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.