared students are less likely to keep up at each step of the process. Perhaps you could devote a larger part of your resources towards tutoring and guiding undergraduates. I suspect that might just delay the inevitable, since the goal is PHD representation, and that is a long journey.
Resources are not usually infinite.
There are two remaining options, IMO. You can spin off a “math studies” track, with much lower requirements of scholarship, but you are still diverting resources from the more strenuous track.
Or, you lower standards across the whole department until the desired numbers are reached. The obvious result of that would be people with lower qualifications standing on the podium to receive their degree, of which some percentage would end up as distinguished faculty.
It is a downward spiral.
I suppose if this effort is confined to a small number of institutions, the field will continue forward, but prospective employers will soon learn to avoid hiring people from those programs, except to achieve their own quotas.
But perhaps that becomes your niche, providing unqualified but credentialed individuals to fill chairs. Maybe.
I don’t know the name of the law, or the exact wording, but essentially the rule is that once your organization has a certain minimum percentage of woke individuals, they will begin hiring only other woke individuals, and will gradually shift the organization from it’s goal of producing the original product (whatever that might be), towards a goal of solely producing woke propaganda.
The host is then discarded, like a cell infected with a virus.
Back when I had a day job (I’m retired), I used to do a lot with both the AMS and MAA. I attended and exhibited at many Joint Mathematics Meetings and my company was a co-sponsor with the AMS on funding a math software project. I don’t remember there being any of this Wokeness. As close as it got were groups promoting the participation of various races and genders, something that made sense then and now. Glad I missed all this.
This article has the format and tone of a news piece and the slant of an opinion piece. Unfortunately this is not so unusual in the news media today. If your opponent’s position can be framed as immoral, then being righteous about your position and presenting it as the facts will be accepted- at least by those who agree with you.
I question if Krashen actually believes he has harmed anyone. He is probably concerned about his career, and who can blame him.
As a woman in an overwhelmingly male field, I think it is a very good thing that people become aware of racism and sexism, understand that eliminating barriers to opportunity is the ethical position, and understand that it requires a conscious effort.
However, the current social justice movements and EID positions that have become embedded in institutions are going about it in the wrong way. I am required to take on-line SJ education units for my job and an anti-sexual harassment education unit for my profession. Human beings do not respond well to being told that they are (racist, sexist homophobic) jerks- even if it is done in a gentle tone of voice. Either that or the content is so ridiculous I can’t stop rolling my eyes. Getting defensive is a poor response in general, but quite a natural one for us flawed humans. I am concerned about a backlash towards women and minorities due to heavy-handed “re-education” tactics.
As my colleague put it: “There are no news anymore. Every piece is an opinion piece”.
The Sci Am article was as crooked as a ram’s horn. The scolding tone (“and another thing….!”) against people who argue against mandatory diversity statements did it for me.
I subscribe to Nautilus and Quanta, and buy the occasional paper copy of ‘New Scientist’. Haven’t noticed anything much in these journals compared to the Sci Am stuff posted here. New Scientist publishes a reasonable lot on ethnicity etc, and it seems to steer a judicious course that hasn’t veered excessively into the ‘systemic racism is pervasive everywhere’ mantra over the past two years.
I knew right away the linked material would not back up their assertion. You can apparently never read an important, and coherent argument from them.
The linked article says little about “widely acknowledged” existing “bias, harassment and exclusion”. It starts with three terribly written anecdotes. The first two blur together completely, and say that two women felt not being treated as being capable. That might count as unspecified “bias”. There is nothing at all about harassment. And finally, if they were excluded, the article doesn‘t tell from what. This would be rather important and easy to add. A third anecdote is about some LGBTQ+ poster presentation, and one “crass” remark to a trans person. That’s apparently the best they’ve got.
I understand that anecdotes may illustrate statistics, and read better, but these anecdotes are poorly chosen and demonstrate nearly nothing. They don’t even illustrate two of the three points they want to make, and the first is made vaguely (a “bias” is already as abstract as it gets, also not truly illustrating anything). However, SciAm is also ostensibly a publication with “science” in the title, where you might expect a bit more than HuffPo hearsay. If they go with anecdotes to make a point, why not then actually commit to it?
Alas, this is just the ubiquitous, inevitable feature of such articles. They seem to always aim for a sweet spot where it’s vague enough that you have to take it on good faith, also representative of a large problem, and at once it is meant to replace any form of evidence. In other words, a perfect test of faith. You have to accept it as “lived experience” in the abstract, which is unfortunately a completely hollowed out concept, when students in elite universities have mental breakdowns over a administrative refusal to declare Halloween costume guidelines.
Further, the bulk of the article then needs to reach back to before 1969, when Robert Lee Moore, a noted racist was forced to retire. But already that doesn’t comport with woke narratives, because he apparently championed talented women and had about twice as many female doctoral students than the national average at the time (as cited on his Wikipedia article). Last, a bit about Turing:
That’s peak wokeness right there. Here they have a full article, say what everyone does wrong and demand better, but excuse themselves right there. Even Turing himself is bad example. The gross injustice is well known, however, he was prosecuted by the authorities.
Yeah, the piece is definitely slanted (although for reference, I’m a founding member of AMR). Just a few quick points:
First, lots of members of AMR are still (happily) members of the AMS, so it’s not quite right to say AMR is breaking away. Indeed, there is plenty of overlap between the two, and there have been no calls from anyone in AMR (board or otherwise as far as I am aware) to encourage people to leave the AMS. On the contrary, the people in AMR who do comment tend to encourage membership in both. But the spirit of what you are saying is certainly true: discontent with the SJ-ideology the AMS has been adopting/promoting recently has definitely added fuel to the formation of AMR. There are other contributors, but that one does seem to be rather large.
Second, a major example of how the SciAm piece is slanted is that Piper H gets quoted as if her position is representative of the math community. It is not. Indeed, she wrote a blog post which 1) said white men should quit their jobs as math professors because they are taking up too much space, 2) was posted on the AMS web site for years, and 3) was one of the major examples of why people were frustrated with the AMS “going woke.” If the SciAm piece were intended to be balanced, and if it linked to Kirby’s blog post on sexism (it did) and Abigail Thompson’s piece in the Notices (it did), then it should have linked Piper’s piece as well (it did not). For some of Piper’s writing on the AMS blog see here:
Here is a quote from the latter:
“… it shouldn’t take an expert analysis to understand that systems invented by white men need to be dismantled and anything short of that is racism and gaslighting.”
So yes, slanted indeed. But most reasonable people who have been watching the evolution of SciAm are likely not surprised at all.
For those interested, the AMR website is here: https://amathr.org/ and those would like to support mathematics research and become a member can sign up here: https://amathr.org/member/
Isn’t it true, though, that some members of the “old” societies (namely, one Chad Topaz at Williams College) has published the names of AMR members, urging students and colleagues not to work with them? If true, that’s pretty low. I doubt that the AMR is doing similar things.
Yes that’s true, but it’s also not representative of members of the AMS. SJ-math-Twitter (or as McWhorter might say: the math “Elect”) has been very vocal in calling essentially all members of AMR racist and/or sexist — simply for being members. My department chair had to field a few messages from colleagues when the list of founding members became public because there was a huge push from left-leaning mathematicians to encourage (or sometimes shame) people to leave AMR. But the worst of it really comes from the far-left Twitter math folks. Chad, for instance, is surprisingly problematic and has happily posted public databases of the inferred race and gender of the signatories of the letters associated to Abigail Thompson’s piece. And yes, he called for (future) grad students to boycott her department. Still, I would say that the number of people who are that level of toxic is really quite small. The group does seem to have non-trivial influence though.
I had to doublecheck if this AMS blog is really official because it is extreme. I hope Jerry picks it up. Have this go far and wide. I’m just a European and look in from the outside, but this blogpost “get out the way” comes across as extremely racist and sexist. She even suggests that Trump’s election is not a matter of his actual voters, but of white people in general. This truly is a raging racist, and yep, it’s official.
Thanks for those links – I appreciate that they’re not representative of AMS members overall, but I can certainly see why the creation of the AMR was necessary.
Thanks, Joel, for doing much spade work on this. I had begun (feeling, as a retired math prof, that I ought to respond here), and within minutes, on only the initial few paragraphs:
(1) I realized that the author is not a mathematician, appearing to be gravely incompetent mathematically in several other of her articles;
(2) refers in her initial two references only to her own articles, which turns out to be the same one, and full again of unsubstantiated woke-induced belches; and
(3) speaks of a person (discussed at length in these responses) who is easily discovered to be a ‘professional’ mathematician, who has a doctorate dated 1916, from a top-notch university, supervised by a world famous young mathematician. However she has in 6 years subsequently:
published a single article which is clearly her doctoral thesis;
submitted a yet-to-be-accepted joint paper with a coauthor of identical surname to hers;
published an Amazon.com book priced at $120 with lengthy title taking the form:
[(her thesis phrased as a technical math noun-phrase) : An Artist’s Rendering];
and apparently accomplished not a single other thing in mathematics.
Possibly Princeton contains a Department of Artistic Drawing of Mathematical Objects, one which has a Ph.D. program, though that seems unlikely.
It very quickly appeared to be a waste of my time to continue searching for anything of any value in the Sci-Am article. So I was happy to read your more thorough analyses.
It is certainly true that science, including pure mathematics, has several very excellent researcher females with a considerable interest in social justice matters, and very thoughtful articles on the subject, as well as, in the case of pure math where I can judge somewhat competently, deep discoveries within their own subjects. It is too bad that Sci-Am now is stuck with a bunch of editors unable and/or unwilling to do anything of value to science, ones whose mistakes also are inadvertently publishing articles far more harmful than valuable to social justice improvements within science.
I seem to recall from here something not particularly hopeful about who has become the owner(s) of that magazine. Even well before the wo(n?)kiness started, there seemed to me to have been a couple of decades of gradual decline.
In regard to the likelihood that academic fields of study will be destroyed or badly damaged (comment #5 and discussion), we have a little experimental data from earlier cases.
In 1948, S.V. Kaftanov, the USSR’s Minister of Higher Education, “called for the country’s university staffs to eradicate completely and most rapidly reactionary Morganism and its concrete carriers from institutions of higher learning”. Kaftanov then issued an order which read: “The Central University Administration and Administration of Cadres are directed to review within two months all departments of biological faculties to free them from all opposed to Michurinist biology and to strengthen them by appointing Michurinists to them.” The order abolished courses and directed the destruction of texts and of books based on Mendelism-Morganism. Progress in Genetics and the allied field of molecular biology during the next 30 years or so in the USSR should then be compared with that in other societies.
I am reminded of “”Clueless at the Top.” http://www.amazon.com/Clueless-Top-Elsewhere-Liberty-Happiness/dp/1879384566
I agree with Prof CC (Em.) completely. The entire thing is so “Kendian” – absence of any position, or even silence is racism in itself. It is a ridiculous and divisive worldview BOUND to blow back against the people trying to be helped. (sigh).
I think (though it isn’t my sphere) particularly in math there’s a BIG pipeline problem. I know there is in Wall St. analytics because I still consult in that area.
If I needed any more evidence the “harm” “unsafe” bs pushes me over the edge.